U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

Civil Rights Issues Facing the 
Blind and Visually Impaired in Illinois

Chapter 2

Advocacy Groups of the Blind and Visually Impaired

A distinction exists among organizations representing and/or advocating for individuals who are blind or visually impaired. One group of organizations presenting information to the Illinois Advisory Committee consists of organizations whose memberships are composed of people who are blind and/or visually impaired. Representatives from the following four such advocacy organizations testified: the American Foundation for the Blind, the National Federation of the Blind, the American Council of the Blind, and the Illinois Committee for Justice, and their statements are included in this section. The other group of organizations addressing the Advisory Committee provides services to the blind or visually impaired. Their background information and statements are found in the next chapter.

The American Foundation for the Blind was founded in 1921 and works to educate the public and policymakers about blindness and the capabilities of blind people it advocates for and shapes legislation that enables blind and visually impaired people to join successfully the ranks of tax-paying workers and consumers contributing to American society. The National Federation of the Blind, founded in 1940, is the largest organization of the blind in America, and its ultimate goal is the complete integration of the blind into society on a basis of equality. The American Council of the Blind seeks to improve the living conditions of people who are blind and those with visual impairments by advocating for educational opportunities, health care services, social security benefits, vocational training, and other health and social services. The Committee on Justice for the Visually Impaired is an organization of people who are blind that focuses its advocacy effort on access to public transportation.

These organizations, although in agreement on most issues regarding services to the blind and visually impaired, hold many distinctly different views with regard to the most appropriate education, training, and accommodation methods. The advocacy groups of the blind and visually impaired are not united in pressing for an agenda for the visually impaired.

The American Foundation for the Blind
Paul Schroeder 1

In many ways the civil rights community does not understand as well as it should that civil rights for people with disabilities—and certainly with people who are blind—require more than merely a nondiscrimination policy that is actively enforced. While the enforcement of a nondiscrimination policy is very important from an attitudinal perspective, civil rights for people with disabilities require specific kinds of actions to promote accessibility and to ensure accommodations.

Disabilities, unlike other “protected classes” addressed in civil rights statutes over 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 steps and actions be taken.

Regarding civil rights issues facing the blind and visually impaired, there are three critical areas. First, ensure and protect existing civil rights for people who are blind and visually impaired. Second, ensure access to service. Third, ensure the right of access to information and the technology that underlies information today. The last point is the area least understood in civil rights law, and at this point in time the area that need the most attention because it has the greatest impact in terms of exercising existing rights.

Protecting Existing Civil Rights

The AFB has spent many years working on civil rights issues. One important recent effort was work to ensure that the standard for Braille signage was included in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility guidelines, and that adherence to the Americans with Disabilities Act would, in fact, put signage in appropriate places.

There is a reason why there is not as much signage as the blind and visually impaired would like. The blind and visually impaired community is a relatively small population. There are just 2 to 4 million people in this country with severe visual impairments, and they are spread throughout the country. The lack of advocacy in any one particular local community is a result of there not being many blind and visually impaired individuals in one locality.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, while an excellent law, also contains numerous exemptions, exceptions, and other provisions that limit its reach and its application. That is most evident in areas such as installation of Braille signage. For a building already existing at the time of the Americans with Disabilities Act, signage is not required.

Additionally, people who are blind and visually impaired have not been as active in advocating for rights under the law. For example, only just over 2 percent of the complaints issued with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have to do with blindness or visual impairment. Most individuals who are blind or visually impaired are unaware of some of the details of laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the rights that the law and its implementing regulations afford such as the requirement for bus stop calling or the requirement for installation of warnings along the edges of transit platforms in rail systems.  Equally unaware is the general public and those required to take action under the ADA to accommodate the specific needs of people who are blind and visually impaired.

More publicity and promotion of the protections afforded by laws such as Americans with Disabilities Act and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, both to individuals who are blind or visually impaired and to the general public, are needed. A better job of promoting the importance of things like access to information in Braille or tape, promoting the importance of calling bus stops so that all passengers, including passengers who are blind and visually impaired, can make better use of transit systems, are steps that can be taken. Additionally, there may be ways to reward those meeting their obligations under the ADA. These kinds of incentives are worth pursuing.

Ensuring Access to Service

Ensuring access to services is a second very critical concern for people who are blind and visually impaired in order for them to have the skills and specific kinds of knowledge required to be independent as a blind person.

The blind and visually impaired community is very concerned about the trend toward consolidated agencies and the closing of specialized schools for people who are blind. These actions take away not only an opportunity for people to work and receive services in a setting that is conducive to their needs, but perhaps more important than that, it takes away the knowledge, experience, and specialized training of staff who must provide the instruction for people who are blind and visually impaired.

Beyond ensuring access to these services, there are other gaps that people who are blind experience, particularly the health care system. Both Federal and private health care often does not fund the services needed by blind people, especially those who are over the age of 65—the majority of the blind population—and does not fund the services that those people need to remain independent as they lose their vision. Once a vision loss has occurred, there is almost nothing that the health care system funding package has to offer people who are blind and visually impaired. That is not true of somebody who experiences a physical disability. They are able to receive rehabilitation and other kinds of services to help them live independently with that disability.

Access to Information

Access to information is the third issue of importance to the blind and visually impaired community. Access to information and modern information technology has emerged as one of the greatest challenges to people who are blind and visually impaired. One cannot be independent or participate in this society if he or she cannot use a computer.

The anger, the frustration, the depression are all too frequent from individuals who are blind and are unable to use their talents simply because Braille or tape or large print material was not provided or an accessible computer was not made available. Being able to access and manage and manipulate information is critical to independence. Being able to use computers and software programs and electronic information is equally critical.

