April 2020 English Transcript

MARK RICCOBONO: First of all, let me start with our COVID-19 pandemic response.

Well, the good news, the best news, is that the heartbeat and engine of the National Federation of the Blind is as strong as ever. We continue to protect blind people in the way we do. We continue to protect the blind. The Federation members, leaders, have stepped up in a real way. As you know, the board of directors on March 13 put a stay on in-person Federation events that continues through April 12. I fully expect that that will be extended consistent with the president of the United States mandate for social distancing through the end of April.

The board hasn't met on that question yet. We are meeting later this weekend. I do expect the board to at least be consistent with the April 30 timeline. It's possible we may adopt something longer.

Personal outreach connections have been happening all over the Federation. Not just virtual events, but blind people picking up the phone and checking on our members who aren't as well socially connected or plugged in to technology as some of us, and it's really heartwarming to see. Keep it up. Keep checking on our Federation family members and keep reaching out to blind people in the communities. It is really making a difference, and we are hearing that every day from blind people, both via the telephone and our social media.

If you are a blind person on this call who needs assistance, please reach out to your local affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind. You can find information on NFB.org. And if you're not a member yet of the National Federation of the Blind, let me be the first on this particular forum to invite you to become a member. We would love to have you as a member of our Federation family.

We already closed our Jernigan Institute just about a week ago, on March 24, that was the first day we were closed. All of our core operations are still happening, but there are a few things we are not able to do. We are shipping free white canes. We initially said we might not be able to do that, but we are fulfilling requests, as least on a weekly basis. That's less frequent than we would otherwise, but we are continuing to ship free white canes. So if you need a cane, please continue to request them.

Our Independence Market and literature distribution is closed at the moment. We're just not going to be able to get product out like we need to. That is on hold. We'll do that as soon as we possibly can. Obviously we want to make sure that our staff can stay as safe as possible, so we have a very minimal number of staff coming to the building on a daily basis to check on our mail and that sort of thing. All of our staff are healthy and safe, and we've been taking great care to make sure that our staff are taken care of. You know there's a vital part of the work that we do in this organization, and appreciation to our staff who have really, again, over the last three weeks done some tremendous work to keep our operations going.

We are monitoring and providing expertise on all aspects of blindness as it relates to the COVID situation, especially the disparate treatment that blind people face in a number of realms, some of them being access to information, access to testing, especially with some of the challenges with drive-up testing centers, inaccessible distance learning, health applications, and other services. We've been trying to monitor and work on that both from the national and local levels.

We've been working with government officials on making sure that the executive orders and emergency information that's sent out is accessible and that programs like unemployment insurance do not discriminate against blind people. Again, that takes a real coordinated effort both local and national, and we're continuing to do that.

We are monitoring voting in states as well as discussions at the federal level that are occurring regarding potential mail-in ballot programs for the federal election. This is a very dynamic situation. It's changing constantly. But I'm confident that each and every one of you know that equal access in voting is one of our top priorities. We took advantage of the Help America Vote Act twenty years ago now to expand voting rights for blind people, and we have no intention of letting those rights slip in this critical time. And we are looking for opportunities, especially as states are really seriously considering expanding mail-in ballots and online ballot marking tools. We're watching and coordinating and making sure that we're providing expertise on accessibility.

We're also watching and trying to create opportunities to protect blind people in the stimulus packages that are being presented by the government. Those are just the high-level highlights much some of the things we're doing. You can view all of our COVID-19 activities by going to NFB.org/COVID19. That page includes all of the activities that the Federation is doing, accessible resources that we're finding, information that might be helpful, connections to our state affiliates, and many of our state affiliates are developing resources that are specific to locations. So check out our COVID-19 page, and if you have suggestions of things that should be added, please be sure to email those to [email protected].

You may already know that we have opened up our NFB-NEWSLINE system to make sure we're leveraging blind people having the best access to current information about the coronavirus. You can access the breaking news category where we have a global search there that you can get, I think, more up-to-date access from the news than anybody else can get and faster.

We've also provided access through NEWSLINE to the Johns Hopkins University statistics that are updated on a regular basis. They're pretty interesting to watch. And you have easy access to them on NEWSLINE through all of the various formats in both voice and Braille. So you should continue to use NEWSLINE.

The Federation has made the commitment to make NEWSLINE e available in every state in the nation, all of our affiliates, and we had a number that were unsponsored so NEWSLINE was unavailable. We've currently made it available for the next sixty days in those seven affiliates where it was not previously available. So everybody has access to NEWSLINE to keep up-to-date on information.

If you find ways and things that you think would be helpful, especially in this time that we should add to NEWSLINE, please drop those ideas in an email to [email protected] or 410-659-9314, extension 2231. We'll see if we can get it worked into our plans. We want to make sure we leverage NEWSLINE to be the most dynamic information system for blind people.

