Braille Monitor                         October 2020

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Making Gains for Blind Americans: Leadership in the United States Congress

by Senator Dick Durbin

From the Editor: This year we were pleased to have three members of Congress on our agenda. Believe it or not, we have gotten some pushback not only for inviting them but for allowing them to speak. The reason: a majority of those who accepted were Democrats. Although most of the remarks they made were about the National Federation of the Blind and the legislative issues they thought should be bipartisan, no politician comes only to speak about the organization he or she is attending. Just as we have agendas, they have agendas. We may not agree with everything they say, and the reality is that with most politicians we don’t even agree with everything they say about blindness or blind people. But the world is not about everybody agreeing on every point. It is about diverse opinions, a willingness to hear them, a determination to put one’s already determined ideas aside long enough to let the message wash over and soak into ourselves. Once we understand the message, then we can analyze it, accepting some of it, rejecting some of it, but being the better for knowing that we can actively listen and engage in civil disagreements.

I just attended the convention of the National Federation of the Blind of North Dakota, and I came away with a wonderful term. People there told me they were all for having spirited discussions, but the prime directive was for them to remain North Dakota nice. What a fine sentiment in a very divided country. Here is what President Riccobono said in introducing the senator:

Here now is our third member of Congress that we're having participate in this convention. This gentleman, who I would like to welcome now, is the 47th United States senator from the state of Illinois. He's the senior senator in Illinois. He's the convener of the Illinois bipartisan Congressional delegation. He was first elected to the United States Senate on November 5, 1996, just a couple of months after my first convention of the National Federation of the Blind! He's been reelected three times since. He's running this year as well.

He serves as the Democratic whip, which is the second highest ranking position among the Senate Democrats. He has many, many, many distinctions, but he has served in the post of being the Senate whip for a long time. His colleagues continue to look to him for leadership in the United States Senate. He takes his job seriously. And he stays rooted in the people of Illinois. He's also a committed family man and a friend of the blind of America. Here is Senator Dick Durbin!  

Senator Dick DurbinDICK DURBIN: Thanks to President Riccobono for the kind words. I want to thank the NFB board and staff, Federationists from around the country and beyond the country, for joining me in this historic National Federation of the Blind 2020 Convention. It is in fact the largest gathering of blind people ever. That's saying something. I want to especially acknowledge the Federationists who are here from my state of Illinois. A special shoutout to Denise, president of the NFB of Illinois, member of the NFB national board of directors, and a tireless defender of equal rights for all. She's one of the best.

Now, it's a curious thing about our sight. A person can have 20/20 eyesight and not be able to see truth that's right in front of them. And a blind person can have vision to imagine a solution to a problem before other people even see the problem. Visionaries like that are rare. We're here today, and America is better today, because of one such visionary. You know his name: Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, NFB's founder. As you know, he was partially blinded in an accident when he was seven, completely blind by the age of fourteen. But as NFB rightly says repeatedly, his blindness was not the characteristic that defined him or his future.

Dr. tenBroek taught law at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the University of California at Berkeley—a constitutional law scholar, a humanitarian, a civil rights leader, a social welfare reformer, and a man who changed the world. In 1934 he was twenty-three years old. He and a handful of other blind people founded the California Council of the Blind. In 1940, a few years later when he was twenty-nine, he organized the National Federation of the Blind. Young people: Give them half a chance, and they'll change the world, won't they?

In 1951 Dr. tenBroek published a book on the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution. That was the same book that Thurgood Marshall, really the father of the modern civil rights movement, relied on heavily when he argued his case in Brown v. Board of Education in the Supreme Court. He proved that separate but equal was alive five years before the Supreme Court declared itself. His work paved the righteous way for the movement for racial justice, playing out even today in America with Black Lives Matter. His ideas also helped pave the way for major victories, including the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and of course the Americans with Disabilities Act, the great civil rights law that turns thirty years of age later this month. I'm proud to say that as a member of the House of Representatives, I voted for the Americans with Disabilities Act. I know how hard NFB worked to pass it, and I know how hard you've had to work to protect it.

Part of the law in progress is we have to safeguard the victories we've won or else we lose them. We also need to build on the victories. I remember the world before the ADA, when arbitrary barriers limited the dreams and opportunities of people with blindness and other disabilities. When I was a kid, I had two uncles who went blind because of macular degeneration. I saw their worlds narrow as their vision did. It was heartbreaking. Today we know it's not only heartbreaking, it's unnecessary. The ADA was an historic step in ensuring that disability rights are human rights.      

Boy, has the world changed since 1990! We live our lives online. That's never been clearer than during this pandemic when telemedicine and online grocery shopping have been lifelines for many Americans but have been inaccessible to too many people because of inaccessibility or expense to use this technology to make their lives complete. Many who think access is too hard to include in their products should talk to Apple. It includes voice-to-text technology in every iPad and iPhone it makes, standard, ready to go, out of the box.

