The United States is a visual society. Access to its employment opportunities, its culture, and its dominant communication media is grounded in an ability to see. As such, visual impairment is a unique disability in this country.
To address discrimination against individuals with disabilities, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 was enacted at the Federal level to provide equal opportunity to individuals with disabilities in the areas of employment, public access, and transportation. The promise of the ADA, however, has not eliminated problems for those with disabilities. Though the ADA was an attempt to create a workable law and a set of regulations that people could use to improve opportunities for people with disabilities, it has proved to be a complex law. Part of its complexity is that it is difficult for individuals without disabilities to determine what is an appropriate accommodation, or how to make a facility or job site more usable or accessible for someone with a disabilityin particular if that person is visually impaired.
Because of this inherent complexity, there have been numerous published stories and articles casting aspersion on the ADA. These stories recount incidents of the inordinate costs borne by private agents and individuals in order to provide accommodations and equal access to employment. Such stories have served all too often to paint the ADA as an overreaching, oppressive burden on employers, retailers, educators, builders, and architects. The positive improvements in the lives of individuals with disabilities, and stories of people who, because of the ADA, have successfully gained employment, education, or other opportunities, have been largely ignored.
As the Illinois Advisory Committee heard, advocates for persons who are blind have had to fight relentlessly to get school systems in Illinois to teach Braille; currently only 10 percent of substantially visually impaired school-age children nationwide are being taught Braille. With respect to establishing priorities, linkage of SSDI recipients with retirees, the reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act and its amendments, and employment are all priorities for those concerned about equal opportunity for the blind and visually impaired. There are also concerns about the trend towards consolidated agencies and closing specialized schools for people who are blind. But in an environment where fundamental civil rights for the disabled are challenged as too onerous and burdensome for a society to bear, it is difficult to press for widespread measures that truly expand real opportunity for those with disabilities.
In undertaking the issue of Civil Rights Issues Facing the Blind and Visually Impaired in Illinois, the Illinois Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights had two concomitant purposes: (1) to learn about the civil rights issues of visual impairment and (2) to bring to the political debate a bipartisan, public statement on these issues grounded in the ideals of equal opportunity and justice.
In the aftermath of its conference on Civil Rights Issues Facing the Blind and Visually Impaired in Illinois, the Advisory Committee sets out 38 highlights regarding significant civil rights issues and offers 32 conclusions and observations. Both sets of statements are collected into four sections: (1) incidence rates and public perceptions, (2) employment, (3) transportation and independent living, and (4) education. The statements may be considered and cited as the unanimous expression of the Illinois Advisory Committee.
Incidence Rates and Public Perceptions
1. Blindness is a low incidence disability, and there is a false perception that the cost to rehabilitate persons who are blind is disproportionate to its benefit for society. Blindness is not rare in the United States. An estimated 1.6 million adults, 6 of every 1,000 individuals, have a severe functional limitation in seeing print. In addition, 9.7 million adults in the United States, 4 in every 100 adults, have some type of functional limitation in seeing print.
2. There are 1.1 million legally blind persons, 4.5 individuals per 1,000, in the United States. Of those, 220,000 have no useful vision and 110,000 are totally blind.
3. At this point in time, another 200,000 persons in the United States annually acquire some form of visual impairment, an incidence rate of 1 per 1,000. There are 80,000 annual new cases of legal blindness. But, as noted below, that rate will increase in the coming years.
4. The elderly, those aged 65 or older, are those most affected by vision loss. Two out of three persons who are blind or visually impaired in the United States are over the age of 65. Many more people than there is money to serve are coming into the elderly blind program every year. The annual appropriations in Illinois for such programs are $1 million; the Illinois Bureau of Blind Services requested $12 million. The elderly who are losing their sight are essentially being ignored with respect to services for their disability.
5. As the population ages, there will be an increase in blindness in this country. The leading causes of blindness, particularly macular degeneration and glaucoma, will double their impact in the coming years as the Nations 76 million baby boomers reach older adulthood.
6. Persons with a visual impairment are disproportionately outside the labor force and not working. Among adults who are either blind or have a severe visual impairment, just 26 percent are in the labor force, i.e., employed or seeking employment, compared with a nationwide labor force participation rate of 67.3 percent.
7. The common perception among the sighted public that all persons who are blind read Braille is not true. Most persons who are legally blind do not use Braille as a reading medium. Fewer than 10 percent of adults who are legally blind are able to read Braille.
