Washington Connection 11/21/2017

Welcome to the Washington Connection, the legislative and information service of the American Council of the Blind.  The Washington Connection is brought to you by the ACB national office.  If you have any questions or comments on the information provided, don’t hesitate to contact us and ask to speak with Tony Stephens.
 
The Washington Connection is updated any time we have new information to share with you. The following articles are available as of November 21, 2017. Message 4 is new.
 
·     ACB Radio by Phone, Forum by Phone Have New Phone Numbers
·     Action Alert: Tax Reform Increases Burden on Americans Who Are Blind
·     Social Security Announces 2 Percent Benefit Increase for 2018
·     New! Nationwide Class Action Challenges Hulu’s Discrimination against Blind and Visually Impaired Individuals
·     DOT Enters Agreement with Airlines
·     Action Alert: Protecting the ADA - Tell Congress to Oppose H.R. 620
·     Audio File of Oral Argument in Currency Case
·     2018 Midyear Meeting Information
 
Thank you for calling the Washington Connection.
 
ACB Radio by Phone, Forum by Phone Have New Phone Numbers
 
AudioNow has given ACB Radio a new phone number. To listen to ACB Radio by telephone, dial (605) 475-8130.
 
To listen to “The ACB Braille Forum,” “E-Forum” and “ACB Reports,” dial (605) 475-8154.
 
Action Alert: Tax Reform Increases Burden on Americans Who Are Blind
 
As Congress continues to work on overhauling the American tax code, ACB urges citizens to engage their elected officials in Washington, calling on them to not advance any measure that would endanger Americans with disabilities.
 
The current House of Representatives and Senate plans on the table will comprise the largest tax reform in over 30 years, significantly altering the way the federal government takes in revenue. Proponents argue that significant corporate tax cuts will stimulate the economy, while opponents argue that such huge cuts will drive up the deficit and individuals will be negatively impacted with the loss of key deductions. Amidst this debate are the real concerns of Americans with disabilities, who will experience the loss of key provisions that have aided in increasing independence and lowering their tax burden.
 
Of greatest concern for Americans who are blind is the current proposal slated for vote this week in the House of Representatives, which aims to repeal both the increased standard deduction for individuals who are blind and the medical expenses deduction. These two deductions take into consideration the additional costs that are often the result of trying to live independently as a person who is blind. Therefore, it is important for Congress not to create barriers to independence in our tax code, nor should they be burdened even more when medical expenses exceed the threshold set by the IRS that allows for costly healthcare and expenses such as assistive technology or guide dog expenses to be deducted from their earned income. These deductions can significantly reduce the amount taxed by the IRS.
 
For most Americans, tax policy is a complex process. While messaging around the current tax reform proposals calls for a need to simplify this process, it must recognize that there are millions of Americans with unique medical needs and conditions such as blindness. It is often through the culmination of deductions, exemptions, and credits that many of these individuals are able to break even, not allowing for their disability to push them further into debt and poverty.
 
For this reason, ACB encourages individuals who have utilized these tax provisions to reach out to their local congressional offices, informing them that there are real individuals who will be negatively impacted by this tax reform. 
 
The Senate is not expected to vote on its proposal until after the Thanksgiving recess. Constituents are encouraged to also reach out to their senators. Let your Senators and Representatives know that the burden will be much heavier for individuals with disabilities under these proposals, which will significantly increase our national debt over the next decade. This would force Congress to cut vital programs and services to meet the shortfall in revenue.
 
You can reach your member of Congress by calling the U.S. Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121. They can connect you with the appropriate congressional office. Below are some helpful resources on the current tax proposals and key items slated for repeal.
 
TurboTax has helpful information on the current deductions individuals who are blind can utilize, which are slated for repeal: in the House bill under consideration:
https://turbotax.intuit.com/tax-tips/disability/tax-tips-for-the-blind/L80haiutG
 
“The Daily Beast,” an independent news site, has a post on the impact the current House proposal will have on people with disabilities:
https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-gops-tax-bill-is-a-war-on-disabled-people 
 
Please email advocacy@acb.org with questions or feedback you receive after calling your member of Congress. Thank you for your ongoing advocacy.
 
Social Security Announces 2 Percent Benefit Increase for 2018
 
To read this press release online, visit https://www.ssa.gov/news/press/releases/#/post/10-2017-1.
 
Monthly Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for more than 66 million Americans will increase 2.0 percent in 2018, the Social Security Administration announced today.
 
