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 20, 2020. Messages 1, 4, and 7 are new; messages 2 and 3 have been updated.
- New! Convention Pre-Registration Opens Thursday
- Updated! Information about the 2020 Census
- Updated! Information about the Coronavirus
- New! ACB Files Supplemental Complaint with DOJ Regarding Inaccessible Paper Ballots in Idaho
- Challenges with Telehealth and E-Learning Technology?
- ACB and Other Disability Advocacy Organizations Bring Voting Rights Complaint before Department of Justice
- New! ACB, AFB Send Joint Letter to Congress Expressing Their Commitment to Education During the Pandemic
- Information on the 2020 Economic Stimulus Payments
Thank you for calling the Washington Connection.
If you are an ACB member, you may pre-register for this year’s virtual conference and convention beginning on Thursday, May 21st at 7 a.m. Eastern. To pre-register online, or get a sneak preview of what’s available, visit www.acbconvention.org and select the pre-registration tab. Or, if you’d prefer to register by phone, call (612) 332-3242 and select option 5 for convention, then leave your name, telephone number with area code, and time zone, and your phone call will be returned as soon as possible. Pre-registration opens to everyone at 7 a.m. Eastern on May 28th and will close at 11:59 p.m. Eastern on June 21st.
While most of the conference and convention will be live-streamed on ACB Radio, pre-registering will allow you to actively participate in the Zoom meeting for each session. By pre-registering, you will be provided the Zoom password to each of the sessions you have selected. If you do not pre-register, you will not have access to the Zoom meeting and will only be able to listen to a session via ACB Radio (if it is streamed).
Major differences in the 2020 pre-registration process:
- All sessions featuring programs, seminars, or virtual social gatherings are free of charge.
- There is an administrative fee to help offset the cost of the convention program and the cost of presenting the conference and convention.
- Special-interest affiliate fees help offset the cost they incur in presenting their programs and seminars.
- You may still elect to become an individual sponsor or purchase various merchandise items.
- The official conference and convention program may contain more free programs and activities.
- Once you have completed your initial order, you may return later to select additional sessions. If you need to delete an item you have purchased, you will need to contact Alicia Knight at (612) 332-3242 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Alicia will remove the paid item from your order and refund your credit card. This doesn’t apply to sessions that have no charge.
The 2020 U.S. Census is underway! The decennial census is mandated by the U.S. Constitution and is important to determine Congressional representation and federal funding for states and local governments.
This year, there are three ways that U.S. residents may respond: online, by phone, or by mail. To view and listen to a PSA about how to take the census, visit https://2020census.gov/en/partners/psa-toolkit/how-to-take.html?utm_campaign=20191203msc20s1ccallrs&utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery.
To fill out the census online, go to http://www.my2020census.gov. To take the census via phone, call toll-free 1-844-330-2020. The 12-digit code sent to your residence by U.S. mail is not necessary to complete the census by phone or online. The census is intended to be completed only once per person and once per household, so what you will need to complete the census by phone or online is the address of where you live the majority of the time.
To get a hard-copy braille version of the census information, contact Kim Charlson at Perkins, (617) 972-7249.
The American Council of the Blind is closely monitoring information about the COVID-19 virus and its impact. After much thoughtful consideration, ACB has decided to close both offices and move our work to a virtual environment until further notice. This decision was made in order to ensure the continued health and safety of our employees and their families. ACB staff will continue to take calls and emails during this period. When calling ACB’s direct and toll-free office numbers, please use the recorded menu to contact our staff members directly.
The health and welfare of our members is of the utmost importance, and we recommend that all affiliates follow CDC guidelines for any scheduled events. You can find the most up-to-date CDC guidelines here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/index.html.
Additional information about the work of the ACB national office during the COVID-19 pandemic is available on our website at: www.acb.org/acb-covid19-response.
