The Washington Connection 8-9-19

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 August 9, 2019. Message 3 is new.

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Maloney and Bilirakis Introduce Bill to Help Visually Impaired Americans

 

WASHINGTON, July 30, 2019 – Today, Reps.  Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY) and Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) reintroduced the Medicare Demonstration of Coverage for Low Vision Devices Act. This legislation would help Medicare beneficiaries live safe and independent lives by creating a five-year national demonstration project administered by the Department of Health and Human Services to evaluate the economic impact of allowing reimbursement for low vision devices under the Social Security Act, which are currently excluded from Medicare coverage. 

“Medicare coverage of low vision devices would be life-changing for seniors with vision impairments. It would give them the ability to partake in everyday activities, whether it be reading a book, watching television or safely crossing the street,” said Rep. Maloney. “With the rising costs of healthcare, we must ensure that Medicare beneficiaries have proper access to any and all necessary medical devices that are currently not covered by Medicare.” 

“As a visually impaired American, I have first-hand knowledge of the difficulties that accompany this condition. Simple tasks can be a significant challenge, and low-vision assistive devices are often required for essential life function. Sadly, many of these products are out of reach for seniors who live on a fixed income, and the devices’ exclusion from Medicare necessitates a difficult choice between extreme financial hardship or disengagement from these vital activities. I view this legislation as a preventative measure that will help seniors stay healthy, active, and self-sufficient for a longer period of time. This is not only better in terms of quality of life for our seniors, but also will result in reduced overall financial cost to the Medicare system. I am hopeful that the demonstration project authorized by this good, bipartisan legislation will help validate this approach,” said Rep. Bilirakis.  

“The American Council of the Blind commends Representatives Maloney and Bilirakis for introducing this legislation that will improve access to low-vision devices for all Americans living with vision loss. Making low-vision devices more affordable is imperative to increasing the independence and quality of life for people who are blind and visually impaired, and ACB and our members urge Congress to support this legislation,” said ACB Executive Director Eric Bridges.  

Original co-sponsors of the bill are Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), and Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO).
 

Exercise & Fitness for All Act

 

On April 30, 2019, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) presented S. 1244, the Exercise and Fitness for All Act, to the Senate. The bill calls for both the creation of accessibility standards for exercise equipment as well as the development of tax credits for small businesses that procure accessible exercise equipment.

Statistics show that people with disabilities are more likely to struggle with obesity. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act does cover entities such as commercial gyms, accessibility is significantly lacking. Blind and visually impaired Americans simply do not have equal access to exercise equipment for their workouts. This new bill calls for greater inclusion in physical fitness.

With the passage of such a bill, the U.S. Access Board would be charged with developing guidelines to set standards to accessible fitness equipment. For instance, settings such as audible announcements and large-print screens would be required. Furthermore, groups promoting the bill have indicated that international standards have already been established. Thus, guidelines to base standards on already exist.

ACB encourages you to contact your senators to promote the bill. Work on a similar bill in the House of Representatives is ongoing.

 

Final Statement of Enforcement Priorities Regarding Service Animals by the Federal Aviation Administration 

 

On Thursday, August 8, 2019, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) put out a final statement of Enforcement Priorities Regarding Service Animals. The statement responded to comments provided by a myriad of advocacy groups after an interim statement was issued in May of 2019. This final statement supersedes previous statements.

The new statement provides several provisions that positively impact the travel of guide dog users. First, service animal users are not required to provide advance notice to airlines before they travel with their service animals. Airlines previously proposed new policies that would require up to 48 hours of notice before a passenger flew with a service animal. However, the final statement prevents airlines from doing so for people flying with service animals. Airlines can only request such notice if the flight will exceed eight hours in length. This guideline allows for service animals to fly more easily, without having to pre-plan before trips. In the instance where the flight will exceed eight hours, an airline can then ask for documentation that the dog will not have to relieve on the plane. Also, the airline can request early check-in for such situations.

Next, if a situation presents itself where an airline employee questions the legitimacy of a service animal, the airline employee is allowed to ask limited questions concerning proof that the dog is a service animal. This limited questioning is comparable to the three questions business owners are permitted to ask patrons under the Americans with Disabilities Act when the legitimacy of a service animal arises.

