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 Swatha Nandhakumar.
The Washington Connection is updated any time we have new information to share with you. The following articles are available as of December 2, 2022. Messages 1, 3, 4, 7 and 8 are new.
- New! Markey and Eshoo Introduce Bill to Improve Access to Accessible Media and Video Communications Technologies for Individuals with Disabilities
- ACB Scholarship Application Now Live!
- New! Justice Department Secures Agreement with University of California, Berkeley to Make Online Content Accessible to People with Disabilities
- New! ACB Salutes Audio Description Award Winners
- Rideshare Guide Dog Denials: Track Your Denials
- For Social Security Announces 8.7 Percent Benefit Increase for 2023
- New! Justice Department Launches New ADA Website
- New! Medical Bills Remain Inaccessible for Many Visually Impaired Americans
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Senator Markey and Representative Eshoo Introduce Bill to Improve Access to Accessible Media and Video Communications Technologies for Individuals with Disabilities
WASHINGTON, Nov. 17, 2022 — Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Representative Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.) introduced the Communications, Video, and Technology Accessibility Act in both the United States Senate and the House of Representatives.
The American Council of the Blind commends Sen. Markey and Rep. Eshoo for their leadership and for introducing this legislation with the full support and collaboration of the disability community. Once passed, this legislation would update existing regulations to ensure people who are blind, low vision, and DeafBlind may access the accessible video content of their choosing, from the video service provider of their choosing, and use the video conferencing service of their choosing.
“Since I authored the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, technologies have changed. What hasn’t changed is our obligation to make sure that everyone — including people who are deaf, blind, or DeafBlind — has equal access to the services and technologies they need to thrive,” said Senator Markey. “That is why I am introducing the Communications, Video, and Accessibility Technology Act, to update current laws on the books so that we can meet the technological moment and ensure opportunity, independence, and equal access for all.”
“As technology has rapidly evolved over the last two decades, much of our economy and day-to-day lives have moved online. Unfortunately, accessibility standards have stayed largely the same, leaving people with disabilities behind. In 2020, 38% of people who were blind or had low vision reported issues with at least one of the technologies needed to do their jobs, and in 2021 as many as 70% of students who are deaf or hard of hearing reported technology challenges in the educational environment,” said Eshoo. “I’m proud to introduce legislation with Senator Markey to update current laws so people with disabilities have full access to modern technology that is necessary to participate equally in the 21st century.”
“The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 laid the foundation for accessible technology and inclusive media for people who are blind, low vision, and DeafBlind,” said Eric Bridges, ACB’s Executive Director. “Thanks to the CVAA, people who are blind, low vision, and DeafBlind have access to accessible telecommunications technology, mobile web browsers, and accessible video content. Since the CVAA was signed into law, we have witnessed unparalleled technological innovation and widespread adoption of new communications and video distribution models, by content creators and consumers alike. For these reasons, it is necessary for Congress to reaffirm our nation’s commitment to accessible communications and video technologies. The American Council of the Blind commends Sen. Markey and Rep. Eshoo for introducing the Communications, Video and Technology Accessibility Act. Once passed, the CVTA will ensure that critical communications technologies are accessible to people who are blind, low vision, and DeafBlind and reiterate our nation’s commitment to accessible media and video content, regardless of how or where it is viewed by consumers.”
This legislation is supported by the following disability and civil rights organizations: Access Living, Access Ready, American Council of the Blind, American Foundation for the Blind, Association of Assistive Technology Act Programs, Blinded Veterans Association, CommunicationsFIRST, Carroll Center for the Blind, Communication Service for the Deaf, Hearing Loss Association of America, National Association of the Deaf, National Federation of the Blind, Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Inc., Perkins School for the Blind, and United Spinal Association.
The American Council of the Blind offers educational scholarships ranging from $2,000 to $7,500 for entering freshmen, undergraduate and graduate students, and students attending technical college. This program awards students with scholarships to help with educational financial needs such as tuition, fees, room and board, and assistive technology.
