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 Clark Rachfal.
The Washington Connection is updated any time we have new information to share with you. The following articles are available as of July 13, 2021. All messages are new.
- Federal Judge Orders North Carolina to Provide Accessible Absentee Voting
- ACB Supports Accessible Remote Voting in Rhode Island
- Absentee Voting for Virginians with Print Disabilities
- When will Harriet Tubman adorn the $20 bill?
- ACB Media Network Alexa Skill Update
- Half of Most Popular Federal Websites Fail Accessibility Tests for Users with Disabilities
- New! For Social Security Change in Notice Policy Could Affect Visually Impaired
- New! Feinstein, Duckworth, Casey, DeSaulnier, Young Introduce Bill to Make Fitness Facilities More Accessible for People with Disabilities
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June 17, 2021 – Raleigh, NC – On June 15, 2021, Judge Terrence W. Boyle of the federal District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina ordered the North Carolina Board of Elections to take immediate steps to ensure that blind voters will have equal access to the 2021 municipal elections and all subsequent elections. Prior to Judge Boyle’s ruling, the North Carolina Absentee Voting Program required voters to fill out a paper ballot and return the ballot by mail, providing no alternatives to accommodate individuals with vision disabilities who are unable to independently and privately read and mark a paper ballot. Judge Boyle found that North Carolina denies blind voters the opportunity to cast an absentee ballot privately and independently in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
In the 2020 General Election, North Carolina offered military and overseas voters the option to receive and return absentee ballots using an accessible online voting system operated by nationally known firm Democracy Live but refused to let voters with disabilities cast their absentee ballots using the same system. Plaintiffs successfully obtained a court order granting blind voters access to the Democracy Live system in time for blind voters to cast a private and independent absentee ballot for the first time in North Carolina in the 2020 General Election. Judge Boyle’s ruling of Tuesday makes the access blind voters enjoyed in the 2020 elections permanent.
The lawsuit was filed by a coalition of groups including Disability Rights Advocates, Disability Rights North Carolina, the North Carolina Council of the Blind, the Governor Morehead School Alumni Association, Inc., and several North Carolina voters with disabilities, including Jo Taliaferro, Kenneth Durden, Kendall Gibbs, and Dr. Ricky Scott.
“Voters with disabilities have long been excluded from political spaces,” said Helen Jo Taliaferro, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. “Now, this victory ensures that our voices are heard in a way that elevates each of our right to vote privately and independently.”
“This is a great victory to ensure equal access to the ballot,” said Dr. Ricky Scott, another plaintiff. “In recognizing our right to vote by absentee privately and independently, we are finally granted full participation in the voting process rather than being treated like second class citizens.”
“This is an incredible victory for the blindness community, who have long sought to vote privately and independently,” said Christopher Bell, President of the NCCB. “Now we finally can.”
“It is a wonderful time for the blind and visually impaired community of North Carolina to have accessible absentee voting,” said Fred McEachern, President of the GMSAAI. “It has been a long time coming and now we have it."
“We celebrate this victory with disabled voters. It was intolerable, more than 30 years after the passage of the ADA, to have failed to implement disability rights laws guaranteeing people with disabilities the same access to the ballot as non-disabled voters,” said Virginia Knowlton Marcus, CEO of Disability Rights NC. “The power of the disability vote cannot be ignored.”
“We are delighted that Judge Boyle recognized the right of voters with print disabilities to choose how to vote without having to sacrifice their privacy and independence, just like non-disabled voters can,” said Rosa Lee Bichell of Disability Rights Advocates. “This order is a move towards a more inclusive and equitable democratic system in North Carolina.”
This lawsuit was filed in the Eastern District of North Carolina under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Rather than monetary damages, plaintiffs seek reform to the systems and practices that discriminate against voters with disabilities.
For case documents, visit https://dralegal.org/press/federal-judge-orders-north-carolina-to-provide-accessible-absentee-voting/.
