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[PHOTO/CAPTION: James Gashel and Kristen Cox]

Legislative Agenda and Fact Sheets for 1999

by James Gashel

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From the Editor: Hundreds of Federationists armed with blue NFB presentation folders swept through the six Congressional office buildings for three days beginning Monday, February 1. They sat down with Senators, Representatives, and members of their staffs to discuss issues of importance to blind Americans. Here are the texts of the legislative agenda and the three fact sheets they delivered and discussed:

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LEGISLATIVE AGENDA OF BLIND AMERICANS:

PRIORITIES FOR THE 106TH CONGRESS, FIRST SESSION

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Public policies and laws affecting blind people have a profound impact throughout our entire society. Most people know someone who is blind. It may be a friend, a family member, or a coworker on the job. In fact, as many as fifty thousand Americans become blind each year, and the blind population in the United States is estimated to exceed 700,000. By themselves these numbers may not seem large, but the social and economic consequences of blindness directly touch the lives of millions and, at least indirectly, have some impact on everyone.

Public policies and laws that result from misconceptions or lack of information about blindness are often more limiting than the loss of eyesight itself. This is why we have formed the National Federation of the Blind. The Federation's leaders and the vast majority of its members are blind, but anyone is welcome to join in the effort we are making to win understanding and equality in society.

Our priorities for the first session of the 106th Congress reflect an urgent need for action in three specific areas of vital importance to the blind this year.

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(1) Congress should reinstate the policy of an identical earnings exemption threshold for blind and senior citizen beneficiaries under title II of the Social Security Act. This proposal seeks to reduce (or eliminate altogether) the work disincentive of the Social Security earnings limit as it now affects blind beneficiaries. In spite of a 1977 law to maintain the same earnings exemption threshold for blind people and age-sixty-five retirees, a decision was made to exclude the blind when the threshold was raised for seniors in 1996. This means that a lower blind persons' earnings limit of $13,320 is now in effect as compared to $15,500 for seniors. By 2002, when the seniors' exemption becomes $30,000, the blind persons' lower limit will be less than half that amount unless the law is changed.

People of working age who are blind must not be forgotten as Congress considers further changes in the earnings limit or the elimination of the limit altogether. Just as with hundreds of thousands of seniors, the positive response of blind people to higher earnings exemptions will bring additional revenues into the Social Security trust funds. The chance to work, earn, and pay taxes is a constructive and valid goal for senior citizens and blind Americans alike. For more details and an explanation of the need for this legislation, see the fact sheet entitled "Winning the chance to earn and pay taxes: How the blind person's earnings limit in the Social Security Act must be changed."

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(2) Congress should amend the Copyright Act to require the deposit of a nonvisual, electronic format edition of any publication submitted to the Library of Congress for registration. This proposal seeks to create a workable and cost-effective means for publishers to support the efficient conversion of printed matter for nonvisual use. For blind people, the inability to read standard printed text can severely limit both the quantity and type of information available. Of the 62,000 books published each year, less than 4 percent are reproduced in accessible formats for the blind, largely because of the difficulty and expense of converting printed matter into electronic text suitable for nonvisual use.

The proposal would reduce the work and cost involved in making this conversion. Section 407(a) of the Copyright Act requires two copies of the "best edition" of a work to be submitted to complete copyright registration. The proposed amendment would add the condition that an electronic version, prepared in accordance with standards prescribed by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress, must also be submitted. Also, since authorized nonprofit or governmental entities have the right to reproduce published works as specified in section 121 of the Copyright Act, the amendment would provide access for such entities to obtain copies of electronic works submitted to the Library of Congress.

In an age in which timely access to information is more crucial than ever before, amendments to the Copyright Act could help the blind by putting a process in place for the prompt conversion of published works into specialized nonvisual media and by supporting that process with a workable, logical, and cost-effective approach. For more details and an explanation of the need for this legislation, see the fact sheet entitled "Access to information for blind persons: How copyright amendments can help."

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(3) Congress should promote literacy among the blind through efforts to expand the national telephone-access NEWSLINE(R) network. In 1931 Congress created a national Books for the Blind program. This program, administered by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) of the Library of Congress, is the principal source of books and magazines for blind adults. Due to the time required for reproduction of Braille or audio editions, however, reading matter that is time-sensitive (such as daily newspapers) is excluded from the NLS service.