Disability Rights Idaho, the Protection and Advocacy office for the state of Idaho, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Disability Rights Section in response to the inaccessible paper ballots being used for absentee voting purposes. On Friday, May 15, 2020, with the permission of Disability Rights Idaho, ACB filed a supplemental complaint with DOJ that contained personal declarations from ACB members to illustrate the barriers that blind and visual impaired state residents face because of inaccessible absentee voting. The letter states:
Dear Ms. Lanvers:
By way of introduction, my name is Claire Stanley and I am the Advocacy and Outreach Specialist with the American Council of the Blind (ACB). ACB is filing this supplemental complaint with the permission of Courtney R. Holthus, Advocacy Director and Attorney with Disability Rights Idaho (DRI), who has recently filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, Disability Rights Section over concerns related to accessible voting options for people with disabilities during the May 2020 Idaho primary. Specifically, this supplemental complaint will provide the direct experiences of Idaho residents who have not been able to procure a fair and equal way to vote via absentee ballot during the spring primary election.
According to Ms. Holthus’ complaint, the governor of Idaho, Brad Little, has announced that because of the COVID-19 virus, residents of the state will only be permitted to vote via mail-in absentee ballots. However, because absentee ballots are exclusively provided in paper, standard-print font, those who are blind or visually impaired cannot privately and independently use such absentee ballots to vote.
Below are declarations of two separate Idaho residents who are blind or visually impaired. The declarations summarize their attempts to procure an accessible absentee ballot and the roadblocks they faced. These declarations will demonstrate that such state residents cannot vote privately and independently as afforded under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Ms. Deborah Allen lives in Ada County, Idaho. She is visually impaired and cannot vote privately and independently via a paper ballot. She contacted the Ada County voting office to inquire how she can vote in the upcoming election. She was referred to a supervisor named Courtney. Ms. Allen requested a braille ballot. Courtney told her that such ballots did not exist, and the county did not intend to develop such a way of voting.
The Ada County supervisor then outlined Ms. Allen’s options to vote. First, the county would arrange to have another person fill out the ballot for her. Or, the second option was to have a ride arranged to pick Ms. Allen up and drive her to a clerk’s office where she could vote independently on a Touch Mark voting machine.
Ms. Allen is not OK with either suggestion. First, she will not accept the first choice; she wants to vote privately and independently as is legally required. Second, she does not want to be driven to a polling place. The closest clerk’s office is a long drive away; she cannot miss that much work. But more significantly, she does not want to be exposed to the COVID-19 virus by traveling to the clerk’s office.
Mr. Carl Bessent lives in Kootenai County, Idaho. On May 6, 2020 he called the county clerk’s office to inquire about receiving an accessible absentee ballot. Mr. Bessent is visually impaired and has challenges reading standard print. He specifically asked if the county could provide a large print ballot. The person he spoke with asked him to wait while she reached out to another employee of the clerk’s office. When she returned to the phone, she explained that such ballots are not available.
Mr. Bessent was told he had two options to vote as a person with a visual impairment. He could have another person help him fill out the paper absentee ballot, or he could travel to the clerk’s office to use an accessible voting machine. He was told that receiving an accessible paper ballot is not an option. When he mailed in his absentee ballot request, he also noted on the request that he is visually impaired and requires an accessible ballot.
Two themes are seen in each request for accommodations. First, Idaho residents who are blind or visually impaired are told they can have another person fill out the ballot for them. The voter cannot verify and cast their ballot independently. This practice runs afoul of a person’s right to vote privately and independently. No American should have to divulge to another person who they desire to vote for because they have a disability.
Second, blind and visually impaired people are given the choice to travel to a polling place or clerk’s office. This option is not safe; the governor of Idaho recognized the risk to the voter when he put the new policies in place to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Individuals with disabilities should not have to expose themselves to the virus when non-disabled people are not put into such a situation.
ACB requests that the U.S. Department of Justice investigate whether the current vote-by-mail system in the state of Idaho ensures that voters who are blind and visually impaired have equal access to all aspects of the voting system. This includes state residents’ ability to vote privately and independently via absentee ballot, as well as residents’ ability to vote accessibly at public polling places, if both choices are provided to other residents of the state. ACB asks that the investigation lead to the creation of a state policy to require accessible absentee voting procedures for people who are blind and visually impaired. The accessible absentee voting process must enable such individuals to register, vote, verify, and cast the ballot privately and independently via an electronic process that is accessible to all persons.
Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss this complaint in more detail. I can be reached via email at email@example.com, or via phone at (202) 467-5081.