So I've said that we've made NEWSLINE available in the places where it was not before. If you're listening to this or you know of people who may want access to NEWSLINE, you should encourage them to join the NEWSLINE system. You can join by calling our toll-free number 866-504-7300. Or you can go online and fill out an online application by visiting NFBnewsline.org.

There's also just a ton of new publications on NEWSLINE that you may not know about, publications for kids, for families that are at home with young ones, all sorts of stuff. I encourage you to use NEWSLINE as one of your information sources at this time.

Okay, let me talk quickly about federal advocacy. We've been doing a ton of work to make sure that Congress is well aware that blind people are still here and that we're a strong voice and that we need to be protected and included in what's happening. We have been tracking each of the first three coronavirus bills that have gone through the Congress. We believe that another bill is expected in the near future. These bills are called C and then a number, so the next one is C4. So we're monitoring these quite closely.

As you likely know, part of the recent bill, C3, was an economic impact payment for most Americans. This is often referred to in the media as "check is in the mail." I wanted to give you some information about that to make sure you're all aware. This also is going to be -- is now actually -- on NFB.org/COVID19. All this information is there plus more. If you are a single taxpayer with an adjusted gross income, an AGI, of less than $75,000, you will receive the full $1,200 payment from the government.

If you're a taxpayer with an AGI above $75,000, you will receive a progressively smaller amount until the AGI reaches $99,000. Single taxpayers with an AGI above $99,000 will not receive an economic impact payment.

Now, joint taxpayers with an AGI of less than $150,000 will receive a $2,400 payment. And as you might expect, joint taxpayers with an AGI above $150,000 will receive a progressively smaller amount until the AGI reaches $198,000. Above that amount, of course, you won't be eligible for the economic impact payment.

There are additional thresholds for those filing as head of household. That will be on the website. I'm not going to cover that here.

For every qualifying child age 16 or under, an additional $500 will be added to the economic impact payment.

A few other notes to be aware of regarding these payments. You must have filed a tax return for the years 2018 or 2019. If you receive social security or SSI benefits and were not required to file a tax return in either 2018 or 2019, the IRS will still send you an economic impact payment. So I want to emphasize that again. You should receive an economic impact payment if you're receiving social security or SSI and didn't have to file taxes. That is different than earlier guidance that was put out, and there was a flurry of activity around that. Just one of the many things that we have been working on.

However, individuals receiving social security or SSI will only receive the $1,200 base payment. You will not receive the additional $500 for dependents, according to the current guidance for getting it.

Again, all of this will be on our website, COVID-19, and we will publish some of this in the Braille Monitor. Some of it is changing frequently. If you're receiving social security or SSI, you're probably wondering if there's an impact of these economic impact payments on your benefits. There should not be, but there are some wrinkles in those rules and you should look at our information on our website. For more information on a variety of coronavirus relief offerings by the IRS, you can go to www.IRS.gov/coronavirus.

We are continuing to look at ways to help blind people in the C4 package that might be coming. One, as you might expect, is our access technology affordability act. That has been part of the conversation in the previous three bills, and it continues to be a point of conversation. We do have interest in Congress and possibly including that legislation as a way to assist blind people, especially at the time that the economy spins back up.

We are seeking language to eliminate the waiting period for Medicare, which is twenty-four months and SSDI which is five months. We're seeking a waiver for that waiting period during this crisis time so that we can speed up applications, especially for those who might have been impacted and suddenly need those benefits. So we are seeking that in the next relief package.

We're also seeking relief for our Randolph-Sheppard vendors who have definitely been impacted by the activities and the spin down in the government. Locations have been closed completely for obvious reasons, and those individuals significantly impacted.

We're also seeking relief for important programs like the training centers of the National Federation of the Blind. Undoubtedly we'll be pursuing other things as they come up in the Congress.

It's a little side note, but I do want to remind everybody that we are currently in the census time period, and it's really, really important that we need all blind people to complete the census so that we can be adequately counted and included in the census. You can go to my2020census.gov, or you can call 844-330-2020. That number again is 844-330-2020. You can fill out your census there. You probably received a card in the mail with a 12-digit code. That speeds up the process a little bit. If you didn't get that, you can still go online and fill out the census. You'll have a few more questions to complete. Or fill it out by calling. But if you have the card, it speeds it up a little bit. So you might want to look for that. And of course there are many ways to get access to that.

If you're finding running into problems filling out the census, I know that many blind people have successfully done it. It's a little finicky, as most technologies are, and also you may notice that the census page recommends that screen reader users use, for example, Internet Explorer, which hardly nobody supports anymore. So you can, many people have successfully gotten through it, but if you run into trouble, send your experiences, what technologies you were using, to Valerie Yingling in our office, [email protected].

