WASHINGTON, D.C. (December 14, 2020)—The American Foundation for the Blind sent the following letter on December 12, 2020, to members of Congress regarding national responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Flatten Inaccessibility and Access and Engagement research studies demonstrated how significantly this pandemic has impacted people who are blind or have low vision. This week, Congress has the opportunity to alleviate many of these concerns by negotiating a comprehensive, people-centered relief package that equips federal and state governments to respond to pressing needs over the next few months. AFB urges Congress to include these priorities in any COVID-19 legislation passed before the end of the year.
December 12, 2020
Senator Mitch McConnell
Senate Majority Leader
317 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Representative Nancy Pelosi
1236 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
Dear Leader McConnell and Speaker Pelosi:
The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) is a national nonprofit that advocates for a world of no limits for people with vision loss. According to several studies that AFB has conducted on the impacts of the pandemic, people who are blind or have low vision have been affected by the pandemic in ways that have significantly exacerbated the existing inequalities that they face every day.1 Therefore, the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic has the potential to substantially improve or further exacerbate the situation facing many blind people in America. In general, these concerns have not changed since our letter of August 2020. As Congress works toward final negotiations on the next round of coronavirus policy and stimulus, we strongly urge you to consider the following concerns.
- Reject waivers of important civil rights laws.
- Provide dedicated funding for Part B, Part C, Part D, and Section 619 of the IDEA.
- Reinforce the existing requirement that educational technologies be accessible to students with disabilities.
- Provide funding to maintain transportation services in both urban and rural areas.
- Require testing and vaccine access to be accessible to people with disabilities.
Employment and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
In recent years, people who are blind have only been employed at half the rate of people without disabilities.2 Significant barriers such as employer attitudes, lack of reasonable accommodations, and transportation have played significant roles in keeping people who are blind from full integration into the workforce.3 As the country faces ongoing uncertainty from the continuation of the pandemic, and workplace procedures evolve, people who are blind, including those with additional disabilities, face additional hurdles to maintaining and obtaining employment if employers are not diligent in addressing accommodations and accessibility for the new working reality.
Therefore, we are very concerned that any efforts to waive liability under key civil rights laws will have the consequence not of protecting business from unfair litigation but of undermining the already limited protections and means of redress to which employees are entitled under the ADA and other employment laws, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Civil Rights Act, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. Moreover, the provisions shielding public accommodations from their obligations under the ADA only serves to disincentivize businesses and other entities from actively including people who are blind in their services. We strongly urge Congress to reject any waivers of civil rights and any other restriction on employees’ and individuals’ civil rights under the ADA.
Instead, Congress should provide for clear, consistent, science-based health and safety standards that incorporate the needs of people with disabilities and wholeheartedly embrace the ADA. Such clear standards that incorporate accessibility would empower businesses and other entities to protect their employees and customers and return to business safely while significantly lessening any risk that they would be found out of compliance with the ADA or other employment rights laws.
As the pandemic continues to strain the capacity of America’s schools, AFB strongly supports the inclusion of additional funding to implement new operational and instructional practices, provide additional equipment, and mitigate the impacts of state and local budget shortfalls.
However, we oppose any effort to make such funding contingent on specific reopening procedures. We believe that each district must be able to make informed decisions that meet the individualized needs of their students, teachers, and families consistent with the recommendations of health officials. As public schools must serve students with disabilities in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is critical to ensuring students who are blind receive a successful education, we continue to support dedicated funding for Part B, Part C, Part D, and Section 619 of the IDEA. This funding would ensure that students have access to basic devices, assistive technology, and instruction during remote education; that students receive their materials in a timely manner and in the format appropriate to them whether at home or in the classroom; that teachers have access to adequate PPE to enable to them to engage fully with students who may need tactile support during their instruction; that teachers preparation and retention activities continue to support a sustainable educational workforce; and to support the continued provision of all services needed to achieve students’ IEP goals. Additionally, we support the continued inclusion of provisions that protect students’ civil rights in educational settings, including IDEA, ADA, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Moreover, we ask Congress to reinforce the existing requirement that educational technologies be accessible to students with disabilities. The Access and Engagement study revealed significant deficits in the digital accessibility of instructional methods and technology platforms relied upon by schools and classroom teachers. Eighty-five percent of TVIs who took part in the Access and Engagement study and had students in a general or special education online class reported having at least one student who had difficulty accessing class content due to their visual impairment. Sixty-eight family members with school-age children reported that the online programs used by a classroom teacher were not accessible to their child; forty-two reported the child was not able to access information in the packets sent home; and thirty-one reported that pre-recorded videos were inaccessible.4 The IDEA requires equal access to education for students with disabilities; however, students cannot access their education equally if the tools and programs used to communicate and deliver curriculum or assessments are inaccessible to or unusable by students with disabilities.
