Braille Monitor                  April 2022

(back) (contents) (next)

The Movement at Work: Federationists March on Washington

by James Gashel

James GashelFrom the Editor: I thought readers might like to see what our legislative agenda and issues were forty years ago and contrast them with what we are doing today. Some issues highlighted here have seen significant progress because of our work. Other issues demonstrate the same old problems but with a different focus. But through it all there is a consistency of purpose that we see again and again: This is the same Federation we have always known, and this is a Federation that evolves and remains the most effective vehicle for the blind to express ourselves today. Our message goes to DC whether we call it the March on Washington, as we did then, or the Washington Seminar, as we do now. Here is what Mr. Gashel said in the Braille Monitor in April of 1982 and the legislative agenda that followed:

The March on Washington is becoming an annual tradition in our movement. Each year new states join the ranks of those sending representatives to walk the halls of Congress and talk about the national issues of special concern to the blind. The first of these marches was held back in the fall of 1973, at the height of such historic events as Watergate, when we gathered to tell Congress about how the federal government was harming blind people by spending our tax dollars on annual grants to the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC). Congress listened to us, and the rest—NAC's loss of federal support, along with a steady decline ever since—is history.

In the years since 1973, we have had many great marches. While the specific issues vary from time to time, the theme (that blind people want independence and first-class status) is always the same. Carrying this message to Congress from local communities throughout our land is vital to the work and continued success of our movement, legislatively and otherwise. A measure of our effectiveness in this effort is the fact that members who have served in Congress for the past several years are now well aware of our principal legislative goals. We know this by the encouraging patterns of their responses and their willingness to help in a variety of ways.

During this particular march, we focused on six major areas of concern. These will be presented later in detail. Our headquarters’ hotel was the Holiday Inn Capitol, located only a few blocks west of the three office buildings used by the members of the House of Representatives. This proved to be a superb facility and an ideal location. Our work began as we assembled for initial briefings on Sunday, January 31. Dr. Jernigan conducted the opening session, giving us an update on recent events affecting our movement throughout the country and laying out the challenge for the work to be done on Capitol Hill. Plans were also made for anyone to visit the National Center in Baltimore.

Then, on Monday, February 1, as the Second Session of the 97th Congress entered its second week of business, Federationists went in teams and individually to explain the status of the blind in America today and to present our agenda for legislative action. After each meeting a report was filed with a hardworking team assigned to coordinate all appointments and to assemble the results. A bank of four telephones plus Federation-owned radio communications equipment made for easy contact between Capitol Hill and our Holiday Inn command post.

This was a professional operation through and through, showing the benefits of several years of experience and organizational skills. In all, there were more than 200 of us participating. Thirty states sent representatives; many more than one. The NFB of Pennsylvania chartered a bus to bring in Federationists for Tuesday, February 2. These people joined other Pennsylvanians on hand in Washington throughout the entire march.

Among the highlights were meetings with both Administration and Congressional leaders. In a meeting with members of the White House staff, we described how current laws and federal programs are failing to fulfill their intended objectives, keeping most blind people outside the workforce and largely unassisted in any meaningful way. We explained our position that many of the rehabilitation agencies (public as well as private) need to undergo extensive reform. But, we also pointed out that the President's programs have so far not stimulated the kind of reform necessary. Then, we met with Congressional leaders, including House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, Senator Edward Kennedy, and Senator Howard Metzenbaum. These gentlemen share political views quite different from those of the Administration. There was a meeting with Senator Strom Thurmond, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. His committee handles the voting rights issues which will be discussed later. Meanwhile, on the House side of the Capitol other state delegations were meeting with influential committee and subcommittee chairpersons such as Carl Perkins and William Natcher. Together, Mr. Perkins and Mr. Natcher have the principal responsibility for all legislation and distribution of federal funds relating to programs of greatest importance to the blind of this country. When the final reports were in, we had visited every Congressional office.

And by all accounts, our meetings were constructive. For one thing, there is a marked increase in the number of House and Senate cosponsors for the bills of principal interest to us. Also, we made great progress in the Senate, when on February 3, as the finale to our march, Senator Paul Tsongas introduced a bill to prevent paying blind and visually impaired workers less than the minimum wage. Senator Tsongas is a member of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, the Committee in the Senate having jurisdiction over all bills, such as this one, relating to labor standards. In offering this bill, S. 2056, Senator Tsongas said:

CONGRESSIONAL RECORD-SENATE

February 3, 1982
Fair Wages for Blind Workers

Mr. Tsongas. Mr. President, today I am joining with Senators Levin and Chiles to introduce legislation that would bar sub-standard wages for blind workers. It would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to provide that blind persons may not be employed at less than the applicable minimum wage.