8. There is a great fear in the general public concerning blindness. A Public opinion poll shows blindness second only to AIDS as the disability/disease individuals least desire.
9. A special problem borne by some individuals is the incidence of the dual disability, deaf-blindness. The number of children, i.e., individuals 21 years of age or younger, in the United States who are both deaf and blind is estimated at 10,000, an incidence rate of 1.2 per 1,000 children.
1. Individuals who are visually impaired are protected against discrimination in employment by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Further, the ADA requires employers to make a reasonable accommodations to ensure equal employment opportunity for the visually impaired.
2. Persons who are visually impaired are reluctant to complain about discrimination or non-accommodation by employers. Only 2 percent of the complaints made to the EEOC deal with the issue of blindness or visual impairment. Moreover, persons who are visually impaired often undertake job accommodations at their own expense out of fear of losing their jobs.
3. Among employers who do not hold government contracts, civil rights enforcement for people who are blind and visually impaired among employers who do not hold government contracts is limited to nondiscrimination. For employers holding government contracts, affirmative action obligations with regard to individuals with disabilities is much more limited in scope than affirmative action for women and minorities. Unlike the affirmative action programs for women and minorities, affirmative action programs for individuals with disabilities do not have utilization analyses, availability analyses, or specific goals for employing individuals with disabilities.
4. With the growth of technology, and as increased productivity is being demanded of fewer employees, speed is becoming all important on the job. DOS-based computer systems of the past, with their emphasis on key-striking and written words, did much to shrink the gap between what blind professionals could do on the job and what sighted coworkers could accomplish. Now, the increasing pace of technological change, coupled with increasing demands on employee productivity, is making it a struggle for persons who are blind or visually impaired to find and maintain employment.
5. Supplemental security income (SSI) is provided to individuals who have a visual impairment only if the person has a monthly income less than $1,050.
Transportation and Independent Living
1. The Office of Rehabilitation Services Administration, U.S. Department of Education, monitors the States vocational rehabilitation program. That agency reports a nationwide concern over declining hiring and employment trends of persons who are visually impaired.
2. The Illinois Blind Services Planning Council is little utilized by the Governor or the State Legislature. The council is poorly funded, mired within the Illinois Department of Human Services, and has no full-time executive director or direct access to the Governor.
3. Too much isolation for persons who are visually impaired becomes a security blanket that ultimately retards their ability to be independent and productive.
4. Beginning in 1995 there has been a series of cuts in Federal funding for public transportation. The result is a dwindling of services to those with a visual impairment, and a diminution of their ability to be independent.
5. There is no consistent pattern of identification design in elevators, room numbers, street crossings, office buildings, and other public places. For example, without standard markings on elevators, persons who are blind are unable to identify with certainty the floor number in a multistory building.
6. The lack of Braille as a standard feature in elevators, menus, public buildings, museums, transit systems, etc., is a disincentive for persons who are blind to learn Braille.
7. Section 255 in the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 states that new telecommunication equipment and services should be made accessible. That requirement is limited, however, to telephone-based equipment.
8. New technology, as it applies to household appliances and personal computers, presents serious problems for the visually impaired because of the limited adaptations of these devices for those unable to read printed words.
9. Regarding the home entertainment/television medium, there is an accommodation called video description that can be provided for the visually impaired. Video description provides an audio description of the picture, and is currently being provided in a pilot form by the Public Broadcasting System. To date the United States Congress and the Federal Communications Commission have not decided to give video description the same level of commitment provided to the hearing impaired through closed captioning.
10. For manufacturers of home appliances, entertainment devices, and computer products, there is little economic incentive to make such goods accessible to persons who are blind and visually impaired. In many instances the costs are too great and the market too small.
11. The Department of Housing and Urban Development receives very few complaints from individuals who are visually impaired. HUD acknowledges that the low numbers of complaints in part reflect the agencys failure to do sufficient outreach to persons who are blind or visually impaired, rather than a lack of discrimination in the housing market against those persons.
12. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is hampered by legislative restrictions in enforcing nondiscrimination laws protecting persons who are visually impaired. Federal legislation does not require that local building codes be amended to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
13. ATMs present particular accessibility problems for the visually impaired because most ATMs do not offer audio instructions.
1. In Illinois there are 2,500 students who are totally blind and another 5,000 students who are functionally blind. Further, there are additional numbers of students who can read an eye chart, but cannot read it or other material 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, week after week. These different types of disabilities related to vision require different visual aids. In some situations low-vision individuals are worse off than totally blind individuals because they are not identified as having severe disability.
