Presidential Release #468: January 2018 Transcript

President Riccobono: Greetings, fellow federationists. Today is Wednesday, January 3, 2018, and this is presidential release #468. Welcome to 2018. And we have hit the ground running here in the National Federation of the Blind. The office has only been open for a day and a half, but we’ve had quite the bit of activity already. We got our first press release of the year out the door yesterday, and we’re now marching ahead towards our 2018 Washington seminar, and many other activities that we have to look forward to here this year. 

I hope that everybody in the federation had a fantastic holiday season, that everybody was safe. I know there were a lot of great federation parties, and I wish I could have been at all of them. I did have the opportunity to go the Denver chapter Christmas extravaganza at our Colorado Center for the Blind, which I enjoyed very much. And hopefully I’ll be able to get to some other festive chapter events around the country this year. We do have our Washington seminar coming up, and so I want to start this release by talking about that. I also want to talk with you today about some of our organizational priorities for 2018.

But to start off, a discussion of our 2018 Washington seminar. If you haven’t gotten your hotel reservations in, well, it’s too late. You’re still welcome to come, and there certainly are places that you can find. But our block at the Holiday Inn, the deadline has passed, so you may not get the rate that we had. If you’re still interested in coming, I encourage you to do so. Even if you’re not coming to our Washington seminar, you can still be very active with our legislative priorities for our seminar this year. 

Now, these aren’t the only priorities for our organization legislatively, but they will be our focus at our Washington seminar when we have 500 of us on Capitol Hill. Here to talk to about the legislatively priorities for our 2018 Washington seminar is the executive director for advocacy and policy of the National Federation of the Blind. Here’s John Paré. 

John Paré: Thank you, President Riccobono. And, hello, fellow federationists. I am so looking forward to this year’s Washington’s seminar, and moving forward, the issues that we have to help the agenda for blind Americans in 2018. I’ll go through the four issues that we have. The first one: accessible instructional material in higher education. I always like to begin by define what’s the problem. 

The problem is that, today, college students don’t have enough accessible and instructional material in school. They encounter inaccessible things that causes them tremendous problems in getting the education and getting the content that they need. And we’ve talked to schools, and they’ve said, well, we don’t really know what to do. What exactly does accessibility mean? 

So this bill would create a commission, and this commission would have stakeholders, and their charter would be to create guidelines, voluntary guidelines, for accessible instructional material. Then the schools would be incentivized to use this by virtue of a safe harbor. I will note that the safe harbor is included in the introduced bill in the house, but not in the senate. But schools have indicated that they want to do the right thing. 

So even without the safe harbor, as we have in the senate, we still strongly support the bill. The next problem is the lack of accessible technology, just generally. This technology is for use at home, and is expensive. Our next bill, the Access Technology Affordability Act would help increase the amount of access technology that blind people can own. And especially would be useful in searching for a job. 

Today, almost every job requires you to search on the Internet. And if you don’t have the technology to search on the Internet, you won’t be able to get a job. And a lot of people say they can’t do it because they can’t afford it, so they get a chicken-in-the-egg problem. So what we have proposed is a bill that would introduce a refundable tax credit. This means that even if you don’t pay taxes, you could still get a check mailed back to you. It’s in the amount of $2,500.00 to be used over a three-year period. 

It’s means-tested, which means that as long as you make less than $75,000.00 a year for a single taxpayer, you would be eligible for this refundable tax credit, which would put more technology – accessible technology in the hands of blind people. Our third issue is not something so much that we’re trying to promote, but we’re trying to stop. 

There is a bill in congress, HR-620, the ADA Education and Reform Act that would significantly erode the Americans with Disabilities Act. And, really, the progress that we’ve made over nearly the last 30 years since 1990 when this bill was enacted. The problems with this so-called ADA Education and Reform Act is that it introduces a new 60-day period when you would have to notify companies of their lack of accessibility. And then companies would have another 120 days to respond, creating a delay of a total of 180 days. 