To be eligible for a scholarship, applicants need to be legally blind, maintain a 3.0 GPA to be eligible for most scholarships, be a full-time student or a part-time student who works at least 32 hours per week, and be involved in their school and local community. Students must submit their application by February 14th, 2023.
For more information about ACB’s scholarship program, visit https://acb.org/scholarships. Learn more about ACB’s 2022 scholarship recipients through a series of videos on our YouTube Page, https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL8lZLvTN7ZUhNcgoumRO4An9hn6tZIWCw.
Justice Department Secures Agreement with University of California, Berkeley to Make Online Content Accessible to People with Disabilities
The Justice Department announced today that it has filed a proposed consent decree in federal court to resolve allegations that the Regents of the University of California on behalf of the University of California, Berkeley (collectively, UC Berkeley) violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because much of UC Berkeley’s free online content is inaccessible to individuals with hearing, vision, and manual disabilities. The proposed consent decree was filed together with a complaint setting forth the allegations of discrimination.
“By entering into this consent decree, UC Berkeley will make its content accessible to the many people with disabilities who want to participate in and access the same online educational opportunities provided to people without disabilities,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “This decree will provide people with disabilities access to the numerous free online courses, conferences, lectures, performances and other programming offered by UC Berkeley and its faculty, providing lifelong learning opportunities to millions of people.”
UC Berkeley makes conferences, lectures, sporting events, graduation ceremonies and other university events available to the public on its websites and on other online platforms, including its YouTube and Apple Podcasts channels. It also makes courses available on its UC BerkeleyX platform. Much of this online content is not accessible to people with disabilities because it lacks captions and transcripts for individuals who are deaf and alternative text describing visual images for individuals who are blind. It is also formatted in a way that does not allow individuals with disabilities to access the content using screen readers or other assistive technology.
Under the three-and-a-half-year long consent decree, which requires court approval, UC Berkeley will make all future and the vast majority of its existing online content accessible to people with disabilities. This includes BerkeleyX courses, university websites and video and podcast content on its YouTube, Apple Podcasts and other third-party platforms. UC Berkeley will also revise its policies, train relevant personnel, designate a web accessibility coordinator, conduct accessibility testing of its online content and hire an independent auditor to evaluate the accessibility of its content.
“Through this consent decree, the Department of Justice demonstrates its commitment to ensuring compliance with the ADA by providing individuals with disabilities a full and equal opportunity to participate in and enjoy the benefits of UC Berkeley’s services, programs and activities in equal measure with people without disabilities,” said U.S. Attorney Stephanie M. Hinds for the Northern District of California.
For more information on the ADA, please call the Department’s toll-free ADA Information Line at 1-800-514-0301 (TDD 800-514-0383) or visit www.ada.gov. For more information on the Civil Rights Division, please visit www.justice.gov/crt.
Nov. 30, 2022 — The American Council of the Blind would like to thank all those who participated in the 2022 Audio Description Awards Gala that premiered on November 29th on www.AdAwardsGala.org and Pluto TV.
“We are proud to host the second annual Audio Description Awards Gala to recognize excellence in audio-described content and celebrate the growing commitment to accessible media for people who are blind and low vision,” said ACB’s Executive Director, Eric Bridges.
ACB thanks host Thomas Reid and Audio Description Voice Talent Nefertiti Matos Olivares as well as our special guests who lent their talent to the event and support for accessible media for all, including Stevie Wonder, Ewan McGregor, Nesta Cooper, Camryn Manheim, Shayla Brown, and the cast of iCarly!
This year’s honorees have been carefully selected by a diverse group of leaders from ACB’s Audio Description Awards Committee, who have identified recipients as both audio description content leaders and media industry game changers.
