[Nfbc-info] Social Security told to modernize for the blind

ckrugman at sbcglobal.net ckrugman at sbcglobal.net
Thu Oct 22 06:12:20 UTC 2009

Social Security told to modernize for the blind

Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

(10-20) 17:17 PDT SAN FRANCISCO -- The Social Security Administration must give the nation's 3 million blind or visually impaired recipients the option
of receiving benefit notices in braille or by audio computer disc, a federal judge in San Francisco said Tuesday.

Ruling in a nationwide class-action suit, U.S. District Judge William Alsup said that by sending notices only by mail and phone calls, the agency is violating
a law that guarantees the disabled equal access to its programs. He ordered the government to make the additional choices available by April 15.

The case involves some of the 100 million notices the Social Security Administration sends each year to its 61 million beneficiaries, advising them of scheduled
appointments, program changes, tax filings and possible benefit cuts. 

About 250,000 Americans receive benefits because of blindness, and another 2.7 million blind or sight-impaired people get Social Security for other reasons.

Under rules authorized by Congress in 1988 and 1990, they can choose to be notified of agency actions by mail, with a follow-up phone call, or by certified
mail with a return receipt. Those who make no choice are contacted by mail without a phone call.

Alsup said the current system may have been effective 20 years ago, but no longer provides the "meaningful access" the law requires, in light of advanced

Little evidence was presented that blind people had lost benefits because of inadequate notice, Alsup said, but the current system is ineffective for at
least some recipients.

For example, he said, a blind person who needs to respond to a written notice must wait until someone is available to read it aloud, and may have problems
meeting government deadlines.

Alsup said the Social Security Administration refused to acknowledge that it was even covered by the anti-discrimination law until after the suit was filed
in 2005, and "has been quick to find lame excuses for noncompliance."

The agency must inform all blind and visually impaired recipients by Dec. 31 that they will have the choice of getting notices in braille or by Microsoft
Word CD in mid-April, Alsup said. He said those who want another option, such as notification by e-mail, must be allowed to request it and show why they
need it.

"This is a huge benefit," said attorney Silvia Yee of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. She said
the ruling will allow many recipients "to have an independence in working with the (Social Security Administration) that they've never had before."

Many sight-impaired recipients, particularly the young and those who become blind later in life, can't read braille, Yee said, "but for people who do read
braille, it's their first choice." She said the CD option would particularly help younger recipients.

Lowell Kepke, spokesman for the Social Security Administration's regional office in Richmond, said the agency "will review the order and take whatever actions
are appropriate."

E-mail Bob Egelko at 
begelko at sfchronicle.com.


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