I believe we should expand the affordability to access technology to the blind, period. I know this is a top priority for you, and I want to work with you to close the digital divide between sighted and blind people. America does better when we develop the skills and talents of everyone. That's why we passed the IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Sadly, this current administration seems to struggle with that basic reality. But NFB, thank you for setting them straight. When the Department of Education tried to eliminate the right of parents and others to file complaints with the office of civil rights for violations of IDEA and other laws, your organization organized a coalition of civil rights groups, you fought back, and you won. That's leadership. Let me be clear. This pandemic does not erase or reduce the rights of blind students and students with other disabilities under IDEA or other laws. And any COVID relief bill that Congress passes must include additional resources to schools so they can provide accessible course materials, Braille instruction where needed, and other essential support during this crisis.

Let me tell you what Congress should not do, not during this pandemic, never. We should not repeal the Affordable Care Act. We can't go back to the days when the insurance companies called all the shots, the days of preexisting conditions and healthcare rationing through annual and lifetime caps. It's hard to believe the administration is still pushing that in the midst of this pandemic. They want to kill the Affordable Care Act in the Supreme Court, and what do they have to replace it with? Nothing. We need to work together. We can improve the act, but we certainly don't want to kill it. We need to underline the rights of all voters, underline all, including blind voters, to cast their votes safely, privately, independently, whether in person or by mail. The third COVID relief bill we passed in Congress included $400 million to help states prepare for the elections. State election officials can and should use some of these funds to ensure safe access for voters with disabilities.

Now, the CARES Act funding is good, but not enough. For a nation of 325 million people, it won't cut it. We need to protect all voters, including blind voters, during this pandemic. It's one of my priorities as we return to Washington next week to discuss the COVID relief bills. I believe Speaker Pelosi will be part of your program. She's shown much leadership. Speaker Pelosi really pointed the way in the passage of the Heroes Act. I wish Senator McConnell would join in and make this a bipartisan effort.

Nothing is more fundamental to the democracy than the right to vote. I could go on, but I won't. Part of the reason for that is because the person following me is a person whose story you need to hear: Mariyam Cementwala, who worked for me ten years ago, and was the only blind person to work on a committee in Congress, which is where we debate civil rights in America. She was there. Today she's helping to train diplomats to represent America and the world.

There's one more issue to mention before we close. Twenty years ago, twenty years—boy, you think you need some patience to serve in the Senate —I introduced a bill called the DREAM Act to create a pathway to citizenship for people brought to the country as children and for whatever reason never became US citizens. We've never quite been able to get the Republicans to join us. In 2012 I appealed to my former colleague in the Senate, the man who became president, Barack Obama. I asked him, use your authority as president. Create a program to shield DREAMers from deportation on a temporary renewable basis. He did it. It's called DACA. And if these DREAMers register with the government, pay a fee, pass a background check, they're protected from deportation for two years and allowed to work as well. But in 2017, President Donald Trump announced he was going to abolish DACA. Thank goodness just four weeks ago the United States Supreme Court rejected President Trump's actions. It was chief justice Roberts who shocked all of us by leading and writing this opinion and saying what President Trump did was arbitrary, capricious, and wrong, and spelled it out in detail. Thank you, Supreme Court, for coming to the defense of almost 800,000 current DACA protectees. They need our help. They need our protection. And you know who they are? They are business people, teachers, lawyers; 200,000 of them are essential workers; and 41,000 of them are healthcare workers needed now more than ever, risking their lives every day to save people's lives and to risk their own lives to keep us safe.  

Let me tell you about one DACA recipient. His name is Martin Becerra-Miranda. He came to the United States with his mom from Mexico a few weeks before his fifth birthday. He grew up in Phoenix. He lost his sight at age sixteen. He was lucky though. He was able to attend the NFB's training center in Colorado, one of the premier in the world. He was a very good student, and impressive, because the training center hired him right away as a youth counselor, teaching cane travel to other young blind people. Today, Martin is youth director at the Colorado training center. I believe that Martin and all DREAMers deserve the right to live and contribute in our nation, the only home they've really ever known. I hope NFB will join me in saluting him and all of those with disabilities who are also protected by DACA.

Thank you, Federationists, for letting me say a few words to you today. We're going to be a better nation because of you. You continue to point the way to a better, fairer, more equal future for all Americans. Your determination throughout the history of this organization has been nothing short of amazing. You know the history. You go back in time before NFB, and people with disabilities, those who were blind, were basically put in the backroom to live a very lonely and unproductive life. You have thrown the door to that room wide open. You've said to people who are blind and with other disabilities, come out of that room and into America. We need you for our future. I'm proud to be a partner. Thanks for letting me say a few words today.

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