And one of our activities has been to continue and ramp up the work that we've been doing to investigate barriers related to online learning, and especially as it relates now to the online learning that has been driven by the COVID-19 experience. We put up a number of resources. We've repackaged some things. We've tried to increase our training for students about what their rights are and to remind universities about best practices they can use for dealing with providing equal access, and of course a number of them have been pushed into platforms that they hadn't well planned for and that are not accessible. And that's their problem, not ours. So we want to continue to push them on that. Obviously the time period is fairly short; we want to get students through the rest of the semester as well.

So we should be paying particular attention to the barriers that are happening through virtual learning systems, through healthcare apps, and tracking that information and getting folks to fill out our surveys online that invite people to report to us in accessible technologies.

You can also report findings and experiences that you're having to see how we can help you with resources by emailing [email protected].

Some of our other work, of course, does continue. We haven't given it up. One of our things is to continue to protect the rights of blind people using service animals in the ride share industry, and maybe that is even more important than ever since the ride share pool is diminished during this time.

Specifically, right now we are requesting members with service animals who continue to be discriminated against by Uber drivers, that we're asking you to consider providing a signed statement regarding these experiences. If you're interested in knowing more about this and providing a signed statement about your experiences with discrimination at Uber, please, again, contact Valerie Yingling at [email protected], or you can also reach her by telephone, but I think it's better if you can email her. You can also reach her here at the national office, extension 2440.

We need you to do that by April 14 so that we can, excuse me, April 17. If you can email her by April 17, we're going to take some important next steps related to pushing Uber. So we need these signed declarations very soon. So you can get more information about our ride share efforts by visiting NFB.org/rideshare.

Tomorrow a survey will be launched regarding COVID-19 activities. This is a survey that has been put together with the assistance of the National Federation of the Blind, along with Aira and the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech and a number of other players in the blindness field. Many have come together. This is going to be launched tomorrow. We need as many blind people to fill it out as possible. We want to track data about what's happening to blind people so that we continue to point resources in the field in the right direction and to help with the real problems that blind people are facing, not research or efforts that are based on misconceptions about blindness. So thanks to Aira and other partners for helping to put this together.

This effort is called "flattening the inaccessibility curve," and you'll see information in the Federation communications channels about that tomorrow. Please consider filling it out. It is kind of a longish survey. The research folks got ahold of it. Sorry about that. So it might take you about thirty minutes, so maybe when you're taking a break between work and watching Netflix, whatever you might be trying to do to occupy yourself, please consider filling out this survey.

You will be able to find it, of course, at NFB.org/COVID19.

We have been doing a tremendous lot of work to make sure that our families with blind children have activities, positively directed activities with nonvisual skills for their kids. This is our distance education project, learning from your living room we call it. We're putting content out on a daily basis, and you should check it out. We need your help spreading the word about this tremendous content. Some of it is content we're repurposing. Some of it is new content.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, we're putting up on the internet an activity for students. Some of these are simply fun activities. Some of them describe things that nonvisual techniques that blind people can use around the household.

On Tuesdays we're putting up a video on our YouTube channel that shows how blind people accomplish some sort of task. And the goal there is to, again, increase the training for families.

On Thursdays we have a number of activities. We're putting up a YouTube video of a blind person reading a book, in Braille of course, with some questions. And we also have Thursdays at 11:00 a.m. eastern time, we have an interactive lesson that's being offered on Zoom. Families can find all of these activities on the national organization parents of blind children Facebook page, or by visiting NFB.org/resources/distance-education-resources or going to the NFB.org/COVID19 page, which is easier to remember.

Thanks again to our divisions. Our parents division, our professionals and blindness education, the professional development on mindfulness and education, as well as our affiliates helping with this. If you have ideas of things that we could be doing to help families to put up resources, or if you just want to help, you should reach out to Karen Anderson, who is our coordinator of education programs. You can reach her at [email protected].

We have a number of virtual events happening all over the Federation. We're trying to bundle those together. Send them out in regular emails. You can send your events to [email protected], and we'll get them included. If you want to sign up to make sure you get these emails, please send an email to [email protected], and just include in the subject line that you want to be included in our virtual events update emails, and we'll get you on that list.

And of course you can, if you join any of our NFB net listservs at NFBnet.org, you can get connected with those emails. We're sending that email out to folks on our NFB net listserv.

Okay, that was a ton of information, but I still have a little bit more to talk about.

There's been a lot of questions about our national convention, which is scheduled to be in Houston from July 14-19. I mentioned on the release that we had three weeks ago that we're planning to go forward with the convention. We're still looking at it day by day, week by week. And, as you know, the events since March 13, I think new wrinkles have been added to the picture of what we're learning every day.

