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 May 7, 2019. Message 2 is new.
- ACB Supports the ABLE Age Adjustment Act of 2019
- New! ACB Recommends Expansion of Video Description, Creation of Centralized Guide to Described Programming
- White House Proposes Budget for 2020
- An Update on Airlines and New Service Animal Policies
- Updated! Section 503 Study
- New! Claire Stanley Receives Award for Work on Fair Housing
- ACB’s Legislative Priorities for 2019
- New! News from Amtrak’s Quarterly Meeting
Thank you for calling the Washington Connection.
The American Council of the Blind supports the reintroduction of the ABLE Age Adjustment Act in the 116th Congress.
The Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act allows certain individuals with disabilities the opportunity to save resources in a tax advantaged savings account (an ABLE account) which can cover disability-related expenses such as education, housing, transportation, employment support and other support expenses. An individual’s resources saved in an ABLE account are exempt from determining their eligibility for Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
As introduced in the 115th Congress, the ABLE Age Adjustment Act would:
- Increase the eligibility threshold for ABLE accounts for onset of disability from up to age 26 to up to age 46.
- Allow approximately 6 million more individuals to open ABLE accounts.
- Provide long-term stability and viability of the ABLE program.
To learn more about whether an ABLE account is right for you, go to www.irs.gov and search for “ABLE accounts.”
ACB Recommends Expansion of Video Description, Creation of Centralized Guide to Described Programming
On Wednesday, May 1, the American Council of the Blind and a number of ACB members submitted reply comments to the Federal Communications Commission in response to a public notice on recent developments in the video description marketplace.
Video description is audio-narrated descriptions of a television program’s key visual elements. These descriptions are inserted into natural pauses in the program’s dialogue. Video description makes television programming more accessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired.
ACB and our members used the reply comments to the FCC to support provisions included in the original ACB comments. Primarily, ACB and our members requested that the FCC’s report to inform Congress on the video description marketplace should:
- Recommend the expansion of video description to serve all Americans;
- Recommend expanding the required hours of described programming;
- Recommend that video-described programming be passed through to consumers, regardless of the means of video delivery; and,
- Recommend the creation of a centralized guide listing for all video-described programming.
The FCC will submit its report to Congress in September 2019. If any ACB members experience challenges with accessible TV service or video-described programming, please email ACB at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The White House released its budget proposal for fiscal year 2020. Many in the disability community expressed concerns regarding program eliminations and spending cuts. It is important to keep in mind that our government is a system of checks and balances. One check that Congress has over the whims of the executive is the power of the purse, as laid down in the U.S. Constitution. A president’s budget proposal is as much a political messaging document as a policy document. We anticipate the newly elected Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, where all funding bills must originate, to view many of the executive’s policy recommendations with a healthy dose of skepticism. Along with our allies in the cross-disability community, the ACB national office is monitoring the actions of the administration and Congress very closely, and we will alert our membership of any significant developments. That said, below is a list of the budget proposals with the potential to directly impact ACB members.
The White House budget proposal would reduce Medicare spending by $575 billion over the next ten years by reducing wasteful spending, provider payments, and lowering prescription drug prices.
The White House budget proposal would reduce Medicaid spending by $1.5 trillion over the next ten years, would implement work requirements, and create $1.2 trillion block grants for the states. The net reduction in value for Medicaid is projected to be $777 billion.
The White House budget plans to reduce Social Security Disability Insurance spending by $10 billion over the next ten years.
Department of Education
Programs authorized under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act are level funded.
Vocational Rehabilitation Programs
- Vocational Rehabilitation State Grants would receive $3.61 billion, a 2.5% increase from FY 2019.
- Supported Employment State Grants is zeroed out, a $22,548,000 decrease.
- Services for Older Blind Individuals would receive $33,317,000, level funded.
In addition, the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youth and Adults would receive $10.3 million, a 23.7% decrease in funding from FY 2019.
Under Special Institutions for Persons with Disabilities:
- American Printing House for the Blind would receive $25.4 million, a 16.53% decrease in funding from FY 2019.
- National Technical Institute for the Deaf would receive $70 million, a 9.68% decrease from FY 2019.
- Gallaudet University would receive $121.3 million, a 9.72% decrease from FY 2019.
The budget proposal also proposes to eliminate 29 programs for an annual savings of $6.7 billion. Those programs include:
- Special Olympics Education Programs, which were funded at $17.6 million.
- 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which were funded at $1.22 billion.
- Alaska Native Education, which was funded at $35 million.
- American History and Civics Education, which was funded at $4.8 million.
- Arts in Education, which was funded at $29 million.
- Comprehensive Centers, which were funded at $52 million.
- Comprehensive Literacy Development Grants, which were funded at $190 million.
- Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, which were funded at $840 million.
- Full-Service Community Schools, which were funded at $17.5 million.
- Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, which was funded at $5 million.
- Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, which were funded at $360 million.
- Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need, which was funded at $23 million.
- Impact Aid Payments for Federal Property, which were funded at $74.3 million.
