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AFB Joins Coalition Urging Careful Use of Data in Disability Stories

Recently, the Washington Post discussed Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits in both a headline story and a Sunday editorial. The article and editorial drew pessimistic conclusions based upon selective interviews as well as analysis of data from the Social Security Administration SSDI and SSI Annual Reports.

On April 13, the Talk Poverty website, run by the Center for American Progress, published a strong statement about the Post’s use of data in its story and editorial:

“Not only does the Post’s reporting paint a misleading picture about SSDI, but the data analysis they published is just plain wrong.”

The Washington Post issued a correction to the original article, but unfortunately there were still major problems with their use of data, as well as their central thesis. As Talk Poverty noted:

"Media should take great care in its coverage of critical programs like Social Security Disability Insurance. Reporting based on outliers—not to mention flawed data analysis—risks misleading the public and policymakers in ways that could jeopardize the economic well-being and even survival of millions of Americans with serious disabilities and severe illnesses who are already living on the financial brink."

The American Foundation for the Blind is a member of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD), a working coalition of national disability organizations working together to advocate for national public policy that ensures the self-determination, independence, empowerment, integration and inclusion of children and adults with disabilities in all aspects of society. We strongly encourage producers and consumers of data to be aware of and involved in the ways that disability-related statistics are produced and consumed.

In light of the analysis by the Center for American Progress, AFB joined with other members of CCD to urge The Washington Post to take several steps needed to provide readers of this article with important clarification and context.

Read the full text of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) letter to the Washington Post in response to their series on disability benefits.

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In the News
Public Policy

Celebrate Annie Sullivan's Birthday: Support the Cogswell-Macy Act!

Annie Sullivan, circa 1881. This three-quarter profile of Anne's head and shoulders shows her at age 15. Her hair is parted in the center, pulled back, and braided into a bun at the back of her head. Her dress has a round decorative collar.

Happy birthday, Annie Sullivan! Annie was born on April 14, 1866, in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts. Today, we celebrate her legacy and excellence as an educator. She insisted that her student, Helen Keller, could learn and accomplish just as much as any seeing and hearing child could — and she was right.

Helen was a brilliant student, but Annie turned out to be an equally talented teacher. It was Mark Twain who first dubbed her the "miracle worker". Alexander Graham Bell greatly respected Annie's teaching methods and urged her, in a letter he wrote in 1903, to share her innovative techniques with other educators.

As an adult, Helen Keller worked for the American Foundation for the Blind for 44 years. At AFB, we believe that every child who is deafblind, deaf or hard of hearing, blind, or visually impaired should have the opportunity to develop to their full potential, just like Helen did. That's why we are proud to advocate for passage of the Cogswell-Macy Act, a bipartisan bill to strengthen the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and help it keep its promise of a free and appropriate education for all students.

Help celebrate Annie Sullivan's birthday by calling your legislators, and asking them to sponsor the Cogswell-Macy Act. Here's what the act will do:

  • ensure specialized instruction specifically for students who are visually impaired, deafblind, or deaf or hard of hearing.
  • increase the availability of services and resources by ensuring all students who are deaf or hard of hearing, blind, visually impaired, or deafblind are accounted for.
  • enhance accountability at the state and federal levels.
  • increase research into best practices for teaching and evaluating students with sensory disabilities.

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Helen Keller
Public Policy

Digitizing the Helen Keller Archive: Made Possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities

Over the past two years, with generous funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) has digitized a vast portion of the over 80,000 items in Helen Keller’s unique and irreplaceable archive. 160,000 digital images have been created, and by December of this year will be accessible online to blind, deaf, deafblind, sighted, and hearing audiences around the globe.

Helen Keller is seated in three-quarter profile, possibly in a photographer's studio. She is leaning over and has her arm around the back of a young girl who is standing next to her. Keller is wearing a loose, shimmering dress that is dark and has a boat neck. The child's dress is light-colored and made of layers of a delicate organza-type fabric. The photograph was taken in the 1920s.

Helen Keller and a young girl, circa 1920.

Funding from the NEH recognized the ground-breaking nature of AFB's commitment to full online accessibility as well as the wisdom of digitizing this important collection, preserving access to the history of one of the world's foremost champions for the rights of people with disabilities.

The Helen Keller Archive is the world’s largest repository of materials by and about Helen Keller. The collection includes her letters, speeches, press clippings, scrapbooks, photographs, architectural drawings, and priceless artifacts, many of which she received as gifts during her travels to 39 countries.

These materials span from 1880 until after her death in 1968—from Alexander Graham Bell to President Lyndon B. Johnson. The archive includes materials from nine U.S. presidents as well as leading figures such as Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, and Eleanor Roosevelt, to name just three. The collection also includes letters from ordinary men, women, and children, sighted and not, who corresponded with Keller from around the globe and whose stories have never been told.