Finally, a request for documentation is only permitted when determining whether a dog poses a direct threat to other travelers or airline employees. If an employee believes a service dog poses such a threat, the airline is allowed to ask for documentation to demonstrate factors such as the existence of vaccinations, the behavior of the dog, or the history of the dog’s training. The test used to determine what documentation is permissible is that the documentation must be reasonable to believe that it would assist in determining if the dog poses a direct threat.

The final statement also stressed that breed and age restrictions for dogs are impermissible.
The FAA stated that a notice of proposed rule-making should be issued in the fall of 2019. ACB encourages you to submit comments at that time. For more information, or to read the statement in its entirety, visit https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/latest-news.

 

An Update on Airlines and New Service Animal Policies

 

The ACB national office has received calls regarding concerns over some airlines’ new service animal policies. Such policies require travelers to perform certain tasks, such as providing a signed letter by a physician before they can board a plane. These requirements are inconsistent with the Air Carrier Access Act. In response to such policies, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently drafting an interim policy statement that will come out this spring clarifying the department’s stance on these issues. This statement will help travelers better understand current policies and what is required of them.

Then, this fall, the FAA will issue a notice of proposed rule making (NPRM) where all Americans can provide comments to the FAA. ACB will post the notice on its listservs, on the website, on social media, and in the Washington Connection. When the time comes, and the NPRM is made available, ACB encourages all members to submit comments to stress the concern of all guide dog users. ACB staff members will be available to assist members in submitting their comments.

If you do experience a situation where you are denied access because of your dog, asked to provide paperwork, etc., the FAA asks that you file a complaint immediately. You have 60 days from the event to do so. To file the complaint online, go to https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/file-consumer-complaint. Or you may file a complaint by phone at (202) 366-2220.
 
To file a complaint by mail, please send your correspondence to: Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75, U.S. Department of Transportation, 1200 New Jersey Ave. SE, Washington, DC 20590.

In the meantime, ACB encourages all air travelers to be vigilant when flying, and to advocate for themselves in light of such policies.

 

Development and Implementation of Autonomous Vehicles

 

The American Council of the Blind has been involved in a three-part discussion series on the development and implementation of autonomous vehicles (AV) put on by the Auto Alliance of Manufacturers. The first session of the discussion took place on May 3, 2019. The day-long conference brought together disability advocates of all backgrounds and disabilities, and numerous major auto manufacturers. The event included breakout sessions where advocates could explain to manufacturers necessary guidelines to the design to AVs to make them accessible for blind and visually impaired users. For instance, issues such as accessible human-machine interface was discussed in length. In addition, the Transportation Task Force from the Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) presented a list of principles it has developed for manufacturers to take into account when designing AVs. These principles are being presented to legislative members as well. Also, the day-long conversation included discussions that emphasized the benefits the use of AVs will have on the procurement and sustainment of employment of people with disabilities.

The second session took place on July 19, 2019. It included a discussion of universal design principles when developing AVs. Uber also presented on the development and utilization of AVs for rideshare companies like Uber. The day, once again, included a time for the conference to break up into smaller groups to discuss disability-specific needs for the software and hardware of the new vehicles. Disability-specific concerns were discussed in such break-out sessions.

The third and last day of the program will take place on Sept. 10, 2019. This session will focus primarily on the development of policy surrounding such vehicles. ACB staff will once again attend to stress the needs of blind and visually impaired AV users.

 

Website Accessibility: Domino’s v. Robles

 

Since 2016, ACB member Guillermo Robles has been in a court challenge with Domino’s Pizza to make their website and smartphone application accessible for blind and visually impaired customers. Earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in California handed down a unanimous decision that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires companies to effectively communicate and provide equal enjoyment through their online offerings to customers with disabilities. Domino’s has appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in doing so, has asked the Supreme Court to rule once and for all whether Internet-based commerce, like websites and smartphone applications, are considered places of public accommodation, and are therefore covered by Title III of the ADA. ACB strongly believes that the ADA requires places of public accommodation, whether physical or virtual, to be made accessible to all consumers, and we will continue to follow this court challenge and work on the broader issue of website accessibility for all people who are blind and visually impaired.

 

ACB’s Legislative Priorities for 2019

 

At the legislative seminar on February 25, 2019, ACB rolled out its three imperatives the national office will focus on over the next year. The three imperatives are briefly described here.

