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 Claire Stanley or Clark Rachfal.
The Washington Connection is updated any time we have new information to share with you. The following articles are available as of October 20, 2020. All 8 messages are new.
- New! Social Security Announces Cost of Living Adjustment for 2021
- New! Advocates Bring Lawsuit Against North Carolina State Board of Elections
- New! Massachusetts Accessible Voting Update
- New! Lawsuit Challenges Inaccessibility of New York State’s Emergency Mass Notification System on Behalf of Blind Individuals
- New! Accessibility Enhancements on the Horizon for HBO Max Customers Who Are Blind
- New! U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Subminimum Wages Report
- New! NCD Report on NCD, AbilityOne and Subminimum Wages
- New! AFB Announces Flatten Inaccessibility Report, Illustrating Impact of COVID-19 on Blind or Visually Impaired Adults
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On October 13, 2020, the Social Security Administration announced a 2021 cost of living adjustment (COLA). As a result, monthly Social Security benefits and supplemental security income payments for approximately 70 million Americans will increase by 1.3 percent starting in January of 2021.
The U.S. government determines when to increase federal benefit rates using the Department of Labor’s Consumer Price Index (CPI). The CPI increases when inflation increases leading to a higher cost of living. An increase in the COLA helps to offset the increase on the price of goods and services paid by the average American.
The SSA will send notices via mail in the month of December 2020 to notify those who receive applicable SSA payment. However, recipients can also go online to see the monetary increase they will be receiving beforehand. The information will be available starting in early December before the hard copy mail announcements go out. Recipients must simply visit their My Social Security account online to find such information.
On July 27, 2020, a group of blind and visually impaired advocates and organizations, included the North Carolina affiliate of ACB, brought a lawsuit against the North Carolina State Board of Elections. The suit focused on the inaccessible options for voting via absentee ballot in the presidential general election this coming November. The complaint brought by advocates emphasized that as a result of the coronavirus, the choice to vote via absentee ballot is even more important than ever before.
The advocates were successful in winning their case in the preliminary injunction phase of the lawsuit. The District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina ordered the State Board of Elections to make their absentee voting process accessible to voters with disabilities by the November election. The accessible voting system was expected to go live on October 19, 2024. If a North Carolina resident has already requested a ballot, they are still permitted to opt into the accessible online platform as long as they have not already voted.
The Board of Elections was found to be in violation of both Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The judge, in the preliminary injunction ruling, grants its blind and visually impaired state residents the ability to vote by an already existing electronic voting platform. Historically, this electronic platform has been used by military and overseas voters. The ACB affiliate was represented in the lawsuit by the North Carolina Protection & Advocacy Office: Disability Rights North Carolina, as well as Disability Rights Advocates.
On Tuesday, October 13, 2020, U.S. District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock issued a Judgment in Rivero, et al. v. Galvin, et al., a suit that the Disability Law Center filed on October 2nd on behalf of four individual plaintiffs, Boston Center for Independent Living (BCIL), and Bay State Council of the Blind (BSCB).
In the complaint, plaintiffs alleged that the existing Accessible Vote by Mail (AVBM) program that the Secretary of the Commonwealth put in place shortly before the primary – following DLC’s filing of an emergency petition in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court – failed to provide meaningful access to the voters with disabilities for whom it was created to accommodate in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Specifically, the AVBM program prevented voters who are blind or have low vision, mobility/dexterity disabilities, or other disabilities that make it difficult or impossible for them to effectively access standard printed text (“print disabilities”) from casting their AVBM electronic ballots without third party assistance.
Per the terms of the judgment issued on October 13, voters with print disabilities will now be able to cast their AVBM electronic ballots via email to the Secretary’s AVBM Coordinator, along with an accessible electronic affidavit that can be completed with a typewritten signature for voters whose disabilities prevent them from inserting a hand-drawn signature. Voters participating in the AVBM program may also still submit their electronic ballots by mail by printing and placing them in the envelopes provided by local election officials. This judgment constitutes a critical victory ensuring that Massachusetts voters with disabilities can exercise their right to vote privately and independently in the upcoming general election without risking exposure to COVID-19 at the polls.