We have been investigating and considering what potential alternatives there may be. We certainly understand, and I speak on behalf of all of the members of the national board, we certainly understand why people are nervous about having a national convention, especially of the size and complexity that we often do. And we have recently been carefully weighing all of the information about the convention and what possible alternatives might be. We're putting recommendations together. The board of directors has not yet gotten together all of the data that's needed to really make full decision on exactly what direction we're going to go. I do expect the board to discuss this in detail and set some direction in the next week.

Keep in mind that we have considered from the beginning of this pandemic that we have some time and we want to carefully measure out what we do. We focus first on our internal operations and taking care of our staff, knowing that the convention was a number of months away. Rest assured, whatever we do, we will make sure to take care of the members of the Federation, and we'll do our best to make sure that nobody is negatively impacted by any decision that we make.

The convention is our most important activity. And we will have an annual meeting of some sort. It's hard to say today what it will look like or what shape it will be, but the beauty of it is, this allows us an opportunity to get innovative, to think about some new ideas, some approaches. Certainly it will be almost impossible to have a meeting of the scope and influence that we've had in person, but just this evening's gathering makes it clear that we can put together a variety of activities that still have a lot of Federation spirit in them and that still allow us to have the scope and influence that we're used to having in this movement.

So stay tuned. Rest assured that anything we do, if you're not comfortable with it, don't feel any pressure to participate, but we are going to set up a national convention, an annual meeting that will allow as many Federationists to participate as possible.

Okay. Two more things real quickly. We have a preauthorized contribution program, and this is one of the primary ways that we fund our movement allowing blind people to connect and protect, and we are continuing to do a lot of those activities. And those dollars that are coming in are really more important than they have ever been. We recognize that we also have to spin up some new things because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that's requiring us to stretch our outreach in new ways.

We know that some of you who are already contributors to the PAC plan may need to tighten up a little bit, but we do encourage you to remember that those dollars are really important to continuing to protect our rights as blind people. We also know that some blind people will be in a position to continue to help, and if you're in a position to continue to help us financially, by contributing to the PAC plan, I urge you to continue to do it. And my family has made the commitment to continue contributing to the PAC plan.

If you're in a position to join our preauthorized contribution program and haven't before, please do so. If you can't, we understand, but we know that the stimulus checks are coming, and if you decide to put some aside to help us continue to connect and protect blind people, we would be greatly appreciative. You can visit our website to learn about all of the ways that you can contribute financially to the work of the National Federation of the Blind by visiting NFB.org and selecting the "ways to give."

Thank you to each and every one of you who contributes financially. It makes a tremendous difference to what we're able to do for blind people.

And thank you this month specifically to the Connecticut Association of Blind Students for being the latest chapter and division to join the PAC plan.

All right. I do have some Federation family news to share with you really quickly. We did lose a number of Federationists in the last little while. I regret to inform you of the passing of Steve Benson of Illinois who passed away after a long illness on March 22. Steve leaves behind his wife Peg and his son Patrick, as well as their two grandchildren.

You may know that Steve was a national board member for about twenty years, and he served as president of the Illinois affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind for twenty-four years.

The NFB of Texas reports that Roman Ramirez, a valuable member of our San Antonio chapter, passed away as well as Stella -- you know what? This is the beauty of doing things live. I don't have her last name.

Stella served as president of our Permian Basin Chapter. My apologies to Stella and NFB Texas for that, but I urge you to keep our colleagues in your thoughts and prayers.

Also Dorothy Griffin, president of NFB Georgia, who reports that Kay Elizabeth Jordan passed away on Friday. Kay served as president of our Diabetes Action Network in Georgia and was active in a number of other things.

I urge you to keep all of these Federationists in your thoughts and prayers.

We also do have a number of Federationists who have been directly impacted by the coronavirus. We have a number of Federationists who are sick because of it that I am personally aware of. I'm sure there are many I don't know about and certainly family members of Federationists. I do regret to have to let you know that Robert Gates, who was a member of our Washington, D.C., affiliate, did pass away from the virus last month. Undoubtedly, as I say, there are those that I don't know about. I urge you to keep all of our Federation family members who we've lost, who are dealing with the virus very directly, in your thoughts and prayers. And I encourage you to continue to spread the word about Federationists that need our help, not just prayers, but real help in getting through this difficult period of time.

I did wand to end on a positive note, and this one comes from the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland. Our president shares that Melissa Sheeder and her husband Aaron Carpenter welcomed a baby boy! Ein Ace Carpenter was born March 18, 2020. Melissa and Aaron are members of the greater Baltimore chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. Ein weighed in at 7 pounds 1 ounce and 20 inches long. Ein, his parents, and his big brother Luke and sister Ren are all reported to be doing well, and so let me welcome Ein as the newest member of the National Federation of the Blind.

I think those are the notes that I had for this Presidential Release Live, and so I'm going to, at this point, turn it over to our able first vice president, Pam Allen, to facilitate the next part of the meeting.

