President’s Report to the National Convention, Part II, by Kim Charlson
I need to comment briefly on developments surrounding ACB's efforts regarding accessible currency. We continue to work with Jeffrey Lovitky, our pro bono attorney, on the Bureau of Engraving and Printing case. I want to acknowledge his efforts and recognize that he is here this evening sitting at the head table. He is incredibly committed to accessible currency, and I want to express our continuing appreciation for all of his work on behalf of ACB on this important issue.
Eric Bridges and I met in person at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in October, with a large group of staff from the Meaningful Access Unit. We received an update on research, developments and testing of currency with tactile features. We also had a demonstration of the updated iOS app Eyenote, which has been upgraded and is faster to use. A high-ranking BEP official will be addressing the convention Monday morning with a special announcement about electronic currency readers. I believe you will be pleased with this latest step in our journey toward accessible tactile currency, and ACB will not lose sight of the end goal of currency that people who are blind can identify by touch.
In the area of guide dog access rights, ACB has been involved with two cases. First, you may have heard about the experience of ACB member Albert Rizzi, a guide dog user, who was ejected from a U.S. Airways flight on Nov. 13, 2013 because he was not able to put his guide dog far enough under the seat of the person sitting next to him, which did not please the flight attendant. Mr. Rizzi had been assigned a seat at the rear of the small plane, in the center of the bench seat, with no passenger seat in front of him since that was the aisle itself.
The Air Carrier Access Act grants people who use guide dogs the right to full access to air travel, accompanied in the cabin by their working dog. It is the responsibility of each airline to insure that personnel both understand and respect the rights of passengers who use guide dogs. ACB has called upon all airlines to guarantee that appropriate policies regarding the access rights of people who are blind traveling with guide dogs are in place, and that airline personnel who interact with passengers before, during, and after travel receive appropriate training regarding the treatment of guide dogs and their handlers during all phases of travel.
Given the number of years that our access laws have been in place, there is no excuse for airline personnel to engage in practices that demean or discriminate against passengers who travel with guide dogs. Such conduct is unacceptable. We take this issue very seriously, and airlines should do likewise. Nothing less is acceptable. For discrimination against one guide dog user is discrimination against all of us.
In a continuing investigative series documenting discrimination against guide dog handlers trying to get cabs in Washington, D.C., WUSA9, D.C.’s local CBS affiliate, conducted an undercover investigation with Melanie Brunson and Eric Bridges and field journalists to document the discrimination. More recently, WUSA9 followed up on its previous investigation into discrimination by taxi cab drivers in the nation’s capital.
Their findings sparked the first official complaint using evidence gathered by the undercover cameras. Since the story first ran, D.C.’s Office of Human Rights has established a special online reporting web page as part of its initiative to document taxi cab discrimination. As ACB’s Eric Bridges, director of external relations and policy, attempted to fill out the online complaint form against the documented taxis that discriminated against him and his guide dog, he found the web page was not accessible with a screen reader. An intermediary from the D.C. government had to assist Eric in filing his complaint by phone. When asked about the inaccessibility of its web page, D.C. officials stated it is a government-wide issue and vowed to have the online reporting page accessible to the blind by Labor Day. If the agency rules against the cabs cited in the complaint, it has the power to levy penalties as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars.
On behalf of the American Council of the Blind, our pro bono attorneys from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and Sutherland Asbill and Brennan LLP, have filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of blind federal contractors and ACB against the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal executive branch agency responsible for administering the government’s non-defense contracts. The complaint, filed in federal district court in the District of Columbia, alleges that GSA has failed to provide a web site accessible to blind federal contractors who must register and annually renew their federal contractor registration. The complaint names three individual federal contractors and the American Council of the Blind as plaintiffs.
GSA is responsible for ensuring that recipients of federal funding comply with the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits both the federal government and recipients of federal funding from discriminating on the basis of disability, including blindness. GSA requires federal contractors to register and annually renew their registration on a GSA web site, SAM.gov. The complaint alleges that SAM.gov is incompatible with screen-reading software that many blind individuals, including the individual plaintiffs in this case, rely on to navigate the Internet. The lawsuit seeks to force GSA to make its web site accessible to blind federal contractors.
The great irony here is that the agency charged with ensuring that others comply with the Rehabilitation Act and make their web sites accessible to the blind is not itself complying with the law. GSA is effectively telling federal contractors to “do as I say, not as I do.” ACB is honored to work with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee and Sutherland on this important cause. Our goal is that SAM.gov become accessible to blind and visually impaired federal contractors. And we won’t rest until GSA has made it accessible.
Now, let me shift to television and audio description. Last fall, the Federal Communications Commission published final regulations requiring that virtually all TV and TV-like devices must be accessible through audible controls, guides and menus! This action by the FCC is the result of an unprecedented outpouring from the blindness community demanding greater accessibility. Many of you may recall that there had been attempts by some industry groups to thwart the intent of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), which revolutionizes the television viewing experience for people who are blind or visually impaired. ACB, along with the American Foundation for the Blind, successfully negotiated with leading industry advocates to draft the consensus that the FCC ultimately used to adopt their new rules. Under this consensus, virtually all TV and TV-like devices, inclusive of tablets and smart phones, receiving digital video programming must be accessible through audible controls. These requirements will go into effect in 2015.
ACB’s own Audio Description Project continues to be active advocating for all types of audio description – for television, live theater, museums, movies, and on DVDs. Two major activities are planned this week by the project – first, starting today, the Audio Description Conference, featuring three days of the latest developments, research, and trends with audio description in all genres. Then on July 16-18, Joel Snyder will be training a large group of future describers. Attendees of the Audio Description Training Institute have been matched with experienced blind mentors to learn about life experiences for a person who is blind.
On the governmental affairs front, three legislative initiatives that ACB has been working on deserve an update. In December, Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) introduced H.R. 3749, the Medicare Demonstration of Coverage for Low Vision Devices Act of 2013. This bill seeks to right a wrong that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has perpetrated for many years through the denial of coverage of low-vision devices for Medicare recipients. CMS has elected to very narrowly interpret the regulations so that devices that have one or more lenses are treated the same as eyeglasses. This interpretation is flat-out ridiculous. These tools are often essential for individuals with low vision who, without the aid of assistive technology, cannot read product labels, medication bottles, handle their mail, pay bills, and manage their health and personal independence. Without the aid of such assistive devices, many more individuals will be forced into assisted living or nursing home facilities as our population ages.
In February, Reps. Matthew Cartwright (D-PA) and Steve Stockman (R-TX) introduced H.R. 4040, The Alice Cogswell and Anne Sullivan Macy Act. H.R. 4040 will improve the delivery of appropriate special education and related services to all students who are blind or visually impaired as well as students who are deaf or hard of hearing.
The introduction of this bill is a critical first step to ensuring that the special-education system can be transformed in a manner that will truly allow for blind or visually impaired students to succeed in a 21st century classroom. Anne Sullivan Macy is well-known as Helen Keller’s teacher, and Alice Cogswell was the first deaf girl to be educated at a school for the deaf in the U.S.
As many of you are aware, late last month the House and Senate reached an agreement on compromise bill language to reauthorize provisions in the vocational rehabilitation program contained in the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). The compromise bill H.R. 803, Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), was passed by the Senate in late June and by the House in early July. Here are a few of the provisions that are of interest to ACB.
The compromise bill keeps the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) in the U.S. Department of Education. The RSA Commissioner position remains a presidential appointment requiring Senate confirmation. The Older Blind Program stays with RSA and is not moved to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ACB will continue to monitor implementation of this legislation and keep you posted on developments.