- Outstanding Audio Description Visionary: Larry Goldberg
- Audio Description Game Changer – Innovation: Microsoft
- Audio Description Game Changer – Inclusion: Academy of Television Arts and Sciences
- Audio Description Game Changer – Education: Described and Captioned Media Program
- Outstanding Achievement – Live Events: Paramount Global
- Outstanding Achievement – Spanish Media (USA): Telemundo/Hearst
- Outstanding Achievement – International Media: AMI
- Audio Description People’s Choice Award: Obi-Wan Kenobi (Disney+/Lucasfilm/Audio Description by Deluxe)
ACB President Dan Spoone added, “And finally, thank you to our sponsors: Silver Star Sponsors — Amazon, Disney, Microsoft, Paramount Global, Warner Bros., Discovery — and our Bronze Star Sponsors — Charter Spectrum, Keyword Studios, Fox, as well as the National Association of Broadcasters.”
The Audio Description Awards Gala celebrated the inclusivity and accessibility of media by recognizing those in television, streaming, and the film industry’s achievements in audio description for accessible media for blind and low vision audiences. For more details, visit www.AdAwardsGala.org.
The American Council of the Blind, and its affiliate, Guide Dog Users, Inc., are conducting a survey to collect information from guide dog users who’ve been denied rides by rideshare drivers due to the presence of their guide dog. Please submit this form each time you have been denied a ride by a driver from the date of the survey launch on November 2nd until the survey closes on December 31st at 11:59 p.m. Eastern.
We will send the survey data to the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), per their recommendation, to draw attention to this frustrating civil rights violation and highlight the severity of this ongoing problem. The collected information may also be used for legal advocacy and be sent to outside counsel. By submitting your information, you consent to having your submission sent to the U.S. DOJ and, if necessary, to attorneys or other counsel.
If you have questions about this survey, or want to submit your responses via email or phone, you may contact ACB’s Advocacy team at [email protected] or (202) 467-5081. If leaving a phone message, please make sure to include your telephone number with area code so we may call you back. Please only fill out this survey if your ride occurred between November 2, 2022 and December 31, 2022. We are not accepting information from prior to the survey’s launch at this time.
To take the survey online, go to https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/Rideshare-Denial.
1. What is your name? (first and last please)
2. What is your email address?
3. What is your zip code or the zip code where you were denied a ride?
4. When was your ride? (month/day/year)
5. Which rideshare company did you use?
6. Please briefly describe the incident. (e.g., Did the driver pull away upon seeing you? Was the driver argumentative?)
7. What was the make and model of the car if you were able to catch that information?
8. Did you report the incident to the company? If so, what, if anything, happened?
9. Did you report the incident to the Department of Justice?
10. Is there anything else you would like to share?
Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for approximately 70 million Americans will increase 8.7 percent in 2023, the Social Security Administration announced today. On average, Social Security benefits will increase by more than $140 per month starting in January.
The 8.7 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) will begin with benefits payable to more than 65 million Social Security beneficiaries in January 2023. Increased payments to more than 7 million SSI beneficiaries will begin on December 30, 2022. (Note: some people receive both Social Security and SSI benefits). The Social Security Act ties the annual COLA to the increase in the Consumer Price Index as determined by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Medicare premiums are going down and Social Security benefits are going up in 2023, which will give seniors more peace of mind and breathing room. This year’s substantial Social Security cost-of-living adjustment is the first time in over a decade that Medicare premiums are not rising and shows that we can provide more support to older Americans who count on the benefits they have earned,” Acting Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi said.
To view a COLA message from Acting Commissioner Kijakazi, please visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vgm5q4YT1AM.
Some other adjustments that take effect in January of each year are based on the increase in average wages. Based on that increase, the maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax (taxable maximum) will increase to $160,200 from $147,000.
Social Security and SSI beneficiaries are normally notified by mail starting in early December about their new benefit amount. The fastest way to find out their new benefit amount is to access their personal my Social Security account to view the COLA notice online. It’s secure, easy, and people find out before the mail arrives. People can also opt to receive a text or email alert when there is a new message from Social Security — such as their COLA notice — waiting for them, rather than receiving a letter in the mail. People may create or access their my Social Security account online at www.ssa.gov/myaccount.
Information about Medicare changes for 2023 is available at www.medicare.gov. For Social Security beneficiaries enrolled in Medicare, their new higher 2023 benefit amount will be available in December through the mailed COLA notice and my Social Security’s Message Center.