Thank you, Pam.

PAM ALLEN: Thank you so much, President Riccobono.

I thank everybody for your patience. As usual, Federation style, we stormed the Zoom platform. So thank you for everybody's patience getting on in the beginning, and I'm very excited to say we have over 800 people currently on the call. So welcome all again.

I just want to go over quickly a few housekeeping things. Currently everyone is muted and will remain on mute so you cannot unmute yourselves, just because we have so many Federationists joining in tonight. I also want to welcome those who are maybe joining us for the first time.

Also, I want to mention that if you are called upon for to submit a question or to ask your question, you will be unmuted at that time, and then once your question is asked, you will be muted again, just so we can cut down on any background noise.

Also just a reminder, if you would like to submit a question through chat, you can do that directly to the National Federation of the Blind, and the chat feature is available in the Zoom app or the web; and also I want to thank everybody who emailed questions in ahead of time. We really appreciate all the great submissions and the great questions from all around our Federation family. So we're going to do our best to cover everything, and if we can't get to everything tonight, do not worry; we'll be following up.

So thank you again to everybody.

President Riccobono, here's our first question for tonight, submitted by George from Houston, Texas. I want to share this question; I know this is a question on a lot of people's minds this evening. George says: As a blind person who travels and performs many duties independently, but because of the current pandemic, we are experiencing many requests have been made by elected public officials to practice shelter-in-place, and companies, eateries, and other facilities have closed to pedestrian traffic. How can we send a message to the decision makers to have a backup plan in place for customers who are blind to receive service since not everybody has access to a vehicle or has a person to drive them to go through a drive through, a fast food place, restaurant, bank, etc.?

MARK RICCOBONO: Thanks, Pam, for that.

Before I get to George's question, let me say that the name I did not have in front of me, Stella Davila, the president of our chapter in Texas. So sorry about that.

So George's question is a very good question, and I should, I guess, start off by saying one of the interesting things about the last three weeks is the questions and the answers are really developing because Federationists are actively engaged and thinking about these things. So I appreciate the question.

We haven't taken any action at the national level to do this, to put out any guidance. But putting out guidance is a good idea. But there's a lot you can do at the local level to influence this. First and foremost, of course, these are all places of public accommodation, and especially now, nobody is walking in. Right? I mean, this is not a new problem. Blind people have been kicked out of walking through drive throughs for a long time, especially when the main restaurant is closed. So it's no different. This is a place of public accommodation, and they need to accommodate you. The beauty of it right now is, they're having to accommodate other people too. You listen to the radio, you'll hear stories about truckers who just can't pull their rig through some of these drive throughs so they gotta get out and go get their order.

So I would say at a basic level, you should continue to go to these places. Obviously be cautious about walking through drive throughs and that sort of thing, but you should let them know politely that you don't have another way of accessing their services and you know they want your money. And if they really turn you away, I encourage you to document it, I encourage you to report it, I encourage you to call them out on social media, I encourage you to let your affiliate leaders know so that we can collect these stories and figure out how to have an impact in a messaging way.

But the idea of putting out something like we did to the governors and local communities about their materials is a good one, and we'll take a look at that in our advocacy team and see if we can put a letter together that we can more widely distribute.

PAM ALLEN: Thank you.

Our second question tonight, we are going to be hearing from Mike Barber from Iowa.

MIKE BARBER: Hi, can you hear me okay?

MARK RICCOBONO: Great to hear your voice, Mike.

MIKE BARBER: Thank you.

First, thank you for this event, and thank you and all the national leaders and our state affiliate president for all the work you folks are doing at the Federation.

My question has to do with something I heard on the news earlier this week, and I also saw postings on Facebook. This has to do of course with the virus and so forth. And people who unfortunately get this virus and come to a situation where a life or death decision has to be made. Now, more and more we're seeing where the medical community is starting to make those decisions. This would regard like ventilation and so forth. And has to do with the elderly a lot of the times. But I'm concerned that this could migrate on into people who are blind or with other disabilities. And I'm wondering, is there anything that we can do as a Federation to be proactive in defending ourselves? Because, I guarantee, I think it's coming down the line, because, you know, in New York today, they're already saying that if an EMT comes to a place and somebody doesn't happen to have a pulse, they just don't take them. Even to try to bring them to life. So that's my question.

And thank you again for the opportunity.

MARK RICCOBONO: Yeah, well, Mike, I appreciate you asking the easy questions right up front.

But in all seriousness, it is an important question. And I'm not sure I have the best answer to it.

I think it's something we are going to have to grapple with as a movement to figure out to your point what can we do at an individual level to make that happen. I think that's first and foremost where the network of the Federation is really important. I know that I walk around on a daily basis with the positive feeling that I have so many people that I can call on if I get in trouble. And so I would encourage us to reach out to folks that we know are vulnerable, that might need us that don't have an advocate in their life, to be there for them.

