[Greater-baltimore] Fw: Legislative Agenda of Blind Americans: Priorities for the 111th Congress
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Mon Jan 26 15:27:31 UTC 2009
As President Riccobono announced earlier, Maryland will be visiting our Representatives in Washington on Tuesday February 10th. Please read the information below so that you are informed of the issues.
----- Original Message -----
From: LPovinelli at aol.com
Sent: Monday, January 19, 2009 12:38 AM
Subject: Legislative Agenda of Blind Americans: Priorities for the 111th Congress
Legislative Agenda of Blind Americans:
Priorities for the 111th Congress, FIRST Session
The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) is the oldest and largest organization of blind people in the United States. As the Voice of the Nation’s Blind, we present the collective views of blind people throughout society. All of our leaders and the vast majority of our members are blind, but anyone can participate in our movement. There are an estimated 1.3 million blind people in the United States, and every year approximately 75,000 Americans become blind. The social and economic consequences of blindness affect not only blind people, but also our families, our friends, and our coworkers.
Three legislative initiatives demand the immediate attention of the 111th Congress in its first session:
1. We urge Congress to ensure the safety of blind and other pedestrians by passing the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act. This legislation would require the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to:
· Begin a study within ninety days of its enactment to determine the most practical means of assuring that blind and other pedestrians receive essentially similar information to what they now receive from sound emitted by internal combustion engines;
· Determine the minimum amount of sound necessary to offer sufficient information for blind pedestrians to make safe travel judgments based on appropriate scientific research and consultation with blind Americans and other affected groups;
· Within two years of beginning the study, promulgate a motor vehicle safety standard to address the needs of blind and other pedestrians by requiring either a minimum level of sound or an equally effective means of providing the same information as is available from hearing internal combustion engines; and
· Apply the standard to all motor vehicles manufactured or sold in the United States beginning no later than two years after the date it is promulgated.
2. We urge Congress to work with blind Americans to create a Technology Bill of Rights for the Blind that mandates consumer electronics, home appliances, and office equipment to provide user interfaces that are accessible through nonvisual means. This legislation should:
· Mandate that all consumer electronics, home appliances, and office equipment be designed so that blind people can access the same functions as sighted people through nonvisual means and with substantially equivalent ease of use;
· Create a commission comprised of essential stakeholders to establish standards for nonvisual accessibility of electronic devices intended for use in the home or office;
· Endow the commission with enforcement powers or locate it within a government agency having such powers; and
· Authorize it to reexamine and rewrite standards to keep pace with the evolution of consumer electronic technology.
3. We urge Congress to promote and facilitate the transition by blind Americans from recipients of Social Security Disability Insurance benefits to income-earning, taxpaying, productive members of the American workforce by enacting legislation to:
· Replace the monthly earnings penalty with a graduated 3-for-1 phase-out (i.e., a $1 reduction in benefits for each $3 earned above the limit);
· Replace the monthly earnings test with an annualized earnings test with an amount equal to twelve times. Substantial Gainful Activity amount; and
· Establish an impairment-related work expense deduction for blind Social Security Disability Insurance beneficiaries equal to the amount applicable for this deduction when determining an appropriate income subsidy under Medicare Part D or 16.3 percent of earnings, whichever is greater.
For more information about these priorities, please consult the attached fact sheets.
Blind Americans need your help to achieve our goals of economic security, increased opportunity, and full integration into American society on a basis of equality. Enactment of these legislative proposals will represent important steps toward reaching these goals. We need the help and support of each member of Congress. Our success benefits not only us, but the whole of America as well. In this time of national economic insecurity, these measures will contribute to increasing the tax base and encouraging the purchase of consumer goods.
ENHANCING PEDESTRIAN SAFETY: ENSURING THE BLIND CAN CONTINUE TO TRAVEL SAFELY AND INDEPENDENTLY
Purpose: To require hybrid, electric, and other vehicles to emit a minimum level of sound to alert blind and other pedestrians of their presence.