- Innovative Approaches to Literacy, which were funded at $27 million.
- International Education and Foreign Language Studies Domestic Programs, which were funded at $65.1 million.
- International Education and Foreign Language Studies Overseas Programs, which were funded at $7.1 million.
- Javits Gifted and Talented Education, which was funded at $12 million.
- Native Hawaiian Education, which was funded at $36 million.
- Promise Neighborhoods, which were funded at $78.3 million.
- Ready to Learn Programming, which was funded at $27.7 million.
- Regional Educational Laboratories, which were funded at $55.4 million.
- Statewide Family Engagement Centers, which were funded at $10 million.
- Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems, which were funded at $32.3 million.
- Strengthening Institutions, which were funded at $99.9 million.
- Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, which were funded at $1.17 billion.
- Supported Employment State Grants, which were funded at $22.5 million.
- Supporting Effective Educator Development, which was funded at $75 million.
- Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants, which were funded at $2.055 billion.
- Teacher Quality Partnership, which was funded at $43.1 million.
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.
Section 503 Study: Invitation to Participate in Research on Employment Experiences of BVI Individuals
Are you legally blind and age 18 or older? Are you comfortable verbalizing your thoughts in English? Have you at some point in the last five years been employed? If your response is yes to all these questions, you can earn a $25 Visa gift card for participating in a research study.
A research team comprised of blind and sighted scholars at the Envision Research Institute is investigating the experiences of blind and visually impaired individuals at different stages of the employment cycle as these relate to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The goal is to understand hiring and retention policies that are effective for including blind and visually impaired people in the workforce.
Volunteers selected as study participants will be instructed to complete a questionnaire. The complete study might take about 45 minutes. A follow-up interview may be necessary to clarify some responses on the questionnaire. Upon completion of the study, the participant will receive a $25 gift card as a token of appreciation.
If you are interested in participating, or have a question about the study, contact Marco Tarantino via email, email@example.com, or by phone, (316) 440-1524. Be sure to reference project title: “Experiences of Blind and Low Vision Individuals at Different Stages of the Employment Cycle as These Relate to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 Regulations Implemented in 2014” (IRB#: 4424) in the subject line of the email.
On April 11, 2019, Claire Stanley, ACB’s Advocacy and Outreach Specialist, was awarded an advocate of the year award from the Equal Rights Center in Washington, D.C. The Equal Rights Center (ERC) is a civil rights organization that identifies and seeks to eliminate unlawful and unfair discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations in the greater Washington, D.C. area and nationwide.
Claire was selected for the award because of her participation in a research project to assess the access to apply for apartments in the D.C. area. Claire was surveying the accessibility of apartment complexes’ websites and applications’ accessibility.
The ERC first started assessing apartment buildings for physical accessibility. They wanted to find out if people with physical disabilities could physically access the rental offices to begin the process of applying for an apartment. But the ERC realized that much of applying for an apartment is now done online. With this in mind, the ERC wanted to know if websites where one can explore apartment layouts and apply for the apartment were accessible to blind people who use screen readers. Claire and another blind volunteer helped to survey numerous apartment complex websites throughout the greater Washington, D.C. area. The two testers looked at dozens of sites. The findings showed that a significant number of the apartments’ websites were inaccessible for screen-reader users. This research helps to demonstrate the lack of website accessibility that still exists. Specifically, this form of inaccessibility impacts blind residents’ ability to find a place to live.
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.
On Tuesday, April 23rd, Claire Stanley, ACB’s advocacy and outreach specialist, attended Amtrak’s quarterly meeting concerning accessibility for blind and visually impaired train passengers. Amtrak employees discussed several issues that impact the rides of passengers with disabilities.
One issue was the training of train conductors and other employees in policies and procedures concerning providing assistance to blind and visually impaired passengers. Train staff are trained both on frontline customer service, as well as compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. As an accommodation for blind and visually impaired passengers, train staff are supposed to thoroughly survey train stops to determine if any passengers need assistance boarding the train. However, in the hustle and bustle of train stations, blind and visually impaired passengers may still be missed. Claire explained this possibility to the Amtrak staff, and encouraged Amtrak to stress this issue in their staff training.
This issue is further impacted by the growing presence of unmanned train stations. Many train stations are now lacking any train employees. Passengers simply purchase a ticket from a kiosk and board the train. ACB has brought the concerns of blind passengers to Amtrak repeatedly and will continue to do so.
Have you run into a problem at an unmanned train station? Have you waited in vain for assistance and missed your train? ACB needs your stories of struggles at unmanned stations, boarding issues, ticket kiosk problems, etc., to report back to Amtrak. And if you have additional suggestions of what train staff should be trained on to provide appropriate and helpful customer service for blind passengers, please send them to Claire, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amtrak continues to work on the design of future trains. As these new designs are explored, ACB continues to advocate for the accessibility of trains for blind and visually impaired passengers, recommending such things as clearer audio announcements and large print digital signs.