Future Reflections Winter/Spring 1997, Vol. 16 No. 1


Canes In Congress: The 1997 Washington Seminar

[PICTURE] Jim Gaschel, NFB's Director of Governmental Affairs (seated at the table, second from left) joins the Ohio delegation to discuss issues in Senator Michael DeWine's office. Included in the Ohio group pictured above is Ohio President and editor of the Braille Monitor, Barbara Pierce (seated right); Crystal McClain (see page 19 of this issue); and three other parents of blind children from Ohio.
[PICTURE] Senator Pete Domenici (left side, arms folded) meets with the NFB delegation from New Mexico during the Washington, D.C. Seminar. The Delegation is led by Arthur Schreiber (standing with cane), president of the NFB of New Mexico.

By now most members of Congress know that in the first week of February the halls of Congress will echo with the sound of hundreds of tapping white canes. This is the week that blind members of the National Federation of the Blind make their way to D.C. to talk to their Senators and Representatives about the year's legislative priorities for blind Americans. This event, called the Washington Seminar, is becoming bigger each year. About 500 people representing 48 states and Puerto Rico attended the 1997 seminar.

NFB committees and divisions take advantage of the large crowd and plan special meetings and conferences on the weekend preceding the congressional visits. This year blind college students, lawyers, business people, and parents of blind children sponsored mini-seminars at this event. By far the largest of those meetings was the student seminar. Some 200 blind college students attended the day-long seminar and evening banquet sponsored by the National Association of Blind Students.

Parents of blind children also come with their NFB delegations and participate fully in the visits and meetings. Some bring their children. Real-life participation is a great way for kids to learn more about our government and the democratic process.

Because of D.C.'s proximity to Baltimore, the headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind, arrangements are made for tours of the National Center for the Blind. Since the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind is at the same location, it, too, is on the tour. This year, over 100 members took advantage of this wonderful opportunity to see and learn more about how the National Office of the National Federation of the Blind operates.

Although the mini-seminars and tours are great, the real focus of the trip is, of course, the congressional visits. Reprinted below are the fact sheets we distributed to Congress which describe the three legislative priorities for 1997. This year we have already been successful in achieving one of our goals: the addition of wording about Braille literacy to the re-authorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (see the announcement at the end of this issue.)


From: Members of the National Federation of the Blind
To: Members of the 105th Congress
Re: Legislative Priorities of Blind Americans

Public policies and laws affecting blind people have a profound impact on our entire society. Most people know someone who is blind. It may be a friend, a family member, or a co-worker on the job. The blind population in the U. S. is estimated to exceed 700,000. Fifty thousand Americans become blind each year. By themselves, these numbers may not seem large, but the social and economic consequences of blindness directly touch the lives of millions. In the form of its social consequences and to some extent its economic consequences, blindness affects virtually everyone.

Public policies and laws that result from misconceptions about blindness or lack of information 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 the members are blind, but membership is open to anyone who wants to join in the effort we are making to win understanding and equality in society.

Our priorities for the first session of the 105th Congress reflect an urgent need for action in three specific areas of vital importance to the blind this year.

(1) Congress should restore work incentive equity for blind individuals by re-enacting the 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 law passed in 1977 creating a logical and identical earnings exemption threshold for blind people and retirees, beneficiaries who are blind were singled out for exclusion from a series of seven specified annual increases in the exempt amount mandated under a new law solely for seniors. This means that a lower earnings limit for the blind--$12,000 as compared to $13,500--is now in effect. By 2002, when the exemption for seniors becomes $30,000, the lower limit created by Congress for the blind in 1996 will be less than half the amount allowed for seniors unless the law is changed.

People of working age who are blind must not be forgotten now that the earnings exemption for retirees has been raised. Just as with hundreds of thousands of seniors, their positive response to the higher amounts of earnings allowed 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. This is why the statutory linkage of the exempt earnings amounts which existed under the law for almost twenty years should be restored. 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."

(2) Congress should amend the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to include provisions for strengthening programs of Braille literacy instruction. This can be done by enacting Braille literacy for blind persons provisions as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Goal Five of the National Education Goals declares that by the year 2000, "Every adult American will be literate..." For blind people this means having the ability to read and write in Braille at a level of proficiency which makes performance on equal terms possible. Without legislative change, today's blind children will not be able to meet this national goal.

As many as 34 percent of the blind students enrolled in elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. during the last school year were classified as "non-readers." Fewer than 10 percent read Braille. Current federal and state laws require that an appropriate educational opportunity must be provided to children with disabilities. Each such child is to have an individually planned program of instruction to meet identified needs, but growing illiteracy for blind children has been the result. Remedial federal legislation, similar to laws now enacted in 28 states, can help to reverse this trend. For more details and an explanation of the need for this legislation, see the fact sheet entitled "BRAILLE LITERACY AND THE INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES EDUCATION ACT."

(3) Congress should enact legislation this year to re-authorize the existing federal/state program of vocational rehabilitation. This program, as currently authorized under Title I of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, is now in its final year before action must be taken to continue grants to states for serving persons with disabilities, including people who are blind. During the 104th Congress, vocational rehabilitation was among the programs first included but later removed from a proposed job training, education, and employment system consolidation bill. Nonetheless, with the program's re-authorization due for consideration this year, the possibility of consolidation with other programs has been discussed and could be proposed again.

Vocational rehabilitation has been recognized as a specific responsibility to be shared by the federal government and the states for 77 years. The mixture of this program (intended to address essential and complex disability-related needs) with generic job training, education, and employment programs for the general population is a fundamentally-flawed concept. For someone who becomes blind in mid-career, unemployment is only one of many consequences. By comparison, however, the need for special help to deal with blindness is by far the most profound initial problem. This is why vocational rehabilitation services should continue to receive dedicated federal funding to support a targeted and identifiable service delivery system. For more details and an explanation of the need for re-authorization see the fact sheet entitled "BLINDNESS, REHABILITATION, AND THE NEED FOR SPECIALIZED PROGRAMS."

People who are blind are asking for your help in securing positive action by Congress in the areas outlined here. Legislative proposals will be offered to achieve each of our specific objectives. Many priorities confront this session of Congress, and the needs of the nation's blind are among them. 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.