Background: Until recently independent travel for the blind has been a relatively simple matter, once a blind person has been trained in travel techniques and has learned to use a white cane or travel with a guide dog. Blind people listen to the sounds of automobile engines to determine the direction, speed, and pattern of traffic. Sounds from traffic tell blind pedestrians how many vehicles are near them and how fast they are moving, whether the vehicles are accelerating or decelerating, and whether the vehicles are traveling toward, away from, or parallel to them. With all of this information, blind people can accurately determine when it is safe to advance into an intersection or across a driveway or parking lot. The information obtained from listening to traffic sounds allows blind people to travel with complete confidence and without assistance. Studies have shown that sighted pedestrians also use this information when traveling.
Over the past few years, however, vehicles that are completely silent in certain modes of operation have come on the market, and many more silent vehicles are expected in the near future. These vehicles are designed to have many benefits, including improved fuel efficiency and reduced emissions, but they do not need to be silent in order to achieve these intended benefits. An unintended consequence of these vehicles as they are currently designed is that they will reduce the independence of blind Americans and endanger the lives, not only of blind people, but also of small children, seniors, cyclists, and runners.
Currently the most popular of these vehicles is the gasoline-electric hybrid, which alternates between running on a gasoline engine and on battery power (although a few electric automobiles are already on America’s roads and new all-electric models are planned). The blind of America do not oppose the proliferation of vehicles intended to reduce damage to the environment, but for safety these vehicles must meet a minimum sound standard.
On April 9, 2008, Congressmen Ed Towns and Cliff Stearns introduced H.R. 5734 (the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2008). This legislation sought to solve the problem of silent cars by authorizing a two-year study to determine the best method for allowing blind individuals to recognize the presence of silent cars, and by requiring that, two years after the study was completed, all new vehicles sold in the United States must comply with the solution determined by the study. In the 110th Congress, eighty-eight members of the House cosponsored this legislation.
Need for Congressional Action: For several years the National Federation of the Blind has been concerned about the proliferation of silent vehicles. Recently automobile manufacturers have acknowledged the problems posed to blind pedestrians by silent vehicle technology and have begun to work with the National Federation of the Blind to seek solutions. However, federal regulators have indicated that, in the absence of statistics on injuries or deaths caused by hybrid vehicles, nothing can be done. Congress must therefore direct the Department of Transportation to take action. It is crucial that this problem be addressed before the inevitable avalanche of tragedies involving blind people, small children, seniors, cyclists, runners, and newly blinded veterans shocks the nation.
Proposed Legislation: Congressmen Towns and Stearns have reintroduced the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act to direct the Secretary of Transportation to conduct a study and establish a motor vehicle safety standard that provides a means of alerting blind and other pedestrians of motor vehicle operation, based on appropriate scientific research and consultation with blind Americans and other affected groups. This national motor vehicle safety standard must have the following characteristics:
a.. In all phases of operation (including times when the vehicle is at a full stop) vehicles shall be required to emit an omni-directional sound with similar spectral characteristics to those of a modern internal combustion engine.
b.. The sound should vary in a way that is consistent with the sound of vehicles with combustion engines to indicate whether the vehicle is idling, maintaining a constant speed, accelerating, or decelerating.
The standard need not prescribe the apparatus, technology, or method to be used by vehicle manufacturers to achieve the required minimum sound level. This approach will encourage manufacturers to use innovative and cost-effective techniques to achieve the minimum sound standard.
The addition of components to emit a minimum sound discernible by blind and other pedestrians will not negatively affect environmental benefits of gasoline-electric hybrids and other automobiles running on alternate power sources, and the emitted sound need not be loud enough to contribute to noise pollution. Automobiles that operate in complete silence, however, endanger the safety of all of us; silent operation should be viewed as a design flaw comparable to the lack of seat belts or air bags.
Requested Action: Please support blind Americans by cosponsoring the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act to authorize the U.S. Department of Transportation to establish and promulgate regulations specifying a minimum sound standard for all new automobiles sold in the United States. In the House of Representatives, members can be added by contacting Emily Khoury in Congressman Towns’s office, or James Thomas in Congressman Stearns’s office. In the Senate members can support independence for blind Americans by sponsoring companion legislation.