Now there is NEWSLINE for the Blind(R). This is a service which uses modern telecommunications technology to bring newspapers directly to blind readers at the time that the print publication is released. With NEWSLINE(R)--and a touch-tone telephone to access the service--blind persons can select articles from local or national newspapers and listen to the information in full-word synthetic speech. NEWSLINE(R) started in 1994 with a pilot demonstration site in the Washington/Baltimore area. Since that time the network has expanded to serve forty-eight communities in twenty-two states. However, the need to bring this service into states and communities not being served is substantial. With the help of members of Congress blind people in each state and Congressional district could have access to the necessary information found in newspapers. For more details on this service and the help which every member of Congress can provide to build the NEWSLINE(R) network, see the fact sheet entitled, "Technology and Literacy: Reaching the Blind in the Information Age."

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Blind people are asking for your help to address the priority issues described in our current agenda. By acting on these priorities in partnership with the National Federation of the Blind, each member of Congress can help build better lives for the blind both today and in the years ahead.

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Photo of Congressman Robert Ehrlich 

before a press confererence.

The Honorable Robert Ehrlich stands in the Conference Room at the National Center for the Blind immediately before a press conference announcing his intention to introduce legislation re-establishing linkage. Mary Ellen Jernigan and Barry Hond can be seen in the picture.

FACT SHEET

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WINNING THE CHANCE TO EARN AND PAY TAXES

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HOW THE BLIND PERSON'S EARNINGS LIMIT IN THE

SOCIAL SECURITY ACT MUST BE CHANGED

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Proposed Legislation--Short Title: "The Blind Persons' Earnings Equity Act"

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Purpose: To restore the linkage between the earnings exemption threshold for blind persons and the exemption allowed for retirees at age sixty-five under title II of the Social Security Act

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Background: As the result of a 1996 law to raise the debt limit, senior citizens age sixty-five to seventy are encouraged to continue working while retaining entitlement to Social Security benefits. This is being done by annual changes in the exempt earnings threshold, which is $15,500 in 1999 and will increase to $30,000 by the year 2002. In making the case for this change, advocates in Congress explained that more senior citizens would have the opportunity to work, earn, and pay taxes, since they would not lose income from Social Security by working.

In spite of a law passed in 1977 to establish the earnings exemption threshold for blind people at the exempt amount used for seniors, a decision was made in 1996 to exclude the blind from the higher exemptions. This means that a lower earnings limit of $13,320 for blind people, as compared to $15,500 for seniors, is now in effect for earnings in 1999. By 2002, when the exemption for seniors becomes $30,000, the lower limit for the blind is expected to be approximately $14,800.

Earnings of this amount for a blind person who is age sixty-four will cause the complete loss of Social Security benefits until the individual becomes a retiree at age sixty-five. At that point the same individual is allowed to earn more than twice the amount allowed for the blind. This is the inequity that now exists.

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Existing Law: Section 216(i) of the Social Security Act defines "blindness." Therefore, blindness--as with age--can be determined with reasonable certainty. By contrast, "disability" is not precisely defined and is determined on the basis of "inability to engage in substantial gainful activity." Compared to evaluating blindness, this is a complex and fairly subjective determination in many cases.

Although blindness is precisely defined, monthly benefits are not paid to all persons who are blind but only to those whose earnings (if any) are below the annually adjusted limit. Personal wealth not resulting from current work activity does not count as earnings and has no effect on eligibility. Only work is penalized. It was the recognition of this fact that led to the greater exemption of earnings now allowed for seniors, and the situation for blind people is precisely the same.

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Action Requested: Congress should reinstate the policy of an identical earnings exemption threshold for blind and senior citizen beneficiaries under title II of the Social Security Act. Legislation to achieve this objective has been re-introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate during the 106th Congress. Although similar bills did not advance beyond introduction in the 105th Congress, an impressive list of cosponsors indicates that substantial, bipartisan support exists in both the House and the Senate.

The National Federation of the Blind strongly supports this legislation. By creating a lower earnings limit for the blind, the action in the 104th Congress has resulted in a harsh work disincentive policy which is widely regarded as an inequity created in the rush to pass the 1996 debt-ceiling bill.

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Need to Remove Work Disincentives: Mandating the adjustments in the earnings limit for blind people in the manner now allowed for age-sixty-five retirees will provide more than 100,000 blind beneficiaries with a powerful work incentive. Most blind people could then not lose financially by working. Moreover, the mandated earnings limit changes would be cost-beneficial since among those of working age most blind people are already beneficiaries. At present their earnings must not exceed a strict limit of $1,110 per month. When earnings exceed this exempt amount, the entire sum paid to a primary beneficiary and dependents is abruptly withdrawn after a trial work period.

When a blind person finds work, there is absolutely no assurance that earnings will replace the amount of lost disability benefits after taxes and work expenses are paid. Usually they do not. Therefore few beneficiaries can actually afford to attempt substantial work. Those who do will often sacrifice income and will certainly sacrifice the security they have from the automatic receipt of a monthly check.