AFB’s odyssey to preserve Helen Keller’s collection is well under way. Our goal is no less ambitious than to pioneer the most accessible archive in the world. Students who are blind or visually impaired will be able to explore primary sources in a whole new way. Teachers will be able to create curricula and share them with their classrooms, and other educators. AFB staff is attending conferences to bring greater awareness to Helen Keller's collection and to inspire other organizations to provide complete online access to their archives and historical materials. If other organizations follow our lead, there is no limit to what historians and researchers will be able to do.

But our work is not done. Items comprising over 34,000 digital images must be photographed, preserved, and made accessible through the creation of metadata.

How You Can Help

With the future of NEH funding uncertain, we need your help. Helen Keller's history belongs to everyone.

In light of the President's proposed budget that would eliminate NEH funding, please speak up in support of the critical role that the NEH plays in promoting the nation's, and indeed the world's, cultural heritage. Call your U.S. Senate and House members, and tell them you support the continued work of the NEH to make our national treasures, like the Helen Keller Archive, available to all.

And make a donation today to help us complete this important project, and preserve access to the Helen Keller Archive!

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My Perspective on the 2017 Cogswell-Macy Act Capitol Hill Day

United States Capitol in Washington, DC.

For the second time, the American Foundation for the Blind, joined by other groups representing students who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind, visually impaired, or deafblind, held an advocacy day on Capitol Hill for the Cogswell-Macy Act. A vast and diverse group of advocates came from 29 states with the intent of convincing members of Congress to support a bill that would immensely help to give children with sensory disabilities an equal chance to excel in the classroom and beyond.

We kicked off our Hill Day with a briefing at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Washington, DC. To see the convocation of so many people, all with the same goal, was elating. For weeks, I have been working hard with AFB’s policy center staff, especially Senior Policy Researcher, Rebecca Sheffield, to call congressional offices, put together meeting materials, and plan the agenda. As a new intern with AFB, the chance to work on a project of this magnitude in an independent manner was a unique and exciting experience. Over the course of my first five weeks, I felt truly immersed in the inviting culture of AFB and was given the opportunity to attend countless meetings, interact with congressional offices, and attain skills in accessibility as well as policy that I could have done nowhere else.

Having the event come together seamlessly was a relief as well as a thrill. While checking in our attendees to this briefing, it was difficult not to notice the air of cooperation among everyone in attendance. Undoubtedly, the deaf and blindness communities experience some challenges in communication. However, in that room, and with the aid of some fantastic interpreters, everyone was on the same page. During the briefing, we heard from several great speakers, including AFB’s own Public Policy Director, Mark Richert; Executive Director of the Conference of Educational Administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf (CEASD), Barbara Raimondo; and one surprise guest, U.S. Representative Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania, who gave a rousing speech on the need for bipartisan cooperation for legislation such as the Cogswell-Macy Act. Mr. Cartwright, a Democrat, has been a champion of the Cogswell-Macy Act, along with David McKinley of West Virginia, a Republican.

Mark Richert and Barbara Raimondo present information on the bill, with a sign language interpreter, at Cogswell-Macy Act Hill Day in Washington, D.C.

Barbara Raimondo, Mark Richert, and a sign language interpreter present information to a packed house. Photo courtesy of the National Leadership Consortium in Sensory Disabilities.

Shanna Gordon and Rep. Matt Cartwright

Shanna Gordon, AFB public policy intern, and U.S. Representative Matt Cartwright (D-PA)

Wrapping up at the Hyatt, we felt confident that all attending advocates had walked away with not only the information they needed to successfully promote the Cogswell-Macy to their representatives, but also with a refreshed energy to go out into the nation’s capital and drive their message home.

Accompanied by AFB’s Programs and Policy Coordinator, Sarah Malaier, I dropped in on several meetings that day. First stop was in Louisiana Senator Cassidy’s office, where we met with his senior policy advisor. The constituent from Louisiana made a strong case for the need for better education for children with sensory disabilities and enumerated the benefits of having those children join in the workforce. Senator Cassidy’s advisor was an invested listener, and expressed Senator Cassidy’s interest in the need for better education for children with disabilities, citing how passionate he is about finding a more inclusive method for public education.

From there, we made our way to North Carolina Senator Richard Burr’s office. We, along with staff and students from a School for the Deaf, met with one of Burr’s staffers. Here, it was the children who truly shone. Their touching stories of pursuing their dreams, coming to America, and struggling and achieving their goals in the classroom left a lasting impression, and imparted the need for better accessibility for Deaf students in public schools, so that they too can achieve their full potential.

On our final solo trip, Sarah and I joined Marjorie Kaiser, Superintendent of the South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and Barbara Raimondo in Senator Round’s office. Ms. Raimondo had many insightful points on the utility and benefit of better access to education for sensory disabled children, and Ms. Kaiser had an outstanding story to tell about the value of educating students with visual impairments. One of her students had graduated from her school equipped with the skills and knowledge to carry him through higher education to earn degrees in both Engineering and Medicine. Although his vision had been corrected after his graduation, his academic and career success would have been impossible without the work of well-trained teachers of students with visual impairments (TVIs) who had the tools to help him excel.

