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 Clark Rachfal.
The Washington Connection is updated any time we have new information to share with you. The following articles are available as of July 13, 2021. All messages are new.
- New! Federal Judge Orders North Carolina to Provide Accessible Absentee Voting
- New! ACB Supports Accessible Remote Voting in Rhode Island
- New! Absentee Voting for Virginians with Print Disabilities
- New! When will Harriet Tubman adorn the $20 bill?
- New! ACB Media Network Alexa Skill Update
- New! Half of Most Popular Federal Websites Fail Accessibility Tests for Users with Disabilities
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June 17, 2021 – Raleigh, NC – On June 15, 2021, Judge Terrence W. Boyle of the federal District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina ordered the North Carolina Board of Elections to take immediate steps to ensure that blind voters will have equal access to the 2021 municipal elections and all subsequent elections. Prior to Judge Boyle’s ruling, the North Carolina Absentee Voting Program required voters to fill out a paper ballot and return the ballot by mail, providing no alternatives to accommodate individuals with vision disabilities who are unable to independently and privately read and mark a paper ballot. Judge Boyle found that North Carolina denies blind voters the opportunity to cast an absentee ballot privately and independently in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
In the 2020 General Election, North Carolina offered military and overseas voters the option to receive and return absentee ballots using an accessible online voting system operated by nationally known firm Democracy Live but refused to let voters with disabilities cast their absentee ballots using the same system. Plaintiffs successfully obtained a court order granting blind voters access to the Democracy Live system in time for blind voters to cast a private and independent absentee ballot for the first time in North Carolina in the 2020 General Election. Judge Boyle’s ruling of Tuesday makes the access blind voters enjoyed in the 2020 elections permanent.
The lawsuit was filed by a coalition of groups including Disability Rights Advocates, Disability Rights North Carolina, the North Carolina Council of the Blind, the Governor Morehead School Alumni Association, Inc., and several North Carolina voters with disabilities, including Jo Taliaferro, Kenneth Durden, Kendall Gibbs, and Dr. Ricky Scott.
“Voters with disabilities have long been excluded from political spaces,” said Helen Jo Taliaferro, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. “Now, this victory ensures that our voices are heard in a way that elevates each of our right to vote privately and independently.”
“This is a great victory to ensure equal access to the ballot,” said Dr. Ricky Scott, another plaintiff. “In recognizing our right to vote by absentee privately and independently, we are finally granted full participation in the voting process rather than being treated like second class citizens.”
“This is an incredible victory for the blindness community, who have long sought to vote privately and independently,” said Christopher Bell, President of the NCCB. “Now we finally can.”
“It is a wonderful time for the blind and visually impaired community of North Carolina to have accessible absentee voting,” said Fred McEachern, President of the GMSAAI. “It has been a long time coming and now we have it."
“We celebrate this victory with disabled voters. It was intolerable, more than 30 years after the passage of the ADA, to have failed to implement disability rights laws guaranteeing people with disabilities the same access to the ballot as non-disabled voters,” said Virginia Knowlton Marcus, CEO of Disability Rights NC. “The power of the disability vote cannot be ignored.”
“We are delighted that Judge Boyle recognized the right of voters with print disabilities to choose how to vote without having to sacrifice their privacy and independence, just like non-disabled voters can,” said Rosa Lee Bichell of Disability Rights Advocates. “This order is a move towards a more inclusive and equitable democratic system in North Carolina.”
This lawsuit was filed in the Eastern District of North Carolina under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Rather than monetary damages, plaintiffs seek reform to the systems and practices that discriminate against voters with disabilities.
For case documents, visit https://dralegal.org/press/federal-judge-orders-north-carolina-to-provide-accessible-absentee-voting/.
June 25, 2021
The Honorable Stephen R. Archambault:
My name is Clark Rachfal, and I am the Director of Advocacy and Governmental Affairs for the American Council of the Blind. ACB is a nationwide member-driven advocacy organization that strives to increase the security, independence, economic opportunity, and to improve quality of life for people who are blind and experiencing vision loss. Fundamental to our democracy, and independence and quality of life for all Americans, is the right to privately and independently exercise our right to vote. For these reasons, I am writing to you and all members of the Rhode Island Senate Judiciary Committee in strong support of S. 0738.