This group of beneficiaries--people of working age who are blind--must not be forgotten now that the earnings exemption has been raised for seniors. Just as with hundreds of thousands of seniors, the positive response of blind people to the higher earnings exemptions will bring additional revenues into the Social Security trust funds. The chance to work, earn, and pay taxes is a constructive and valid goal for senior citizens and blind Americans alike.

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FACT SHEET

ACCESS TO INFORMATION FOR BLIND PERSONS:

HOW COPYRIGHT AMENDMENTS COULD HELP

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Background: For blind people the inability to read standard printed text can severely limit both the quantity and type of information available. This is due in large part to forces of the marketplace which favor mass production of printed matter to reach sighted people who will buy it and use it. Simply put, publishers do not consider formats other than standard print to be cost-effective since Braille or audio formats are expensive and complex to reproduce.

Therefore the conversion of reading matter into Braille or other usable formats for the blind is done by nonprofit or governmental entities as a public service in virtually every instance. While recent changes in the Copyright Act now allow these entities to convert information without permission from the publisher, performing the work involved is still lengthy, expensive, and cumbersome. This is so because producing a specialized-format version from the printed text of the publication involves a labor-intensive process of scanning or manual input of the original information. As a consequence the quantity of printed matter so converted for use by blind people will continue to be quite small until a means to maximize the use of nonprofit or governmental resources is devised.

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Existing Law: Section 121 of the Copyright Act limits the exclusive rights of copyright owners by allowing "authorized entities" to reproduce and distribute non-dramatic literary works in "specialized formats" for the exclusive use of blind or disabled persons who qualify for services through a national program supported by the Library of Congress. The term "authorized entities" includes nonprofit or governmental agencies that have a primary mission to provide specialized services relating to training, education, adaptive reading, or information access needs of blind or other persons with disabilities. "Specialized formats," which can be reproduced under this section, include Braille, audio, or digitized text used for exclusive distribution to blind or disabled persons.

This right to republish text in specialized formats resulted from a 1996 amendment to the Copyright Act which swept away the prohibition on converting printed works into Braille or audio versions without the publishers' consent. The change has helped, since obtaining permission--as required by prior law--led to needless and time-consuming delays in the production of books for the blind. The delays which remain could be reduced even further, or virtually eliminated, with the use of modern-day electronic communications methods. Significant improvements in publishing for people who are blind will not occur, however, unless the effort is supported by further changes in the Copyright Act.

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Proposed Legislation: Congress should amend the Copyright Act to require the deposit of a nonvisual, electronic-format edition of any publication submitted to the Library of Congress for registration. This proposal seeks to create a workable and cost-effective means for publishers to support the efficient conversion of printed matter for nonvisual use. Registration, as now performed under section 407(a) of the Copyright Act, is handled by the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress and presently requires two copies of the "best edition" of a work to be submitted to complete the copyright registration. The proposed amendment would add the condition that an electronic version--prepared in accordance with standards prescribed by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress--must also be submitted in order for the registration of the copyright to be complete.

Also section 407(b) of the Copyright Act specifies that the copies required for registration "shall be deposited in the Copyright Office for the use or disposition of the Library of Congress. Therefore, in order to support the efforts of "authorized entities" under section 121 of the Act for reproduction of published works in specialized formats, the proposed amendment would require the Library of Congress to provide such entities with access to the published versions of electronic text. The electronic text would also be immediately available for use by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress for convenient and cost-effective use in its book production process.

Need for Legislation: In passing the 1996 amendments creating a right to republish in specialized formats, Congress acknowledged the barriers for the blind in obtaining access to literary works intended for mass distribution. In light of this the proposed amendments are the next logical step to take toward a comprehensive, national solution. At present fourteen states have already enacted laws to require publishers to supply electronic versions of textbooks sold to school districts. However, these provisions are largely not effective because no single national standard or process exists for depositing or retrieving the electronic text files.

In contrast to sighted people, who are able to purchase a plethora of reading matter from readily available commercial sources, blind people have tax-supported, specialized libraries as virtually their only source of published literature. Consequently, even though approximately 62,000 new books are published in the English language each year, fewer than 4 percent are reproduced for use by the blind. Moreover, much of that which is reproduced becomes available for blind people long after its general circulation in print.

For blind people this means that information of value for learning, work, and social integration may not be available when the need exists. In a society whose members increasingly depend upon access to information for successful living, blind people cannot afford to endure a growing gap in access to knowledge. Amendments to the Copyright Act could help, however, by putting a process in place for the prompt conversion of published works into specialized, nonvisual media and by supporting that process with amendments to the Copyright Act for a workable, logical, and cost-effective approach.