Senator Rounds’ staff were impressed by her story, and became deeply involved in the conversation about how Cogswell-Macy will be able to benefit children with all sorts of sensory disabilities, and how integral they will be to our workforce—surgeons or not.

At the end of the day, Mark Richert, Rebecca Sheffield, and I, along with other advocates, converged on Massachusetts Senator Markey’s office. The senator has agreed to sponsor the Cogswell-Macy Act in the Senate, and we wanted to thank him in person. In attendance were several members of staff to whom we explained some of the finer points of the bill. A few minutes later, the senator himself breezed in and gave a gracious and uplifting speech about what has been done, what needs to be done in the sensory disability community, and how he will be there to help in any way he can. A photo-op and a few handshakes later, our Hill Day came to a close.

While our feet may have been sore, our spirits were soaring. This Hill Day was a grand success, with over 130 unique advocates telling their stories. It is undeniable that the needs of students who are blind, deaf, and deaf-blind are now on the mind of many representatives and senators, and we hope this effort will influence their voting decisions in the coming years. For myself, this Hill Day represented togetherness—so many people working toward the same purpose, from many different perspectives and backgrounds.

Regardless of the legislative success of the Cogswell-Macy Act, this event strengthened the bonds between the sensory disability worlds and will enable all of us to better cooperate in the future toward similar goals for improving the lives of people who are blind, deaf, or deafblind. We at AFB will continue fighting for people with blindness and vision loss, and encourage everyone to participate in advocacy in any way they can. We sincerely hope you will continue supporting these causes, and consider joining in on our next advocacy day when the need arises!

Public Policy
Conference Recaps
Personal Reflections

Wrapping Up the 2017 AFB Leadership Conference

From left to right: Bernadette Kappen, Mark Richert, Kirk Adams, Lee Huffman, Matt Kaplowitz, Tanseela Molani, and David Jeppson

From left to right: Bernadette Kappen, Ph.D., Executive Director of the New York Institute for Special Education, Mark Richert, Esq., Kirk Adams, president and CEO of AFB, Lee Huffman, editor of AccessWorld Magazine, Matt Kaplowitz, President and Chief Creative Officer of Bridge Multimedia, Tanseela Molani, Design Researcher for United Airlines, and David Jeppson, Executive Director of Computers for the Blind

The AFB Leadership Conference has been jam-packed. We were so proud last night to honor Bridge Multimedia, Computers for the Blind and United Airlines with 2017 Access Awards for their commitment to innovation and access for all.

And it is always a special year when we are able to present the Irvin P. Schloss Advocacy Award. This year’s recipient, Dr. Bernadette Kappen, has been a tireless advocate on behalf of children who are blind or have visual impairments, as well as those who have emotional or learning disabilities, and their families.

Saturday morning began with a lively panel discussion led by Mark Richert, of the macro-level policy, economic, and professional dynamics in play today as we try to protect and strengthen services for people with vision loss.

James M. Kestleloot, Nancy Niebrugge, Mark Richert, Dr. Rona Pogrund, and BJ LeJeune discuss policy issues at AFBLC 2017

From left to right: James M. Kestleloot, chairperson of Ability One, Nancy Niebrugge, Assistant Vice President, Programs and Services, Braille Institute of America, Mark Richert, director of public policy for the American Foundation for the Blind, Dr. Rona Pogrund of Texas Tech University, and BJ LeJeune, Training Supervisor at NRTC on Blindness and Low Vision at Mississippi State University discuss policy issues at AFBLC 2017

And we were so honored to celebrate the life and work of the 2017 Migel Medal recipients, our own CEO emeritus Carl R. Augusto and Rebecca (Becky) Coakley, the director of outreach at West Virginia University Eye Institute and director of the Children's Vision Rehabilitation Program (CVRP). As Kirk Adams, AFB president and CEO, said, “They have made improving the lives of people with vision loss their life’s work, and we are so grateful for their efforts."

Tuck Tinsley, Carl Augusto, Michael Bina, and Bill Weiner at the Migel Medal Awards

From left to right: Dr. Tuck Tinsley of American Printing House for the Blind, Carl R. Augusto holding his Migel Medal, Michael J. Bina of the Maryland School for the Blind, and Bill Weiner of North Carolina Central University

Rebecca (Becky) Coakley, accepting her 2017 Migel Medal

Rebecca Coakley, accepting her 2017 Migel Medal

The AFB Migel Medal was established in 1937 by the late M.C. Migel, AFB's first chairman, to honor professionals and volunteers whose dedication and achievements improve the lives of people who are blind or visually impaired.

A heartfelt thank you to everyone who helped make this year's conference such a success, from the record number of attendees and exhibitors to our wonderful partners, sponsors, and speakers. Check out the AFB twitter feed for a digest of all conference events, including sessions.

We look forward to seeing you in 2018! Join us as we envision a future with no limits at the 2018 AFB Leadership Conference, Oakland City Center Marriott, April 5-7.

Conference Recaps
Public Policy