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 April 30, 2021. Messages 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 are new.
- American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 Passes Congress, Signed by President
- AFB and ACB Applaud Reintroduction of the Disability Access to Transportation Act
- New! FCC Seeks Comments on TBS Petition for Waiver of Audio Description Requirements
- New! ACB Letter Supporting S. 1260
- New! ACB Urges Congress to Amend H.R. 1 and S. 1, Securing Access to Accessible Voting
- New! Virginia Agrees to Provide Accessible Absentee Voting Option for Voters with Print Disabilities
- New! Sens. Casey, Klobuchar, Reps. Scanlon, Raskin Introduce Legislation to Remove Barriers to Voting for Seniors and People with Disabilities
- New! The New $20: A Chance for Accessible Currency
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This week, Congress passed and President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, H.R. 1319.
This bill aims to relieve several key issues brought on by the COVID-19 health and economic crises. A total of $1.9 trillion is allocated in this bill.
Most individuals will receive direct economic impact payments up to $1,400 per individual and $1,400 per dependent. Individuals making up to $75,000 and couples filing jointly making up to $150,000 will receive the full amount per person. Payments will decrease gradually as incomes increase and will phase out completely after a certain threshold. Households will also receive an additional $1,400 per dependent claimed.
Unemployment benefits will continue through September. The bill maintains federal unemployment insurance payments at $300 per week on top of state unemployment payments. The first $10,200 in benefits will not be taxed for households making under $150,000. The bill also increases the amount paid under the Child Tax Credit temporarily to $3,000 for children between the ages of 6 and 17 and $3,600 for children under 6. Eligible families will receive up to $300 per child per month through the end of the year. Payments amount gradually decrease for families making over $150,000 and individuals making over $75,000 a year.
The bill also provides additional funding to safety net programs like the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Programs covered under the Older Americans Act will receive an additional $1.43 billion to address the impact of the pandemic on the health and wellness of older Americans, including those felt by social isolation and economic crises. Additional funding is also provided for rental assistance and emergency vouchers for individuals who experience homelessness or are victims of domestic violence and abuse.
The CDC also receives $7.5 billion for vaccines, treatments, and personal protective equipment to respond to the pandemic. The CDC will receive funding to support vaccination efforts, conduct contact tracing, and purchase personal protective equipment. The bill also requires Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program to cover COVID-19 vaccines and treatment, and the bill provides health insurance premium assistance temporarily for certain plans and insurers.
Over $30 billion has been allocated for small business support, including $7.25 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
The transportation sector also receives funding to support transit costs, airlines, aerospace manufacturing, and airports. $1.5 billion is allocated for Amtrak, including restoring routes and supporting employees.
An additional $128 billion in grants are provided to state educational agencies and local educational agencies to support students and teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Elementary and secondary schools receive money to support distance learning and academic success programs, including those targeted toward students with disabilities and other social disadvantages. Higher education institutions receive $39 billion to support student financial aid and other costs. Childcare agencies, especially those in high need areas, receive additional funding in this provision through block grants. Any student loan forgiveness passed within the next five years would be tax-free and the forgiven debt would not be treated as taxable income.
To read this press release online, visit https://www.afb.org/press-room/press-release-archive/applaud-disability-access-transportation-act-reintroduction.
WASHINGTON (March 10, 2021) — The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB) applaud Representatives Jim Langevin and Dina Titus for reintroducing the Disability Access to Transportation Act (DATA) as H.R. 1697, which would expand and improve transportation, especially paratransit programs, for people with disabilities. The bill was originally introduced in the 116th Congress and included in the House surface transportation legislation in July 2020.
AFB and ACB public policy staff advocated together for the DATA bill before, during, and after the bill’s original introduction in 2020. ACB and AFB together met with members of Congress, including Representative Langevin, to raise specific concerns about paratransit services.
“Equal access to transportation persisted as a barrier to full inclusion for people with disabilities well before the COVID-19 pandemic,” said ACB Executive Director Eric Bridges. “The American Council of the Blind and our nationwide membership applauds Rep. Langevin for his thoughtful approach to enable all Americans to get up and get moving toward greater independence, and we urge the swift passage of the DATA Act.”