And then on top of that, instead of having the goal of equal access, companies would only have to show substantial progress in solving the problem, without any specific deadline. This is so horrific that we feel that we must oppose it, and we must make it specifically a Washington seminar issue. There’s over a hundred cosponsors on the bill in the house, and we have to make our point of view clear, and discuss this, and talk about it at Washington seminar. So it is our third issue. 

The fourth issue, primarily just for the senate side, is the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled. That’s the whole fancy name. And this treaty would synchronize what is known as the Chafee Amendment across countries, and allow for the import and export of Braille and audio across country borders. 

This is particularly important so that we, here in the United States, can import content in French, Braille in French, or Braille in Spanish. There was a ton of French Braille in France, and a ton of Spanish language content in Spain. And at the same time, we’ll be able to export English language content to countries that need that. These are, really, four great issues, and I think now that we’re in the second session, we have done a great job setting them up in the first session. 

And we really have to make it our goal to pass those three bills in the house and the senate to get them to the president’s desk, and to make sure that one bill, HR-620, does not make it to the president’s desk. And I really believe that by working together, we can really make this happen. So I’m very excited about Washington seminar. As President Riccobono said, even if you’re not gonna be there, this is something that we can work on all year long. 

So watch for the legislative alerts that will come out. They will direct you to the factsheets. They’ll direct you to the frequently asked questions. And we look forward to seeing those of you that would come into Washington, and we appreciate the work that everyone does to contact their members of congress. Thank you, President Riccobono. 

President Riccobono: Thank you, John, for that review of our legislative issues. I’m looking forward to the work that you and the rest of our governmental affairs team will do to get the members of the federation prepared to march up Capitol Hill this year, and to get our legislative initiatives passed in 2018. We do have some things to celebrate, though. 

Even as we get into 2018 and our Washington seminar, we had a flurry of activity towards the end of year, specifically around the tax cuts and jobs act that was going through the house and the senate. This is a major tax legislation that has now been signed into law. We feared that because of some of the changes that were being proposed that the additional standard deduction for blind people was going to be eliminated. 

All of us, together, advocated that be maintained in the final version of the bill. And because of everybody’s calls and e-mails to congress, in fact, it was preserved. So you can look forward to continuing to have the additional standard deduction for blindness on the tax form. We crafted our Accessible Technology Affordability Act based on still having that additional deduction available, so those two complement each other, and it’s really great that we were successful in keeping that in the tax cuts that were proposed and signed by the administration recently. 

There is much more work to be done, and the Washington seminar if a focal point for that, so I encourage everybody to get engaged with our legislative priorities. This year, we’re also gonna be holding our third congressional reception during the Washington seminar. This year, however, we’re gonna be having it not on Capitol Hill, but at the Newseum. This is a museum dedicated to the news. 

And we’re having it there because the National Federation of the Blind is sponsoring an exhibit, a tactile photo art exhibit that commemorates the activities of the Tet Offensive, and the marines that were at the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. This will be the 50th anniversary, right at the time of the Washington seminar, of the Tet Offensive. And our partnership with 3D PhotoWorks; 3D PhotoWorks has put together an exhibit of original photos taken by the owner of 3D PhotoWorks at the Tet Offensive. 

And he has made them tactile through the 3D PhotoWorks technology, and we’re sponsoring this first 3D photo museum exhibit as a way of stimulating interest and accessibility, and tactical impressions at museums across the country. We’re gonna be having our congressional reception at the museum on Tuesday, January 30th to celebrate this exhibit, allow our members to check out the exhibit, inviting members of congress and others to be with us to celebrate accessibility. 
    
And at the same time, celebrate those who have fought to protect freedom in the United States, and certainly that includes our blinded veterans. I encourage to plan to be at our reception at the Newseum starting at 6:00, promptly at 6:00 on Tuesday, January 30th. This year, we have a number of things to pursue. Many of them are similar to last year and the year before that. Some of the work of the federation is constant. 