June 25, 2021
The Honorable Stephen R. Archambault:
My name is Clark Rachfal, and I am the Director of Advocacy and Governmental Affairs for the American Council of the Blind. ACB is a nationwide member-driven advocacy organization that strives to increase the security, independence, economic opportunity, and to improve quality of life for people who are blind and experiencing vision loss. Fundamental to our democracy, and independence and quality of life for all Americans, is the right to privately and independently exercise our right to vote. For these reasons, I am writing to you and all members of the Rhode Island Senate Judiciary Committee in strong support of S. 0738.
Thank you for your sponsorship of this important voting access legislation. Passage of S. 0738 is vital to the nearly 16% of voters in Rhode Island that have a disability. A 2021 Rutgers University research paper states that Rhode Island has 135,000 voters with disabilities, and nearly 20% of those voters had difficulty voting in the 2020 elections, including 30% of visually impaired voters who found it difficult to vote independently.
Many voters with disabilities cannot see, read, hold, or mark a conventional paper absentee ballot privately and independently. S. 0738 allows voters with disabilities the same right to access, mark and return an electronic ballot as voters living abroad, or serving in the military. S. 0738 remedies the fact that even though voters with disabilities are eligible to vote by using an absentee ballot, many of these voters are denied equal access to an absentee voting system due to the only absentee voting option being the use of a paper absentee ballot.
The Help America Vote Act of 2002 accepts and acknowledges that paper ballots are inherently inaccessible, and that voters with disabilities require the use of technology to access a private and independent vote at polling locations; we must acknowledge the same need exists when voting absentee. Over 205 jurisdictions across seven states deployed an accessible ballot delivery and return system in 2020, including five states that allowed voters with disabilities to receive, mark, and return their ballot electronically: Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and West Virginia. The Rhode Island House passed H. 6004, and we urge the passage of S. 0738 so that Rhode Island may join the chorus of states paving the way for accessible voting for all voters, regardless of ability.
Thank you for your leadership in creating an accessible absentee voting option for people with disabilities. If you have any questions regarding this letter or the benefits of utilizing a fully electronic remote absentee voting system to empower and enable voters with disabilities to exercise their right to mark, verify, and cast a private and independent vote, please do not hesitate to contact me via email, [email protected], or (202) 467-5081.
By Sam Joehl, President, ACB of Virginia, printed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 4, 2021
Naim Hawa of Fairfax County requested an absentee ballot to vote in this past November’s general election.
Hawa has a visual impairment and needed his jurisdiction to provide the ballot in a digital format so that it could be read and marked electronically using screen-reading software for the blind.
Since Hawa’s jurisdiction didn’t deliver an electronic ballot to him, he had to travel to his polling place during the pandemic to cast his private, independent vote, risking his health and safety in the process.
This situation has been all too common during the pandemic. A private, independent vote is a constitutional right. Many voters across the country risked their health and safety to exercise that right during the pandemic, in addition to voter suppression and the challenges faced by the Postal Service.
In Virginia, voters with print disabilities such as the blind and visually impaired community faced additional challenges reading and marking their ballot privately and independently.
With the absentee ballot taking the form of a sheet of paper that had to be read and filled out by hand, this excluded those with print disabilities from participation in the mail-in absentee ballot option.
The coronavirus pandemic made the need to be able to vote from home even more critical. Leaving the house to travel to a polling location made voting even more unsafe, especially for the blind and visually impaired.
The risks connected with traveling to and from the polling place, more difficulty observing social distancing protocols and a higher probability of touching potentially contaminated surfaces left them significantly more vulnerable to infection in order to make their voices heard.
Last year, a coalition of disability advocates took legal action to advocate for the Virginia Board of Elections to make their mail-in absentee voting program accessible to voters with print disabilities.
We requested that an electronic ballot be provided that could be read and marked with text-to-speech software used by the blind and visually impaired. We also requested that a tactile feature be provided to identify the return envelope, and that the voter’s municipality not reject the ballot if the voter failed to sign on the signature line of the return envelope.
The board of elections agreed to provide these accommodations in time for this past November’s general election. These provisions also will be in place for Tuesday’s primary elections.
