by Gary Wunder
The holidays are over, January finds everyone learning to write the new year, and soon NFB listservs begin to buzz about what the issues will be for the 2014 Washington Seminar. The pattern is familiar, and the arrival of more than five hundred people is now a tradition. Many Washington Seminar veterans are expected; no one is surprised to see Ron Brown, a legislative activist in his state, the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Indiana, and the second vice president of the National Federation of the Blind. He, like Diane McGeorge, President Maurer, and John Paré, are fixtures at this event, but for some it is new and represents a challenge the likes of which they have never faced before.
Rosina Foster is a parent and a farm wife, who never envisioned herself going to Washington and becoming an advocate. But, like the crops on her farm, for her the secret is to blossom where one is planted. With two blind children who have the drive and ability to succeed, Rosina knows that, beyond motivation and intelligence, they will need opportunity, and doing what she can to ensure they have it is what has brought her to the nation’s capital.
Mike Abel never expected to find himself in Washington DC in the midst of the nation's second polar vortex. A year ago he was a passive, overweight blind man, whose days consisted of little more than watching television. When power to his home was interrupted, he realized that there must be more to life than the daytime TV schedule that occupied his time and that he wanted to change the course of his destiny. Accordingly, he grabbed his cane, went out on the street, and did what he could to get back in the game. Now he travels to Congress, a man on a mission—a big man, a proud man, but a man who has shed 170 pounds, has spent the past twelve months learning new skills by tapping into the support of his Federation family, and now comes to speak to the Congress about what life for blind people can be if we believe and are given a fighting chance.
On Saturday, January 25, legislative directors from throughout the country began arriving at the Jernigan Institute for two days of instruction. They reviewed our legislative accomplishments, learned about the history of the Washington Seminar, learned how to track legislation using publicly available tools, and learned to use social media both to contact the Congress and to tell their friends and families about the issues that are important to the blind. Seminarians participated in an in-depth discussion of the three issues we would take to Congress, got experience through role-playing, learned how to come up with arguments to unexpected questions in debates, and discussed strategies that had been successful or unproductive in their state legislatures. The most important things they learned, however, were not the tools and techniques of advocacy. The big takeaway was realizing that their participation makes a difference and coming to understand the imperative to share this message with our members who would join them in DC and the members who would be working with us from home.
While the legislative directors were learning how to be more effective, fellow Federationists at the Capitol Holiday Inn in DC were busy hosting a parents’ seminar, a students’ seminar, a job fair, and yet another legislative training for those who would soon be traveling to Capitol Hill. Even as all of this was happening, a meeting of the national board of directors was being conducted.
At five o'clock the Columbia and Discovery Rooms were filled with Federationists ready for the Great Gathering In meeting. When the gavel fell, both rooms erupted in cheers and the meeting was underway. President Maurer began by saying: "About twenty-eight years ago at the Washington Seminar, we got a law adopted by the United States Congress which said that there shall be no discrimination in air travel. Now, twenty-eight years later, the Department of Transportation has seen fit to write up some regulations. The writers of these regulations say they agree with the law—which is a good thing because they don't have any choice about it—they say there should be no discrimination in air travel, and in the regulations they say that the airlines have to make their kiosks—well, not all of their kiosks, only 25 percent of them—accessible to blind travelers in ten years. Ten years! So we are back once again to ask the Congress to declare that what it said twenty-eight years ago it still means today. We come to these seminars, you and I, and we bring our minds, our experience, our energy, and our hearts, to tell the Congress what our lives are like and that we know what we need in order to make them the beautiful lives we want them to be. This message is the one we will deliver articulately and enthusiastically to every member of the House and the Senate before we go home."
He went on to say that, in addition to teaching the Congress about who blind people are and what we need, we must also reach the general public. Since many people now use smartphones to retrieve much of their information, the National Federation of the Blind is going to develop an app for iOS and Android. What it will do and how it will work is up to our members to suggest. What do we want it to do for the public, and what do we want it to give those of us who are blind? Suggestions should be sent to Corbb O'Connor by writing to him at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
The monthly presidential release is now available as a podcast and can be retrieved by subscribing from iTunes by searching for "presidential release." This will mean that subscribers will automatically have this important message downloaded as soon as it becomes available and will not need to check the web or wait for email reminders. The presidential release is also available using the telephone by dialing (443) 341-4234. This should be especially useful for making President Maurer's remarks a part of our member-at-large chapter calls, and the system has been created and is being tested by Tony Olivero.
For some time now the National Federation of the Blind has been giving away a free white cane to blind people who ask for one. At the direction of the national board of directors, we are expanding this program and are giving away an aluminum, twenty-eight cell, four-line slate and stylus. To take advantage of this opportunity, write to the National Federation of the Blind, 200 East Wells Street, Baltimore, MD 21230. In your letter of request please include your name, address, telephone number, and the fact that you would like one of these slates.