Secondly, I think we need to figure out ways to continue to push amongst the medical community to let them know that disability, blindness is not a basis for making decisions. We have today signed on to a letter with a number of other disability rights organizations to send guidance to state hospitals that they simply cannot use disability as a basis of discrimination.

I'm not sure I have a better answer than that, because these are going to be individual things that are happening very fast and in the moment, and I think the best thing I can do is to say, know who to call if you need help. The Federation is here and we'll try to have someone there to help you. Make sure you're connected with some Federationists who can help, especially if you don't have family who can help. Certainly blindness should not be taken into account at this time, but it's a real conversation. We were talking about these conversations before this crisis, and of course disability, not being the most respected characteristic, is going to be easily used against us in this situation.

The best thing I can say is we have to band together.

PAM ALLEN: Okay. Great. Thank you so much, Mike. Thank you, President Riccobono.

I have another question sent in from Daniel Garcia from Kansas City, Missouri. His question is: is the National Federation of the Blind working with the Food and Drug Administration so that blind people can have access to at home testing for COVID-19?

MARK RICCOBONO: Thanks, Daniel. Great question.

We have not reached out specifically to the FDA about home testing. I think there's a lot of controversy around home testing. So we haven't specifically reached out to the FDA about how those tests, when they're widely available, will be accessible to blind people. It's a good thought, though, and we'll note that and see if there's a way for us to push into that conversation. That's always difficult, because the FDA has a very specific process they use, but we'll do our best to stick the priorities of blind people in there and make sure that at least they're not developing tests that actively discriminate against us. And maybe with people coming up with ideas, we can generate some innovations in accessibility in this space. So it's not something we've done yet, but we'll note it and we'll see if there's something we can do.

PAM ALLEN: Okay. Excellent. Now, our next question is something that I know is very important to all of us, something we've been working on. And I'm going to call on Briley O'Connor to share her question with us.

BRILEY O’CONNOR: Thank you for your leadership during this time. So many things happening at once, and I really commend you, the national center staff and the board, and just all the leaders we have for coming together and doing so much for everybody.

I'm wondering specifically about places where blind parents can find resources about accessibility challenges that they're having accessing distance learning materials for their kids, whether they're blind or sighted. I see questions on Facebook every day and struggles from blind parents who are dealing with this, and they don't know what to do and they don't really know what their rights are as blind parents in regards to access to their kids' education. So I'm wondering what our efforts are around that and how maybe we can help.

MARK RICCOBONO: Yeah, so great question, Briley, and great to hear your voice.

Well, so the first thing is, our [email protected]. It's not specifically tied to blind parents, but if you're coming across platforms that are not accessible, you know, we're trying to catalog that information. We have reached out to some of the folks that we have worked with in the past, especially Pearson, McGraw-Hill, some of the other, Microsoft, you know, partners that we have to continue to push them on making sure they're really providing support and resources on accessibility at this time.

So as you find those examples, please send them to [email protected].

Also, we have a blind parents' group in the Federation, and I would encourage you to find that group and share information amongst that group.

We have not specifically undertaken efforts targeted at blind parents during this time beyond our distance learning activities, but as always, we rely on the members of the Federation to help generate support and activities. So, Briley, if you or someone else has ideas about things we could be doing to bring these concerns to scale and address them quickly, because of course there's an urgency to it right now and some of that is we're just going to have to find workarounds based on the time we're in, please share them with me or with other leaders in the Federation. Let's figure out what we can do going forward.

Lisa Maria Martinez is head of our blind parents' group, and I know she would love to hear from folks about those ideas as well.

And obviously as a blind parent, I care a lot about this topic, so I think it's a priority for us.

PAM ALLEN: Excellent. Thank you. I know blind parents, that's an issue we are constantly advocating for, so great question.

And speaking of parenting and blind kids as well, we have had a couple questions come in via chat asking about our BELL Academy status this summer and what our stance is regarding that.

MARK RICCOBONO: Okay. So just for those who may be listening that don't know, the BELL Academy is the Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning, a two-week, in-person summer program for young blind children where we teach Braille and also nonvisual skills. It's the biggest Braille education program in the nation.

And what are we doing about our BELL Academies? Well, we're not sure yet.

The real answer is, it's hard to know exactly what we should do, and it's probably going to vary across the country. We are continuing to take applications, and we are making plans for what some alternative activities, instructional activities, would be to the BELL Academy. Again, we're only kind of really three weeks or so into this, so we haven't had the time to spin up all the ideas we would like. We are thinking big, dreaming big, about, well, if we really can't bring students together in a location because of the circumstances, what can we do that can continue to move the needle and help these young people learn that Braille is important and get connected with blind mentors in the National Federation of the Blind?