Voters with a print disability who applied to vote absentee in the June primary election and who wish to use the electronic ballot-marking system should contact their local registrar to ensure that they will be sent the electronic ballot.
This year, the General Assembly amended the Code of Virginia to include the electronic ballot-marking provisions for voters with print disabilities as a permanent solution. The changes go into effect on July 1 of this year and will be in effect for every election going forward.
I and the other members of the coalition are extremely pleased by this outcome and applaud the state legislature, the board of elections and the attorney general for ensuring their absentee voting program will be accessible to Virginians with print disabilities, especially during such a critical time.
We are hopeful that all who wish to independently vote from the privacy and safety of their home can exercise this option and will do so. We will continue to assist in any way we can to inform, educate and advocate for full inclusion and access by people with disabilities.
By Annie Linskey, The Washington Post, June 3, 2021
President Biden’s White House basked in praise from allies in its early days when it pledged to look for ways to “speed up” the process of putting abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the front of the $20 bill, replacing President Andrew Jackson, who owned enslaved people and forcibly relocated Native Americans.
But four months after taking office, there is little evidence that the administration has taken any steps to accelerate the schedule set out years ago by a small agency within the Treasury Department.
Despite the growing national push to honor the contributions of women and people of color — and Biden’s personal promise to do so — Tubman is still not set to appear on the $20 by the end of Biden’s first term, or even a hypothetical second term. If the current timeline holds, it will have taken a full 16 years to realize the suggestion of a 9-year-old girl whose 2014 letter to then-President Barack Obama publicly launched the process.
That strikes some as an embarrassment.
“If we can put a helicopter on Mars, we ought to be able to design a $20 bill in less than 20 years,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said in an interview. “It’s all about commitment.”
The Tubman battle has become a case study in the difficulty of marshaling the bureaucratic machinery of government, according to activists who have been working for years to change America’s paper money to reflect what they say are its current values.
The delay is notable in part because Biden relied on a coalition of women and Black voters to win the White House and promised to mobilize every element of government to promote gender and racial equity. There has never been a Black person on U.S. currency, nor has there been a woman on a bill in the modern era, despite repeated attempts to diversify the currency.
Biden has made other efforts to update the nation’s imagery. He recently became the first president to visit Tulsa in commemoration of a race massacre there. He ordered that the Oval Office be cleared of a portrait of Jackson, who oversaw the Indian Removal Act that led to the “Trail of Tears.” President Donald Trump had installed the portrait of the seventh president, who is admired by some traditionalists for his populism and frontier image.
But removing the portrait has proven much easier than accelerating the actions of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, a unit of the Treasury Department, which critics say displays scant interest in transforming the currency.
“They’re really happy to kick this as far down the road as possible, maybe until cryptocurrency takes over,” said Barbara Ortiz Howard, founder of Women on 20s, an advocacy group. “They don’t want to make the change, which I think is the only explanation for all of this nonsense.”
Treasury officials say changing the portrait on the $20 is not as simple as it sounds, largely because of the need for sophisticated anti-counterfeiting features.
“We are committed to the goal of redesigning U.S. currency to better reflect the history and diversity of our country,” Len Olijar, director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, said in a statement. “But the security of our currency remains paramount.”
Tubman is a unique figure in American history, escaping from slavery to become a well-known “conductor” on the Underground Railroad who led enslaved people to freedom. She worked as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War and after the victory threw herself into helping formerly enslaved people.
The honor of appearing on a country’s currency is inherently limited to a small group of national heroes. It enshrines a person as emblematic of a country’s values not through a remote monument but as a familiar symbol used in daily activity.
The new ACB Media Alexa Skill has now launched. If you are having issues launching the new ACB Media skill on your Alexa device, please follow the steps listed below to correct the error.
To delete Alexa voice recordings automatically, set your account to automatically delete Alexa voice recordings. (This feature is disabled by default.) To do that:
- Open the Alexa app.
- Open More and select Settings.
- Select Alexa Privacy.
- Select Manage Your Alexa Data.