Advancements in technology now allow people to receive services remotely from almost anywhere. One does not need to travel to a doctor to receive health advice; one can talk to a doctor over the Internet. Similar technology is being used in a myriad of ways. For instance, universities now offer a plethora of classes online. Such entities use software to provide online lectures and chat programs to talk to students or patients.
Now, in light of the coronavirus, such technology is more appealing than ever. Universities, for example, have completely shut down and classes are only being offered online. If someone needs healthcare, instead of going to a doctor’s office where he might be at risk of contracting the disease, he can utilize telehealth services.
However, many of these online programs are inaccessible to the blind and visually impaired community. Commonly used software programs cannot properly interact with screen-reading software such as JAWS or VoiceOver.
ACB is watching closely to find out about such challenges. Please let Claire Stanley and Clark Rachfal know if you have experienced such inaccessibility. You can call the office at (202) 467-5081, or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. They will reach out to such providers and investigate how to make such services accessible to blind and visually impaired users.
ACB and Other Disability Advocacy Organizations Bring Voting Rights Complaint before Department of Justice
The American Council of the Blind, along with its New York affiliate and other disability advocacy organizations, has brought a complaint before the U.S. Department of Justice, Disability Rights Section. The complaint highlights the discrimination brought about by absentee voting. The right to vote via absentee ballot has long been a goal of the blind community, but has been amplified in light of the coronavirus. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (NY) has taken tremendous steps to fight the virus and provide for his state during the crisis. But among his numerous actions, he implemented Executive Order 202.15, which means that state residents must mark an absentee ballot on paper. This prevents New York residents who are blind from voting privately and independently.
“An alternative to voting in person is necessary during this COVID-19 crisis; people who are blind should not have to be exposed to the virus unnecessarily by voting in person. Just as all other New York residents have the right to vote via absentee ballot, the state must provide an accessible voting method that blind residents can use remotely,” states ACB president Dan Spoone.
“Technology exists that will enable blind and visually impaired Americans to vote independently via online ballot-marking devices. With the advent of workable technology, states have no excuse when arguing the difficulty of providing accessible absentee voting systems,” notes Karen Blachowicz, president of ACB of New York.
“The Washington Lawyers’ Committee is proud to represent ACB and the complainants in this matter. While we applaud Gov. Cuomo’s decision to protect voters from COVID-19, he must do so in a way that provides equal access for voters with disabilities. There are safe, effective methods for voters with disabilities to cast a private, independent absentee ballot, and we urge the Department of Justice to instruct Gov. Cuomo and the New York Board of Elections that they must implement reasonable accommodations consistent with the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act for the primary election in June,” stated Jonathan Smith, Executive Director, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
Stacy Cervenka, from the American Foundation for the Blind, sent out the following email. ACB helped draft and promote the attached letter that will be read below. The email and letter express ACB’s commitment to education during the COVID-19 pandemic.
May 8, 2020
The Honorable Lamar Alexander
Chair, U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
The Honorable Bobby Scott
Chair, U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor
The Honorable Patty Murray
Ranking Member, U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
The Honorable Virginia Foxx
Ranking Member, U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor
Dear Chairmen Scott and Alexander, Ranking Members Foxx and Murray:
The undersigned organizations are national nonprofits, consumer membership organizations, professional associations, and schools that serve and represent people who are blind or have low vision. These organizations consist of individuals, professionals, schools and providers who are managing and monitoring the daily impact of educational changes required by the COVID-19 pandemic. Together, we urge Congress to protect the rights and services that students who are blind or have low vision deserve to receive a quality education during the pandemic. Specifically, we ask you to continue supporting children who are blind or have low vision by opposing waivers that would affect the services that children receive and by providing additional IDEA funding to support students’ access to their education.
