Braille Monitor                  April 2022

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Significance of the Washington Seminar 2022

by Mark Riccobono

Mark RiccobonoFrom the Editor: President Riccobono kicked off the Great Gathering-In for the 2022 Washington Seminar of the National Federation of the Blind with the keynote address that follows. It not only set the tone for the evening but its theme was repeated throughout the week as we went about the work of addressing our elected officials on Capitol Hill. Here is what he said:

We gather in for this 2022 Washington Seminar of the National Federation of the Blind to make America better. We gather because we want to put our hands to the building. We want full participation in both the rights and responsibilities of our democracy.

This is not our first, our fifth, or our twenty-fifth time coming back. Since 1940 we have been bringing the voice of the nation’s blind to our nation’s capital, seeking equal treatment, equal opportunity, and equal access. For fifty consecutive years we have come by the hundreds to meet our representatives and senators with our priorities, and it is a certainty that, as long as the blind are forced to overcome inequality and misunderstanding to enjoy the rights and responsibilities of this nation, we will be back again.

While American society continues to hold us back with artificial barriers, the blind continue to push back with hope and determination to overcome those obstacles and live the lives we want. While our nation’s leaders speak of building back better, the blind respond with the chant “build back better with the blind.”

While our nation has enjoyed many achievements, one of them has not been eliminating the systemic discrimination, low expectations, and harmful barriers that actively hold us back from building with the rest of America. There is a deep need and great opportunity to build back better with the blind. We are tired of being told that once it is built someone will make accommodations to include the blind. We are tired of being apologized to because our nation’s leaders just did not think about us. We are tired of fighting for the basic protections, benefits, freedoms, and quality of life that many Americans enjoy without struggle or waiting for the second, third, or fourteenth phase of implementation.

But though we are tired, we have not been broken. We come to this Washington Seminar ready to build back America better than ever, because the blind intend to be part of the solution. The blind are committed to meeting our responsibilities in this nation to build communities that are equitable and inclusive, as long as they do not leave us behind. The blind are prepared to dedicate our energy and imagination to the innovative capacity of this nation. The blind seek to contribute to the American economy through meaningful work and to provide leadership in local communities through our volunteer service. The blind also expect the protection of our equal rights under law.

In order to fulfill these commitments, America must build back better with the blind. We come with solutions to some of the pressing problems we face, and we demand action over nice words.

Nonvisual technologies are required to give blind people meaningful access to information in the digital age. While some technologies include a measure of built-in accessibility features, frequently the most effective accessibility tools require the blind to pay a premium above the cost charged to the average non-blind user. We do not seek for the government to supply all of this technology. We do seek a limited refundable tax credit when blind people utilize their own financial resources to acquire the technology needed to access the tremendous resources and capacities available through digital interfaces. We have crafted our proposal, and it has support from both political parties. The Access Technology Affordability Act will allow blind people to improve our participation in building America through employment, education, civic engagement, and commerce. Will this be the year America commits to increasing our participation by passing the ATAA? We say yes, and we demand that America build back better with the blind.

Access to technology is not simply a luxury. Americans continue to benefit from increased telehealth options and innovative in-home medical devices that allow convenient monitoring and management of personal health. These devices also assist parents and other caregivers in supporting their loved ones. That is unless you are a blind American today. The vast majority of these critical medical devices do not include the proven features that facilitate independent nonvisual access. Improving the health of all Americans is essential to a better America. Yet the law does not require in-home medical devices to be accessible to the blind. We will not compromise our health. The time has come for the medical device industry to offer equal access to the blind or to have the government pull the plug on their ability to profit from their discrimination against us. The Medical Device Nonvisual Accessibility Act calls on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to promulgate nonvisual accessibility standards for Class II and Class III medical devices to require that all of these devices be accessible to the blind. A healthy America must include all of us, and we demand that America build medical devices better with the blind.

Even if we have accessible technologies in our homes and offices, many other related artificial barriers exist. The COVID-19 Pandemic has dramatically highlighted the inequality that exists with nonvisual access to websites and applications. This is a concern that the blind have been raising for more than twenty-five years. We were hopeful that the United States Department of Justice would establish regulations to support our work in the courts to make it clear that the protections of existing accessibility laws extend to the digital environment, but the government continues to physically distance from action on this issue. Meanwhile the expansion of inaccessible websites and applications has been exponential. There are those who say we should not take our concern to Congress because our elected leaders may use this as an opportunity to water down our existing rights under the law. By whom were they elected anyway? The members of the Federation say we are not afraid. We have come to Congress to ask America to build twenty-first century websites and applications better with the blind. Every blind person experiences these barriers any day that they attempt to access critical websites and applications. We are going to educate Congress about this every day until we gain the support we deserve. We will not wait any longer. We expect America to build back better with the blind.

Our nation is experiencing a historical shift in pay for American workers. With wages heading upward in many sectors of the economy, the potential to build back better is giving some Americans a lot of hope. Yet what is the expectation for people with disabilities? We continue to be held down by the crushing history of the Fair Labor Standards Act which, even in 2022, endorses the payment of pennies per hour to people with disabilities. We no longer believe that America can be built back better as long as people with disabilities are granted only second class status under the law. 2022 is the year to build back better with the blind and other workers with disabilities by enacting the Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act. We commend those government and private agencies who have done their part to build America without the use of the 14(c) provisions of the FLSA, but much more must be done, and we demand it be accomplished in the Second Session of the 117th Congress.

These are only some of our priorities. As the government continues to invest in building back America and protecting its people from the coronavirus, we say build back better with the blind. The government has failed to provide any nonvisual access in its initial distribution of COVID-19 at-home testing kits. However, thanks to the National Federation of the Blind, future efforts will be built with the blind.

From government to commerce, in work and in play, the blind seek to benefit and participate in this nation on terms of equality. When America commits to building back better with the blind, all of its people will be better. This is the petition we make to our elected officials this week. This is the hopeful future we intend to build. This is the determination of the organized blind movement. This is the significance of the Washington Seminar.

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