So we need your ideas about that. I mentioned earlier Karen Anderson is our coordinator of education programs. I know she would love to hear your ideas about what we can do.

We really don't know enough yet to know what the possibilities are for those programs. We are making some alternative plans and starting to build those out, so we need your ideas about what it could look like.

Obviously we don't want to run a Federation program that is going to be risky, so it's going to depend on the local circumstances what's being talked about, what the restrictions are, that sort of thing, and we just don't know enough sitting at April 2 to know.

PAM ALLEN: Okay. Great. Thank you so much.

We've got another question coming in from Bianca, who wonders if we have a fund where people can donate to help blind people affected by the virus or if there's something that individual states are doing to help people who have been affected by COVID-19.

MARK RICCOBONO: Oh, Bianca, great question.

We, you may know, we have had funds often collected in certain situations, like the Hurricane Harvey or the tornado in Reston. We have not yet endeavored to collect funds to specifically help individuals at a national level.

Now, I do know that many of our affiliates have been undertaking efforts when they've learned about individuals who are in need, who are blind, either to get groceries or something else who have chipped in to help do that.

So what I would say is, right now we haven't endeavored to do that. Probably because this situation is so complicated, it would be hard to manage that. And probably difficult to raise the kind of money we would need to help all of the individuals we potentially could.

So I would encourage you to be active with your affiliate to help individuals really in need of that support. But again, general donations to the NFB to support what we're trying to do to connect and protect blind people, they're need more than ever. We know this is going to have an impact on our fundraising. We're expending dollars that we hadn't planned on. You know, we've made the Zoom platform available to all of our affiliates. There's many other activities.

So we never want to turn down dollars but we want to make sure they're applied in the right way to help as many blind people as possible. So far we haven't put a fund together just to help individuals.

PAM ALLEN: Okay. Thank you. I know the Federation is always looking for ways to give, so thanks for those great suggestions.

Chancy would like to know what we can go to help get the word out to blind people about the census and also how can we compel the government to correspond with us about the census, taxation, and other critical matters in our formats of choice before the next crisis hits?

MARK RICCOBONO: Well, another big question.

Well, the census is so difficult since it's happening now. I think we should continue to promote the phone number.

Taxes and other government documents is a more complicated thing. We've been through this with other federal agencies like CMS before, so we're working our way through. We are talking to the IRS. We were optimistic about our conversations with the IRS in getting them to a good place. Of course over the last three weeks, the courts, everybody has been kind of on pause, and so it's hard to know. We know also that these agencies are going to start claiming that they have to push the time lines back. So we're continuing to push on these topics. I think we're making good progress on the IRS, but what you can do as individuals, anytime you come across these documents, push back. Tell them you want accessible documents. Even if they tell you don't do that. Tell them you need them, and it's their obligation to do it. And you should keep asking for it and you should document when you do and what they say and share that with us. The more people they hear from and the more evidence we have of people asking for it, the better off we'll be in the long run. We should be asking for equality as early and often as possible.

This is definitely going to become a huge issue in voting as states rush to get some new form of voting. We know that when they go fast, they often don't think about accessibility. So we have to be vigilant at the local level and share that information up through our organization.

PAM ALLEN: Okay. Great.

And we have time for a few more questions. This next one comes from Tracy from Portland, and Tracy would love to know how you see the current situation impacting blind people as we move forward through this pandemic situation as it relates to social distancing of six feet or further from another individual. Specifically thinking about blind people attending to daily tasks such as using ride share services, using customer service, shopping, doing other errands. And just wondering what the future of blind people might look like, in your opinion.

MARK RICCOBONO: Oh, if I only had a crystal ball.

Well, I would say this may be where long canes are a benefit. But seriously, it's hard to know. Society is just going to be different, right. And it's hard to know for any of us what that's going to look like.

Obviously, in the immediate, I notice that, and maybe this will change, but I notice that the sighted public still feels very comfortable grabbing blind people unsolicited. Maybe that will never change, although if that was an outcome of this whole thing, that would be, you know, kind of a victory for us.

But seriously, related to being able to have people give you direct instruction, where things are, which is appropriate, or using human guide, I think we just don't know. I think we have to take responsibility, because that's the best thing we can always do, in making sure that in taking ourselves out, we're making sure that we're doing, we're following best practices, we're presenting ourselves as being socially responsible with, you know, washing our hands and not touching our faces and things like that. I think we're going to be better received if we're doing the things we need to do.

If we're not observed doing the things that we need to do, it's going to be harder for us.

I just don't know that I can predict more than that. What I do know is, like always, this group, blind people, us working together, we'll be able to define that future if we work together and if we share ideas and if we push in the same direction. And that's what gives me a lot of hope that whatever comes out of the other side of this, we will be stronger for it.

PAM ALLEN: I couldn't agree more.