The emphasis changes over the years, and we tried to talk about the priorities in different ways, depending on what the current issues are. I’ve been reflecting upon what our priorities are during this period and going into 2018. And I’d like to describe them this way, very similar to last year, but slightly different. The first, of course, is continuing to strengthen membership through engagement and leadership development at all levels of our organization. 

And figuring out how we use modern tools of technology and data gathering to strengthen our membership recruitment and engagement activities across the country. And I’ll be looking for your thoughts and ideas on all of these topics. I’m not gonna go too deep into any one of these areas. The second thing is to conduct advocacy, policy, legal and partnership programs to protect the rights of blind people, build a more powerful community of advocates, increase accessibility, and improve employment and education. 

We’re gonna be pursuing some new programs at the national level that will help to foster mentoring at the local level, and we know from our experience that that will lead to greater employment, certainly better accessibility in education through stronger advocacy, and we will develop areas of need through that network, and we’ll be able to target future programs to those needs. So that is another priority for us this year. 

I also want to emphasize this year that we really need to connect, support, and protect blind individuals, especially our parents of blind children, our blind parents through our blind parents’ initiative, and newly blind individuals who have not yet come to know about our organization, and the powerful advocacy and support that it provides us as blind people. And so activities to target those group that most need our support, or are not yet connected with us is very important. 

Of course, I think this is a priority every year. We want to create greater awareness of the capacity of blind individuals through our public education efforts, and we need to seek new ways to do that through social media and other means, but we also know that the one-on-one relationships we create continue to be the strongest way that we change public perceptions about blindness. 

I mentioned earlier that we had our first press release of the year yesterday. That press release had to do with the fact that Nepal has – the country of Nepal has decided that blind people, in addition to a small set of other categories of people, will not be permitted to climb Mt. Everest any longer simply because, in this case, they’re blind people. We issued a statement along with the president of the World Blind Union, Fred Schroeder, that denounced this recent action by Nepal.

And urges that they allow blind people, if they’re so inclined, and of course have the skills to do so, to climb Mt. Everest. Blindness should not prevent people from participating in all aspects of life. As you know, the National federation of the Blind sponsored the first blind person to climb Mt. Everest, now better than 15 years ago. And so we know that it can be done, and blindness should not be the characteristic that defines participation. 

This is an important statement because it gets to how we work on changing public attitudes about blindness. It’s a constant job for us. There are always people that we come across that we need to help educate, that we need to teach them about blindness, and we need to find new ways to do it that are authentic to our organization. So that continues to be a priority. 

The fifth area that’s on my mind this year that is the final area, it’s not the only thing we’re working on, but the final area that I’ve really been focusing on, and urge us to focus on this year, is to create new avenues of outreach to bring more contributors into the supporter network of our movement. And that especially means donors who can give their financial resources to help us achieve all of the dreams that we have. We need to continue to expand our network. 

Our public education is a big piece of that. Because when people come to understand our priorities, our philosophy, the empowerment that we provide, the hope that we provide to blind people, they’re more interested in becoming financial contributors to our organization. We’ve been doing a great job of expanding the reach that we have to new donors, but we need to keep that up if we’re going to pursue all of the education and employment programs that we hope to in 2018 and beyond to allow blind people to live the lives they want. 

So these five areas are what I’m focusing on for 2018. I encourage us, at all levels of the organization, to focus on these priorities. And, as always, I invite you to share your ideas with me about how we can achieve these priorities and continue to strengthen our organization. We’re gonna be spending some time early this year looking at our strategic priorities, and how we better align our resources at all levels of the organization, and how we develop more capacity. 

I’m gonna be working with our board of directors and other leaders in the organization to make sure that our strategic priorities and our resources are aligned in the right direction. And certainly part of that focus is development of local chapters strengthening our local chapters. You’ll be hearing more about those ideas as we go forward. And, again, I invite you if you’re doing some innovative in your local chapter, to share that with me so that we can find ways to socialize that across other chapters. 

