by Mitch Pomerantz
On Dec. 8th, a historic meeting took place between representatives of the two major consumer advocacy organizations of blind and visually impaired people and a member of President-Elect Barack Obama’s transition team. To the best of my knowledge such a meeting is unprecedented in our history, and I want to bring everyone up to speed on what took place at this important get-together.
The meeting was held in Washington, D.C., so I participated via conference call. (The invitation came too late for me to be there in person without breaking the ACB bank.) Attending in person was our director of advocacy and governmental affairs, Eric Bridges. The National Federation of the Blind was represented by President Marc Maurer and John Pare, executive director for strategic initiatives. The American Foundation for the Blind was also invited, but was unable to participate on that day, so their representatives will meet with the Obama people at another time.
For well over an hour, we met with Kareem Dale, a blind attorney from Chicago who is a member of Obama’s transition team. Dale has been the president-elect’s point person on disability issues and, while he is relatively unfamiliar with most blindness-related concerns, he is obviously very intelligent and truly interested in what we had to say. Several other government staffers – including longtime transportation and disability-rights advocate Michael Winter – sat in as well. Winter has worked for the Federal Transit Administration for many years and is quite knowledgeable about our transportation needs.
At the outset, Dale acknowledged his understanding that there were differences between the two organizations present, as well as between the blindness organizations and the larger disability community. Despite this, he emphasized the incoming administration’s hope that ACB and NFB would work more closely together and that both organizations would work collaboratively with other disability organizations to the greatest extent possible.
Prior to the briefing, ACB was advised (as presumably was the NFB) to focus on three of our organization’s highest priorities. While we certainly could have talked about many more than three issues, Melanie Brunson, Eric and I agreed prudence dictated that we strictly adhere to the ground rules set forth in the original invitation. Eric and I did so. When it came time for the Federation to speak (Dale asked ACB to go first), Pare chose to run through a far lengthier laundry list of items.
Eric and I outlined the following priorities: 1. Maintaining and strengthening categorical services for blind and visually impaired people, including the Randolph-Sheppard Vending Program. Here we pointed out the need for an RSA (Rehabilitative Services Administration) head who recognizes our unique needs as expressed through active support for specialized programs and services for blind and visually impaired people. 2. Providing full access to information, including accessible web sites and consumer electronics. We described the key provisions contained in H.R. 6320 and stressed the necessity for web sites maintained by all federal agencies to be fully accessible. 3. Advocating for enhanced pedestrian safety through research into making hybrid vehicles (quiet cars) more audible to blind and other pedestrians. We indicated ACB’s support for H.R. 5734 and suggested that the Obama administration could use its influence to see similar legislation passed in the next session of Congress.
Clearly, issues such as increased funding for public transit, greater employment opportunities (including opportunities for blind and other persons with disabilities), and changes to Medicare -- which would permit reimbursement for visual aids such as closed-circuit television systems -- could have been mentioned as well. However, it was our feeling that transportation, employment and Medicare were already on the president-elect’s radar screen and the issues we raised likely were not, at least until this meeting.
We also chose those issues because ACB has numerous resolutions going back many years establishing our positions on each issue. I know that there was quite a bit of discussion on ACB-L and Leadership immediately following announcement of the meeting relative to the issues we decided upon. That’s what makes ACB the democratic organization it is, and I appreciated the e-mail give-and-take which ensued.
I know that ACB’s presentation was well-received by Kareem Dale and the others in attendance from the Obama team. There has already been further communication and I fully expect ACB to have far more input into blindness-related decisions and policies than we have ever had under any previous administration since our founding in 1961. We were strongly encouraged by Dale to inform our members about this historic meeting and to let everyone know within the American Council of the Blind that the Obama administration intends to keep the lines of communication open between it and the disability community, including ACB.
We can only hope that this is not an empty promise. Based on our Dec. 8th meeting, I am cautiously optimistic that this promise will be kept.