President Maurer announced that we have filed a lawsuit against the Department of Transportation because regulations to implement the law saying there shall be no discrimination against the blind in air travel should not allow air carriers to take up to ten years to make 25 percent of their kiosks accessible. President Maurer next introduced Mehgan Sidhu, who is general counsel for the National Federation of the Blind. She is coordinating legal activity for this suit and several others we have filed this year. To help bring about equality in educational testing, we are suing PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. This service has contracted with the United States Department of Education to offer tests for K-12 students in eighteen states but has no intention of making these tests available in a format the blind can take. Rather than developing and implementing accommodations during their field testing, they plan to exclude the blind from these and to worry about accommodations only when these tests are being used in the states. We know what happens when we are told we must patiently wait and that in good time our needs will be addressed. We believe the failure to address accessibility is a violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act and are asking for a preliminary injunction to stop field testing until provisions are made for blind test takers.
We have several online surveys to gather information from blind people who are having problems with educational accommodations or with taking pre-employment tests. Participation in these surveys will give us invaluable information as we work to remove the barriers that stand between blind people seeking an education and employment. Valerie Yingling, who works as part of the Federation's legal team, has written a piece requesting participation in our surveys that appears elsewhere in this issue.
To recognize the commitment of the National Federation of the Blind to increase business opportunities and the commitment of the National Association of Blind Merchants to the full integration of the blind that is supported by every program we undertake, Nicky Gacos presented President Maurer with a check for $25,000 and promised two more to come. The assembled expressed their appreciation for the financial support of this division and the bond it represents.
Warmly greeted when he was introduced by President Maurer was Congressman Gregg Harper of Mississippi, the sponsor of the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act, HR 831. In his greeting Congressman Harper built on the grammar of the South lesson he gave us last July. In addition to reviewing the singular, plural, and plural possessive of the word “y'all,” the Congressman taught us how to pronounce “Mississippi” correctly, which any self-respecting Southerner will pronounce Miss Sippy. After this comedic introduction Congressman Harper said: "I can't think of a group that inspires me more than you do, and I just want to say thank you for what you mean to me and to my family. Those of you who were there in Orlando know that I talked about my son, Livingston, who has Fragile X syndrome. See, what you do to stand up, not only helps you, but it helps everybody who has a struggle out there, whether they've got Fragile X, Down’s syndrome, autism, or mobility issues. We all have things we have to work through—struggles of various kinds—but, here's the deal: we're all in this together, okay! I want to say to you that the work we have been able to do on HR 831, the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act, will finally put an end to Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
“So what do we know? We know that meaningful work deserves fair pay, and we know we're not going to settle for less than that. Now I've had my share of indirect threats, with people saying to me, `Well, you know that you're going to wind up putting people out of work—they're not going to be able to keep their jobs.’ Now you can't tell me that somebody like Goodwill that's making the money they're making and only has eight thousand people who are paid under the wage certificate—you can't tell me that they can't make it right!… There are some great people at Goodwill—you and I know that—but we want to help the folks at Goodwill create some good will. They need to be leading the way on this—this is an easy step for them … Thank you so much for your kindness, and may God bless each one of you. Thank you." The ovation following these remarks was a testament to the congressman's sincerity and our joint commitment to helping the disabled earn at least the minimum wage.
President Maurer thanked Congressman Harper for his remarks and said: “When you come to one of the houses of the Congress and you make a suggestion for change, and when that change will alter a system that has been in place for three-quarters of a century, this demands courage. Consequently, Congressman Gregg Harper, the National Federation of the Blind Presidential Award for Congressional Courage is hereby awarded to you.” After holding up his award, Congressman Harper said thank you in a soft and gentle voice that communicated how moved he was by the recognition of the Federation.
Next introduced was the representative from the Sixth District of Wisconsin, who is serving his eighteenth term in the United States House of Representatives, Congressman Tom Petri. Representative Petri is the sponsor of the Technology, Education, and Accessibility in College and Higher Education Act, HR 3505. He began by acknowledging how moved he is when he sees groups like the National Federation of the Blind who are dedicated to making the needs and abilities of their members known in the halls of Congress. Because of our work and the relationships we build, he understands the need that the blind have for access to information in order to compete. For this reason he has worked hard to create a bill that can be supported by educators, publishers, and those who manufacture the electronic devices through which information is made available. The challenge is to get decision-makers in these industries to realize that they need not sacrifice innovation and competiveness in order to include people who need Braille or audio information from their products. By adopting clear guidelines that can be applied nationally, both publishers and manufacturers of electronic devices will benefit, and so too will the blind.
At the conclusion of Congressman Petri's remarks, President Maurer presented to him the National Federation of the Blind Presidential Award for Congressional Courage, and the audience expressed its affection for the congressman and its excitement at the recognition bestowed on him.
Jennifer Dunnam, the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota, presented President Maurer with a check for $25,000 which has come from a bequest made by Jane Raademacher, a longtime supporter, who learned about the NFB when we were working to reform the Minneapolis Society for the Blind.