2. Blindness and visual impairment are often mistakenly viewed as signs of mental or developmental disability.
3. Simple adaptations of educational material can make a significant impact on the learning of visually impaired students and allow such children to receive much of their instruction within the regular classroom.
4. There are too few trained teachers to serve the blind and visually impaired population.
5. In Illinois, both in rehabilitation programs and in the schools, the State has provided reading systems either to institutions or directly to individuals who need them. The downside is that while the costs of such alternative reading systems have come down, these media are still expensive access to the printed page which most sighted people obtain for virtually nothing.
6. In education programs there are children who have multiple disabilities. The parents of these children have need of both services and information in order to provide optimal care and opportunities for their children.
7. Getting proper Braille instruction is important for persons to have independence.
8. There is a lack of sufficient closed circuit televisions (CCTVs) and computers to meet the needs of all students who are visually impaired.
9. An often overlooked problem for visually impaired students is obtaining the correct text and/or assignments in enlarged print, Braille, or on other accessible medium in the proper timeframe for the student to compete academically.
10. Parents of children who are blind or visually impaired are usually the most knowledgeable persons regarding the capabilities, aptitudes, and optimal learning environment for these students. Unfortunately, in many instances this parental resource is ignored by the school in the development of an instructional educational program for the child who has a visual disability.
11. The State of Illinois provides early intervention services only to at-risk children. The State has a policy not to provide services to persons not determined to be developmentally delayed.
Committee Observations and Recommendations
Incidence Rates and Public Perceptions
1. Blindness is not an uncommon disability. Almost 10 percent of the adult population has either a visual impairment and/or some type of functional limitation in seeing print.
2. The elderly, those most affected by vision loss, are essentially being ignored with respect to services for their disability.
3. Statistics indicate that the United States will soon have a large increase in the aged blind. The State of Illinois and the are Nation unprepared for it.
4. The publics personal fear of blindness and vision loss affects their perceptions of the capabilities of persons who are visually impaired. Many in the public assume individuals who are visually impaired are unable to function competently in an educational setting or the workplace and are incapable of independently participating in community life.
5. The visually impaired community in Illinois is not unified in presenting a common agenda to advance civil rights for people within its community. Some sharp disagreements exist among organizations that advocate for those who are visually impaired as to the most appropriate education, training, and accommodation methods. This has diminished the political power available to the visually impaired community and mitigated the advancement of civil rights and services for the visually impaired.
1. Persons who have a visual impairment need effective and aggressive enforcement of the existing civil rights legislation and statutes.
2. For equal employment opportunity for persons with visual impairments to become a reality, more is needed than a policy of nondiscrimination, as evidenced by the reluctance of persons with a visual impairment to lodge employment discrimination complaints with government enforcement agencies. Specific affirmative action programs to promote access to employment opportunities is necessary. Affirmative action program guidelines for persons with a visual disability should be similar to the affirmative action program guidelines in place at the Federal level for women and minorities, i.e., utilization analysis, goals, and timetables.
3. Federal, State, and local governments should consider giving tax incentives to employers who hire such individuals. Currently such incentives exist for former welfare recipients, and programs similar in design should be considered in light of the tremendously high rate of unemployment among those who are blind and visually impaired.
4. In Illinois the Department of Human Services should consider giving the Bureau of Blind Services a separate outreach and marketing program because of the unique disability of its clientele. In addition, the Illinois Department of Human Services should make the ability to read Braille a requirement for teachers and counselors working with the blind.
5. The wooden requirement of eliminating income maintenance payments to persons who are visually impaired if they earn more than $1,050 a month discourages the individual from seeking productive full-time employment. The Internal Revenue Code should be amended to provide that, as with social security recipients who continue to work, graduated benefit reductions would allow individuals to obtain SSI while holding certain minimal levels of employment.
6. The State of Illinois should have a stronger State Use Act. Many agencies serving persons who are blind supply products to the Federal Government through the Javits-Wagner-ODay Act. More jobs would be available if the State had a stronger similar law. Products purchased by the State and made by persons with disabilities would create jobs. Any state use legislation should encourage, allow, or mandate any government entity within the State (city, county, library, school districts, etc.) to purchase such products at the State-approved contract price without having to obtain any further bids.
Transportation and Independent Living
1. All too often service providers overlooked the utility of using persons who are blind to provide instruction and serve as role models for children who are blind and newly blind adults.