One other thing that I’d like to say is that at our national headquarters here in Baltimore, we’re gonna be doing substantial remodeling during 2018. Much of what we’re gonna be doing is preparing to remodel later this fall. We’re gonna be building new sleeping room spaces, new workout spaces, new space for folks that are here for meetings and conferences outside of meetings, the downtime space. So I’d encourage you to send your ideas about what ideally that would be like. 

That’s phase one of our remodeling project as we envision what we want our national headquarters to be into the future. You know, we have built a facility that is first class. Anybody who comes into our building, whether they’re a top businessperson, a politician, someone running another nonprofit. Our building is the envy of all who visit it because of the way we maintain it, we organize it, and we continue to rethink how we want to use it for our purposes going forward. 

We now have, oh, hundreds of people who come stay here on an annual basis for leadership development and conferences, and other things. So it’s really time that we rethink our visitor space for evening events, and that will allow us, once we finish that, to think about what we want to do with other spaces going forward, and how we make them more dynamic. 

All of this is what we need to do this year, and all of it will build on what we need to do in future years. I feel very optimistic about what we can get done because we have each other to do it. I’m energized about the work ahead, and I appreciate your contributions to it. This release has been a little longer than I anticipated, but there is one more thing I should be sure to talk to you about, and I will do that quickly. 

And I’m go to refer you to the January issue of the Braille Monitor, where we have published an article entitled “Ending Accreditation without Authenticity: A Call to Action for the Fourth Generation of the Federation”. This is an article that I’ve authored talking about the effort of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually-Impaired, AER, to revive the National Accreditation Council, NAC. 

The history of NAC has been well-published in the federation records, and the Braille Monitor in many places. You can read about it. This article details some of the history and refers you to some of the history. But, more importantly, it talks about AER’s most recent attempt to revive NAC, what they’re doing about it, and, in fact, the way that they are, again, repeating history by keeping blind people out of the process. 

I refer all of our chapter members to that article, and I urge you to take action this month on that issue. I would like you to send an e-mail to NAC at AERBVI dot-organization, and let AER know, in a respectful way, that it is time for NAC to go away. And that we share the principle of nothing about us, without us, and that NAC is a continued effort to keep blind people out of determining what is meaningful rehabilitation service, and it is time for it to go away. It’s been time for it to go away. 

We’ve kept it in its place, but now it is time, once and for all, for it to go away. You can also find AER on Facebook. You can find them on Twitter. Their Twitter handle is at #AERBVI. You should use the #goodbyemac to express your feelings about the need for accreditation without authentic involvement of blind people to go away. It is time for us to, again, take acetoin. We do not want the history of NAC to continue to repeat itself. 

This is a major call for action for 2018. I wanted to talk about the priorities on this release, so I didn’t want to make this the focal point. I do call your attention to that article, and I urge our chapters to talk about NAC, and why we need to take action, and why it’s important for us. I do have a couple of federation family notes to share here at the end of the release before we go into other activities. 

I regret to have to let you know that Linda Ripley, who is a former scholarship winner of the National Federation of the Blind, passed away on December 12. Linda is sister of Donna Posant and Marla Suel. And I invite you to keep them in your thoughts and prayers as they mourn Linda’s passing. Also, at the end of the year, close to the end of the year, we lost Jeanette McCallister of Virginia. 

Jeanette was particularly involved with our employment committee in the National Federation of the Blind, which over the past three or four years has been increasingly active in creating more employment discussions and opportunities through the National Federation of the Blind. I encourage you to keep Jeanette’s family in your thoughts and prayers. This brings me to the end of our January presidential release. I look forward to the work we have to do this year. Let’s go build the National Federation of the Blind. But before we do so, here are some customary endings.