“Lack of access to convenient transportation remains one of the biggest barriers to employment, community integration, and healthcare for people who are blind or have low vision,” said Stephanie Enyart, Chief Public Policy and Research Officer at AFB. “The DATA bill takes several important steps to eliminate this barrier. For example, many paratransit agencies require riders to schedule separate rides for every stop and to wait a long time between each ride. The paratransit pilot should encourage transit agencies to find ways to make paratransit a more convenient and effective transportation option. AFB is appreciative of the tools this bill provides for improving our transportation systems for people with disabilities.”
Having few affordable, efficient transportation options inhibits the job opportunities available to people who are blind or have low vision. At present, over half of working-age blind and low vision adults are not in the labor market, compared to only a quarter of Americans without disabilities. These individuals consistently identify transportation as one of the biggest barriers to obtaining employment, accepting jobs that are offered to them, or remaining employed.
In addition, the experiences of blind and low vision adults during the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated the importance of transportation access for food security, health, and education. Sixty-eight percent of respondents to the Flatten Inaccessibility study expressed concerns about access to transportation. The DATA bill looks to the future by expanding opportunities for equitable and convenient transportation recovery as the pandemic subsides.
AFB staff worked closely with Congressman Langevin’s staff to provide information and feedback on the establishment of a one-stop paratransit pilot program, and ACB members lent their many voices of support during this year’s legislative seminar to ensure the bill would be reintroduced.
Under the paratransit pilot program, a rider would be allowed one stop for such purposes as dropping off children at childcare, picking-up subscriptions, or using an ATM. Because paratransit agencies are not federally required to schedule rides less than 90 minutes apart, paratransit riders must spend inordinate amounts of time to accomplish simple but necessary errands. The time burden may prevent people with disabilities from getting to work on time or traveling frequently in their community, and alternatives to paratransit may be inaccessible or prohibitively expensive.
In addition to the paratransit pilot, the bill also addresses other systemic transportation barriers affecting people with disabilities:
- The requirement to implement minimum standards for pedestrian facilities in the public right-of-way, including shared use paths, would eliminate physical barriers in sidewalk and other pedestrian infrastructure design.
- The increase in funding for the Section 5310 grants would expand opportunities to provide transportation services for people with disabilities and older adults.
- Improving Americans with Disabilities Act complaint reporting would ensure people with disabilities can easily report discrimination and facilitate the Department of Transportation taking action to resolve outstanding issues.
- The accessibility data pilot program would improve transportation planning by measuring existing transportation access for people with disabilities and evaluating the result of changes to the transportation system.
AFB and ACB are strongly committed to improving transportation access for blind and low-vision Americans. We thank Representatives Langevin and Titus for introducing this bill, and urge swift passage.
On April 29, 2021, the FCC released a Public Notice seeking comment on TBS’s petition for limited waiver of the requirement to provide 87.5 hours of audio-described programming per calendar quarter. WarnerMedia is requesting this waiver for TBS, because the audio description re-run rule does not adequately count the full quantity of audio description aired by TBS. This waiver request is similar to that sought by NBC-Universal for USA Network in 2019, with two clear differences.
TBS pledges to air at least 1,000 hours of described programming each quarter, equal to that of USA Network. In addition, TBS pledges to average more than 1,400 hours of described programming per quarter over the waiver period.
Second, USA Network agreed to audio describe more than 75% of original programming. In 2019, this was before Apple TV Plus, Disney Plus, and WarnerMedia’s own HBO Max agreed to audio describe 100% of their original content. As a result, WarnerMedia has pledged that TBS will describe 100% of newly produced, non-live programming aired between 6 a.m. and midnight ET within three business days of its receipt from a production company.
Finally, if granted the limited waiver, WarnerMedia commits that it will describe 100% of newly produced, non-live programming aired between 6:00 a.m. and midnight ET within three business days of receipt on TNT and TruTV, TBS sister networks, which are not subject to the Commission’s audio description requirements.
ACB encourages all interested parties to file comments in support of the TBS waiver request. Comments are due by June 1, 2021; and reply comments are due by June 14, 2021. The FCC Public Notice and comment filing instructions for the TBS waiver request are available at: https://www.fcc.gov/ecfs/filing/1033117341846. When filing comments, please include docket number MB: 11-43. If you need assistance filing comments, please email email@example.com.