The 2.0 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) will begin with benefits payable to more than 61 million Social Security beneficiaries in January 2018. Increased payments to more than 8 million SSI beneficiaries will begin on December 29, 2017. (Note: some people receive both Social Security and SSI benefits.) The Social Security Act ties the annual COLA to the increase in the Consumer Price Index as determined by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
 
Social Security disability thresholds for the blind will go from $1,950/month in 2017 to $1,970/month in 2018.
 
Some other adjustments that take effect in January of each year are based on the increase in average wages. Based on that increase, the maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax (taxable maximum) will increase to $128,700 from $127,200. Of the estimated 175 million workers who will pay Social Security taxes in 2018, about 12 million will pay more because of the increase in the taxable maximum.
 
Information about Medicare changes for 2018, when announced, will be available at www.medicare.gov.
 
The Social Security Act provides for how the COLA is calculated. To read more, please visit www.socialsecurity.gov/cola.
 
Nationwide Class Action Challenges Hulu’s Discrimination against Blind and Visually Impaired Individuals

BOSTON — A coalition of blind and visually impaired individuals and advocacy groups filed a nationwide class action today against Hulu to end the video streaming company’s ongoing exclusion of blind and visually impaired Americans.  The lawsuit — filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts — challenges Hulu’s violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
 
Hulu, one of the largest online-streaming services in the country, offers thousands of shows and movies, including award-winning original content, to most customers at the click of a mouse.  However, the company fails to provide audio description — a separate audio track that blind and visually impaired people need in order to access the exclusively visual content of a show or movie — for any streaming videos. 
 
Because Hulu fails to include audio description tracks on any of its streaming content, blind and visually impaired individuals cannot independently enjoy Hulu’s video streaming services.  Audio description is a separate audio track that, when activated, provides a verbal description of visual elements on screen, especially in scenes with no dialogue.  The audio description track plays between pauses in dialogue.  Hulu boasts an extensive library of live TV and on-demand movies and series — including its Emmy-award winning original series, “The Handmaid’s Tale” — but currently excludes customers who are blind and visually impaired.
 
In addition, Hulu’s website and applications are not accessible to blind and visually impaired individuals who use screen readers to navigate the Internet.  A screen reader is software that converts the visually displayed content on the screen into audible, synthesized speech or outputs that information on a digital braille display.
 
The American Council of the Blind, Bay State Council of the Blind, and blind individuals brought this action to end Hulu’s discriminatory business practices.  Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), a national nonprofit legal center, and the Disability Law Center (DLC), Massachusetts’s Protection and Advocacy system, represent these individuals and organizations.
 
Kim Charlson, President of the American Council of the Blind, said, “Movies and television are pillars of American culture.  As delivery of such media transitions to video streaming services, it is critical that these platforms be accessible in order to ensure the inclusion of blind and visually impaired individuals in contemporary society.”
 
Rebecca Williford, Senior Staff Attorney at DRA, said, “Hulu is owned by a collection of some of the most powerful companies in the entertainment business and is itself one of the nation’s most popular online streaming services.  Its utter failure to provide access to individuals who are blind and visually impaired is astonishing.”
 
“BSCB members have been expressing their concerns about Hulu’s lack of audio description for years now,” said Brian Charlson, President of Bay State Council of the Blind, “and it is time that Hulu join with other industry streaming services out there and meet its obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
 
“As forms of entertainment evolve, equal access must transition to meet industry innovation. Equal access means the ability to fully use and enjoy all aspects of entertainment, just like everyone else,” said Christine Griffin, Executive Director of DLC.
 
Plaintiffs do not seek monetary damages, but seek only to achieve equal access to Hulu’s services.
 
A copy of this press release and the complaint can be found at http://dralegal.org/press/ nationwide-class-action-challenges-hulus-discrimination-blind-visually-impaired-individuals/.
 
DOT Enters Agreements with Airlines to Increase Availability of Accessible Airport Kiosks and Accessible Airline Mobile Websites
 
To read this release online, visit https://www.transportation.gov/briefing-room/dot0817.
 
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced today that it has reached agreements with Alaska Airlines/Virgin America and Spirit Airlines to expand greatly the availability of airport kiosks that will be accessible to individuals with disabilities.  DOT also reached an agreement with All Nippon Airways (ANA) to make the airline’s mobile website accessible for individuals with disabilities.
 
“The Department is committed to making transportation more accessible for everyone,” said Secretary Elaine L. Chao.  “These agreements will ensure greater accessibility and improve the flying experience for individuals with disabilities.”
 