Thank you for your sponsorship of this important voting access legislation. Passage of S. 0738 is vital to the nearly 16% of voters in Rhode Island that have a disability. A 2021 Rutgers University research paper states that Rhode Island has 135,000 voters with disabilities, and nearly 20% of those voters had difficulty voting in the 2020 elections, including 30% of visually impaired voters who found it difficult to vote independently.
Many voters with disabilities cannot see, read, hold, or mark a conventional paper absentee ballot privately and independently. S. 0738 allows voters with disabilities the same right to access, mark and return an electronic ballot as voters living abroad, or serving in the military. S. 0738 remedies the fact that even though voters with disabilities are eligible to vote by using an absentee ballot, many of these voters are denied equal access to an absentee voting system due to the only absentee voting option being the use of a paper absentee ballot.
The Help America Vote Act of 2002 accepts and acknowledges that paper ballots are inherently inaccessible, and that voters with disabilities require the use of technology to access a private and independent vote at polling locations; we must acknowledge the same need exists when voting absentee. Over 205 jurisdictions across seven states deployed an accessible ballot delivery and return system in 2020, including five states that allowed voters with disabilities to receive, mark, and return their ballot electronically: Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and West Virginia. The Rhode Island House passed H. 6004, and we urge the passage of S. 0738 so that Rhode Island may join the chorus of states paving the way for accessible voting for all voters, regardless of ability.
Thank you for your leadership in creating an accessible absentee voting option for people with disabilities. If you have any questions regarding this letter or the benefits of utilizing a fully electronic remote absentee voting system to empower and enable voters with disabilities to exercise their right to mark, verify, and cast a private and independent vote, please do not hesitate to contact me via email, [email protected], or (202) 467-5081.
By Sam Joehl, President, ACB of Virginia, printed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 4, 2021
Naim Hawa of Fairfax County requested an absentee ballot to vote in this past November’s general election.
Hawa has a visual impairment and needed his jurisdiction to provide the ballot in a digital format so that it could be read and marked electronically using screen-reading software for the blind.
Since Hawa’s jurisdiction didn’t deliver an electronic ballot to him, he had to travel to his polling place during the pandemic to cast his private, independent vote, risking his health and safety in the process.
This situation has been all too common during the pandemic. A private, independent vote is a constitutional right. Many voters across the country risked their health and safety to exercise that right during the pandemic, in addition to voter suppression and the challenges faced by the Postal Service.
In Virginia, voters with print disabilities such as the blind and visually impaired community faced additional challenges reading and marking their ballot privately and independently.
With the absentee ballot taking the form of a sheet of paper that had to be read and filled out by hand, this excluded those with print disabilities from participation in the mail-in absentee ballot option.
The coronavirus pandemic made the need to be able to vote from home even more critical. Leaving the house to travel to a polling location made voting even more unsafe, especially for the blind and visually impaired.
The risks connected with traveling to and from the polling place, more difficulty observing social distancing protocols and a higher probability of touching potentially contaminated surfaces left them significantly more vulnerable to infection in order to make their voices heard.
Last year, a coalition of disability advocates took legal action to advocate for the Virginia Board of Elections to make their mail-in absentee voting program accessible to voters with print disabilities.
We requested that an electronic ballot be provided that could be read and marked with text-to-speech software used by the blind and visually impaired. We also requested that a tactile feature be provided to identify the return envelope, and that the voter’s municipality not reject the ballot if the voter failed to sign on the signature line of the return envelope.
The board of elections agreed to provide these accommodations in time for this past November’s general election. These provisions also will be in place for Tuesday’s primary elections.
Voters with a print disability who applied to vote absentee in the June primary election and who wish to use the electronic ballot-marking system should contact their local registrar to ensure that they will be sent the electronic ballot.