Government Programs Specialist
NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND
Phone: (410) 659-9314, extension 2233
Email: jhartle at nfb.org
A TECHNOLOGY BILL OF RIGHTS FOR THE BLIND
Purpose: To create a Technology Bill of Rights for the Blind that mandates consumer electronics, home appliances, and office equipment to provide user interfaces that are accessible through nonvisual means.
Background: In recent years rapid advances in microchip and digital technology have led to increasingly complex user interfaces for everyday products like consumer electronics, home appliances, and office equipment. Many new devices in these categories require user interaction with visual displays, on-screen menus, touch screens, and other user interfaces that are inaccessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision. No longer are settings on the television, home stereo system, or dishwasher controlled by knobs, switches, and buttons that can be readily identified and whose settings can be easily discerned, with or without the addition of tactile markings by the user. Moreover, the use of inaccessible interfaces on office equipment such as copiers and fax machines makes these devices unusable by the blind and therefore a potential threat to a blind person’s existing job or a barrier to obtaining new employment.
This growing threat to the independence and productivity of blind people is unnecessary since digital devices can function without inaccessible interfaces. Today text-to-speech technology is inexpensive and more nearly ubiquitous than it has ever been; it is used in everything from automated telephone systems to the weather forecasting service broadcast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Indeed, a few manufacturers have incorporated this technology into their products to create talking menus or to articulate what is on the display; there is no reason why other manufacturers cannot do so as well. And text-to-speech technology is not the only mechanism by which consumer electronics, home appliances, and office equipment can be made accessible to blind people.
Need for Legislation: Currently there are no enforceable mandates for manufacturers of consumer electronics, home appliances, or office equipment to make their devices accessible and no accessibility standards to provide guidance to manufacturers on how to avoid creating barriers to access by the blind. Congress should therefore enact a Technology Bill of Rights for the Blind, which clearly establishes that manufacturers must create accessible user interfaces for their products, provide a means for enforcement, and establish standards that will provide meaningful benchmarks that manufacturers can use to make their products accessible.
Congress need not mandate a single, one-size-fits-all solution for all consumer technology. Rather any such legislation should mandate regulations that set meaningful accessibility standards, while at the same time allowing manufacturers to select from a menu of potential solutions that, singly or in combination, will allow blind users to operate the technology easily and successfully. This will not only give manufacturers the freedom and flexibility they desire, but encourage innovations that make consumer technology more usable for everyone.
Proposed Legislation: Congress should enact a Technology Bill of Rights for the Blind that:
a.. Mandates that all consumer electronics, home appliances, and office equipment be designed so that blind people are able to access the same functions as sighted people by nonvisual means and with substantially equivalent ease of use; and
a.. Creates a commission to establish standards for nonvisual accessibility of electronic devices intended for use in the home or office. Such a commission should represent all stakeholders, including organizations of the blind; manufacturers of consumer electronics, home appliances, and office equipment or associations representing such manufacturers; and experts on universal design, electronic engineering, and related fields. This commission should have enforcement powers or be housed within a government agency having such powers (e.g., U.S. Department of Commerce), and should be authorized to reexamine and rewrite standards periodically, as consumer electronic technology continues to evolve.
Requested Action: Please support blind Americans by introducing legislation to create a Technology Bill of Rights for the Blind (or by cosponsoring once legislation has been introduced) so that blind people will be able to participate fully in all aspects of American society. Increased access leads to increased independence, increased employment, and increased tax revenue.
Government Programs Specialist
NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND
Phone: (410) 659-9314, extension 2240
Email: jmccarthy at nfb.org
REMOVING THE EARNINGS PENALTY: A COMMON SENSE WORK INCENTIVE FOR BLIND SOCIAL SECURITY BENEFICIARIES
Purpose: To promote and facilitate the transition by blind Americans from Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) beneficiaries to income-earning, taxpaying, productive members of the American workforce.
Background: The unemployment rate for working-age blind people is over 70 percent. Part of the reason for this disproportionately high statistic is the myths and misconceptions about the true capacities of blind people. These erroneous perceptions are manifested when employers refuse to hire the blind.