Currently the law allows blind workers to be paid at a rate that can be as low as 25 percent of the Federal minimum wage. In sheltered workshops, which employ one out of every seven blind workers, a sub-minimum wage is the norm. Half of these workers are paid less than $1,500 a year.

A few sheltered workshops across the country have shown that fair pay is practical. There are twenty workshops with more than 5,000 sightless employees that pay the minimum wage. They produce a variety of products for healthy profits, and they do it without taking economic advantage of the workers.

By contrast, the others use the law to make enormous profits. They are practicing economic discrimination against their blind employees.

Some people are concerned that closing this loophole would adversely affect other benefits—Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance. This is unfounded. A blind person can earn above the minimum wage before SSI benefits are reduced.

Although the SSDI rules are not as flexible, a blind worker can earn $5,500 before those benefits are affected. This is much higher than the average subminimum salary under the present law.

Current law is unjust and patronizing the blind workers. It is an affront to the thousands of sightless workers who overcome major barriers to gainful employment. Often they are placed in positions beneath their skills, with little if any hope for advancement.

Mr. President, our blind citizens have many skills to contribute to America's economic strength. They have every right to demand fair compensation for productive efforts . . . every right except the legal right. This legislation, which is strongly supported by the National Federation of the Blind, will finally give these workers the right to a decent wage. I urge my colleagues to join in ending this chronic injustice."

To those words, we can only say Amen! Yes, our voice is being heard in communities around this country and on Capitol Hill, today. Reprinted below are the position papers we are currently using in the 97th Congress. These should be read and understood by every Federationist. Then, each of us should actively join the effort to inform our Senators and Representatives whenever we can arrange to see them. The March on Washington is not simply a one-time event or even a once-a-year observance. It is part of a total effort, and it is helping to keep our movement on the move.

LEGISLATIVE MEMORANDUM

FROM: Members of the National Federation of the Blind
TO: Members of the Ninety-Seventh Congress, Second Session
RE: The blind: An agenda for legislative action

Background: Nearly one-half million people in the United States are blind; we do not see, or we do not see very well, but for most of us the lack of eyesight has not been the principal obstacle. As much as any other group of citizens, we want to shoulder our share of the burden by contributing to the growth of our nation's economy, and most of us have the capacity (not merely the desire) to do this; several thousand of us are already at work and proving ourselves every day.

The rest of us have been sidetracked, and as the economic times grow harder, our prospects for an equal chance to be part of the productive life of our communities continue to diminish. The best statistics we can gather show that only about 30,000 blind people have jobs which pay them more than $500 per month, just enough to lose all of their Social Security benefits but hardly enough to live on. Most blind people are not able to find work, but when they do, they may often be channeled into jobs far beneath their skills and potential, such as working at below poverty-level wages in sheltered workshops. Few blind people own their own businesses. About 4,000 participate in a special government-sponsored program, providing opportunities for them to manage vending facilities on federal and other property.

Most blind people have only their Social Security or Supplemental Security Income checks to meet regular daily living expenses, yet many could be self-sufficient and productive if given the opportunity to do so. Social attitudes about blindness are our greatest obstacle. The National Federation of the Blind is working to alter these conditions, principally by means of educating the public to new ways of thinking. Yet, these educational efforts need a framework of laws and related legislative actions in order to move blind people from the historic status of isolation into the mainstream of our social and economic life. A legislative agenda (described below) has been forged to accomplish this. Comprehensive "fact sheets" on each item are also attached. Our proposals address problems identified by the blind with workable legislative solutions, and in each case, federal legislation represents the most viable option available.

(1) Congress should amend the Wagner-O'Day Act of 1938 to strengthen management and accountability in the distribution of federal contracts to sheltered workshops. This proposal seeks improved administrative mechanisms for allocating noncompetitive government contracts to sheltered workshops. Under current law, a Presidentially-appointed "Committee for Purchase from the Blind and Other Severely Handicapped" oversees government contracting with sheltered workshops. The Committee has given National Industries for the Blind (NIB) responsibility for allocating these contracts to workshops employing the blind, and NIB (purportedly nonprofit) receives a commission on each contract. NIB opposes guaranteeing minimum wage for blind workers and their right to labor union representation, using money raised from sales to the government to underwrite campaigns against these policy changes. According to the General Accounting Office, in a recent report to Congress, NIB's spending of such money acquired from government sales cannot be controlled through the normal appropriations process. Thorough Congressional oversight, leading toward legislative reform, is needed.

