by Sharon Maneki
“What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like.” This is a popular protest chant used to express dissatisfaction with everything from economic inequality to the failure to control gun violence. The origin of this chant is believed to be at the World Trade protests in Seattle in 1999. This chant has become more popular recently. This slogan was prominent during the Women’s March of January 2017 and most recently at the March for Our Lives protest in March 2018.
What does democracy look like in the National Federation of the Blind? There are many answers to this question, but one of the best answers is the resolutions process at National Convention. In his November 19, 1863, Gettysburg address, President Abraham Lincoln gave one of the best definitions of democracy. He said: “…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
The resolutions process meets Lincoln’s definition of democracy. This process is both by and of the people. Anyone can present a resolution to the committee provided that he or she abides by the rules. The chairman of the committee must receive the resolution two weeks before the committee meeting. If the individual misses that deadline, he can present the resolution to the chairman up to an hour before the meeting if three committee members agree that the resolution should come forward. The committee does not consider a resolution if there is no spokesman for it at the meeting.
The hallmark of democracy is participation by the people. The thirty-member resolutions committee always consists of a cross section of leaders from throughout the country. I was appointed chairman of the committee by President Riccobono and was ably assisted by Marsha Dyer, a member of the national staff for twenty-eight years. The committee’s job is to consider, debate, and then vote each resolution up or down. If the committee kills a resolution, it can still be brought to the Convention if the delegates from five states sponsor it. The Convention is the supreme authority of the Federation and has the final say on each resolution. If the Convention approves the resolution, that resolution becomes part of our policies. As you can see, the membership fully participates in the resolutions process.
This year the committee sent twenty resolutions to the Convention for its consideration on July 7, 2018. After some spirited discussion, the Convention passed all twenty of them. An examination of the subject of each resolution will demonstrate that they conform to the last criteria of Lincoln’s definition of democracy as they are for the people with blindness. The resolutions fall into two broad categories, expressing our views to various types of entities and resolutions dealing with information technology. It is interesting to note that five resolutions condemn and deplore the actions of various entities, a higher number than in most years.
The most unusual resolution that the Convention passed this year was Resolution 2018-20. It was unusual because of its subject matter. In this resolution, we commend CBS television for its portrayal of blindness on the NCIS show. CBS not only cast a blind actor as a blind character but also consulted with the National Federation of the Blind about the most authentic way to present Annie Barth, the blind character. We hope that the entertainment industry will follow CBS’s lead. Deepa Goraya, who won a national scholarship in 2010 and is second vice president of the Potomac Chapter of the NFB of Virginia and also serves as one of the legislative directors for the affiliate, proposed this resolution.
Lynn Heitz, president of the NFB of Pennsylvania, sponsored Resolution 2018-02. Accreditation, the subject of this resolution, was familiar to longtime Federationists because we have been passing resolutions about this subject since 1971. We needed another resolution this year because the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC) “…transferred all of its remaining assets, $85,554, to AER, on June 30, 2018.” AER is now trying to follow the exclusionary practices of NAC. In this resolution we “…condemn and deplore the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired for its insulting gesture of tokenism toward the blind in the formation of its National Accreditation Council.” This resolution also states: “…we do not oppose proper accreditation properly done.”
It is customary to have resolutions about the US Congress at every National Convention. The Convention passed three resolutions that urge the US Congress to take action this year. In Resolution 2018-01, “...this organization condemn and deplore the action of 103 members of Congress who have asked the Department of Justice to exempt public accommodations from their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. We also call upon these members of Congress to withdraw their signatures from the letter immediately.” Greg Aikens, president of the NFB of Georgia, sponsored this resolution.
Ellana Crew, president of the Maryland Association of Blind Students and a summer intern at the Jernigan Institute, introduced Resolution 2018-06. In this resolution “…this organization condemn and deplore the passage of H.R. 620 by the United States House of Representatives.” H.R. 620, the “ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017” would severely weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act through its Notice and Cure provisions. Businesses would no longer have to comply fully with the ADA. They would be required to show only “substantial progress,” a term never defined in the bill. In this resolution we also urge the United States Senate to oppose H.R. 620 or any similar legislation.
