Looking Back, Looking Ahead

by Eric Bridges

What a year we’ve had! The year 2017 brought many triumphs and challenges.
In January, ACB commended the U.S. Access Board for releasing revised guidelines encompassing Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The guidelines require the federal government to further assure electronic communications are accessible for both internal and external purposes for individuals with disabilities, and allow for government to lead by example toward breaking down electronic access barriers.
It’s been almost two decades since the Access Board refreshed its guidelines on electronic communications, and the need for further revisions has been years in the making. The role the Internet and mobile communications play in our lives today wasn’t even conceivable the last time we had a major refresh of the 508 regulations, and we’re glad that government will now be able to lead by example on making electronic communications accessible for all.
The Access Board also more clearly defined the scope of Section 508 regulations in light of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, covered under the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and created greater harmony with standards set by the European Commission and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
In late January 2017, the ACB board, staff and several state and affiliate leaders met in the Washington, D.C. area to develop a new plan for the organization. ACB’s new Strategic Action Plan will guide the organization in the future across five critical focus areas, including:
·      advocacy, policy, and legislation;
·      affiliates and membership;
·      convention and meetings;
·      development;
·      and marketing and communications.
The five focus areas were identified by the board of directors as having the highest potential impact for our organization moving forward. Each focus area has a set of goals, associated action steps, timeframes, and accountable leaders to help drive change and ensure completion of the objectives. The plan also identifies any resource requirements such as people needed to work on the task, funding to get the job done, or outside resources needed, measures of success, and an evaluation process for each goal to ensure that the organization is moving in the right direction to get the job of the ACB Strategic Action Plan completed.
In developing and executing the ACB Strategic Action Plan, we hope to achieve some ambitious goals. The top ten goals are:
   1.  Use our advocacy, policy, and legislative efforts to “actualize the backbone of our organization.”
   2.  Ensure our advocacy efforts are improving our ability to function in a society “where we all win in the future.”
   3.  Carve out key focus areas that will allow ACB “to find a prominent place in revolutionizing the way the world works.”
   4.  Support and strengthen affiliates and their membership through a variety of actions designed to increase affiliate health and effectiveness, and increase membership engagement.
   5.  Develop a stronger network and sense of community for ACB members through ACB conventions and meetings, including for those who attend virtually.
   6.  Use the ACB Convention to broaden membership and participation, especially among younger and more senior populations.
   7.  Utilize continuing education credits at the convention to benefit our members, attract high visibility guest speakers and increase ACB’s brand recognition.
   8.  Increase awareness of, and help shape attitudes towards major issues for blind individuals within the sighted community.
   9.  Reach out and engage the broader community of blind individuals who are not currently affiliated with ACB or a similar organization.
   10.  Standardize and professionalize ACB’s communication channels to ensure key messages reach their intended audiences in the most effective way possible.
A few weeks later, ACB members and staff attended a reception at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in celebration of a new audio-described tour of two key museum areas, the Hall of Witness and the Hall of Remembrance. Thanks to ongoing generous support from the Aid Association for the Blind of the District of Columbia, ACB’s Audio Description Project received full funding for the development of this tour. Following the reception and a short presentation on the new audio guide by museum staff, visitors launched the new tour.
In April, Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), and Steve Cohen (D-TN) reintroduced the Medicare Demonstration of Coverage of Low-Vision Devices Act of 2017 (H.R. 2050). This legislation would establish a national demonstration/research project tasked with identifying the impact to Medicare and Medicare recipients who are prescribed low-vision devices over a certain threshold cost. Through this demonstration, eligible participants could be prescribed assistive low-vision devices through a licensed eyecare physician. These are the types of devices that might be too costly for someone on Social Security, but the kind of things that could have dramatic improvements in their daily life, like being able to read their mail, keep track of their medications, or fill out important forms with personal information.
More good news! In July, the Federal Communications Commission adopted new rules increasing the number of hours of audio-described programming available on top-rated broadcast and cable networks. ACB played an active role in the passage of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA), which paved the way for video-described programming.
The new FCC rules, effective July 1, 2018, require audio-described programming be available from 6 a.m. to midnight, maintaining the 50 hours of prime time and children’s programing and adding 37.5 hours of additional audio-described content. The networks that must currently comply with this rule are ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, Disney Channel, History, TBS, TNT, and USA. ACB sees this as a step forward for equal access. We’ll continue to seek out new pathways forward for further expansion of audio description wherever possible.
