by Melanie Brunson
Most of us are familiar with the processes by which eye doctors determine a patient's visual acuity and visual field. We keep track of our own test results and often compare results when we encounter other people with eye conditions similar to ours. But do we think much about the visual acuity of our legislators or other public officials? I suggest that we may want to give this some serious thought. Why? Because policymakers with limited vision can make very shortsighted decisions, and those decisions can have consequences for people who are blind that are sometimes unintended and can be downright harmful.
When the new Congress takes over in January 2007, there will be a number of new members. That will provide us with a good opportunity to examine their vision of what is necessary and appropriate for them to do, especially as it relates to programs and services for people who are blind or visually impaired. For instance, do they see the world through the proverbial rose-colored glasses? Is their vision blocked by dollar signs so they can't see anything beyond how much something costs? Do they use a magnifier, which is constantly focused on one particular idea, trend, or group? Or are they people with sufficient vision to see the world in a manner that enables them to pick out both similarities and differences in the landscape, appreciate the diversity of their constituency and see creative solutions to significant public policy issues? If your legislator or public official is in this last group, you are fortunate. Our goal in ACB is to expand the ranks of this latter group, because we have a tremendous need for more visionary leaders at all levels of government across this country.
As we look ahead to the new year, many of the public policy issues we have been concerned about in the past remain on the table. Many others will surface in the months ahead. One of our most important challenges, as we deal with each issue that arises, will be to determine which legislators and/or public officials have enough vision to enable them to see their way to appropriate solutions and which have vision that is impaired by their own biases, lack of experience or limited understanding of the issue at hand. Any of these can impact how an official views both his or her role, and how he or she responds to public policy alternatives.
Therefore, it's not enough to know our own views, or even how our affiliate or ACB sees an issue. In order to be effective influencers of society's responses to issues we are concerned about, we need to try to get a handle on what that society is seeing, or, in some cases, not seeing, so that we can either improve their vision or help them to find alternative techniques for dealing with the issue.
Here is a case in point. Since 1936, many blind and visually impaired people across the country have found meaningful career opportunities through the Randolph-Sheppard program. The Randolph-Sheppard Act, which established the program, provides a mandatory priority for "blind persons licensed under [the Act] ... to operate vending facilities on any federal property." Under this act, the term "vending facilities" includes: "automatic vending machines, cafeterias, snack bars, cart services, shelters, counters, and such other appropriate auxiliary equipment as the secretary may by regulation prescribe as being necessary for the sale of the articles or services described in Section 107a(a)(5)." Increasingly, this priority has been ignored by federal agencies. Readers of "The Braille Forum" may recall a number of articles on examples of this trend over the past years. As recently as last month, we became aware of a proposal by the Committee for Purchase from Persons who are Blind or Severely Disabled to ignore this priority and place the food service facilities at the FBI's training facility at Quantico, Va., on the procurement list.
Although the Randolph-Sheppard Act has been in effect now for 70 years, this development shows that there are people throughout the federal government who refuse to see that the priority it grants to blind vendors applies on their federal properties. Why? In many cases, they see these facilities only in terms of the opportunities they could provide to private business. In other cases, well-intentioned individuals who have a vision for providing employment opportunities for people with disabilities sometimes discount the value of this program because it limits eligibility to people who are blind. Never mind that blind operators of vending facilities can and do provide employment opportunities to other people with disabilities. It has become trendy to look at the political landscape through lenses imprinted with an image that says, "One size must fit all or nobody should wear it." Those who see the world in this manner will passionately proclaim that this program cannot be worth protecting unless it is opened up to all people with all disabilities. Any program that is disability-specific lies outside their field of vision.
There are a number of other variations on these themes, and space does not permit me to discuss them all here. My point is that it is not enough for us to know what we think and why we think it. We need to figure out what's driving those we want to influence. As noted above, we are facing a period in our relations with governments at all levels where programs and policies that are meant to meet the needs of people who are blind or visually impaired, as a particular group, are viewed with increasing suspicion. In short, what we advocates call "categorical services" are under attack. The Randolph-Sheppard program is only one example of this trend. If we want to save these programs for future generations of people with visual impairments, we will need to work on two levels simultaneously. First, we will need to provide a clear message about these programs, indicating both their value to our community and our community's expectations that they will actually provide the benefit or service to people who are blind they were intended to provide. It's not enough to say we support it because it's ours. We must support it because there is measurable evidence that we, and the society we live in, will be harmed without it. Second, we must identify factors that impair the vision of policymakers who can't, or won't, see the value of these programs, so that we can offer them rehabilitation and enable them to see the situation more clearly.
For those of us who have the good fortune to be acquainted with policymakers with a clear view of what people who are blind can do for, as well as need from, our society, our job will be to develop relationships with those folks and encourage them to stay engaged. These people can become our partners and we could use a lot more of them beginning in 2007.