This year, the General Assembly amended the Code of Virginia to include the electronic ballot-marking provisions for voters with print disabilities as a permanent solution. The changes go into effect on July 1 of this year and will be in effect for every election going forward.
I and the other members of the coalition are extremely pleased by this outcome and applaud the state legislature, the board of elections and the attorney general for ensuring their absentee voting program will be accessible to Virginians with print disabilities, especially during such a critical time.
We are hopeful that all who wish to independently vote from the privacy and safety of their home can exercise this option and will do so. We will continue to assist in any way we can to inform, educate and advocate for full inclusion and access by people with disabilities.
By Annie Linskey, The Washington Post, June 3, 2021
President Biden’s White House basked in praise from allies in its early days when it pledged to look for ways to “speed up” the process of putting abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the front of the $20 bill, replacing President Andrew Jackson, who owned enslaved people and forcibly relocated Native Americans.
But four months after taking office, there is little evidence that the administration has taken any steps to accelerate the schedule set out years ago by a small agency within the Treasury Department.
Despite the growing national push to honor the contributions of women and people of color — and Biden’s personal promise to do so — Tubman is still not set to appear on the $20 by the end of Biden’s first term, or even a hypothetical second term. If the current timeline holds, it will have taken a full 16 years to realize the suggestion of a 9-year-old girl whose 2014 letter to then-President Barack Obama publicly launched the process.
That strikes some as an embarrassment.
“If we can put a helicopter on Mars, we ought to be able to design a $20 bill in less than 20 years,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said in an interview. “It’s all about commitment.”
The Tubman battle has become a case study in the difficulty of marshaling the bureaucratic machinery of government, according to activists who have been working for years to change America’s paper money to reflect what they say are its current values.
The delay is notable in part because Biden relied on a coalition of women and Black voters to win the White House and promised to mobilize every element of government to promote gender and racial equity. There has never been a Black person on U.S. currency, nor has there been a woman on a bill in the modern era, despite repeated attempts to diversify the currency.
Biden has made other efforts to update the nation’s imagery. He recently became the first president to visit Tulsa in commemoration of a race massacre there. He ordered that the Oval Office be cleared of a portrait of Jackson, who oversaw the Indian Removal Act that led to the “Trail of Tears.” President Donald Trump had installed the portrait of the seventh president, who is admired by some traditionalists for his populism and frontier image.
But removing the portrait has proven much easier than accelerating the actions of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, a unit of the Treasury Department, which critics say displays scant interest in transforming the currency.
“They’re really happy to kick this as far down the road as possible, maybe until cryptocurrency takes over,” said Barbara Ortiz Howard, founder of Women on 20s, an advocacy group. “They don’t want to make the change, which I think is the only explanation for all of this nonsense.”
Treasury officials say changing the portrait on the $20 is not as simple as it sounds, largely because of the need for sophisticated anti-counterfeiting features.
“We are committed to the goal of redesigning U.S. currency to better reflect the history and diversity of our country,” Len Olijar, director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, said in a statement. “But the security of our currency remains paramount.”
Tubman is a unique figure in American history, escaping from slavery to become a well-known “conductor” on the Underground Railroad who led enslaved people to freedom. She worked as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War and after the victory threw herself into helping formerly enslaved people.
The honor of appearing on a country’s currency is inherently limited to a small group of national heroes. It enshrines a person as emblematic of a country’s values not through a remote monument but as a familiar symbol used in daily activity.
The new ACB Media Alexa Skill has now launched. If you are having issues launching the new ACB Media skill on your Alexa device, please follow the steps listed below to correct the error.
To delete Alexa voice recordings automatically, set your account to automatically delete Alexa voice recordings. (This feature is disabled by default.) To do that:
- Open the Alexa app.
- Open More and select Settings.
- Select Alexa Privacy.
- Select Manage Your Alexa Data.
- Go to Automatically delete recordings, then select Off to enable the setting.
- Choose a time period to keep your voice recordings and then select Confirm.
