by Gary Wunder
How enabling it is to realize that, while others watch government from afar, feel powerless over it, and believe themselves distant from the way it works and how they might engage, we have a tremendous gift; we have one another and the faith to believe that together we can make a difference. Things don't happen as fast as we would like, and there is no question that some have easier access to the levers of power than we do. But as true as this is, we are strengthened not only by the changes we bring about but also by the struggle to create them, the bonds we forge in working together, and the actions we take to move from a dream to a strategy to an implementation of a plan to make good things happen for ourselves and others.
Much work goes into the four-day event we call the Washington Seminar. Our Government Affairs team carefully weighs what we have introduced before, new issues that have surfaced, and the likelihood that something we need will be positively received by Congress. Then the team makes its recommendations to the President and the National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors. Often our elected leaders are given more priority issues than we can handle, so a part of their job is to decide not just what is important but what issues we will take as the most important. Their service as elected representatives of the blind means they are in touch with the wants and needs of the people where they live as well as the people they meet throughout the country on whom they rely for advice. Throw into the mix the wisdom that comes from their own experience with the legislative process, and you begin to get some idea about how the issues we take become our legislative agenda each year.
Arranging the logistics is no small matter. When is the best time to hold the seminar, given that Congress can change its schedule at will, and it may vary from year to year? When can we get hotel space at the best price available? Writing the fact sheets, getting them distributed, and organizing meetings to go over our issues all takes planning and coordination. Often our staff pulls this off so well we are tempted to think it is easy.
Monday began with a lively student seminar hosted by the National Association of Blind Students. Their message was quite clear: we are students, and every one of these issues pertains to us. We are at this seminar because it is our opportunity to improve our present and to carve out a future where we can live the lives we want. Discussing the issues from the perspective of students and role-playing was a big part of the agenda, and the participation was excellent.
In the afternoon the Government Affairs team held a seminar that also involved reviewing the issues and featured two groups in meetings with Ron Brown who was, for these meetings, Senator Ronald Brown. Questions were invited after each session, and the beauty of having two of them was to see how the same issues could be presented differently depending on the spokesperson.
At 5:00 p.m. EST, President Riccobono convened the Great Gathering-In for an audience present in the NFB of Utah Auditorium and the hundreds of us located throughout the nation. President Biden has asked the nation to embrace the challenge of building back better, but President Riccobono believes that the real challenge should be building back better with the blind. His keynote presentation stressed that we have been coming to the United States Capitol for at least half a century, that the issues we address make a real difference in the lives of blind people, and that, based on the common sense that drives our legislative agenda, they are bipartisan in nature. A copy of his address will be found later in this issue.
Social media is always a part of our legislative work, so President Riccobono introduced Danielle McCann to give us an update. The conversations we had can be viewed on Facebook and Twitter by using the hashtag #NFBINDC. She reminded us that when we take or get pictures from any appointments, we should make sure we post them with a caption. She concluded with a thank you to Vispero for including our Access Technology Affordability Act in some of its publicity, and John Paré was featured prominently in this effort.
President Riccobono interrupted the program to give special thanks to the people who were making it possible: those maintaining the Zoom link, those who were providing captioning, and those who were performing translation from English to Spanish. In his expression of appreciation, the President also thanked all of those attending through the Zoom platform and welcomed those who are not currently members to become a part of our Federation family. He observed that we have affiliates in every state, chapters in most communities of any size, and a way for members at large to participate if there simply are no chapters in their area. There are many special interest divisions in which one might wish to participate, and the benefits one derives from helping another are incalculable.
Our focus next turned to board member Everette Bacon of Utah and his work as the chairman of the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Committee. Everette said that this is one of the most prestigious awards that is given to recognize individuals and organizations bettering the lives of blind people. The award is presented in honor of a blind physician who practiced in Chicago, Illinois, and funds are provided by a generous donation made by his family. To apply for a Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award, go to www.nfb.org/bolotin. Applications are taken until April 15, and those chosen to receive the award must attend the National Federation of the Blind Convention in New Orleans to receive it.
Blind people are a small part of the nation’s population, so we regard those elected officials who work to pass legislation benefiting us as champions. One such champion is Senator Steve Daines of Montana. He is the lead sponsor of the Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act, S. 3238. Before coming to the Senate, Steve Daines was a representative from Montana and was voted the most effective first-term representative in 2013 and again in 2014. In the Senate his commitment is to working for well-paying jobs in the state of Montana, developing Montana’s energy resources, protecting our public lands, and supporting the needs of Montana’s veterans and tribes. Given this background, it is not surprising that he supports equal pay for people with disabilities.