The FCC Public Notice and comment filing instructions for the TBS waiver request are available at:
April 26, 2021
The Honorable Maria Cantwell, Chairman and
The Honorable Roger Wicker, Ranking Member
U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee
420-A Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Dear Chairman Cantwell and Ranking Member Wicker:
My name is Clark Rachfal, and I am the Director of Advocacy and Governmental Affairs for the American Council of the Blind (ACB). ACB is a nationwide member-driven advocacy organization that strives to increase the security, independence, economic opportunity, and quality of life for people who are blind and experiencing vision loss. Eliminating barriers to transportation and enhancing independent travel are critical to ensuring people with disabilities are integrated in our communities and have equal opportunities to move freely. For these reasons, ACB strongly supports the inclusion and passage of S. 1260 as an amendment to the Endless Frontier Act as offered by Senators Peters and Thune, which would incentivize American companies to test and develop accessible autonomous vehicles.
People with disabilities, including our members who are experiencing vision loss, routinely encounter limited transportation options for independent travel. For those living in an urban environment, people with disabilities are subject to long wait times and unreliable service from public transportation, paratransit services, and discrimination due to their disability or service animals from human drivers. Conversely, Americans with disabilities living in suburban and rural parts of the nation remain physically and mentally isolated with few transportation options. Autonomous vehicles hold the promise of truly on-demand and independent travel for people who are blind. Allowing this technology to flourish under a national testing framework will enhance the transportation options, quality of life, and economic opportunity for people who are blind and experiencing vision loss.
The two most significant measures of this amendment for our members and all Americans living with vision loss are granting the Department of Transportation the authority to provide regulatory exemptions for manufacturers who are promoting transportation access in accordance with Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the prohibition of requiring a driver’s license to operate an autonomous vehicle. These provisions will incentivize U.S. manufacturers of autonomous vehicles to include accessibility for people with disabilities at the forefront of their design, testing, and development process; ensuring that access for people with disabilities is a foregone conclusion and not an afterthought. Additionally, if driver’s licenses are required to own or operate an autonomous vehicle, millions of Americans with disabilities will be prevented from gaining equal access to this transformational technology. For these reasons, ACB urges the Commerce Committee to adopt S. 1260 as an amendment and secure independent travel for all Americans regardless of disability or where they live.
Thank you for the opportunity to provide this letter supporting S. 1260 as an amendment to the Endless Frontier Act. If the Committee has any questions, please contact Clark Rachfal, ACB’s Director of Advocacy and Governmental Affairs: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alexandria, VA – The American Council of the Blind calls on Congress to protect the right to vote for Americans who are blind and visually impaired by removing threatening language in the For the People Act (H.R. 1; S. 1).
“The right to a private and independent vote stands as the cornerstone of our democracy,” said ACB President Dan Spoone. “The innovation in secure electronic voting during the pandemic showed us that there are accessible solutions that allow every voice to be heard.”
While ACB agrees with the spirit of H.R. 1, and its companion bill in the Senate (S. 1), there is deep concern with the “durable paper ballot” mandate included in the legislation, which would eliminate accessible voting options secured through tireless advocacy by ACB and its affiliate leaders in recent years. Such a move would prevent innovation in election technology, barring accessibility gains in the future and silencing the voice of millions of Americans who are blind and visually impaired.
With the option to electronically receive and return an accessible absentee ballot in the 2020 election, voters with a visual impairment were able to vote independently.
“Electronic voting is a game changer for those of us living in a rural state, where getting to the polls is a challenge,” said Donna Brown, president of the Mountain State Council of the Blind. “Denying West Virginians with a visual impairment access to an accessible electronic ballot would deny us the opportunity to exercise our right to vote.”
“Being forced to use a paper ballot would return us to second-class citizen status,” added Chris Bell, president of the North Carolina Council of the Blind, which in 2020 gained ground in the fight for accessible voting by securing the right for electronic receipt and return of election ballots in his state.
ACB urges Congress to amend the For The People Act with the common-sense provisions offered by the National Coalition for Accessible Voting in order to expand equal access to the polls for people with disabilities.
The Commonwealth Agrees to Consent Decree to Include Electronic Ballot Marking beginning with the June 2021 Primary Election
To read the press release online, visit https://acb.org/virginia-accessible-voting-2021.
Alexandria, Va., April 19, 2021 – The Commonwealth of Virginia will permanently make its elections accessible and safe for voters who cannot mark a paper ballot privately and independently due to disabilities such as blindness, beginning with the June 2021 Primary Election.