The Social Security Act provides for how the COLA is calculated. To read more, please visit www.ssa.gov/cola.
Last week the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it has launched a new and improved version of its Americans with Disabilities Act website, ada.gov. The updated version of the website is designed to more effectively serve the public and help expand access for people with disabilities. The website works well with mobile devices, includes easy-to-use navigation tools, and is written in plain language. More information is available at https://www.justice.gov/opa/blog/justice-department-launches-new-americans-disabilities-act-website. To find out more about the ADA, visit ada.gov or call the Justice Department’s toll-free ADA information line at 1-800-514-0301 (voice) or 1-833-610-1264 (TDD).
To read this article online, visit https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/12/01/1139730806/blind-disability-accessibility-medical-bills
A Missouri man who is deaf and blind said a medical bill he didn’t know existed was sent to debt collections, triggering an 11% rise in his home insurance premiums.
In a different case, from California, an insurer has suspended a blind woman’s coverage every year since 2010 after mailing printed “verification of benefits” forms to her home that she cannot read, she said. The problems continued even after she got a lawyer involved.
And still another insurer kept sending a visually impaired Indiana woman bills she said she could not read, even after her complaint to the Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights led to corrective actions.
Across the U.S., health insurers and health care systems are breaking disability rights laws by sending inaccessible medical bills and notices, a KHN investigation has found. The practice hinders the ability of blind Americans to know what they owe, effectively creating a disability tax on their time and finances.
Crucial notices are often in small print, impossible to read
More than 7 million Americans age 16 and older have a visual disability, according to the National Federation of the Blind. And having medical information and bills delivered in an accessible manner is the right of each of those people, protected under various statutes, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Affordable Care Act, and the Rehabilitation Act, disability rights legal experts said.
But some blind patients told KHN that the letters they receive can be impossible to read. Some websites contain coding that is incompatible with screen reader technology, which reads text aloud. Some health care systems and insurers fail to mail documents in Braille, which some blind people read by touch. And others who are visually impaired can read large print, with the possible aid of glasses or magnifying lenses, but the small-print medical bills they get are indecipherable.
“I tell them sending me small-print mail is like hiring a mime to communicate to me from outside my window,” Stuart Salvador told KHN over Skype instant messaging. The 37-year-old lives in Greene County, Mo., and explained that a case of shingles when he was 28 left him with only residual sight and hearing. “I can tell something is there,” Salvador said, “but I have no idea what I’m supposed to be getting from that.”
Bills are sometimes sent to collections before the patient knows there’s a problem
Salvador said it can take up to six hours for him to effectively convert a printed medical bill into Braille. He said he has been sent to collections multiple times by CoxHealth and Mercy hospital systems through their automatic medical debt referral systems after the health care providers sent him bills he could not read. As a result, he said, his home insurance carrier raised his annual premium by 11%, costing him an additional $133.51 and significant hassle.
Nancy Dixon, a spokesperson for Mercy, said that the health system could not find a bill for Salvador that was sent to collections in its records within the past 10 years, and that its policy is to make reasonable accommodations for any patient who requests them. CoxHealth did not respond to requests for comment.
Salvador noted that it’s challenging for him and other visually impaired patients to fight for access to their billing information. If they realize a problem exists, he and other patients told KHN, communicating with the medical systems and insurers can be difficult. Often, they may not even be aware of the problem until it’s too late. And some blind patients don’t keep written documentation they cannot see, which otherwise might help with a possible legal challenge when overdue billing issues escalate.
Disability rights attorney Albert Elia, who is blind, said blind people stuck with inaccessible bills often are left with two options: to hope for government action or pursue long, costly lawsuits. The National Federation of the Blind, as well as the American Council of the Blind, have sued and won public settlements regarding inaccessible medical information.
The cycle of inaccessibility repeats — over and over
Meredith Weaver, a senior staff attorney for Disability Rights Advocates, who helped monitor the implementation of a blind accessibility settlement agreement with health care giant Kaiser Permanente, said her clients often ask for documents to be sent in Braille or be readable by online screen readers. They then typically receive one document that works for them before the cycle begins anew.