Senator Daines has been married to his wife, Cindy, for thirty-four years, and they are the parents of four children and the grandparents of two. Like those of us who serve in the National Federation of the Blind, the senator strives to maintain a healthy life balance that acknowledges the crucial importance of family and the very important work of public service aimed at making the world a better place.
With these remarks of introduction, Senator Daines took center stage. Here is some of what he said:
Thank you very much for that very gracious and warm introduction. I am truly honored to be here with you all today and talk a bit about what we are trying to do here in Congress to remedy an injustice that is occurring today in our society. I am very thankful that, in a time when there are challenges here in what is certainly a polarized nation and when there is not enough bipartisan cooperation in many areas, we do have a bipartisan bill. I want to tip my hat and give gratitude to Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, a Democrat, working with me, a Republican, to fight on behalf of those with disabilities.
The truth is that there are thousands of Americans with disabilities who are paid less than minimum wage, in fact sometimes as little as a few cents an hour to work. It is my belief and the belief of so many that treating Americans differently based on their ability status isn’t right. It’s not what we stand for as a nation, and that’s why we have this bipartisan bill to ensure that people with disabilities are never paid below the minimum wage. I do not think that is too much to ask.
There is dignity and there is hope in work. In fact, when you meet somebody, the first thing you ask is 'What is your name.' But the second question you ask is, 'What do you do?' Our work defines who we are, and there is great dignity and there is great hope in waking up in the morning and having a job and going to work. So I believe we should be doing all that we can, not just for Montanans, but for all Americans who have disabilities, to support them in the workforce. They must be treated fairly, not treated unfairly. This bill will ensure that employers get the resources they need to close that gap between paying minimum wage and below minimum wage so that all Americans with disabilities are fairly compensated.
Mr. President, thank you for allowing me to share a few words about this important legislation. Thank you for your advocacy; we are going to need that here on the Hill, so talk with your members of Congress, and let them know that you support this. I look forward to standing with you all shoulder to shoulder to get this done.
The President next introduced a man of tremendous talent who has served as a chapter president, state president, national board member, and a staff member for more than ten years. He currently is the executive director of our Blindness Initiatives program, and the name to which he brings such honor is Anil Lewis. Anil began his presentation by addressing the Federation as it was and as it is. The assertion that the Federation is not the same organization it used to be is one with which he agrees and vehemently disagrees. The Federation we have today is the same one that was created by Dr. tenBroek. It is the same one nurtured and strengthened by Dr. Jernigan, Dr. Maurer, and now by President Mark Riccobono. It believes in blind people as it always has. It supports blind people as it always has. It is committed to representing blind people to draw its strength, as it always has. Yes, it is also different. The year is not 1940 but 2022. Society has different views about the roles of men and women and the inferiority or superiority of people who differ by race, and we view issues such as sexual orientation and gender differently from the way we did eighty-two years ago. What Dr. Jernigan said about our being a minority would not have played very well in 1940. The idea that we were a civil rights organization became popular only after the society in which we live embraced civil rights as a worthy cause. Former President Maurer could actively confront the idea that blind people are not broken sighted people only after we had time to consider this and make it part of our organizational philosophy. He could lead us in creating a research institute on blindness only after he helped reinforce our competence to speak for ourselves and our credentials to do and publish research.
All of our great leaders have shared one common characteristic: they have not run from challenges but have aggressively marched to meet them. As a Federationist, staff member, and leader in his own right, this is the style Anil has tried to bring in all his work with the National Federation of the Blind.
With this as a backdrop, our executive director of Blindness Initiatives laid out the challenges in remaining true to our roots and in dealing with the issues facing blind people in the third decade of the twenty-first century. We saw blind students not getting what they needed in the reading and writing of Braille, so we created the BELL Program. In the BELL Program we dealt with the challenges posed by COVID and created our BELL In-Home Edition. When we see racial inequality in our society and even in our organization, we work to address it. As our society has turned its attention to the painful issue of sexual abuse, we too have looked within our organization for it and the means to eradicate such behavior. We need all of our members to know that we are committed to see that every environment in the Federation will be safe, protected, and will allow people to grow. Anil notes that this takes courage, strength, and leadership, but the Federation demands nothing less of our members.