- Go to Automatically delete recordings, then select Off to enable the setting.
- Choose a time period to keep your voice recordings and then select Confirm.
When choosing “Don’t save recordings,” it may take up to 36 hours for our systems to apply this setting. Voice recordings older than the selected time period are deleted automatically. We suggest you do this only once for each Alexa device. It should not be required in the future for the ACB Media skill. Data associated with third-party services and devices that you may have linked to your home functions with your Alexa devices will not be deleted.
To activate the new ACB Media skill:
- Approach your Alexa device and issue this command: “Alexa, delete everything I’ve ever said on this device.” (Please note: This will need to be done on each Alexa device in your home.)
- Wait 30 seconds and then say: “Alexa, Open ACB Media.” The new ACB Media skill will launch.
Then ask for the name of the stream that you would like to hear. ACB Media stream designations are as follows:
- ACB Mainstream is now ACB 1
- ACB Mainstream 2 is now ACB 2
- ACB Treasure Trove is now ACB 3
- ACB Café is now ACB 4
- ACB Community is now ACB 5
- ACB Live Event is now ACB 6
- ACB Special Event is now ACB 7
- (new) ACB Convention is now ACB 8
- (new) ACB Convention is now ACB 9
- (new) ACB Convention Information is now ACB 10
Or you can visit the ACB Media Network Live stream web page at: https://www.acbmedia.org/home/streams/
For any additional questions, please contact [email protected].
Half of Most Popular Federal Websites Fail Accessibility Tests for Users with Disabilities, ITIF Finds
WASHINGTON, June 3, 2021 — Despite a legal requirement for federal agencies to follow modern standards of web accessibility for users with disabilities, 30 percent of the most popular federal websites fail to do so on their homepages, and nearly half (48 percent) failed a standard test on at least one of their three most popular pages, according to a new report released today by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the leading think tank for science and technology policy.
“Failing to make federal websites accessible for people with disabilities creates obstacles for millions of Americans, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has moved many government services online,” said Ashley Johnson, a policy analyst at ITIF and co-author of the report. “The law requires agencies to follow modern standards of web accessibility, but a substantial share of the most popular government sites fail to do so. Many also lack an easy-to-find way for users to report accessibility issues. For the more than 40 million Americans with disabilities, this creates great difficulty to access information and services, and to engage in civic activities.”
ITIF identified the 72 most popular federal websites, then tested them to assess their compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires agencies to follow modern web accessibility requirements.
Only four sites earned perfect scores in an evaluation rubric comprised of an automated test and qualitative assessments of the sites’ three most heavily trafficked pages: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, and the White House.
The lowest-ranking sites in ITIF’s tests were the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the United States Marine Corps, and the Energy Information Administration.
ITIF’s report notes that the U.S. Department of Justice submits biennial reports to the president and Congress evaluating agencies’ compliance with Section 508, but it has not made these reports available to the public since 2012. While the DOJ is not required to publicly release the reports, they contain useful information for policymakers and the General Services Administration (GSA) to ensure Americans with disabilities are able to effectively navigate federal websites.
To improve the accessibility of federal websites, ITIF offers several recommendations for the federal government:
- Create a federal website accessibility test lab.
- Launch a website accessibility “sprint” to fix known problems.
- Host a “hackathon” aimed at developing artificial intelligence (AI) solutions for web accessibility.
- Make reports on Section 508 compliance publicly available.
- Expand the Digital Analytics Program (DAP) to offer real-time accessibility testing.
“Web accessibility should be a top priority for the federal government,” said ITIF Vice President Daniel Castro, who co-authored the report. “Creating an accessible website requires taking into account the fact that not every user will be able to see or hear content, or use a keyboard or mouse to navigate. Web developers should adhere to accessible-design principles, such as using high-contrast colors, providing text alternatives to audio and visual content, avoiding the use of flashing animations that might cause seizures, and using labels for buttons so people using a screen reader can navigate the site. Following those design principles will not only help people with disabilities, but also ensure all users can navigate federal websites more easily.”