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FACT SHEET

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TECHNOLOGY AND LITERACY
REACHING THE BLIND IN THE INFORMATION AGE

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Background: In 1931, with the passage of the Pratt-Smoot Act, Congress created a national "Books for the Blind" program and placed it within the Library of Congress. Before that time the efforts to provide reading matter to the blind were scarce and scattered throughout the country, and a coordinated approach to transcribing books into Braille did not exist.

Today, after sixty-four years of operation, the program known as the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) has been an unqualified success, demonstrating the wisdom of national coordination in the specialized transcription of books and magazines on behalf of blind people. In fact, the NLS is the principal resource used to provide Braille and recorded reading matter through cooperation with state and local libraries throughout the United States.

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Current Constraints: With an annual appropriation of $46,824,000 for fiscal year 1999, the NLS program can only pay for approximately 2,405 books and 72 popular magazines to be reproduced in Braille or recorded audio versions. This means that newspapers, which are read and discarded by sighted people often within a day or two of publication, cannot be reproduced.

For example, using current production methods, the publication of even a single daily newspaper for distribution in Braille would require several weeks for preparation and delivery. Therefore reading matter that is time-sensitive (such as daily newspapers and most magazines) is excluded from the NLS service.

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Inventing NEWSLINE(R): Based on the lessons learned from national coordination as demonstrated in the success of the NLS program, a service for the rapid distribution of electronic text within minutes of its publication--NEWSLINE(R)--has been developed by the National Federation of the Blind. With NEWSLINE(R) blind persons can select articles from seven national newspapers and listen to the information in full-word synthetic speech presented on the telephone.

The national papers include USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Toronto Globe and Mail. Papers of local interest and other information provided on special channels can also be received on the phone.

With the touch-tone keypad, the voice presentation can be individually altered in speed, pitch, and tone quality. For security purposes each blind or physically disabled person eligible for the service is issued both a six-digit personal identification number and a four-digit security code. Once admitted to the system, the reader can use the touch-tone keypad to select a newspaper or other information found on the menu. Combinations of numbers on the phone can then be pressed to move quickly from section to section within a paper and from article to article within a section.

These interactive features allow the reader to find items of interest quickly without having to listen to the entire text. If the user has questions regarding any of the keypad's functions, an on-line help feature is also included.

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Building the Network: From a pilot site set up in 1994 to provide USA Today to blind readers in the Washington/Baltimore area, NEWSLINE(R) is growing into a national network with local service sites now in place from New York City to Los Angeles, California, and from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to San Antonio, Texas. At present the network reaches blind people in forty-eight local communities located in twenty-two states.

The network command center is located in Baltimore, Maryland. This center receives, processes, and redistributes electronic text by using the Internet, by satellite link, or by modem-to-modem transfer of files supplied every day by all national or local cooperating news organizations. The papers selected by each local dial-in site are distributed to the site electronically and are available to callers early in the morning of publication. The process for receiving the news text and converting it into a format compatible for NEWSLINE(R) is completely automated. In fact, the entire transfer of text from the cooperating news organization to each blind or disabled reader's telephone is entirely electronic and does not require human intervention. The news is simply there when the caller dials in.

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How Members of Congress Can Help:

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(1) Support efforts to bring the NEWSLINE(R) technology into every state and every Congressional district; and

(2) Join with the National Federation of the Blind in promoting the use of NEWSLINE(R) among blind and visually impaired constituents of all ages who may be eligible for this service.

With present funding provided through a variety of state, local, and private sources, there is still great potential for the NEWSLINE(R) network to grow. Fewer than half the states are served. However, with the acquisition of funds to support the cost of a local dial-in site--approximately $50,000 in first-year costs to establish and operate the site--any community can join the growing NEWSLINE(R) network almost immediately. Once in place, NEWSLINE(R) can be continued from year to year and can reach thousands of people at a minimal annual cost.

In the approximately 215 Congressional districts in the twenty-two states now served by NEWSLINE(R), members of Congress can help by spreading the word of this service among potentially eligible constituents. And in areas not now served efforts to acquire the necessary funding must be made. When this is done, blind people will have equal access to timely information--including the daily newspaper--through a twenty-first century communications network available throughout the United States.

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Have you considered leaving a gift to the National Federation of the Blind in your will? By preparing a will now, you can assure that those administering your estate will avoid unnecessary delays, legal complications, and substantial tax costs. A will is a common device used to leave a substantial gift to charity. A gift in your will to the NFB can be of any size and will be used to help blind people. Here are some useful hints in preparing your will:

* Make a list of everything you want to leave (your estate).

* Decide how and to whom you want to leave these assets.

* Consult an attorney (one you know or one we can help you find).

* Make certain you thoroughly understand your will before you sign it.

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For more information contact the National Federation of the Blind, Special Gifts, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998, (410) 659-9314, fax (410) 685-5653.

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