Lawsuit Challenges Inaccessibility of New York State’s Emergency Mass Notification System on Behalf of Blind Individuals
White Plains, NY – On October 14th, Disability Rights Advocates filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of blind New Yorkers and the American Council of the Blind of New York, Inc. against New York state entities, challenging the inaccessibility of “NY-Alert,” a mass notification system intended to warn New Yorkers and visitors of emergencies and other critical information in a timely manner to help save lives. Blind individuals who use screen readers to access visual information cannot independently use the NY-Alert website to register for urgent alerts or to choose how they receive alerts. Instead, these individuals must secure the assistance of a third party and give up the independence enjoyed by others who use NY-Alert. Further, many blind individuals live alone and/or do not have the means to retain sighted assistance, and so must forgo using the NY-Alert website and forgo receiving its notifications altogether, at great risk to themselves. To read the complaint online, visit https://dralegal.org/case/chiappetta-vs-new-york-state-division-of-homeland-security-and-emergency-services/.
Hurricanes, floods, fires, winter storms, and nuclear disasters are a few of the many potential emergencies that New York residents and visitors face. Effective emergency preparedness and planning must include certain essential components, such as public notification and communication before and during emergencies. The failure to notify blind individuals about such emergencies via NY-Alert creates severe hardships for blind individuals and can be life-threatening to them during these emergencies. It is critical that blind individuals be warned of emergencies in advance and that they receive information on how and if they will be evacuated, where they will be sheltered, and how and if they will be transported to such shelter.
Blind individuals often walk and/or rely on public transportation to get around and thus face a distinct disadvantage when they encounter sudden route closures and other interruptions in transportation service that require them to deviate from the routes that they are familiar with navigating. Additionally, strong winds and other severe weather events can be extremely disruptive to blind individuals who use a cane to walk and to those who rely on their hearing for orientation. It is thus imperative that blind individuals receive weather and transportation warnings as early as possible, so that they can avoid dangerous or unfamiliar terrain.
Unfortunately, New York State has failed to make the NY-Alert website accessible, despite knowledge of the barriers faced by Plaintiffs and others who attempt to use the website, despite the clear guidance readily available on how to make websites accessible, and despite the urgency of such alerts, especially during the current pandemic.
Plaintiff Ann Chiappetta, who initially informed the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services about NY-Alert’s inaccessibility in July 2018, said, “Not being able to access the NY-Alert website and receive emergency notifications via my smart phone puts my health and safety at risk. I have a right to be notified just like my friends and neighbors who are not blind.”
Karen Blachowicz, president of American Council of the Blind of New York, Inc. said, “The NY-Alert system must be made accessible for blind and visually impaired people in order to avoid potentially dangerous situations. Alerts are in place to protect the general population and the blind or visually impaired population must have equal access.”
“Blind individuals are at great risk during disasters and face life-threatening consequences when governments fail to include them in communications about emergencies,” said Michelle Iorio, a staff attorney at Disability Rights Advocates. “New York cannot afford to wait for another disaster to strike before remedying the accessibility barriers on its mass notification system website that prevent blind individuals from receiving life-saving alerts.”
New York’s refusal to make the NY-Alert website accessible discriminates against blind individuals on the basis of disability under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This lawsuit seeks injunctive and declaratory relief to require the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services to make the website for NY-Alert accessible to individuals who use screen readers so that they can use the system equally, privately, and independently to register for critical alerts.
October 19, 2020 — In a landmark agreement, advocates for people who are blind have obtained WarnerMedia’s pledge to increase the accessibility of HBO Max — the much-anticipated online streaming platform that was launched earlier this year. Among other commitments, the agreement provides that WarnerMedia will provide audio description on at least 1,500 hours of new and existing programming on HBO Max by the end of March 2021, increasing to 3,000 hours by the end of March 2022, and doubling again to at least 6,000 hours in total by the end of March 2023.