The smartphone has brought about many changes in the way Americans do business, and one of these involves transportation. Hailing a taxi and calling for a cab are being replaced by ride-sharing apps. Using one of these, a person who wants a ride makes a request by pressing a button, and the system gets the location for the pickup, finds the closest car, sends a message to that car, and tells the person requesting the ride how far away the car is and when it is expected to arrive. Getting the companies who operate these services to make their apps work with access software is one of our priorities. Sidecar, a nationwide service, has worked cooperatively with us to improve the usability of its service, and during the Washington Seminar it provided each person who signed up with them a twenty dollar credit for transportation in DC. Tim Elder, Kyle Shachmut, and Mika Pyyhkala deserve much of the credit for developing this relationship, persuading the company to act, and giving counsel as the company sought to improve its service to the blind.
At our urging, last June the Department of Education sent a letter to all school districts reaffirming the policy that, if a student or parent wants Braille, it should be provided. The person responsible for crafting the language and distributing that letter was Michael Yudin, the assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. He was accompanied by Janet LaBreck, the commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration. He said: "In this knowledge-based economy we need to do everything we can to make sure that individuals with disabilities have the opportunity to compete and be successful…Thirty years of research tells us that kids with disabilities do better when they are held to high standards and have access to the general curriculum. So everything we do flows from that—inclusion, equity, and opportunity…Our kids cannot learn the content if they don't have access to the content."
Following on this theme, Commissioner LaBreck emphasized the importance of a good education in the rehabilitation process and the necessity for education to focus on getting and holding jobs. She said that, in 2012, 66 percent of clients who are blind or visually impaired obtained employment and that 80 percent of these now earn a wage equal to or exceeding the minimum wage. The average wage earned by people who are legally blind was $13.79 per hour, and this exceeds by more than two dollars an hour the wage of individuals with other disabilities. She said that this is significant but that we can do better.
President Maurer thanked the secretary and the commissioner for their remarks and said that we oppose the proposal to move the Rehabilitation Services Administration from the Department of Education to the Department of Labor and that we will do what we can to convince members of the Senate that this is not a good idea. He further asked for the help of the secretary in getting those who are contracted to provide common core testing to make their tests accessible. Though their contract says they must, we see little effort by the government to require accessibility, and we would like the department to join us in making these tests available to the blind. The secretary responded by saying that, since the second matter raised was in litigation, he would refrain from commenting except to say he appreciated our efforts. He characterized the proposal to move rehabilitation services to another department as a challenge, but emphasized that the job of the department was to continue to build and strengthen the ties that will improve services to those needing rehabilitation leading to employment.
Mark Riccobono addressed the crowd and said that the theme that unifies all of what we do can be summed up in the phrase, "With love, hope, and determination we transform dreams into reality." He reminded us that on Thursday, January 30, the Jernigan Institute would celebrate its tenth anniversary. He gave a brief review of the programs conducted in those ten years, with special emphasis on those that are ongoing. There will be twenty-six BELL programs this summer, and how wonderful it would be if soon we will have at least one in every state. Our focus on educating and involving young people has led to the creation of a new program that will bring four people to the Jernigan Institute for a summer internship, and those interested in being part of it should apply by going to <https://nfb.org/blog/vonb-blog/national-federation-blind-summer-internship-opportunities>.
Jim Gashel addressed the gathering by reminding us that the first Washington Seminar was held in 1973 and briefly reviewed many of the issues that have brought us to the nation’s capital for more than forty years. He was the face of the Federation to the nation’s legislators for several decades, but now he occupies a different role in his work with KNFB Reading Technologies and as a volunteer in other arenas. Much of his focus is now on bringing access to new and improved technology, and he said that we will soon see the KNFB Reader on the iPhone. Because of our work with the Transforming Braille initiative and the money we have put into that organization, Jim fervently believes we will see the introduction of technology that will reduce the cost of a Braille cell from eighty dollars to twelve dollars. This will drastically reduce the cost of the Braille displays we purchase and use to gain access to information for education, work, and pleasure.
Jim concluded his remarks by talking about the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Awards that will be presented in Orlando this summer. The awards are to recognize individuals and organizations who have made and continue to make significant contributions to the advancement of the blind. Applications must be received by March 31, and the form is available at <https://nfb.org/bolotin-award-main>.
The Monday evening meeting concluded with each member of our legislative team talking about the issues we would take to Capitol Hill. These are covered in detail immediately following this article.
After a recap of our Preauthorized Contribution Program, Vehicle Donation Program, and our thrift store effort with GreenDrop, the meeting was adjourned, and those who filled the Columbia and Discovery Rooms at the Holiday Inn Capitol took our dogs, our canes, our message, and our stories to the leaders of our nation. We gained support in both the House of Representatives and the Senate and, as you will see in another article in this issue, helped to persuade the executive branch of government to embrace one of our initiatives.
Changing how people think about blindness has been at the core of our mission since our founding in 1940. We know that it takes time and energy to alter the direction of programs and policies, but we who are blind have as much or as little time as the rest of humanity, and our supply of energy and commitment is limited only by the distance our dreams can take us, which means that it is close to infinite. The beauty of what we do is judged not only by the outcomes we see but by the transformative power that love and shared commitment plant in our souls and in the souls of those who observe us.