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New Design for Medicare Cards Raises Accessibility Questions for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

sample new Medicare card, with a randomly generated Medicare number for John Smith.

In September of this year, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) announced that redesigned cards will be issued to all Medicare recipients starting in April of 2018. This project is known as the Social Security Number Removal Initiative (SSNRI).

The reason for the change in card design is so that individuals' Social Security numbers can be replaced by a new "Medicare Beneficiary Identifier (MBI)"—a unique, randomly assigned series of numbers and upper-case letters for each card holder. The move away from placing Social Security numbers on Medicare cards is intended to combat fraud and identity theft.

All current Medicare cards will be replaced by April 2019, and a “secure look-up tool” will be available so that people with Medicare as well as healthcare providers will be able to access the new numbers when needed. There will also be a 21-month period in which physicians, healthcare providers, and suppliers will be able to access an individual’s Medicare information using either their Social Security number or the identifier found on the newly issued card.

Medicare recipients are urged to destroy their old Medicare cards as soon as they receive the new one, which raises some important questions for anyone who is totally blind, or who has low vision.

1. It will be of the utmost importance for a blind person to be able to independently make note of the number-letter combination included on their new card. Will materials be made available in a variety of formats including braille, large-print, audio, and electronic text so that the person receiving Medicare will not need to ask for sighted assistance to obtain this information?

2. Of equal importance is the question of how accessible the new online look-up tool will be for anyone using magnification or screen-reading solutions to access the Internet. Many blind people will want to access this information from a variety of platforms including Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android.

AFB reached out to the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services for information about the needs of the blind community regarding the Social Security Removal Initiative, and we received a response from CMS.

Along with the new Medicare card, letters will be sent out in braille and large print to anyone who CMS identifies as needing this information in an alternative format. You can call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) to let them know that you would like to have this material in braille or large print.

The new patient portal where you can access your entire Medicare card number along with other relevant information is available from, and CMS reports that it is Section 508-compliant. This means that it should work with any screen reader available today.

If you wish to do so, you can follow this link to learn more about what is involved in the roll-out of new Medicare cards next year, and how you will be affected.

Additional information:

  • The new Medicare Beneficiary Identifier won’t change your Medicare benefits. People with Medicare may start using their new Medicare cards and MBIs as soon as they get them.
  • The effective date of the new cards, like the old cards, is the date each beneficiary was or is eligible for Medicare.
  • Once beneficiaries get their new Medicare cards with an MBI, they can use their new cards to enroll in a Medicare health (Medicare Advantage) or drug plan. Those Medicare beneficiaries who do choose to enroll in Medicare health and/or drug plans will still also get an insurance card from their health and/or drug plans. As always, while beneficiaries are enrolled in health and/or drug plans, they should use the cards from those plans when they get health care and/or prescriptions.

Many of you who are currently reading this post will soon begin receiving your new Medicare cards, and we would be interested in your feedback. Feel free to leave comments for those here at AFB, as well as your fellow readers.

Low Vision
Public Policy

Giving Thanks

Photo of Kirk Adams

Kirk Adams is president and CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind.

Every Thanksgiving, I like to take inventory of everything I have to be grateful for. This year, my list is longer than ever.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to meet with so many people around the country this year who are working hard to create a better world. People like Caitlin, a blind elementary school teacher in San Francisco. James, a software engineer in Phoenix, who recently became blind and is working hard to learn blindness skills in order to return to work. And Kristin, the mother of two blind teenage boys in Philadelphia, who is passionately advocating to create a world of no limits for all young blind people.

I’m grateful to AFB’s volunteers and supporters, our partners and all of the agencies and organizations working toward the same goal.

I’m thankful for the technology that’s changing the world—from the apps that help me get around new towns and keep track of my day, to the experience of using Aira to navigate an airport.

I am so grateful to my family, and my wonderful wife, who have been incredibly supportive of this new adventure.

I’m thankful for good meals and good friends, and their good advice, freely given.

Thank you to all of the kids who are dreaming big, and continuing to inspire AFB every day.

I know I speak for everyone at AFB when I say we are all so thankful to champion this important cause, and to have the opportunity to advocate every day for people who are blind to live with no limits.

Personal Reflections

2017 Gift Ideas for Friends and Family Members Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

colorful gift bags and boxes

As we approach the holiday season, we start trying to find gift ideas that will surprise and delight the people we love most. If you have close friends or family members who are blind, visually impaired, or losing their sight, explore these updated gift guides from the American Foundation for the Blind. AFB has pulled together appropriate, useful, fun gift ideas for all ages—from very young children to working-age adults to seniors who are gradually losing their vision.

Before you start shopping, learn how you can help AFB every time you shop online! Would you like to be able to donate to AFB quickly and easily, without increasing the cost of your online shopping? Check out our Other Ways to Give page for details on how to add a charitable bent to your online gift purchases year-round.

And this year, there is a special opportunity to support AFB and make your gift go even farther. On #GivingTuesday, November 28, Facebook and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will be matching all donations up to $50,000. So, mark your calendar to help us make the most of this opportunity, and follow AFB's Facebook page to learn more about how we're working together to create a world of no limits for people who are blind or visually impaired.