The agreement was reached between WarnerMedia Direct, LLC on the one hand and the American Council of the Blind (ACB); the Massachusetts-based Bay State Council of the Blind (BSCB); Kim Charlson; and Brian Charlson on the other. These blind individuals and advocacy organizations were represented by Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), a national non-profit legal center, and Disability Law Center, the Protection & Advocacy agency for Massachusetts.
HBO Max is WarnerMedia’s direct-to-consumer offering, bringing together HBO, a robust slate of new original series, key third-party licensed programs and movies, and fan favorites from WarnerMedia’s rich library including Warner Bros., New Line, DC, CNN, TNT, TBS, truTV, Turner Classic Movies, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Crunchyroll, Rooster Teeth, Looney Tunes and more.
Under the agreement, WarnerMedia will ensure that audio description — a separate audio track that, when activated, provides a verbal description of visual elements on screen — is created on a going forward basis for all HBO original programming as well as all Max Originals that have entered post-production since the platform launched in May 2020. For more on audio description, visit ACB’s Audio Description Project.
In addition, over the next year, accessibility of the HBO Max website, mobile applications, and applications for Internet-connected TVs will be improved for individuals who are blind and use screen-reading software to navigate and interact with digital content. Screen-reading software enables blind individuals to access and interact with online services by rendering the text displayed visually on the screen as large print, synthetic speech, or onto a digital braille display. For screen magnification and screen-reading software to work, website and app developers must program for compatibility. HBO Max will release accessibility improvements incrementally as they are ready for distribution and, by the end of September 2021, the HBO Max website, mobile applications, and available internet-connected TV applications will substantially comply with standard international web accessibility guidelines.
Kim Charlson, Immediate Past President of the American Council of the Blind, commented, “This agreement opens doors for individuals who are blind or visually impaired to both enjoy what HBO Max provides in terms of entertainment and education, while also allowing blind and low vision people to share equally with family and friends in this truly universal pastime. By working together to bring thousands of additional hours of audio description content to HBO Max, along with the improved accessibility of the website, mobile apps, and smart TV interfaces, WarnerMedia and blind advocates are providing meaningful access to a significant aspect of our modern-day world.”
Staff Attorney Meredith Weaver of Disability Rights Advocates explains, “We are very pleased at the commitment HBO Max has made to ensure that customers who are blind or have low vision have access to its award-winning and expansive library.”
Tatum A. Pritchard of Disability Law Center, said, “With this year marking the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, this agreement with WarnerMedia signals welcome and notable progress towards greater accessibility for people who are blind or visually impaired to streaming content that serves as an important source of both entertainment and information for our society.”
On September 17, 2020, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released Subminimum Wages: Impacts on the Civil Rights of People with Disabilities. The report examines an exemption under the Fair Labor Standards Act — the section 14(c) waiver program — which permits employers to pay less than the minimum wage to individuals with disabilities, and the federal enforcement of the civil rights of individuals in the program. The Commission found persistent failures in regulation and oversight by the Department of Labor and Department of Justice of the 14(c) program that have allowed, and continue to allow, it to operate without satisfying its legislative goal to meet the needs of people with disabilities. The Commission further examined the program as a whole and determined it was inconsistent with the civil rights protections to which people with disabilities are entitled.
“The Commission today calls for the end of the Section 14(c) program, because it continues to limit people with disabilities from realizing their full potential,” Catherine E. Lhamon, Chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said. “In addition, the program suffers from wildly insufficient federal oversight and civil rights review, and apparently routine noncompliance, begging the question why we as a nation continue its operation.”
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is the only independent, bipartisan agency charged with advising the President and Congress on civil rights and reporting annually on federal civil rights enforcement. The USCCR’s 51 State Advisory Committees offer a broad perspective on civil rights concerns at state and local levels. The Commission, in its 7th decade, has a continuing legacy of influence in civil rights. For more information about the Commission, and this report, please visit www.usccr.gov.
On October 14, 2020, the National Council on Disability (NCD) issued a report, entitled “Policies from the Past in a Modern Era: The Unintended Consequences of the AbilityOne Program & Section 14(c).”
