Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
By David Houck
Since the late 1950’s, in South Carolina, each decade brought about blindness issues which could only be resolved in the SC General Assembly. These issues made a real difference in blind South Carolinians receiving a fair and equal chance at living the life they want while being treated equally to their sighted peers. This began as “aid to the needy blind” and progressed to establishing the SC Commission for the Blind in 1966. Other legislation that the NFB of SC was involved in getting passed was the Model White Cane Law in 1972, the right to serve on a jury, to vote independently, to be taught braille, teacher certification in braille, the prevention of set-aside fees for SC blind licensed vendors, culminating in 2014 with the Right to Parent Act. Forty- four bills were enacted by the General Assembly in all. This took strong and dedicated leadership in submitting legislation, coordinating efforts by Federationists who contacted their legislators to request their support, sitting in the Gallery with our white canes to show our legislators the conviction of the membership, and finally seeing various Governors sign these forty-four bills into law. For much of that time, Dr. Donald C. Capps was that leader and catalyst for change. It took all of us participating in the process to make history.
Nationally, each year, 500 or more federationists would travel to Washington DC to similarly address blindness-related legislation being introduced during that particular session. The first Washington Seminar was held in October 1973. In those days issues with the National Accreditation Council (NAC) were of utmost concern. This controversial organization was demeaning to the blind, and struggles with NAC went on for years.
Back to more recent years. The Great Gathering In is usually held at 5:00 p.m. on the first day of the seminar, usually a Sunday in late January or early February. Blind federationists receive information regarding that year’s legislative efforts to present before members of Congress. These issues vary from year to year depending on the legislative needs of the era. Usually there were three or four issues to be sponsored, co-sponsored, or processed through committees in the US House and Senate.
- During the next few days, blind federationists with white canes in hand, tapping through the halls of Congress, meet with their respective state’s House and Senate members to explain the need for each proposed piece of legislation, answer questions, and request the Congressman’s support of the issue. Usually, the winter weather is very cold and at times somewhat snowy. If Federationists could travel from appointment to appointment through the underground passages which run from the House office buildings to the Capitol Building over to the Senate office buildings, harsh weather would not need to be an issue. Sometimes a Congressman’s aid would accompany us to the next appointment if appointment times were close. Those not used to walking these passageways could get lost if not careful. Aside from this, there are many security stations with metal detectors which slow our progress but are necessary for the Capitol Police to protect the members of Congress. After all daily appointments are completed, we rushed back to our hotel to report our results to the NFB for discussion of our legislative progress at a meeting later that evening. On the way home, everyone excitedly discussed their experiences.
This was not the end of our legislative process; however, it was only the beginning. Like our attention to state legislative issues, there was much follow up in making sure the issues presented ultimately became law.
I have said all of this in order to introduce to you our 2021 Washington Seminar. Because of continued COVID-19 restrictions, all of the above was carried out over the ZOOM platform. In South Carolina, in early January, David Houck, Executive Director of the Federation Center of the Blind, contacted our South Carolina Congressional delegation in order to find out who our nine House and Senate member’s Schedulers would be, along with their email addresses. Later in January we emailed each Scheduler a letter on our letterhead requesting an appointment with their Congressman/Congresswoman on ZOOM between February 9 and 11, the dates of the 2021 Washington Seminar. We also were requested to list our federationists on ZOOM with us with their hometowns. Between late January and February 9, we received our nine ZOOM meeting appointments.
In the meantime Jennifer Bazer, NFB of SC President was busy coordinating members to ensure all legislation had a Federationist covering it during each and every meeting. She also distributed all four proposed legislation Fact Sheets to the participants. Everyone was encouraged to attend the NFB ZOOM pre-seminar meetings to become familiar with each issue and be prepared to report their progress to the NFB. David Houck reported the date and time of each appointment and the results afterward. President Bazer did an excellent job in conducting a number of NFB of SC ZOOM meetings prior to our presentations and she presided over each of the nine Congressional appointments. On three of our appointments we were able to have the Congressman in attendance. Staffers cannot give actual decisions without the Congressman being notified first. Therefore, if the Congressman is present, he can speak for him/herself, giving us a better idea of what their level of support would be. Following each appointment, the participants discussed how to rate the level of support each issue might receive. By the way, each presenter did an excellent job and the personal experiences made were well received. They included David Rebocho, Melanie Torrance, Shannon Cook, Neel Sheth, Bailey Hightower, Wallace Stuckey, and Matthew Duffell-Hoffman. There were anywhere from 19 up to 33 participants and supporters with each appointment, giving many who never attended a Washington Seminar an idea of what it is really like. The four issues discussed are as follows:
Access Technology Affordability Act –The cost of needed access technology is out of reach for most blind Americans. With a $2,000 tax credit over a three-year period, blind Americans can purchase more expensive assistive technologies like JAWS and braille note takers which are expensive, being offset by the tax credit. Introduction of the Access Technology Affordability Act (ATAA) (H.R. 431) in the United States House of Representatives by Select Revenue Measures Subcommittee Chairman Mike Thompson (D-CA-5) and Representative Mike Kelly (R-PA-16). Introduced in the Senate as S.212.
Medical Device Nonvisual Accessibility Act – Calls on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to promulgate nonvisual accessibility standards for home-use medical devices, giving full access to the blind. The FDA will consult with stakeholders with disabilities and manufacturers and issue a notice of proposed rulemaking no later than twelve months after the date of enactment of the act. No later than 24 months after the date of enactment of the act, the FDA will publish the final rule including the nonvisual accessibility standards.
Twenty-First Century Mobile Apps and Website Accessibility Act – Direct the US Access Board to promulgate accessibility regulations. The US Access Board will have 12 months following the enactment of the legislation to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking regarding website and mobile application accessibility, then an additional 12 months to issue the final rule. This requires websites to become fully accessible to the blind.
Americans With Disabilities Voting Rights Act – Ensures that in-person voting is accessible for blind and low-vision voters, requiring the education of state and local election officials and poll workers in the setup and operation of the machines, including accessibility features, and require that vote-by-mail ballots and related voting materials (including voter registration) in elections must be accessible for blind and low-vision individuals.
To sum it all up, together through collective action, “teamwork makes the dream work.”