(2) Congress should amend the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 to prohibit paying blind workers less than minimum wage. This proposal seeks wage protection for low-income blind workers and asks for nothing more than the wage guarantee which the FLSA extends to employees who are not blind. FLSA allows wages as low as 25% of the federal minimum, but all studies agree that there are numerous uncontrolled violations.

(3) Congress should amend Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit employment discrimination based on blindness or physical disability. This proposal seeks to expand employment opportunities for the blind through a federal prohibition against employment discrimination based on prejudice or misconception. Despite all of the efforts we are making to change public attitudes, the image of the helpless, dependent blind person is still widespread in our culture. This has resulted in limiting substantially our opportunities for competitive employment, and laws must be enacted to prevent these unjustified restrictions. In some states, the laws which prohibit employment discrimination against women and minorities have been amended to include protection for disabled persons, and the results have shown that public policy against discrimination on the basis of handicap can expand employment possibilities while reducing the burden on our welfare system. The federal legislation in this area is limited, and court rulings have largely eroded Congressional intent. This is why Congress must act to insure equal employment opportunities for blind and handicapped persons.

(4) Congress should amend Title II of the Social Security Act to remove employment disincentives from the conditions of eligibility for blind persons to receive disability insurance. This proposal seeks to eliminate a substantial economic barrier (the $500 per month earnings limitation) placed on blind persons receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) checks. The concept of Social Security replacing income lost because of a disability such as blindness has merit. Its shortcoming, however, is the arbitrary limitation imposed on income derived from earnings. This denies a hand up to those who want to achieve self-sufficiency again, stifling the initiative of thousands of potentially productive blind citizens. A legislative solution, calling for specific changes in Title II of the Social Security Act, has enjoyed bi-partisan support in past Congresses and several amendments to provide more work incentives for the blind have actually become law; the most recent of these being part of the 1977 Social Security amendments. Federal law should not continue to discourage the blind from becoming self-supporting, tax-paying citizens, and the Social Security Act must be amended accordingly.

(5) Congress should provide adequate appropriations under Title III of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act to allow continued federal support for Job Opportunities for the Blind. This proposal seeks more and better employment prospects for the blind through a targeted job information and referral service, known as Job Opportunities for the Blind (JOB). JOB is funded through a contract with the United States Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration. The program offers an especially important service to blind people by identifying employment opportunities and working with employers to provide accurate information about the employment skills of qualified blind people. JOB's objectives are consistent with our nation's current need for economic recovery, since every blind person who becomes productive is one less individual requiring financial assistance at public expense. Each member of Congress and each staff member should know about and support with pride the work of JOB. Blind constituents who require this service should be informed of its existence and may be referred for help from JOB as long as the program continues to operate.

(6) Congress should amend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to assure that each blind person registered to vote will have the right to cast a vote in private with the aid of a personal assistant freely chosen by the blind voter. This proposal seeks nationwide observance of a fair and dignified voting procedure for the blind and will thus encourage greater participation by the blind in our democratic electoral process. Many states and political subdivisions have already enacted laws which allow blind persons to vote with the aid of personally chosen sighted assistants, but in other jurisdictions this right is limited. For example, some states require the assistant to be a "relative" of the blind voter, and some even add the qualification that the assistant be a "friend." In some instances, state laws suggest that a spouse must accompany the blind voter, or if the voter has no spouse available, two election officials (who may be unknown to the voter) must help in casting the ballot. Thus, the laws are vague and inconsistent. In addition, their requirements are inconsistently applied, even where they are specific. A federal solution is available by amending the Voting Rights Act of 1965 during the current Congressional action to extend certain expiring provisions of that Act. Moreover, because of the language of a House-passed amendment, which introduces into the Voting Rights Act the subject of voter assistance, it is imperative that clarifying language be added in order to preserve and protect the voting assistance rights of the blind.

Blind people are asking for your help in gathering support for legislation in the areas here outlined. Bills to achieve our objectives have been introduced in the 97th Congress, and cosponsors are actively being sought. Many priorities confront this session of Congress, but none is more important than putting America back to work again. The blind must not be overlooked in fashioning the best possible legislative program to do the job.

(back) (contents) (next)