On July 27, 2020, several voters with disabilities, the American Council of the Blind of Virginia, and the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia filed a complaint in the Eastern District of Virginia against the Commonwealth for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Virginia Disabilities Act.
In August 2020, Virginia agreed to provide an absentee ballot option that is accessible and can be marked electronically so that voters with disabilities could safely vote in the November 2020 general election.
“We are pleased that the Commonwealth of Virginia recognizes that reducing barriers to absentee voting improved the November 2020 election and is committed to offering a secure remote absentee voting option moving forward,” said Maggie Hart, Counsel at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee. “The right to vote is precious and our democracy will only be strengthened by increasing access to the ballot.”
Judge Hilton of the Eastern District of Virginia entered a final consent decree agreed upon by the parties, which extends Virginia’s obligation to provide a remote accessible vote by mail tool for the primary election on June 8, 2021. Virginia will also appoint an ombudsman to assist voters with disabilities to use the accessible electronic ballot. Virginia has also adopted a new voting rights law, which takes effect July 1, 2021, to make the accessible absentee ballot option permanent.
Sam Joehl, president of the American Council of the Blind of Virginia stated: “We are delighted that the Virginia Department of Elections will be implementing an accessible remote ballot marking solution for the July 2021 election, and we commend the legislature for recognizing the need for accessible remote voting by incorporating this mandate into the laws of the state. The recent health pandemic illustrated the criticality for voters with print disabilities to be able to independently cast a remote ballot, which is an option that every other voter can exercise. We stand ready to work with the Board of Elections to widely promote the availability of this solution, and to assist them in educating the local registrars to implement the accessible remote ballot marking system so that those who wish to avail themselves of it can do so without issue.”
“As we fight for accessible absentee and mail-in ballots across several states and in the United States congress, we are pleased that Virginia is among the states where the right of blind voters to mark our absentee ballots safely, privately and independently is secure,” said Tracy Soforenko, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia. “We urge all blind Virginians to exercise this cherished and fundamental right.”
Colleen Miller, the Director of the disAbility Law Center of Virginia, stated, “dLCV is proud to be part of Virginia’s movement towards greater and greater access to voting, especially for people with disabilities. And Virginia can now proudly claim its position as the leader among southern states for voting access.”
“My clients are courageous individuals with print disabilities who can now engage in activities many of us take for granted,” said Steven Hollman of Sheppard Mullin. “That’s why it is especially gratifying to help ensure that they will be able to exercise the most cherished right offered in a democracy – the right to vote privately and independently — on equal terms with other voters.”
The lawsuit was filed by the American Council of the Blind of Virginia, the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia and Carshena Gary, Lori Scharff, Regina Root, Ph.D., Naim Muawia Abu-El Hawa, and John Halverson, Ph.D.
Sens. Casey, Klobuchar, Reps. Scanlon, Raskin Introduce Legislation to Remove Barriers to Voting for Seniors and People with Disabilities
A report to the Election Assistance Commission found that, in 2020, people with disabilities encountered difficulties voting at double the rate compared to people without disabilities
WASHINGTON — U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules & Administration, introduced the Accessible Voting Act, legislation to remove barriers to voting for seniors and people with disabilities. A study by the Government Accountability Office found that combined deficiencies in architectural and voting booth access resulted in only 17 percent of polling places being fully accessible in 2016. The Accessible Voting Act would make polling places and voting systems more accessible, expand options for casting a ballot in federal elections and establish an Office of Accessibility within the Election Assistance Commission, dedicated to overseeing and supporting state efforts to make voting more accessible. This legislation is co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR).
“The right to vote is one of the fundamental pillars of American democracy. That right is jeopardized when seniors and people with disabilities are pushed to the margins by barriers that prevent or make it hard for them to cast their ballots,” said Senator Casey. “The Accessible Voting Act would remove these barriers and support the ongoing efforts by state and local agencies to make voting a truly equitable and accessible process.”
“The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy, but exercising that right is not possible for too many Americans. Inaccessible polling places and voting booths, limited access to transportation, insufficient options for casting ballots, and inaccessible voter information websites are all obstacles to voting for millions of Americans,” Senator Klobuchar said. “The Accessible Voting Act would help ensure that we remove barriers to voting for citizens with disabilities, the elderly, Native Americans, and those with limited English proficiency. Our democracy works best when all citizens can make their voices heard at the ballot box.”