Under DOT rules, airlines are required to ensure that any automated kiosk they install after December 12, 2016 at U.S. airports with annual enplanements of 10,000 or more is an accessible model, until at least 25 percent of the kiosks in each airport location are accessible.  DOT mandates that 25 percent of kiosks must be accessible by December 12, 2023.  Airlines are also required to ensure that their websites are accessible, but there is no requirement for airlines to ensure that their mobile websites are accessible.
 
Alaska Airlines/Virgin America, Spirit Airlines, and ANA self-reported their temporary inability to comply with these rules and offered to instead adopt measures providing greater accessibility to individuals with disabilities than required under DOT rules.  The Department reached agreement with these airlines to not take enforcement action against them for their temporary noncompliance with the Department’s kiosk/website rules in return for the airlines undertaking measures to make air travel more accessible for persons with disabilities.
 
Under the agreement, Spirit Airlines will make at least 50 percent of its kiosks at U.S. airports accessible by December 31, 2017, almost six years before it would be required to do so under DOT rules.  Alaska Airlines/Virgin America agreed to ensure that at least 50 percent of its kiosks at U.S. airports are accessible to passengers with disabilities by December 31, 2019.  This is significantly more accessible kiosks than required under DOT rules at a much earlier date.  In addition, under both agreements, the airlines will install only accessible kiosks in the future, so that ultimately 100 percent of the airlines’ kiosks will be accessible to passengers with disabilities.  Kiosks installed at U.S. airports are used for a variety of functions, such as printing boarding passes and baggage tags, scanning passports to check-in, and canceling or rebooking tickets.
 
The Department’s agreement with ANA specifies that the airline’s mobile site must conform to the World Wide Web Consortium (WC3) Mobile Web Best Practices (MWBP) and that the airline must consult with individuals with disabilities regarding the mobile site’s accessibility and usability no later than November 2018.  This agreement will increase access to individuals with disabilities as many individuals use mobile devices even more than traditional computers for web browsing.
 
DOT is committed to using all tools available to improve the flying experience of individuals with disabilities.  Today, in addition to the issuance of these agreements, the Department is posting on its website two interactive guides designed to supplement disability-related trainings that airlines are required to provide to their personnel and contractors under DOT rules.  DOT worked closely with disability-rights organizations, airlines and airports to ensure that these guides are of optimal use.  The interactive guides and other helpful disability-related information can be found on DOT’s website at: https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/disability-training.
 
The Department also meets regularly with disability rights organizations to better understand the air travel experiences of passengers with disabilities and to provide information to individuals with disabilities about their rights under the Air Carrier Access Act and the Department’s disability regulation.  The Department is committed to finding solutions to barriers that may make travel difficult for persons with disabilities including taking enforcement action if appropriate.  The most recent enforcement action was in July 2017 against a U.S. airline assessing a $400,000 civil penalty for violating the Department’s oversales and disability rules.  Additional information on the Department’s commitment to providing passengers with disabilities with equal access to air transportation can be found at: https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/disability.
 
The agreements are available at www.regulations.gov.  The agreement with Alaska Airlines and Virgin America is in docket DOT-OST-2017-0168.  The agreement with Spirit Airlines is in docket DOT-OST-2017-0169.  The agreement with ANA is in docket DOT-OST-2017-0167.
 
Action Alert: Protecting the ADA — Tell Congress to Oppose H.R. 620
 
There’s been quite a bit of discussion and enquiry over the past week regarding the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee mark-up of H.R. 620, The ADA Education & Reform Act of 2017. The legislation was voted out of committee on Sept. 7th, and ACB has been engaged with the Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) lobbying activity in both the House and the Senate, in order to defuse efforts by shopping center, hotel, and restaurant associations to drive this bill through Congress. The following provides some helpful background and action items:
 
Background:
 
The primary concern over H.R. 620 is its intent to curtail frivolous Title III ADA law suits. The focus is on architectural barriers, which is of significant concern for disability advocates representing people with mobility impairments. The driving force behind the legislation were association representing small shopping centers. However, the legislation has gained additional support from a wide range of associations representing the shopping, dining, and hospitality industries, including the U.S. Chamber of commerce. The dominant message they have been sending to Congress is to “Restore the integrity of the ADA.” (Visit http://tinyurl.com/yclbxvu6 to read their sign-on support letter — it’s in PDF format but is accessible). The legislation has gained attention in states where additional local laws allow for awarding of damages to plaintiffs, like California where it has received support from both Republicans and Democrats. Texas Arizona, and Florida have also received quite a bit of attention on the issue.
 