To read the full report, visit https://itif.org/publications/2021/06/01/improving-accessibility-federal-government-websites.
Renewed opt-in needed for many to keep getting mailed notices in formats like large print and braille
To read this article online, go to: https://www.aarp.org/retirement/social-security/info-2021/blind-beneficiaries-special-notice-option-change.html
Many of the hundreds of thousands of Americans with vision loss who receive specially formatted notices from the Social Security Administration (SSA) will stop getting them this summer unless they act now to continue this service.
For more than a decade, the SSA has offered visually impaired beneficiaries special notice options (SNO) to receive communications in formats such as large print, braille and CD. Even those who chose, via online My Social Security accounts, to no longer get printed letters from the SSA could still receive special notices in their chosen format, along with an online message.
Starting Aug. 14, these Americans will get only the online version of SSA messages unless they or someone assisting them logs in to their account and opts in for paper mailings. Those who do so will continue receiving special notices in their preferred format as well as online notices in the Message Center of their My Social Security account.
The SSA says the change reflects how most My Social Security users want to receive official communication.
“The agency began planning for this initiative several years ago, as it aligns with our agency strategic plan as well as customer preference,” SSA spokeswoman Nicole Tiggemann explained in an email.
“This change does have the potential to save some money for the agency, but we expect minimal savings in the short term,” she said. “The focus is on customizable service-delivery options.”
Experts: Change is ‘concerning’
About a half million people use special notice options, according to data from the SSA. More than 388,000 do so in large print. Nearly 47,000 have opted for a phone call, about 27,500 for a certified letter, 23,000 for a data or audio CD, and about 11,700 for braille communications.
Tiggemann said the SSA sent messages to My Social Security users on June 14 “that explained that we will no longer provide SNO format notices for notices available online to our customers who opted out of paper notices.” The agency followed up two weeks later, she said, with “certified mail notices, in the SNO format,” to make sure affected recipients got the word.
Some people with vision loss can use assistive technology products such as specialized magnifiers, electronic braille notetakers and screen-reading software. Others may rely on friends or family to help them create and use a My Social Security account.
Even so, requiring the visually impaired to take steps online to avoid being dropped from the SNO list is “a little concerning,” says Phil Armour, a labor economist who studies Social Security and disability insurance.
“As the pandemic has shown, not everybody has Internet or is Internet savvy or has reliable Internet,” says Armour, a professor of policy analysis at Pardee RAND Graduate School in Santa Monica, California.
Clark Rachfal, director of advocacy and governmental affairs at the Alexandria, Virginia–based American Council of the Blind, also calls the shift “concerning” and potentially “confusing” for visually impaired beneficiaries.
“As individuals age, they are more likely to develop a disability, including age-related vision loss,” he says. “This change has the potential as something to impact millions of Americans.”
The nonprofit American Foundation for the Blind estimates that about 32 million American adults, including 9.2 million age 65 or older, experience significant vision loss, based on 2018 data from the National Center for Health Statistics.
How to Set Up Special Notices
If you do not get special notices and want to start, log in to your My Social Security account and open the Preferences page. Click the Request a Special Notice Option link in the blue information box at the bottom of the page and choose one of these communication methods:
- Standard print notice by first-class mail
- Standard print notice by certified mail
- Standard print notice by first-class mail, with a follow-up phone call
- Standard print and braille notices by first-class mail
- Standard print and large-print (18-point font) notices by first-class mail
- Standard print notice and Microsoft Word file of text on a data CD, by first-class mail
- Standard print notice and voice recording of the text on audio CD, by first-class mail
Lawsuit expanded options
The American Council of the Blind filed a class-action suit against the SSA in 2005, charging that the agency was denying visually impaired people equal access to benefits and programs by failing to provide them with broader communication options.
“Someone would receive in standard small print a letter from Social Security saying they had 30 days to respond but be unable to read or complete the information request and their benefits would be terminated,” Rachfal said.