When choosing “Don’t save recordings,” it may take up to 36 hours for our systems to apply this setting. Voice recordings older than the selected time period are deleted automatically. We suggest you do this only once for each Alexa device. It should not be required in the future for the ACB Media skill. Data associated with third-party services and devices that you may have linked to your home functions with your Alexa devices will not be deleted.
To activate the new ACB Media skill:
- Approach your Alexa device and issue this command: “Alexa, delete everything I’ve ever said on this device.” (Please note: This will need to be done on each Alexa device in your home.)
- Wait 30 seconds and then say: “Alexa, Open ACB Media.” The new ACB Media skill will launch.
Then ask for the name of the stream that you would like to hear. ACB Media stream designations are as follows:
- ACB Mainstream is now ACB 1
- ACB Mainstream 2 is now ACB 2
- ACB Treasure Trove is now ACB 3
- ACB Café is now ACB 4
- ACB Community is now ACB 5
- ACB Live Event is now ACB 6
- ACB Special Event is now ACB 7
- (new) ACB Convention is now ACB 8
- (new) ACB Convention is now ACB 9
- (new) ACB Convention Information is now ACB 10
Or you can visit the ACB Media Network Live stream web page at: https://www.acbmedia.org/home/streams/
For any additional questions, please contact [email protected].
Half of Most Popular Federal Websites Fail Accessibility Tests for Users with Disabilities, ITIF Finds
WASHINGTON, June 3, 2021 — Despite a legal requirement for federal agencies to follow modern standards of web accessibility for users with disabilities, 30 percent of the most popular federal websites fail to do so on their homepages, and nearly half (48 percent) failed a standard test on at least one of their three most popular pages, according to a new report released today by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the leading think tank for science and technology policy.
“Failing to make federal websites accessible for people with disabilities creates obstacles for millions of Americans, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has moved many government services online,” said Ashley Johnson, a policy analyst at ITIF and co-author of the report. “The law requires agencies to follow modern standards of web accessibility, but a substantial share of the most popular government sites fail to do so. Many also lack an easy-to-find way for users to report accessibility issues. For the more than 40 million Americans with disabilities, this creates great difficulty to access information and services, and to engage in civic activities.”
ITIF identified the 72 most popular federal websites, then tested them to assess their compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires agencies to follow modern web accessibility requirements.
Only four sites earned perfect scores in an evaluation rubric comprised of an automated test and qualitative assessments of the sites’ three most heavily trafficked pages: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, and the White House.
The lowest-ranking sites in ITIF’s tests were the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the United States Marine Corps, and the Energy Information Administration.
ITIF’s report notes that the U.S. Department of Justice submits biennial reports to the president and Congress evaluating agencies’ compliance with Section 508, but it has not made these reports available to the public since 2012. While the DOJ is not required to publicly release the reports, they contain useful information for policymakers and the General Services Administration (GSA) to ensure Americans with disabilities are able to effectively navigate federal websites.
To improve the accessibility of federal websites, ITIF offers several recommendations for the federal government:
- Create a federal website accessibility test lab.
- Launch a website accessibility “sprint” to fix known problems.
- Host a “hackathon” aimed at developing artificial intelligence (AI) solutions for web accessibility.
- Make reports on Section 508 compliance publicly available.
- Expand the Digital Analytics Program (DAP) to offer real-time accessibility testing.
“Web accessibility should be a top priority for the federal government,” said ITIF Vice President Daniel Castro, who co-authored the report. “Creating an accessible website requires taking into account the fact that not every user will be able to see or hear content, or use a keyboard or mouse to navigate. Web developers should adhere to accessible-design principles, such as using high-contrast colors, providing text alternatives to audio and visual content, avoiding the use of flashing animations that might cause seizures, and using labels for buttons so people using a screen reader can navigate the site. Following those design principles will not only help people with disabilities, but also ensure all users can navigate federal websites more easily.”
To read the full report, visit https://itif.org/publications/2021/06/01/improving-accessibility-federal-government-websites.