Transportation and Vaccine Barriers
Additionally, as Congress continues to support economic and health opportunities to recover from this crisis, we ask that you consider the transportation barriers that people who are blind face and how that impacts their inclusion in all services and opportunities. Transit funding for urban and rural areas, support for the Section 5310 enhanced transportation for seniors and people with disabilities program, and a continued focus on equitable emergency policies that incorporate the ADA are essential for people who are blind returning to the workplace and accessing healthcare. In the past few weeks, transit agencies across the country have announced significant long-term proposed cuts to bus and rail services that will have the greatest impact on people without access to a vehicle.5 People who experience vision loss are more than three times as likely as people without vision loss to live in a household without access to a private vehicle.6 These transit cuts will limit opportunities for people with vision loss to work, access healthcare, socialize, and participate in society equitably. For that reason, we urge you to provide emergency support for transit agencies to maintain their operations.
Finally, we urge Congress to require testing and vaccine access to be accessible to people with disabilities. One respondent to Flatten Inaccessibility wrote, “I am not sure how I would get to a mobile testing site. I wouldn’t feel comfortable using public transportation or ride-share services for fear of backlash or spreading [COVID-19].”7
Respondents overwhelmingly expressed significant concern about getting themselves or a family member to a test center.8 Drive-up only services discriminate against people who cannot drive, and people who are blind continue to face significant discrimination in accessing testing sites. Whether sites are drive-through or located at a health facility, these testing facilities present significant challenges to individuals who cannot drive, may be infected, and do not have a household member able or willing to drive them to a testing site. More accessible solutions to transportation barriers, such as providing in-home testing services or local neighborhood-based options, are needed for people without access to a personal vehicle. Moreover, with the ongoing difficulty providing accessible testing to individuals who walk, bike, roll, and take transit rather than drive, we are deeply concerned about a lack of planning for vaccine distribution accessibility. Limitations of paratransit scheduling and service areas, the need for super cold storage, and access for rural areas are among the compounding issues that we know will make transportation to vaccination sites more difficult. Guidance and planning must incorporate transportation access and the provision of necessary information about the vaccine in accessible formats distributed through multiple media, including radio, tv, and internet.
Thank you for engaging with the challenging work of ensuring that our country can respond effectively to the crisis. We encourage you to incorporate the needs of people with disabilities throughout all your negotiations. Please reach out to Stephanie Enyart, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Sarah Malaier, email@example.com, if you would like to discuss any of the concerns raised in this letter.
Chief Public Policy and Research Officer
Senator Schumer, Senate Minority Leader
Representative McCarthy, House Minority Leader
Senator Alexander, Chair, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Senator Murray, Ranking Member, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Representative Scott, Chair, House Committee on Education and Labor
Representative Foxx, Ranking Member, House Committee on Education and Labor
1 Rosenblum, L. P., Chanes-Mora, P., McBride, C. R., Flewellen, J., Nagarajan, N., Nave Stawaz, R., & Swenor, B. (2020). Flatten Inaccessibility: Impact of COVID-19 on Adults Who Are Blind or Have Low Vision in the United States. American Foundation for the Blind. www.afb.org/FlattenInaccessibility Rosenblum, L. P., Herzberg, T. S., Wild, T., Botsford, K. D., Fast, D., Kaiser, J. T., Cook, L. K., Hicks, M. A. C., DeGrant, J. N., & McBride, C. R. (2020). Access and Engagement: Examining the Impact of COVID-19 on Students Birth-21 with Visual Impairments, Their Families, and Professionals in the United States and Canada. American Foundation for the Blind www.afb.org/accessengagement
2 U.S. Census Bureau (2018). American Community Survey.
3 Steverson, A. (2020). Relationship of Employment Barriers to Age of Onset of Vision Loss. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 114(1), 63–69. Open access:
4 Access and Engagement, page 56
5 Goldbaum, C. and Wright, W. (Dec 6, 2020). ‘Existential Peril’: Mass Transit Faces Huge Service Cuts Across U.S. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/06/nyregion/mass-transit-service-cuts-covid.html
6 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, 2019 Public Use Micro-Data.
7 Flatten Inaccessibility. Page 28.
8 Ibid., page 27-28, 50, 53.