Seeing the need for more teachers of the blind, we have reinstituted our Teacher of Tomorrow program. Whether it is providing education in the fields of science, technology, engineering, art, and math or whether it is focusing on where the blind work in creating job opportunities, the National Federation of the Blind is about initiatives that blind people want and need. We will again hold our summer internship program. This year it will run for ten weeks, and we are actively urging those who apply to tell us what they would like to do that will innovatively address the needs of blind people and simultaneously build this organization that belongs to the blind.
The important thing Executive Director Lewis wants us to understand is that the Blindness Initiatives department is not supported only by the few people who work in Baltimore. It is all of us who have an interest in our present-day problems and who work today to bring about a better future tomorrow.
Valerie Yingling coordinates much of the legal work we do in the Federation, and Scott LaBarre is our General Counsel. The music introducing Scott was the theme song from Perry Mason, a show starring Raymond Burr that was very popular in the 1960s. Although Scott said he would briefly touch on several cases, his recommendation is that all of us who are truly interested in some in-depth coverage go to www.nfb.org/legal.
Scott began by describing a case in which we’re involved against Los Angeles Community College District or LACCD. In the several years of involvement in this case, we have won a few important victories. In both a lower court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the LACCD is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by not providing accessible materials to blind students and by having websites that are similarly inaccessible. We have won based on the law, but there will now be a trial in which the facts of the case are in dispute. In an already complicated situation, there is yet another wrinkle: the LACCD is actively considering appealing the adverse rulings it has received to the United States Supreme Court. The issue that keeps raising its ugly head is whether the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act allow plaintiffs to seek injunctive relief. In layman’s terms, the question at hand is whether one is able to make any systemic change or reform or whether all one can do is go to court and argue about the individual facts and one’s case. If it is determined that each case speaks only to the rights of one individual, this would be a huge blow to the disability rights community because we would no longer be able to use these laws to effect systemic change: we could only get change person by person. With the hope that we can avoid a confrontation before the Supreme Court, a petition has been circulated telling the LACCD not to appeal this but instead to stand up for the rights of students and others with disabilities. Many have signed the petition, and Scott encouraged all of us to do so.
[From the Editor: Since this meeting, the LACCD has decided not to appeal its case. The Braille Monitor will cover this issue and LACCD’s decision once it is resolved.]
Amazon is one of the largest retailers in the country. As such, it employs a number of men and women to carry out its work. Blind people need to be a part of that workforce, and we have been actively working with Amazon to see that this is so. While we are making progress, there are difficulties still to be overcome. If you have had difficulty in working with Amazon, please contact Valerie Yingling at the national office by dialing 410-659-9314, extension 2440.
We have continued to work hard on the right of blind people to vote privately and independently. In New Hampshire we have made significant strides, and the state has agreed to continue using its accessible ballot-marking devices for absentee voting and is still working on all aspects of its process to make it blind friendly. In the state of Maryland, we have entered into a settlement to make sure that there are more accessible ballot-marking devices at polling places.
Valerie said that on our legal page we have posted a number of templates that can be used by students and parents who are running into inaccessible education technology. We are asking that anyone who writes a letter copy [email protected]. Please use the NFB’s Technology Survey to report both accessible and inaccessible technology.
In addition to education, we are also interested in seeing that blind patients have an accessible experience when they go for examinations or care. Again, we want to hear about the good and the bad, and Valerie is our contact point for this information.
The agreements we have to monitor Uber and Lyft have expired, but we continue to gather information about ongoing discrimination for our legal advocacy work. If you have been discriminated against by either of these ride services based on disability, whether or not you use a service animal or white cane, we want to know. If you have encountered any kind of inaccessible rideshare technology, please take time to report your experience to us at NFB’s Rideshare Discrimination Survey, which is available from the NFB legal webpage.
Lastly, we want everyone to know that the NFB has developed and actively looks at the Contact Us form on our legal page for anyone needing to discuss blindness-related legal concerns or questions. To reiterate, our legal folks can be contacted at 410-659-9314, with Valerie being at extension 2440 and Scott being reachable at 2424.
Given that legal issues will be one of the items receiving prominence on our 2022 Convention agenda, it seems reasonable to hear from the host of our 2022 Convention, the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Louisiana, Pam Allen. It has been a long time since we all got to meet together, and this only builds on the enthusiasm that the National Federation of the Blind of Louisiana has for hosting this year’s convention in New Orleans. Our last convention that set a record for attendance was in New Orleans, and Pam has every hope that this will happen again in 2022.