ACB has stood in solidarity with advocates opposed to this legislation, and we have grown increasingly concerned by this bill as we wrestle with more and more Title III access barriers in places of public accommodation, such as the rapid rise in tablets and kiosks in restaurants (See ACB’s recent press release on our Eatsa settlement). States like Arizona and Oklahoma have also begun to introduce and pass legislation that expands curtailment to online websites as well, and we have heard that Senator Flake (R-AZ) and others in the Senate are looking to introduce similar legislation. For this reason, it is important for advocates to reach out to all their congressional contacts in the House and Senate.
 
If you have not already done so for your affiliate, consider signing onto a current petition, such as Don't Tread on My ADA. While it is addressed to the Judiciary Chairman in the House, which has already voted it out of Committee, it continues to serve as an advocacy tool. You may also find helpful CCD’s Rights Task Force letter opposing the passage of H.R. 620 out of committee last week.
 
ACB acknowledges there are individuals who seek to gain reward from drive-by law suits with little to no regard for outcomes that truly fulfill the mission of the ADA — Their actions not only cast a bad light on advocacy groups seeking legitimate justice and equality, but they run serious risk of setting bad precedence, which makes it more difficult to seek justice down the road. However, this does not mean that Congress should set up barriers that make it difficult for everyone to fight ADA access inequality because of a few bad apples. There are plenty of alternative solutions to these bad players without having to water down the rights of millions of Americans with disabilities.
 
Take Action:
 
It is important to know that while the Judiciary Committee vote was drawn along party lines, this bill has received support from both sides of the aisle. Many of the associations in favor of the bill have significant influence in congress; therefore, it is important to reach out to your member of Congress to express your deep concern. Our message should be loud and clear:
 
Tell them you’re deeply concerned with legislation moved out of the House Judiciary Committee (H.R. 620), and its power to strip dignity from people with disabilities by putting up legal barriers in our effort to seek equality.
 
·     We can’t allow H.R. 620 to give a free pass to businesses in violation of the ADA.
·     Congress should not pass any legislation impacting the ADA without having people with disabilities and their advocates at the drawing table.
·     Feel free to share with them the most recent letter from the CCD Rights Task Force, of which ACB is a member: http://c-c-d.org/fichiers/UPDATED-CCD-and-Allies-Letter-of-Opposition-for-The-ADA-Education-and-Reform-Act-of-2017-H.R.620-Sept-7-2017.pdf
 
As we move forward on this issue, ACB will continue to keep you informed and identify action items to help protect the ADA.
 
Audio File of Oral Argument in Currency Case
 
To read this article online, go to http://acb.org/currency-case-audio.
 
The American Council of the Blind (ACB) presented oral arguments on the morning of October 19th before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. This followed ACB’s appeal concerning a recent District Court ruling that upheld last year’s determination by the Department of the Treasury to push back the first accessible U.S. currency to 2026, almost double the anticipated projected time from when ACB won its case against the government in 2008. The hearing focused on concerns raised by the Department of Treasury’s inability to provide an adequate solution that provides meaningful access within a reasonable timeline.
To access audio from the oral arguments, go to https://tinyurl.com/ybwq3ke5.
 
ACB will continue to update members on the progress of the current appeal before the Court.
 
2018 Midyear Meeting Information
 
Our phones have been ringing with requests for information about the 2018 midyear meeting. Below you will find the dates, the schedule of events, hotel information and a link to register. We hope you’ll join us!
 
The American Council of the Blind’s annual midyear meeting and legislative seminar will take place from Saturday, February 24, 2018 to Tuesday, February 27th, 2018 in Alexandria, Virginia.
 
2018 Schedule of Events:

Saturday, February 24: Board Meeting
Sunday, February 25: Affiliate Presidents’ Meeting
Monday, February 26: Legislative Seminar
Tuesday, February 27: Meeting with Legislators on Capitol Hill
 
Hotel Information:

Crowne Plaza Alexandria
Room rates (pretax): $117/night
Address: 901 N. Fairfax St., Alexandria, VA 22314
Phone number: (703) 683-6000
https://www.ihg.com/crowneplaza/hotels/us/en/alexandria/axecp/hoteldetail?cm_mmc=GoogleMaps-_-CP-_-USA-_-AXECP
 
To view this announcement online, go to http://acb.org/2018-midyear.