In addition, governmental programs intended to help blind people meet their basic economic needs, especially the SSDI program, have had the unintended consequence of creating an incentive for blind people to remain unemployed or underemployed despite their desire to work. Low societal expectations result in low representation of the blind in the workforce. This low representation of the blind reinforces low societal expectations—it is a vicious circle that perpetuates systemic employment discrimination against the blind.
Despite the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind, blindness still has profound social and economic consequences. Governmental programs should encourage blind people to reach their full employment potential; they should not encourage economic dependence.
Existing Law: Title II of the Social Security Act provides that disability benefits paid to blind beneficiaries are eliminated if the beneficiary exceeds a monthly earnings limit. This earnings limit is in effect a penalty imposed on blind Americans when they work. This penalty imposed by the SSDI program means that, if a blind person earns just $1 over $1,640 (the monthly limit in 2009 following a Trial Work Period), all benefits are lost.
Section 216(i)(1)(B) of the Social Security Act defines blindness as a disability based on objective measurement of acuity and visual field, as opposed to the subjective criterion of inability to perform Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA). For blind people, doing work valued at the SGA earnings limit terminates benefits but does not terminate disability. Only blind people not working or those with work earnings below an annually adjusted statutory earnings limit receive benefits.
Need for Legislation: When a blind person enters the workforce, there is no guarantee that wages earned will replace SSDI benefits after taxes are paid and work expenses are deducted. For example, Jane worked as a customer service representative with an annual income of $35,000 until she became blind from diabetic retinopathy. Jane meets the criteria for SSDI benefits, which provide income of $1,060 a month (or $12,720 a year) tax-free while she is not working. Jane wants additional income to meet her financial needs. After an adjustment period and blindness skills training, she finds employment as a part-time representative making $10 an hour for 35 hours a week. Jane grosses $350 a week for an average of $1,517 a month. Using a conservative 25 percent withholding tax, Jane nets $1,137.50 from her work, combined with her $1,060 disability benefit, for a net total of $2,197.50 a month. If Jane should have the opportunity to work full time (40 hours), her weekly salary would go up to $400 a week for a monthly average of $1,733. This amount is over the 2009 earnings limit, so Jane loses all of her disability benefits. Using the same 25 percent tax level, Jane nets only $1,300 a month—working an extra five hours a week has cost Jane $897.50 net income (over $10,500 a year). This example illustrates the work disincentive contained in current law.
A gradual reduction of $1 in benefits for every $3 earned over the earnings limit would remove the earnings penalty and provide a financial incentive to work. The benefit amount paid to an individual will gradually decrease, while the individual’s contribution to the Social Security trust fund increases over time. Under this approach, as Jane earns more, she pays more into the trust fund, and her dependence on benefits decreases.
Monthly earnings evaluations are unnecessarily complicated for both the beneficiaries and the Social Security Administration. Since the medical prognosis for blind people rarely changes, and because blindness is objectively measurable, blind people should be subject to an annual earnings test with the limit equal to the twelve times applicable monthly SGA amount.
Under current law blind workers frequently pay for items and services related to their disabilities that are necessary for them to work, and they are permitted to subtract these Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWE) from monthly earnings when determining monthly income. Properly crediting IRWE poses a serious challenge to the SSDI program and creates a lack of predictability for the blind person trying to determine whether benefits will be available. To address both issues, Congress should permit SSDI recipients to claim the same amount used when determining an income subsidy under the Medicare prescription drug program, currently 16.3 percent.
Congress should enact legislation to:
· Provide that earnings of blind SSDI beneficiaries in excess of the annual earnings limit result in a gradual benefit reduction of $1 for each $3 earned over the limit;
· Establish an annual earnings test for blind SSDI beneficiaries; and
· Establish one standard IRWE deduction for blind SSDI beneficiaries equal to the amount presently applicable for this deduction when determining an appropriate income subsidy under the Medicare prescription drug program or 16.3 percent of earnings, whichever is greater.
Requested Action: Please support blind Americans by cosponsoring legislation that provides a common sense work incentive for blind Social Security beneficiaries.
Government Programs Specialist
NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND
Phone: (410) 659-9314, extension 2240
Email: jmccarthy at nfb.org
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