More than 28,000 public school students who have a visual impairment, including deaf-blindness, are served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Part B.1 Additional students receive services through Part C during early childhood, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, or have a visual impairment but primarily receive IDEA services for a different disability. Each of these students depends heavily on the services and rights afforded by IDEA and Section 504. Some such services include braille education which promotes literacy and effective communications; assistive technology which enables access to instructional materials and information; orientation and mobility (O&M) instruction which enhances student independence and safety; and instruction in sign language for students who are deafblind.2
Many teachers nationwide, including teachers of students with visual impairments (TVIs), are rising to the challenge of creatively and effectively using alternative strategies and technology to meet their students’ needs. One student in New Hampshire has shared how she benefits from her TVI’s help determining whether electronic assignments are accessible and assistance producing materials in braille. Her TVI advises classroom teachers on best practices for electronic accessibility while the student is learning self-advocacy through email, a new skill for a student used to face-to-face self-advocacy in the classroom before her school closed.3 Self-advocacy, braille, and assistive technology are important components of the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC), a framework of skills unique to the success of students with visual impairments. Meanwhile, a TVI and O&M instructor in North Dakota has spent her time connecting with children and families via phone calls and Zoom. Though some of her lessons cannot be delivered remotely, she has successfully provided some lessons through calls and offers reinforcement through videos. However, she has noted that the resources available in the home directly affect her ability to serve her students.4 If a student lacks devices and assistive software, the online curriculum is inaccessible, or the student has not received assistive technology training, the student’s education becomes significantly more challenging. Stories like these demonstrate that education of students with visual impairments can and does continue in the current environment, but teachers and families need resources and assistance to fully meet their students’ needs.
Educators’ documented successes in continuing education during the pandemic demonstrates that IDEA and Section 504 generally should not be waived. As required by the CARES Act, the Secretary of Education recently released her report recommending a narrow set of waivers. We applaud the Secretary for recognizing that “schools can, and must, provide education to all students, including children with disabilities;” that “the needs and best interests of the individual student, not any system, should guide decisions;” and that the individual and their family should be involved in decisions related to their education and services.5 While we generally oppose special education waivers, we were pleased to see that the Secretary only asked for narrow waiver authority and for flexibility to prevent the loss of services in the interim. We acknowledge that deferring work requirements for personnel development scholarships may be necessary, particularly if certain service providers, such as O&M contractors, are not able to work or be paid in the current remote environment.
If Congress chooses to enact IDEA waivers that the Secretary has recommended, we strongly urge Congress to clarify that any waiver must have an end date that is specific and short and that funding must be authorized to allow available services to continue in the interim. Specifically, for any waiver of IDEA Part C to B transition timeline, Congress must specify a narrow, short timeline directly connected to resumption of other school services and require flexibility for stimulus or other Federal education funds to be used to continue Part C services past a child’s third birthday. We urge Congress to adopt the same principles as the Department of Education in its decision making; to keep any waiver narrow, specific, and time-limited; to ensure that services continue in the interim; and to elevate the interests of students above those of systems. Likewise, we urge Congress to reject any waiver proposal that does not meet these criteria.
Recognizing that the current educational environment presents challenges – as well as opportunities – to both teachers and students, we encourage Congress to consider other solutions. Specifically, we encourage Congress to increase funding for IDEA and technical assistance. Dedicating relief funds specifically for IDEA will support districts and schools in meeting any additional needs that their students may face, including additional personnel or compensatory services, expanded access to accessible and assistive technology, and immediate technical assistance. Because assistive technology, such as refreshable braille displays, screen readers, and magnification software, provides instruction access for students who are blind in a virtual educational environment, an equitable classroom necessitates providing students assistive technology to access the same educational platforms as their peers. Moreover, technical assistance targeted to meet the unique educational needs of students with disabilities would empower teachers and school districts to provide innovative services in remote environments and support the identification of promising and best practices and standards.