In Resolution 2018-12, we urge the United States Senate to act quickly to pass the A/V Start Act, S.1885, that “…would prohibit states from imposing discriminatory licensing requirements, require manufacturers to provide information on their human-machine interface technology in their safety reports, and create a working group specifically tasked with promulgating recommendations on accessibility issues for people with disabilities.” When Gary Allen, president of the NFB of Connecticut, introduced this resolution, he reminded us of the dearth of public transportation and the opportunities that self-driving vehicles could provide to the blind.
The Convention passed five resolutions concerning entities in the executive branch of the US government. These resolutions are either reactions to proposed rules or reactions to problems in administration. Marion Gwizdala, president of the National Association of Guide Dog Users, proposed Resolution 2018-10. The US Department of Transportation recently released an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking on the Air Carrier Access Act concerning the carriage of trained service animals and untrained emotional support animals. These proposed rules are vague and could lead to discriminatory practices. In Resolution 2018-10, “…this organization urge the United States Department of Transportation to promulgate regulations that are harmonized with the Americans with Disabilities Act and are sufficiently detailed so that they are not open to subjective interpretation.”
The Convention passed two resolutions regarding the US Department of Education. On March 5, 2018, the US Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, issued a new case processing manual for its investigators. These new procedures severely restrict the rights of complainants who are seeking assistance in eliminating discriminatory practices by all levels of educational institutions. In Resolution 2018-08, we not only condemn and deplore the actions of the US Department of Education and its Office of Civil Rights but also demand that the Department immediately halt the implementation of the changes outlined in this new manual. Matt Langland, second vice president of the Metro Chapter of the NFB of Minnesota and a summer intern at the Jernigan Institute, introduced this resolution.
Terry Smith, first vice president of the NFB of Tennessee, proposed Resolution 2018-16. It was most appropriate for Terry to bring this resolution to the committee because of his experience working for the Entrepreneurs Program of the National Association of Blind Merchants. The US Department of Education through the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) has oversight responsibilities for the Randolph-Sheppard program. This resolution describes the delays and backlogs in approving state rules and policies and in handling arbitration cases caused by RSA. In this resolution we also demand that the Department immediately remedy these problems and prevent future occurrences.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was the subject of two resolutions passed by the Convention this year. Joel Zimba, who was an access technology specialist at the Jernigan Institute but now works for HumanWare, proposed Resolution 2018-03. The FCC created the Lifeline program, which provides a free cell phone to seniors and other low-income individuals, including persons with disabilities. Unfortunately, the eligibility process is complex and time-consuming. Most of the free cell phones are inaccessible to the blind. In this resolution we call upon the FCC to create guidelines that ensure that Lifeline consumers receive accessible devices and the necessary training to use these devices.
In Resolution 2018-17, “…this organization demand that the FCC require audio description on live programming of all types.” This resolution came about in part because Comcast and NBC-Universal recently set a precedent of providing live audio description of the Olympics and Paralympics. Grace Anderson, vice president of the Alabama Association of Blind Students and a summer intern at the Jernigan Institute, introduced this resolution.
The remaining ten resolutions deal with accessibility. The Convention passed three resolutions concerning accessibility to voting. Lou Ann Blake, deputy director of the Jernigan Institute, proposed two of these voting resolutions. Too many voters with disabilities face discrimination and are deprived of their right to a secret ballot. Ballots that are marked using an electronic ballot marking device (BMD) are identifiable because they are different in size and content from hand-marked ballots. In Resolution 2018-05, “…this organization demand that election technology developers design and manufacture BMDs that produce ballots which are the same size and have the same content as hand-marked ballots. We also demand that state and local boards of elections that have procured BMDs which produce ballots that are different in size and content from hand-marked ballots, implement procedures that will ensure voters with disabilities have the same opportunity to cast a secret ballot as voters without disabilities.”
More and more state and local governments are adopting vote by mail systems. In Resolution 2018-13, we reminded these jurisdictions that they should ensure accessibility for voters with disabilities when implementing a vote by mail system. Lou Ann Blake also introduced this resolution.