First, for a decade now, Medicare has refused to cover the cost of low-vision aids, due to an eyeglasses exclusion that prohibits the purchase of any durable medical good with a lens. While the regulatory exclusion was seen as cost saving by not covering eyeglasses, it has had negative impact on those who, through the use of special low-vision aids, could significantly increase their independence in the home. ACB believes that simple adaptive low-vision aids can have a significant impact on an individual’s ability to remain in their own home longer, rather than needing to pursue costlier institutional or assisted living. Therefore, ACB calls on Congress to re-introduce the Medicare Demonstration of Coverage of Low Vision Devices Act, which would measure the various costs and benefits of removing the Medicare eyeglass exclusion. 

Next, we are now at an exciting technological place when it comes to transportation. The potential for the use of autonomous vehicles for people who are blind is closer than ever. Such vehicles are already being tested in multiple cities. However, it is critical that these cars remain fully accessible, and that individuals who have the most to gain through such technology are not forgotten. In the 116th Congress, blindness organizations and the auto industry supported legislation that would establish working groups to focus on accessibility and prevent discrimination in operating such vehicles based on disability. ACB is calling on Congress to move forward with similar legislation that will continue to drive this technology forward.

Finally, advancements in health technology have resulted in a watershed of durable medical equipment (DME) that monitors vital health activity and conditions such as diabetes, which is one of the leading causes of blindness in the United States. However, a failure by the DME industry to make devices accessible has raised serious health concerns by those living with such conditions who are blind and visually impaired. For instance, DME such as glucometers have notoriously been a challenge for diabetics who are blind. This can all change through the development of accessible DME interfaces like smartphone apps and other devices capable of using nanotechnology that can incorporate simple accessibility solutions. Congress can play a role in assuring that such DME technology adheres to the latest software technology standards such as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation, Act and that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services provide assurances that accessible DME devices make their way into the hands of individuals who are blind and visually impaired.

ACB has begun to write draft language for legislation to ensure that all DME is made accessible for people who are blind or visually impaired. The law would push manufacturers to make the devices accessible at the time of purchase, instead of users having to find ways to make them usable. ACB urges the 116th Congress to explore new law to make DME accessible for all Americans.

 

News from Amtrak’s Quarterly Meeting

 

The American Council of the Blind continues to engage in conversations with Amtrak. Claire Stanley, along with several other disability advocacy organizations, meets with Amtrak every quarter to discuss what Amtrak is working on that impacts passengers with disabilities. The working group also acts as a platform for disability advocacy groups to bring up issues facing passengers with disabilities. At the last quarterly meeting, ACB brought to Amtrak’s attention the fact that the website and mobile app did not allow blind individuals using screen readers to purchase tickets independently. Nor would the site allow blind users to scroll through the list of train arrivals and departures. Since that meeting, the problem has been corrected; ACB was able to directly connect people experiencing the accessibility issues with the programmers who had the ability to remedy the problem. A significant result of these meetings is that the designers, engineers, and computer scientists are right there in the room screening questions and concerns. 

The working group also includes designers and engineers who are developing new train models that will be produced and placed on the tracks in several years. It is an exciting time; Amtrak is creating all new designs of future train cars. As the new models are discussed, the disability advocacy groups are able to talk about accessibility design issues that will either benefit or hinder disabled passengers. ACB has been able to talk about design details that will benefit the blind and visually impaired community, such as the presence of audible announcements, as well as large print and braille signage. Please let ACB know of any accessibility functions you believe would be beneficial or necessary in future train models.

One ongoing concern is the inability to purchase a discounted disability ticket from the website. In order to receive a ticket with that discount, passengers have to call in to the operated phone line. The phone line experiences heavy traffic, and passengers can be placed on hold for extended periods of time. ACB has brought this concern to Amtrak management’s attention multiple times. Amtrak is aware of this concern; it will be fixed sometime this year. They explained that website changes are rolled out over time, and this change is in queue to be rolled out.

We are also in the process of scheduling a meeting with Amtrak to discuss emergency response procedures for disabled passengers. Amtrak has a series of practices and procedures when evacuating a train during an emergency. However, these procedures may need to be modified for people with disabilities. We will discuss these concerns at our meeting.

In addition to the quarterly meetings, ACB has direct access to Amtrak’s ADA coordinator. If ACB members experience accessibility problems while at stations or on trains, please let Claire Stanley and/or Clark Rachfal know by emailing them at advocacy@acb.org.