WASHINGTON, D.C. (August 10, 2020)—The American Foundation for the Blind sent the following letter on August 6, 2020, to members of Congress regarding national responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
August 6, 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 is conducting 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. As Congress works toward final negotiations on the next round of coronavirus policy and stimulus, we ask you to strongly consider the following concerns.
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.
Nevertheless, we are very concerned that the SAFE TO WORK Act (S. 4317) would undermine 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 the entirety of Section 181 of S. 4317 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.
Additionally, as Congress continues to support economic 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 employment and inclusion opportunities. Transit funding for urban and rural areas, support for the Section 5310 enhanced transportation for seniors and people with disabilities program, and continued focus on equitable emergency policies that incorporate the ADA are essential for people who are blind returning to the workplace.
As the pandemic continues to strain the capacity of America’s schools to begin a new school year, AFB is grateful for the inclusion in both S. 4320 and H.R. 6800 of additional funding to support 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. While schools and districts must have plans for the coming school year, 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.
We further oppose diverting education federal funding to nonpublic schools that are not required to serve students with disabilities. 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. Therefore, we continue to support dedicated funding for Part B, Part C, Part D, and Section 619 of the IDEA that 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; 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 all of students’ civil rights in educational settings, including IDEA, ADA, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
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
- Reports for the “Flatten Inaccessibility” and “Access and Engagement to Education” studies are forthcoming.
- U.S. Census Bureau (2018). American Community Survey.
- 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: https://www.blind.msstate.edu/sites/www.blind.msstate.edu/files/2020-04/Steverson-%282020%29-Relationship-of-Emp-Barriers-to-Onset.pdf
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About the American Foundation for the Blind
Founded in 1921, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) is a national nonprofit that creates a world of no limits for people who are blind or visually impaired. AFB mobilizes leaders, advances understanding, and champions impactful policies and practices using research and data. AFB is proud to steward the Helen Keller Archive, maintain and expand the digital collection, and honor the more than 40 years that Helen Keller worked tirelessly with AFB. Visit: www.afb.org