Stephen Handschu, a long-time leader in the Michigan affiliate, proposed Resolution 2018-09. In this resolution we commend VOTEC Corporation for its leadership in developing an accessible pollbook system and urge other manufacturers of voting technology to implement nonvisually accessible pollbooks. A pollbook, which contains a voter’s name and address, is used to verify whether an individual is eligible to vote. In this resolution we also demand, “that all election jurisdictions that plan to use or are already using electronic pollbooks to purchase accessible election pollbooks as soon as they become available.”
The next three resolutions contain instructions to federal and state governments concerning accessibility. For many years blind citizens have been unable to obtain most forms and documents from federal agencies because the agencies used inaccessible PDF formats. The accessibility problems would be solved if agencies used the HTML5-based format. In Resolution 2018-07, we call upon all federal agencies to adopt policies requiring that all documents and forms be produced in HTML5-based formats by December 31, 2020. We also call upon these agencies to replace currently used forms and documents by converting them to the HTML5-based format. Janae Burgmeier, a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Blind Students and vice president of the Iowa Association of Blind Students, sponsored this resolution.
Rocky Hart, a high school student at the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind, who was attending his first national convention sponsored Resolution 2018-15. Blind students at all levels struggle because the eLearning tools used in their classrooms are frequently inaccessible. In this resolution, “…this organization demand that schools and local education agencies require educational technology vendors to confirm the accessibility of their products prior to purchase and to assume cost and liability for any technology found to be inaccessible after purchase.”
The US Postal Service recently initiated the Informed Delivery Service Program to help residential consumers keep track of incoming mail and packages. Unfortunately, this program is inaccessible to the blind because it uses an image to display the status of mail. In Resolution 2018-19, we strongly urge the US Postal Service to make the Informed Delivery Service Program accessible quickly and to institute procedures to prevent the deployment of inaccessible services in the future. This resolution had two sponsors, Latonya Phipps and Ronza Othman. Latonya is a leader in the NFB of Maryland who won a national scholarship in 1994. Ronza Othman is chairman of the Blind Federal Employees Committee, a member of the board of directors of the Maryland affiliate, and she won a national scholarship in 2006.
The remaining four resolutions contain instructions to various software developers regarding accessibility. Epic Systems Corporation is a leader in the electronic health records industry. In Resolution 2018-04, “…this organization condemn and deplore Epic for incorporating gratuitous accessibility barriers in its health information software, for failing to commit to resolving these access barriers, and for perpetuating discrimination against blind health care employees.” We also demand that Epic immediately remove all accessibility barriers to employment for the blind. Syed Rizvi, first vice president of the National Association of Blind Students and winner of a national scholarship in 2016, introduced this resolution.
The remaining three resolutions address specific concerns with various software developers. Melissa Carney, secretary of the National Association of Blind Students, president of the Connecticut Association of Blind Students, and the winner of a national scholarship in 2017 introduced Resolution 2018-11. Apple, Google and Microsoft have Braille display support built into their operating systems. While we appreciate this action, these companies should do more. The resolution states: “…we strongly urge these companies to increase the priority given to developments in Braille access and to ensure that updates to their operating systems do not result in regression for Braille users.” Since Braille support in Android has been stagnant for more than two years, “…we call upon Google to demonstrate measurable and significant progress in the implementation of Braille in the Android platform by July 1, 2019.”
Resolution 2018-14 promotes the use of EPUB3 over the PDF format because of its accessibility features: “…this organization commend Apple for its robust implementation of ‘Save as EPUB’ in Pages.” We also “…call upon other major authoring tool developers to include, improve, or simplify the creation of EPUB3 documents in current and future updates.” Mausam Mehta, who was attending her second convention and will be a freshman at the University of Virginia, sponsored this resolution.
In the past we have enacted resolutions about inaccessible web browsers. We needed another resolution on this subject this year because Mozilla recently released an inaccessible version of Firefox. Michael Powell, president of the NFB of Michigan, sponsored Resolution 2018-18. In this resolution we call upon all web browser manufacturers to work closely with screen reader producers to ensure that new browsers or updates to browsers are not released unless they are fully accessible.What does democracy look like? In the National Federation of the Blind, democracy looks like the resolutions process. The process is definitely of and by the people. This article is merely an introductory discussion of the resolutions considered by the 2018 Convention. The complete text of each resolution is reprinted below. Readers should analyze the text of each resolution to understand fully our policy on these subjects. These resolutions are definitely for the people with blindness.