NCD conducted a comprehensive analysis of the AbilityOne Program to determine whether it promotes Congress’ goal of improving employment opportunities for people who are blind or have significant disabilities. Today, the program is made of a government-appointed Commission and staff, three central nonprofit agencies (CNAs) that facilitate the program, and over 500 participating nonprofit agencies that hire people who are blind or have significant disabilities to sell goods and services to federal agencies.
NCD’s report raises the following concerns about the AbilityOne Program:
- Despite increased program revenue earned through sales to the federal government, employment for people who are blind or have significant disabilities has steadily declined since 2011 – While overall program sales have increased, the number of employees and total direct labor hours from the employment of people who are blind or have significant disabilities have declined since FY 2011. The percentage of overall program revenue paying wages to people who are blind or have significant disabilities has also declined each year since FY 2011.
- The program undermines current national disability policy goals to create competitive integrated employment opportunities for people with disabilities – The program is a federally sanctioned segregated jobs system from 1938 that reinforces distinct employment paths for people who are blind or have significant disabilities that may result in subminimum wages. The program relies on an outdated societal landscape that existed prior to a public right to education and other core civil rights for people with disabilities. For this reason, only approximately four percent of employees hired under the program exit the program to enter competitive, integrated employment each year.
- Repeated concerns about transparency and conflicts of interest remain unaddressed and undermine confidence in the program – While the CNAs continue to seek opportunities to increase program revenue, past scrutiny and criticism from Congress, the Government Accountability Office, its own Inspector General, and the Advisory Committee on Increasing Competitive Integrated Employment for Individuals with Disabilities remain unresolved. The CNA program fee remains exempt from federal restrictions on its use allowing it to fund executive salaries and lobbying expenses. In addition, NPAs have the discretion to decide which employees have significant disabilities, however NCD’s interviews and site visits with NPAs raised concern that they lack the capacity, skill, and knowledge to objectively evaluate the skills of their workers with disabilities.
NCD concludes the report by advising Congress to transition the outdated AbilityOne Program into a new requirement under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act that will incentivize federal contractors to hire a percentage of people who are blind or have significant disabilities at competitive wages and provides recommendations to successfully transition the current 45,000 AbilityOne employees into competitive, integrated employment.
To learn more about NCD, or to review the full report, visit: www.ncd.gov.
AFB Announces Flatten Inaccessibility Report, Illustrating Impact of COVID-19 on Blind or Visually Impaired Adults
On September 30, 2020, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) announced the release of the Flatten Inaccessibility research report, the culmination of survey findings from 1,921 U.S. participants who are blind (65%) or have low vision (35%), including ACB members. The survey investigated the experiences of these participants during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to determine how they were affected in areas including access to transportation, healthcare, access to food and supplies, employment, education, and voting.
“People with disabilities have been uniquely impacted by COVID-19, and as far as we know, this is one of the few studies taking an in-depth look at the social, economic, and civic impact for those who are blind or have low vision,” said Dr. L. Penny Rosenblum, AFB Director of Research. “While other research projects examine the risk to people with disabilities of contracting COVID-19, AFB and the other organizations behind this study had concerns about the quality of life for those most affected by community and public policy responses, such as reduced public transportation options, the quick transition mandating employees work from home, and school closings.”
The report includes an in-depth examination of the survey findings for each category, as well as recommendations by the study’s authors to address the issues highlighted by survey participants. A brief sampling of findings includes:
- Transportation – 68% of participants had concerns about transportation, particularly related to safety, restricted access to transportation options (paratransit, public transit, taxis, rideshare), and fears they would not be able to get themselves or loved ones to COVID-19 test sites or healthcare providers if they were to get sick.
- Healthcare – 54% of participants had concerns about healthcare, and 59% felt their underlying health conditions made them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 complications.
- Employment – 47% of participants had concerns about employment, with 38% reporting accessibility problems with at least one of the technology tools needed to do their job from home, and 22% reporting they were unable to access technology at home that was essential for their job.
- Education – 47% of parents or caregivers had concerns about their child’s education, with 60% reporting the technology tools they needed to use were not accessible and 90% reporting they received no training in the new technology.
To learn more about AFB and to review the full report, visit www.afb.org.