The undersigned organizations appreciate your consideration of the needs and interest of students who are blind and have low vision. Together, we can ensure that schools and teachers have the resources they need to serve each child and provide equitable opportunities to all. If you have any questions, please reach out to Stacy Cervenka, American Foundation for the Blind, at email@example.com, and Claire Stanley, American Council of the Blind, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
American Council of the Blind
American Foundation for the Blind
Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired
American Printing House for the Blind
Council for Exceptional Children, Division of Visual Impairments and Deafblindness
Council of Schools and Services for the Blind
DeafBlind Citizens in Action
National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation
Perkins School for the Blind
Vision Serve Alliance
1 National Center for Education Statistics (2019). Children 3 to 21 years old served under Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Part B, by age group and sex, race/ethnicity, and type of disability: 2018-19. Digest of Education Statistics. Accessed on May 1, 2020: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d19/tables/dt19_204.50.asp
2 Department of Education (2000). Educating Blind and Visually Impaired Students; Policy Guidance. 65 Federal Register 36585-36594. Accessed on May 1, 2020: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2000/06/08/00-14485/educating-blind-and-visually-impaired-students-policy-guidance
3 Rosenblum, L.P. (April 9, 2020). How TVIs and O&M Instructors are Handling the Challenges of Distance Learning, Part 1. AFB Blog. American Foundation for the Blind. Accessed on May 1, 2020: https://www.afb.org/blog/entry/how-tvis-and-om-instructors-are-handling-distance-learning-1
4 Rosenblum, L.P. (April 9, 2020). How TVIs and O&M Instructors are Handling the Challenges of Distance Learning, Part 2. AFB Blog. American Foundation for the Blind. Accessed on May 1, 2020: https://www.afb.org/blog/entry/how-tvis-and-om-instructors-are-handling-distance-learning-2
5 DeVos, B. (April 27, 2020). Report to Congress of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos: Recommended Waiver Authority Under Section 3511(d)(4) of Division A of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (‘CARES Act’). Department of Education. Accessed on May 1, 2020: https://www2.ed.gov/documents/coronavirus/cares-waiver-report.pdf
ACB has received numerous questions about how people will receive the 2020 Recovery Rebate. To help answer those questions, this summary will briefly describe what the rebate is and how persons will receive the money.
One element of the third stimulus bill passed by Congress about two weeks ago includes a monetary recovery rebate, also known as the 2020 recovery rebate. Through this rebate, Americans will receive a one-time monetary amount from the government. The purpose of the rebate is to revitalize the economy. Americans who receive the money can spend it in any way they choose; there are no limitations or strings attached to the money.
The 2020 recovery rebate will begin at $1,200 for all people who have an income of $75,000 or less on a yearly basis. For a married couple who files jointly, the amount will start at $2,400. For anyone who has children under the age of 16, they will receive an additional $500 for each child. As a person’s income rises, the amount they receive will decrease gradually. In other words, the more money a person makes, the less money they will receive from the government. The most a person can make before they can no longer receive the recovery rebate is $99,000.
One of the biggest questions we have been asked is how people will receive the money. If you filed taxes in 2018 or 2019, you will automatically receive the rebate. If you received your income tax refund via direct deposit to your bank account, the money will be automatically deposited into that bank account. The money will be deposited starting today, on April 15, 2020. If you generally receive your income tax refunds via the mail, the check will be sent to the address on file. When waiting for the rebate to come by mail, know that it will take more time. Those who make less money will receive their checks sooner and progress from there.
One of the questions we have been asked numerous times is from people who have not filed taxes in the past year or two. For individuals who receive Social Security benefits, filing taxes is not necessary. As a result, that person’s information is not in the system. To fix this problem, some people have asked if they need to file taxes. The answer is no. Again, you do not need to file taxes if you receive Social Security benefits in order to receive the 2020 recovery rebate. Instead, the IRS has put together a Non-Filers Portal, which is located at https://www.irs.gov/coronavirus/non-filers-enter-payment-info-here. Through this portal, those who receive SSI or veterans disability compensation can submit their information online and receive the 2020 recovery rebate. Via the form online, you can enter your bank account information to receive the money via direct deposit or request that it be sent via U.S. mail. If the check is sent via mail, another letter will be sent out two weeks later confirming that the check was received. For those who are regular Social Security beneficiaries, not SSI recipients, the IRS will use the information on a person’s Form SSA-1099.
Another common question we have received is whether the money will impact a person’s monthly income, which can in turn impact a person’s SSI eligibility. Under SSI, a person can only bring in so much money per month to remain eligible. The answer is no. The rebate is not considered income and thus will not impact your monthly income number.
We urge all ACB members not to give out your information easily to people claiming to be the IRS or SSA in order to get the rebate. Unfortunately, there are many scams going on in order to obtain people’s information unlawfully. If you struggle with the portal, please let ACB know. We are curious as to how accessible the portal is, so please let us know as soon as possible. You can reach us via email, email@example.com, or by phone, (202) 467-5081.