In August, Reps. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA) introduced H.R. 3457, which calls for the Controller General of the United States to investigate the government’s systemic failure to provide materials in accessible formats for recipients of Medicare and Medicaid. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is required under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to provide materials in an accessible format for recipients who are blind and visually impaired. According to the National Institutes of Health, roughly 24 million Americans experience some significant degree of vision loss even after the use of corrective lenses like glasses or contacts. However, it has been difficult to track the number of blind and visually impaired individuals covered under CMS programs, making it difficult to track CMS’ effectiveness in meeting the requirements of Section 504.
A few weeks later, researchers at the University of Hawai’i worked with Google, ACB, and the National Park Service to audio describe print brochures at 15 park sites throughout the state of California. This phase of the UniDescription project focused on description of the brochures available in California’s national parks, including Yosemite. The funding was shared between UH and ACB, with the National Park Service adding significant in-kind support at each of the involved sites.
Shortly after that, ACB’s Audio Description Project, along with the Mid-Tennessee Council of the Blind, the Tennessee School for the Blind and the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, offered a rare opportunity for blind people worldwide to experience the total eclipse of the sun. How? Through the use of audio description.
Prior to the eclipse, Dr. Joel Snyder hosted “A Total Eclipse — Audio Described!” on ACB Radio. Snyder, the director of ACB’s Audio Description Project, presented an hour of songs, interviews and special guests — with the main event described live from the Tennessee School for the Blind between 1:15 and 1:45 p.m. Nashville-based audio describer Julia Cawthon described the eclipse as it happened and provided a vivid “translation” of the visual event into words.
This summer saw many natural disasters: hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, and the wildfires out west. Many people in the ACB family emailed and called our offices, asking what they could do to help. So ACB developed a relief fund to assist members in the affected areas. Financial contributions to the ACB Disaster Relief Fund may be made at http://donate.acb.org/relief. If you prefer to pay by check, send to: American Council of the Blind, 6300 Shingle Creek Parkway, Suite 195, Brooklyn Center, MN 55430. Be sure to write in the memo field on your check that your gift is for disaster relief. Gift cards can also be sent to the above address. If you would prefer to donate via phone, call 1-800-866-3242.
In October, the national office staff and a number of ACB members in the D.C. area heard oral arguments at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in American Council of the Blind v. Mnuchin, also known as the currency case. In 2016, the government moved back the target date for the next currency redesign involving the $10 note from 2020 to 2026. ACB then sought an order from the district court requiring that the $10 bill be made accessible by 2020, and all the remaining denominations be made accessible by 2026. While this order was under consideration, the Treasury secretary advised the court that he has already complied with his legal obligation to make currency accessible by furnishing external currency readers to people with visual impairments. While the secretary indicated that he still intended to proceed with adding a tactile feature in the next major redesign, he was doing so as a matter of policy, as opposed to fulfilling a legal requirement.
The district court denied ACB’s motion in January 2017, and ACB appealed. We asked the appeals court to do two things: 1) to order that the $10 bill be made accessible by 2020 and all the remaining denominations be made accessible by 2026, and 2) we are asking that the court issue a ruling that external currency readers do not provide meaningful access to currency. We expect a ruling shortly. To hear ACB’s arguments, visit http://acb.org/currency-case-audio.
More recently, a coalition of blind and visually impaired individuals and advocacy groups has filed a nationwide class action against Hulu to end the video streaming company’s ongoing exclusion of blind and visually impaired Americans. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, challenges Hulu’s violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The company fails to provide audio description for any streaming videos. In addition, Hulu’s website and applications are not accessible to blind and visually impaired individuals who use screen readers to navigate the Internet.
Over the course of the past year, ACB has also been engaged with key partners and stakeholders in the airline and automotive industries. ACB participated in a working group to develop accessible in-flight entertainment and communication systems for commercial aircraft, presenting consensus guidelines to the Department of Transportation in November. ACB has also worked closely with auto manufacturers, tech companies, and disability advocates toward the implementation of autonomous vehicles, assuring that Americans who are blind will have access to such vehicles, and that safety on our streets for pedestrians remains a top priority.
While great progress has been made on many of these issues, they are not fully resolved. We may need your assistance and advocacy on some of these issues. Stay tuned to the Washington Connection and future issues of the Forum for further information!