2. The Illinois Blind Services Planning Council should be utilized by the Governor and the State Legislature. The issues facing the visually impaired are acute and broad-based and deserve greater attention than is now given by the State.
3. Disabilities, unlike other protected classes receiving civil rights protection in recent years, are more than merely the attitudes that individuals hold towards disabilities. Ensuring equal opportunity for people with disabilities does, in fact, require specific kinds of affirmative steps and actions.
4. Programs providing services to the visually impaired, whether they focus on job training, education, or independent living skills, need to regularly mainstream the blind and visually impaired with the sighted community.
5. There must be more public transit service, not less. The result of dwindling government funding for public transportation has diminished the ability of visually impaired persons visually impaired to be productive and independent.
6. Some simple consistency of identification design in elevators, room numbers, street crossings, office buildings, and other public places would enhance independence for persons who are visually impaired. Along this line, if Braille were to become a standard feature in elevators, menus, public buildings, museums, transit systems, etc., persons who are blind would have incentives to learn the system and would demand to learn it because of the opportunities available.
7. A provision similar to section 255 of the Federal Telecommunications Act should be included in legislation covering computers, software, and the Internet. These sectors are strong enough to withstand a statutory and regulatory action that mandates accessibility for the visually impaired. It is clear that the only way to ensure that computers and consumer home products are accessible to blind people is to mandate that the designers and developers of these products include provisions for such accessibility in their original designs.
8. Government has used the tax code to promote social policy. Changes to the tax code to encourage manufacturers to make their products accessible to the visually impaired should receive a feasibility and cost-benefit analysis by Federal and State Government.
9. Following the pattern of accommodation of closed captioning for people who are hearing impaired, the United States Congress, the Federal Communications Commission, and the U.S. Department of Education should begin to treat the provision of video description services in the same manner as closed captioning.
10. The few complaints to the Federal Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services from individuals who are blind or visually impaired emphasize the need for these agencies to require that recipients of Federal funding undertake some form of proactive civil rights effort, i.e., affirmative action, to ensure that the civil rights of the visually impaired are protected. The low number of complaints clearly demonstrates that a reliance upon a complaint-driven process to provide fundamental civil rights protections for the visually impaired is not an appropriate enforcement mechanism.
11. The Federal Governments failure to require that local building codes be amended to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act ham-pers the effectiveness of the act. Often, the first defense of a developer or architect who fails to provide building accommodations for the visually impaired is that such are not required by local codes. The failure to include physical accommodations for persons who are blind and visually impaired at the time of construction is inefficient and compounds ultimate accessibility. Making physical accommodations does not cost much at the point of construction, but retrofitting is expensive.
1. In Illinois there are 2,500 students who are totally blind and another 5,000 students who are functionally blind. Further, there are additional numbers of students who can read an eye chart, but can not read it or other material 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, week after week. These different types of disabilities related to vision require different visual aids. In some situations a low vision individual has it even harder than a totally blind individual because he or she is not identified as having that kind of severe disability.
2. Children who are visually impaired should not be presumed to have learning disabilities.
3. Children who are visually impaired should whenever possible receive instruction within the regular classroom, with material adapted and accessible so that the visually impaired student can participate equally. Simple adaptations of material can make a significant impact on learning.
4. It is imperative that all students who are blind receive proper Braille instruction.
5. In Illinois, both in rehabilitation programs and in education programs for children, there is a need for services to assist the parents of these children.
6. There is a lack of sufficient closed circuit televisions (CCTVs) and computers to meet the needs of all students who are visually impaired. Every student who is blind should have access within the instructional setting to personal computers whose print can be enlarged by a word processor, read by a text-to-speech program or punched out by a Braille printer, and have its published text available in flat files with no formatting commands required for downloading.
7. It is essential that schools mandate that teachers provide class material, texts, and assignments to students who are blind and visually impaired in both an accessible medium and in the proper timeframe for the student to compete academically.
8. It is important that parents of children who are visually impaired be integrated into the planning of the educational programs for their children. Parents are often the most knowledgeable persons of students who are blind and visually impaired and should play a significant role in any and all instructional decisions.
9. In Illinois the administrative control of schools providing educational services for students who are blind should be placed under the States Department of Public Instruction. Educators are paid to educate, and children who are blind are students.
10. Illinois provides early intervention services only to at-risk children. However, children who have severe visual disabilities, while not necessarily developmentally delayed, have special needs that must to be addressed early. The State of Illinois needs to reconsider the effectiveness of its policy in this regard.