“The right to vote is the bedrock of our democracy, but too often Americans face unnecessary barriers to accessing the ballot box,” said Rep. Scanlon. “When it comes to voting rights, older Americans and Americans with disabilities are frequently overlooked. The Accessible Voting Act will support states in the important work of improving voter accessibility, and make it easier for older Americans and people with disabilities to get voting information, request mail-in ballots, and access voter registration and absentee ballot applications. We must ensure that every eligible American can exercise their right to vote without undue burden.”
“The Accessible Voting Act is absolutely essential for the 14 million people living with disabilities, for the quarter of the population that is now over age 65, for Native Americans and Alaska Natives, indigenous peoples, and others who have traditionally faced accessibility obstacles, language barriers, and discrimination within our voting system,” said Congressman Jamie Raskin (D-MD). “I’m proud our legislation will address these systemic deficiencies so we can make sure everyone is able to vote regardless of a disability, where you live, or what language you speak.”
“No one should be denied the right to vote due to disability, age, or minority status. The Accessible Voting Act would expand voting access and establish new protections for millions of Americans who encounter persistent and widespread barriers to exercising their right to vote privately and independently, including voters with disabilities and older Americans. Our democracy works best when every eligible voter can cast their ballot and have their votes counted. The Accessible Voting Act can get us closer to that goal,” said Chris Anders, Director of the ACLU’s Democracy Division.
“Despite existing federal law protecting the rights of people with disabilities, far too often, these rights are overlooked and forgotten in our electoral process. The Accessible Voting Act seeks to bolster the protections for voters with disabilities, as established by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Help America Vote Act, and ensure equitable access to every American voter in our democracy for years to come,” said Curt Decker, executive director, National Disability Rights Network.
The Accessible Voting Act would also:
- Create a national resource center on accessible voting to conduct cultural competency trainings for election officials and poll workers;
- Establish a new state grant program for the Office of Accessibility to provide dedicated funding to improve accessibility to voting; and
- Provide voting information and resources through accessible websites so voters know how to register to vote and cast a ballot.
by Dan Spoone
This article was first published in “The Hill,” https://tinyurl.com/24y4wjdf.
On a cool spring morning in 1821, behind the damp stone walls of a former prison from the French Revolution, a young boy blinded by an awl in his father’s harness shop would sit down at his desk in Paris at the Institut National des Aveugles (National Institute for the Blind) and begin to move his fingers across a series of raised dots that would revolutionize how people who were blind would communicate. As the young French boy began to work out the pattern of dots that would forever bear his name, a young girl born into the chains of slavery 3,700 miles away, along the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, would take her first steps — steps that would someday lead her on a sojourn of liberation.
Even though the two children lived worlds apart across the Atlantic Ocean, their spirits are closely tied together two centuries later as the Biden administration considers the introduction of the first new paper currency redesign in well over a decade. The proposed redesign is for the $20 note, which is slated to bear the face of Harriet Tubman, a historic leader of the Underground Railroad who carried slaves to freedom for decades during the years that led up to the Civil War.
What many may not know is that while the new proposed paper currency will celebrate Harriet’s legacy of liberation, a federal court ruling in 2008 also requires the next paper currency issued by the U.S. Treasury be made accessible for individuals who are blind and visually impaired.
It was Louis Braille who showed the world that people who are blind did not need to be left in institutions, but they could become literate and productive members of society. His technique of reading with the tips of the fingers was as revolutionary for people who were blind as the Gutenberg Press was for people who were sighted. As Harriet Tubman liberated people with her feet, Louis Braille liberated people with the pads of their fingertips.
You may not notice it. But today, tactile information conveyed through the fingers is all around us: on keyboards and keypads, elevators and bank machines, building entrances and even the plastic lids of fast-food soda cups. However, one place it has never been is on the face of U.S. paper currency, even though Congress required 48 years ago that all federal programs and services be made accessible for people who are blind and visually impaired. Since the 2008 court ruling, the U.S. Treasury has tried time and time again to stall efforts to make the next paper note accessible for Americans who are blind. Its reasons and rationale are weak at best, especially when every other developed country in the world has been able to create accessible paper currency. Presently, there are 81 countries that have figured this out. So, too, should the United States.