By the time you read this, ACB's national office will be in its new home. Shortly thereafter, many other people around the Washington, D.C. area will have new homes as well, including our nation's recently elected president, Barack Obama. Numerous Congressional seats and federal agency posts will be taken by new personnel as well. In short, there is the prospect of some fairly significant change afoot. What impact these personnel changes will have on public policy issues that are of importance to people who are blind, or who have other disabilities, remains to be seen as of this writing. But as we look ahead to our legislative and advocacy agenda for the coming year, I think we can make some predictions about what lies ahead.
First, it should be noted that the end of December 2008 marks the end of this Congress. Therefore, any legislation that this Congress leaves unfinished will effectively die when members of Congress leave town for the holidays. The Congress that begins its session in early January will be a brand-new one and will start with a clean legislative slate.
With this in mind, ACB has already begun talking with Congressional staffers about the re-introduction of legislation that is important to us. Don't be surprised, therefore, if you begin getting information about bills with very familiar titles, and language you recognize, but different bill numbers. Plans are already under way to see that the telecommunications reform bill that was put forward by the COAT coalition last year will be re-introduced early in the session. We are also anticipating prompt re-introduction of the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, which deals with the blind community's concerns about quiet cars. If funding for the nation's talking book program has not been resolved to our satisfaction by this Congress, this issue will definitely be a major focus of our legislative efforts as well.
Plenty of other issues are bound to resurface as well, as Congress takes up the reauthorization of major federal programs, such as funding for highway safety and public transportation, the Workforce Investment and Rehabilitation Acts, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Each of these legislative packages could present us with a myriad of issues with which to grapple.
And then there is the great unknown created by any transition from one executive team to another. At this point, we do not know who will be heading the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) or the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA). Rumors about candidates under consideration for these positions abound. Although it is too early to speculate about who will finally be selected to fill such posts, we can tell you that some of the people being considered are well- known to us because of their work on disability policy issues in other capacities. We have very positive relationships with some of them. Our history with others gives rise to some concern.
There is a growing school of thought among disability policy activists that programs or services that are aimed at meeting the needs of people who have a particular disability are both unnecessary and inherently wrong. Adherents to this view believe that disability programs and services provided by government agencies must be provided to people with any disability, and cannot target a particular disability group. Hence, programs such as the Randolph-Sheppard program, which was meant to give people who are blind opportunities to manage businesses, must be updated to allow participation by people with other disabilities. Separate agencies that provide vocational rehabilitation services for blind people only are suspect as well, because there is not enough evidence to substantiate the claims by the blind community that separate agencies meet the needs of clients with visual impairments more effectively than general rehabilitation agencies do.
If this view gains more of a foothold in the policy arena, it will erode many of the gains ACB has made over the years, and make the advancement of opportunities for blind people much more difficult to sustain in the future. Unfortunately, the tide of political opinion among many disability activists, as well as the need for government "belt tightening" being necessitated by our current economic problems, could help the proponents of this viewpoint.
Consequently, we will need to remain vigilant. It is vital that we stay in touch with policymakers, both at the state and federal levels, and support the existence of programs and services that benefit our community. Remember that both elected officials and those who are appointed to executive positions affect disability policy. Both need to hear from our community when they are considering taking actions that will impact the quality and availability of services for people who are blind and visually impaired.
Finally, don't forget that ACB has already provided a good opportunity for you to make such contacts with officials in Washington. Our 2009 legislative seminar is closer than you might think and it's certainly not too early to begin planning to attend. The dates are Feb. 22-24. This year's seminar will be held at the Holiday Inn National Airport in Arlington, Va. Registration information for the seminar will be available in January, but you can begin making travel plans now. We need to reach a number of new people this year, and to make a big impact on those who are not so new, so that they will understand the seriousness of our concerns and the fervency of our hopes for the future. I hope each and every one of you will join us in this effort. In the meantime, have a healthy and happy 2009!
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