A yellow, red, and blue inflatable castle bounce house

FamilyConnect® has pulled together a number of suggestions for parents of children who are blind or visually impaired who are looking for fun, accessible games, books, and toys to give for the holidays—as well as gifts and gadgets for their teenagers! Visit the updated FamilyConnect Toy and Gift Ideas for Children Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired for great gift ideas, as well as helpful articles and links to other sites' holiday guides and sales. And read Emily Coleman's blog post about some favorite gifts that have stood the test of time.

colorful array of books set between a pair of headphones

VisionAware™ has many ideas to choose from, especially for friends and loved ones who are new to vision loss. Some of them are specially adapted for people with vision loss, and others are inexpensive mainstream products. Visit VisionAware's Holiday Gift Ideas for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired as well as the article on Getting Ready for the Holidays for Individuals with Vision Loss, and our Homemade Gift Ideas That People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Can Make.

Helen kneels with four children who are all holding toys

You can send a free, accessible, large print eCard featuring a Helen Keller quotation and a beautiful archival photo to a friend or loved one.

"Nothing of value can be done without joy."
- Helen Keller

Helen Keller mug with photo and quotation And for teachers and parents, the AFB Store offers some wonderful presents, including Helen Keller mugs, tote bags, and even jewelry. Visit our gifts for friends page for more ideas. You can also honor a special teacher in your life by making a donation in their name to the Helen Keller Archives.
shopping cart filled with wrapped presents AccessWorld® brings you its annual Holiday Gift Guide: Unique and Affordable Gifts for People with Visual Impairments, as well as Janet Ingber's look at the accessibility of popular ecommerce sites and apps in AccessWorld's 2017 Online Shopping Guide. You can also browse a wide variety of products for people who are blind or visually impaired in the AFB product database.

Please share your ideas below! What have been some of your best stocking stuffers, games, or big-ticket items, for loved ones who are blind or visually impaired?

Celebrating Larry B. Kimbler for His Many Years of Service to AFB

Larry Kimbler at a podium with AFB's logo on it

It often takes a personal connection to fully appreciate how much someone who is blind or visually impaired can accomplish in their lives—and the challenges they might face in the process.

That was the case for Larry B. Kimbler, who just completed his second term on AFB’s national Board of Trustees, serving for the last four years as board chair.

Years ago, one of Kimbler’s daughters went to school with a young woman who lost her vision when she was 12 years old. Fortunately, the girl’s father was serving on the AFB Board of Trustees at the time, and had the means to send his daughter to private school and make sure she received specialized training.

“I watched with great interest as she graduated from high school, went on to college and is now gainfully employed,” Kimbler says. “I used to think, ‘If she was the daughter of somebody who could not afford the time or financial resources to help her, she might be among the 75 percent of people who are blind or visually impaired and are unemployed or underemployed.’”

When the opportunity to get involved with AFB was presented to him, Kimbler eagerly accepted. Ever since—for more than two decades—he and his wife, Susy, have been strong supporters of the organization.

Much of their work has shaped where AFB is today. The Kimblers spearheaded the campaign to establish the AFB Center on Vision Loss in Dallas, the city where they live. They helped raise funds, secure the building, and implement the design of an interior that would serve not only as an office space, but would give people who are blind or visually impaired a model for living independently. The center features an apartment set up with a variety of high- and low-tech equipment that people who are blind or visually impaired can use in their own home.

Over the years, Kimbler has been impressed with the staff at AFB and the national and regional trustees he’s worked with, including those on the transition team that selected Kirk Adams as AFB’s current President and CEO. Although he’s stepping down from the board, Kimbler intends to stay involved with AFB—and he’s excited to see what’s next.

“I’m very optimistic about the future of AFB,” he says. “I think with the leadership of the staff and trustees, AFB will continue to be one of the leading organizations in the blindness field.”

Personal Reflections

American Foundation for the Blind Statement on the Department of Education Rescinding Guidance Documents on Students' Rights

Last Friday, October 20, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) announced that it had rescinded 72 federal guidance documents relating to children's rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

OSERS wrote in a newsletter Friday that a total of 72 guidance documents that help clarify students' rights had been rescinded on October 2 "due to being outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective." Of the documents, 63 were from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and 9 came from the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA).

Parents and advocates should know that, as useful as policy guidance documents can often be, they do not have the force of law. And, nothing in these recent steps to rescind the guidance documents impacts what IDEA and the implementing regulations require of states and schools. The IDEA regulations that guarantee that all children are entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment remain in effect.

As long-time advocates for the rights of children who are blind or visually impaired, the American Foundation for the Blind is concerned that the communication process was non-transparent, after-the-fact, and provided minimal information. "We certainly hope that future actions from the Department of Education will not be marked by a similar lack of transparency—and that this decision does not foretell any steps the Department could take to roll back actual regulations," said Mark Richert, AFB Director of Public Policy.

Parents of children who are blind or visually impaired rely on the U.S. Department of Education to provide clear, accurate information about their children's rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and other civil rights laws.

We will continue to review the 72 rescinded documents in detail, and we agree with our colleagues at the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), who note that "OSERS has an obligation to make clear why revocations are necessary."

To Learn More...

OSERS Acting Assistant Secretary Kim Richey, OSEP Acting Director Ruth Ryder, and RSA Acting Commissioner Carol Dobak will host a call tomorrow, October 24, 2017, to provide further information regarding the announcement that 72 guidance documents relating to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 have been rescinded due to being outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective.

Date: Tuesday, October 24, 2017
Time: 12:30 p.m. ET
Phone: 1-800-369-1982
Passcode: 6213421

Please note that this call is hosted by the Department of Education, not AFB. The presenters will share the Department of Education's point of view, and we are not aware if there will be an immediate opportunity for Q&A or feedback during the call.

To review COPAA's early analysis of the rescinded documents, visit:

To see OSERS's full list of rescissions visit:

Update: OSERS has provided an updated chart that now includes a column noting "Reasons for Rescinding":

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