Before that case, notice options for visually impaired beneficiaries included certified and first-class mail and phone calls. After a federal judge ruled for the plaintiffs in 2009, the SSA added specialized formats such as large print, braille and CDs.
Noting the cost savings from potentially reducing SNO mailings, Rachfal says it is “laudable to eliminate waste,” but the SSA “should do it in a manner that does not diminish service.”
Armour says he’s “seen movements in the opposite direction, where [government] agencies have been trying to think about ways of getting the news out.” He cites Internal Revenue Service efforts to notify taxpayers who lack health insurance about Affordable Care Act coverage options.
The SSA has conducted similarly targeted outreach in other areas. For example, since late last year the agency has been sending notices to those receiving Social Security benefits who may also qualify for Supplemental Security Income, an SSA-administered program that provides cash assistance to older, disabled and blind people with low income.
“Making it more difficult to find out about and apply for disability benefits really does screen out people,” Armour says. “It tends to disproportionately screen out those most likely to qualify for benefits.”
Feinstein, Duckworth, Casey, DeSaulnier, Young Introduce Bill to Make Fitness Facilities More Accessible for People with Disabilities
WASHINGTON, July 28, 2021 — Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) joined Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) in introducing a bill to make fitness facilities across America more accessible for those with disabilities. The Exercise and Fitness for All Act of 2021 would authorize the U.S. Access Board, a federal agency that promotes accessibility, to issue new guidelines specifying the number and types of accessible equipment a fitness facility should have. The legislation would also ensure the Department of Justice (DOJ) issues regulations to assist with implementation within 18 months of the Access Board issuing their guidelines.
In addition to Senators Feinstein and Duckworth, the legislation is also co-sponsored by Senators Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). Companion legislation was also introduced in the House of Representatives today by Representatives Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.) and Don Young (R-Alaska).
“More than 30 years after enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, many fitness facilities across the country still aren’t fully accessible to people with disabilities. It’s long past time for that to change,” said Feinstein. “I’m happy to join Senator Duckworth in fighting to ensure that the opportunity to exercise is available to everyone.”
“No one should be denied the ability to lead a healthy lifestyle because they have a disability, but many exercise gyms and fitness facilities across our country are still not accessible for people with disabilities,” Duckworth said. “I know firsthand how frustrating this problem is, which is one reason why I’m re-introducing this bill that would help reduce the barriers that prevent many Americans from accessing gyms across our country.”
“As we recognize the strides that our nation has made during the 31 years since the historic signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we must also take stock of the barriers to inclusion that still exist for people with disabilities,” said Casey. “The Exercise and Fitness for All Act would issue new guidelines to ensure that fitness facilities are accessible and inclusive to people with disabilities. I am proud to introduce this legislation alongside Senator Duckworth.”
“Thirty-one years after the landmark passage of the ADA, far too many Americans are still excluded from basic access to exercise equipment and fitness classes due to outdated equipment and services, inaccessible to individuals with disabilities,” said Congressman DeSaulnier. “It is unacceptable that these barriers still exist that make it more difficult for individuals with disabilities to get the exercise they need to live healthy lives. I am proud to continue this fight to ensure the promise of the ADA is met.”
Adults living with a disability experience far higher rates of obesity and chronic disease than those without a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC also found the inaccessibility of many fitness facilities create barriers for those with a disability to exercise due to the lack of accessible space and equipment.
Under current rules issued by the DOJ, fitness facilities are required to meet basic accessible design standards, such as providing sufficient space next to each type of exercise equipment so a person in a wheelchair can use it. However, many fitness facilities do not currently meet these standards.
The Exercise and Fitness for All Act of 2021 has been endorsed by the following organizations: Access Living; American Academy of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation; American Association of Adapted Sports Programs; American Council of the Blind; National Federation of the Blind; Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation; Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund; Guiding Eyes for the Blind; Lakeshore Foundation; Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired; Paralyzed Veterans of America; Spinal Bifida Association; The Arc; United Spinal; Universal Fitness Innovation &Transformation (UFIT) (UNESCO); Wayfinder Family Service; World Institute on Disability.