Another question concerning what message we should convey to the media. Several people have said that they've been asked by local newspapers or other media outlets how COVID-19 is affecting them as a blind person or blind people in general and how can we get our branding out there.

MARK RICCOBONO: Yeah. Well, another great question.

Brings to mind that maybe what we should do is put together a Zoom training specifically on that with our director of public relations. So we'll note that as a to-do item.

Well, there are a lot of things in the media that want to paint us as especially vulnerable, and folks that are more likely to be harmed by this.

What we want to do is shift the messaging to, you know, the real threat to blind people, besides the virus of course, is that we are at a greater disadvantage by the inaccessibility that's already existed. And the distance learning activities are a prime example. We've been pounding on this for better than a decade! We've been telling the universities what they need to do, how they need to do it, where their obligations are. We've helped them to know the best practices, and they still haven't been doing it. And now blind students have just been thrown into it without any choice, and the universities haven't planned for it. And we have students that are right at the end of being ready to graduate, and it's an additional stress and threat in this already stressful time.

So we need to really promote the core message, which we always have, that blindness is not the main problem here. The characteristic of blindness is not what defines the problem. It's the artificial barriers that blind people are running up against. And that, you know, all of the problems that we've always had are amplified. We can't go into the store and just peruse the aisles ourselves. So we need to work with someone at the store to do that.

Well, blind people have had trouble in many stores before getting that sort of assistance. It's only going to be amplified now, so I think we need to continue to pound on those access to information, disparate treatment, unequal access. That really needs to be the message and why we need to continue to recognize blind people as an equal part of this society.

And I think the access to information about COVID and what's happening, because I mean we all listen to the news. It's hard to get accurate information right now. And I think that it could be really dangerous for blind people not to have equal access.

PAM ALLEN: Okay. And I know, I want to just take a moment here before we ask our final question tonight, I want to thank everybody for the incredible questions and for being here with us tonight. I know that we all gain great strength from coming together virtually. And so I know that all of us feel the power of our organization tonight and the love within it, so thank you so much for these very thoughtful questions.

If we didn't get a chance to get to your question, we will be following up with everybody. So just to let everybody know that.

And so, President Riccobono, our final question comes from Melody Roan from Richmond, Virginia. She wants to know, while we're observing proper precautions, how can blind people find opportunities to help in the efforts to fight the COVID-19 virus, and have you heard of any innovative ways in which blind people are making a difference in their communities during this time of sheltering in place?

MARK RICCOBONO: Melody, great question. And one that I would love to hear more from blind people about to be able to share that information with you.

I know that, you know, one issue that has been coming up are blood drives, and I know that some of our members have helped with some blood drives out there, as volunteers. I'm sure, I mean, obviously beyond the Federation activities, a number of Federationists have been calling and checking on folks and collecting information about who needs groceries and who needs someone to get medicine for them, which I would say are all things that are probably beyond. I mean, there's things you would expect from members of the Federation, but it's to a different level.

I haven't directly heard of interesting things that blind people are doing to help in their communities. I'm sure there are some. And I think we should continue that conversation and share that, because we know how to organize and mobilize better than most folks out there, and it would be great to find some ways to do that. I'm certain there are blind people helping to contribute in the health field, and of course there are many Federation members and relatives who are helping in the health field. And so we should take a moment also to thank all of those individuals who are participating on the front lines.

So I guess to Melody's question, if anybody out there knows of innovative things that are happening, please send them to us. We would love to hear about it. And share those stories.

If you're one of those people, you should write some articles for our blog or the Braille monitor. We would love to have that content so we can use it to generate more ideas.

PAM ALLEN: Excellent. Thank you so much, President Riccobono, and thank you everybody, for your questions. Just a reminder again to visit our website, NFB.org/COVID19, to keep updated. Of course we could not end tonight without our customary endings.

MARK RICCOBONO: Yeah, so for those of you who have not listened to the presidential release before, we always by tradition have ended with customary endings. And for the last five-and-a-half years or so, the customary endings have been coming from the Riccobono children. So it's a pleasure to give you customary endings on our live Presidential Release from the Riccobono children. Again, our warmest wishes that you all stay safe and healthy. And thank you for the work that you are doing. And before we get to the customary endings, let me end by saying, as I always do, with the spirit of hope and optimism: Let's go build the National Federation of the Blind.

>> Hello, I'm Austin, and I have a joke for you. Where are average things manufactured?

A satis-factory.

>> I'm Elizabeth, and I have a joke. Why does the M&M go to school?

>> It wanted to learn to read?

>> No. It wanted to be a Smartie!

I'm Oriana, and I'll be telling you two jokes. The first joke is, what's a bunny's favorite place to eat?

>> Ihop.

>> Of course!

>> Why did the chick cross the road?

To meet up with her peeps.