One tradition of the Washington Seminar is that doughnuts are usually provided by the District of Columbia Affiliate. Given that the seminar was virtual this year, each affiliate had a chance to be in a drawing, and the affiliate that will get doughnuts at the convention will be Georgia. Congratulations to them, and let us hope that they extend their southern hospitality to invite their friends.
Denise Avant, a member of the National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors from Illinois, was next introduced to talk about the work of the Membership Committee. Denise is a cochair of the committee, and the other is Tarik Williams. The goal of the committee is to bring new members to the largest advocacy organization in the United States and even the world. In doing this, we want to make sure that they feel welcome and that they understand our organization. To help ensure that this happens, we have an onboarding process, and it takes all of us to onboard the new member. Watch for a new video, a revised form, and the tips and tricks that we pass along at all levels to help grow our organization.
Ryan Strunk is the cochairperson of our Preauthorized Contribution Program known as PAC. This year we are excited, because this is the first time in history that the program has raised more than half a million dollars annually. Through the commitment of our members, we were in fact able to raise $504,000. To demonstrate just how easy it is to join the PAC Plan and in fact to get others to join, Ryan played a part of a phone call in which he asked for support. His mother was on the other end of the phone, and while they were talking she filled out the form, providing a description of each field and how easily it was to complete.
There are several ways to begin giving or to increase your contribution. One is to call 877-632-2722. Alternatively, one can email [email protected] for assistance.
John Paré and his fantastic team were next introduced to discuss the issues that resulted in our having more than four hundred meetings on Capitol Hill. Given that these are discussed in detail in the fact sheets following this article, we will not attempt to summarize them here.
President Riccobono introduced Trisha Kulkarni, the president of the National Association of Blind Students, and she began with a video created by the students demonstrating their enthusiasm for what brings them to do the work of the Federation. The video suggests that the future is bright for the organized blind of America.
As a final item on the evening's agenda, our President reviewed efforts to push the administration for accessible COVID testing. Results of those efforts were highlighted in the March issue, as is our ongoing work to help with test interpretation by making them free through Aira. Below is the letter from the White House acknowledging the need for testing and the role of the NFB in moving us in this direction.
In response to a letter we sent to the White House on January 3, 2022, we received the following statement which was read at the Washington Seminar by President Riccobono:
The White House Office on the Covid19 Response is incredibly grateful for the advocacy of the National Federation of the Blind. Over the past month, we have had fruitful discussions with your president and executive director for Advocacy and Policy following up on the Federation’s January 3 letter regarding accessible testing. We are glad that blind individuals have successfully been able to order at-home tests through the administration’s recent distribution and recognize the importance of ensuring that all people in the United States, including blind individuals, can efficiently use them and interpret the results on their own.
We are working quickly across the agencies to develop short-term solutions for at-home tests currently on the market and long-term solutions around the research and development of at-home tests and alternative solutions to get accessible Covid19 testing to blind individuals.
We look forward to our continued partnership with the National Federation of the Blind in this work.
With the conclusion of the Great Gathering-In, we went virtually to the Hill, and our results were everything we could have wished for in our wildest dreams. For our 2022 Washington Seminar, we spoke with almost 80 percent of the elected leaders in Washington and informed them about our legislative priorities. And all your hard work is paying off. As of March 9, our legislation has experienced tremendous cosponsor support. In fact, the Access Technology Affordability Act now has more cosponsors in the House and Senate than it ever has had in any previous Congress. In the House, the ATAA has gained a total of twenty-seven cosponsors since the start of Washington Seminar to bring the total count up to 145. In the Senate we gained three cosponsors on ATAA to bring the total number up to thirty-seven.
However, the good news doesn’t stop there. We also saw twenty-eight new cosponsors sign onto the Medical Device Nonvisual Accessibility Act (H.R. 4853), to bring the total for that bill up to thirty-eight. Furthermore, sixteen representatives cosponsored the Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment (H.R. 2373) in the House to bring the total number up to forty.
All of this additional support is fantastic, but let us not rest on our laurels. We have to remember to keep pushing and keep advocating for our legislative issues until they become law. As a great philosopher, who also happened to be a pretty talented baseball player, once said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” And we say, “It ain’t over until we have won for the blind of America."