“It felt like whack-a-mole to continually make those requests,” Weaver said.
After the terms of the settlement agreement with Kaiser Permanente expired in 2018, Weaver said, she began to hear from clients who faced the same barriers yet again.
Kaiser Permanente spokesperson Marc Brown said that the health system conducted an accessibility review after KHN informed it of Weaver’s comments, and he said the company found “no significant defects in the platform, nor do we know of any inaccessibility issues” that would limit someone from paying their bill or using its website. (KHN is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)
Websites of many major health insurers pose accessibility problems.
‘It’s shocking to the conscience’
KHN found multiple accessibility issues on the public-facing webpages of Aetna, Anthem Blue Cross and UnitedHealthcare, major insurers that visually impaired and blind customers flagged as having accessibility problems. The errors, which KHN identified with the help of a tool created by WebAIM, a nonprofit web-accessibility organization, include webpage coding that would make it difficult for a blind customer using screen reader technology to shop for a health plan or find an in-network doctor.
After he learned of KHN’s findings, Andrés J. Gallegos, chairman of the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency that advises the White House and Congress, said the council should look more deeply into the issue.
“It’s shocking to the conscience,” he said, noting the law clearly provides for such accessibility protections.
All three insurance companies said they work hard to make their services accessible and strive to fix member issues.
“It’s the year 2022. Everything is being done electronically; everything is being done online,” said Patrick Molloy, a blind 29-year-old in Bucks County, Pa. “It shouldn’t, in theory, be terribly difficult to make websites and billing platforms accessible to customers with visual impairments. But it’s the world we live in.”
Getting a lawyer involved doesn’t always solve the problem, said Lucy Greco, a web-accessibility specialist at the University of California, Berkeley. The blind 54-year-old sought legal help in early 2020 to stop Anthem Blue Cross from mailing her printed notices she cannot read — which sometimes resulted in lapsed benefits because she could not read the written request to sign and return the documents. She now receives some but not all communication through email, which she had requested, and via the company’s online portal.
Greco employs an aide to read her mail to her every other month, to help fill in the gaps, but she has still missed insurance notices and bills. She recently raised the aide’s wages to $30 an hour, as Greco wants to ensure she can retain a trustworthy person with all her personal information. But not everyone can afford to hire an aide.
“It makes you feel helpless and it makes you feel dependent on people you might not want to feel dependent on,” she said.
‘It’s not easy to enforce these laws’
Even when federal entities step in to fix such issues, the problems persist. Kate Kelly, a 61-year-old in Greenwood, Ind., who is visually impaired and has hearing loss stemming from multiple sclerosis, was so fed up with receiving multiple bills in standard-sized text from her insurer, Aetna, that she filed a complaint with the HHS Office for Civil Rights in early 2020.
But after the office came to an agreement with Aetna to stop sending her bills in standard-sized text that fall, she said, Aetna soon resumed sending some documents in text too small for her to read. Kelly pushed HHS to reopen her case. This July, records show, the office closed it due to what it said was a lack of jurisdiction, despite its involvement in obtaining the previous resolution.
Kelly said her large-print bills still get delayed — one from March just came in August — and she is now required to sign for them when they’re delivered. When she tried to use the online portal, she said, her screen reader could not read certain numbers and other information.
“It’s hard to fight back; it’s hard to participate in the system,” she said. “You see why insurance companies get away with it, as it’s not easy to enforce these laws.”
Alex Kepnes, an Aetna spokesperson, said company staffers had reached out to Kelly after KHN’s questions and they “regret the inconvenience that this has caused her.” Kelly said she missed Aetna’s call, and although she called the next day and tried once more to reach the company, she had yet to hear back as of Nov. 28. She did receive a complaint form from the company — the text was in small print she cannot read.
Meanwhile, Kelly said, her utility company manages to get her a bill in large type every month. And she promptly pays it.