The problem is really twofold: (1) access to an alternative formats and (2) the design of the technology itself. The solution to the first problem is to ensure the timely access to an alternative formats, which is the typical Braille style tape or large print, or audio presentation of something that is visual. Secondly, the design of the technology itself creates access barriers. For example, for a blind person it is extraordinarily difficult to navigate a graphic screen if one of those picture icons on the screen is not labeled in some alternative format. Equally, text that is painted to the screen or made as an image on the screen cannot be conveyed in speech to a blind person through the current means of providing access to computers. Blind people can use computers if they are designed correctly, and “if they are” they certainly could use them extremely well in the days of ASCII and DOS, the text-based system for personal computers.

Over the years blind people have been heavily handicapped by the ocean of printed information. The blind face more barriers than any other group in accessing information. Now technological innovations are further eroding this group’s independence.

There is hope. Information in a digital form or electronic form can be rendered in speech or Braille if it is designed properly. But the technology has to be designed properly. There are some laws that have helped to move us in the right direction, but enough has not been done.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act is a separate part of that law that requires the procurement by government of technology which is accessible for people with disabilities; however, to our knowledge, it has never been enforced and is rarely every used. Section 504 requires federally funded programs to ensure access and, in fact, over the last few years the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has issued excellent findings regarding university access requirements to help students access information and computers.

The U.S. Department of Justice has indicated that the ADA does, in fact, apply to the World Wide Web sites, but it says so in a very tepid way. The web site must be made accessible unless the entity that is covered has another means of providing information access for blind or visually impaired persons.

The new Telecommunications Act, which includes section 255, requires telecom equipment and services to be made accessible for people with disabilities. If they cannot be made accessible directly, then they are to be made usable by the assistive technology that people with disabilities use. These laws have helped, but unfortunately none of them set a clear policy on access to technology and computers, computer software, and the Internet. We still have an overwhelmingly, inflexible policy in our society that says “hands off” of information technology, as if it were still a fledgling industry that needs protection.

Lastly, in regard to information, is the issue of access to popular culture and the mass media, in particular access to television and video. It may seem a little funny to be arguing for access to what most people would describe as the mediocre and mundane world of television. However, that is where people are. That is where culture is taking place, and that is where most people are getting their information. People who are blind and visually impaired watch television as anybody else, but they miss out on a fair amount of what is happening on the screen because it is not described. In this sense they can be harmed because they are unaware of the popular culture and unable to participate with others regarding what is happening on television or in the movies. When one misses information about our society, for example, weather reports that are scrolled across the bottom of the screen in print, the loss of access can be life-harming.

There’s a solution; it is called video description. It can be provided. It is currently being provided in a pilot form by the Public Broadcasting System. To people who are deaf or hearing impaired, closed captioning provides access to the audio portion of a video program. Thus far Congress and the Federal Communications Commission have not decided to give video description a similar treatment as closed captioning. I think that issue deserves some have attention.

The National Federation of the Blind
Stephen Benson and Brian Johnson

Most people know someone who is blind. It may be a friend, a family member, or a coworker. The blind population in the United States is estimated to exceed 700,000 people, and an additional 50,000 Americans become blind each year. These numbers may not seem large, but social and economic consequences of blindness directly touch the lives of millions of people. An overriding concern is negative attitude by the public toward blindness. Such misconceptions and stereotypes about blindness are the most significant barrier that blind people have to face, much more significant than the actual loss of sight.

We are the National Federation of the Blind (NFBI). The organization started in 1940 as an organization of blind people, an organization of consumers.  Sometimes, agencies may be for the blind, and these agencies—though they do deal with blindness—may not be working for the same things as an organization of the blind. Public policies and laws that result from misconceptions about blindness or lack of information or the lack of genuine commitment to address issues related to blindness are often more limiting than the loss of sight.

Access to Technology

The specific issue of access to technology and consumer home products industries has significance in the areas of education, employment, and public accommodation. Public policies and laws affecting blind people have a profound impact on our entire society. Advances in technology have resulted in dramatic and far-reaching changes in business, education, scientific and medical research, recreational activities, and daily home life.

While most people in our society regard these technological changes as positive, blind people view them with caution from a thoughtful and critical perspective. Our concern has to do with whether designers/developers of such technology, computers as well as consumer home products, have or will include software and hardware that will allow blind people to use said products without substantial additional costs, extensive and costly training, or undue reliance upon sighted assistance to accomplish routine tasks independently as we did prior to such things as flat screens on microwaves and undefined buttons.

Analog technology with discernible buttons and knobs served us very well. During the 1980s and 1990s, blind people experienced new competitive job opportunities because of the availability of screen reading software that used the text-based MS-DOS system. Using this system word processing, data-based management, and spreadsheet operations were performed by blind computer users with the same facility as by sighted users. Considering the fact that the unemployment rate among blind people is in excess of 70 percent, computer access and the increases in job opportunities that it promised was at least encouraging.

In the mid-1990s Microsoft, marketer of MS-DOS, began to design and develop a new operating system called Windows that uses something called a graphical users interface called GUSI. The designers of GUSI failed to include in the original design any provision for screen reading software that would give the blind computer users the same screen access as DOS did. The negative impact resulting from this failure was that blind people were faced with costly training in the use of the new system. It was necessary to rely on the assistance of sighted readers more, and blind people were faced with the prospect of job loss.

While Microsoft has assigned a team to work on the accessibility question, and while they have designed and, developed something they call active accessibility, it must be noted that the results of that system testing have been highly questionable. It has not been widely accepted, widely used. Until these issues have been resolved, access to computers by blind people will be less effective than it should be. The recent design of computer operating systems and screen vending software present serious problems for blind computer users.

Access to Consumer Home Products

If one visits an appliance store and looks at microwave ovens, one will observe that the control panels of all the units on display are absolutely flat. There is no discernible difference among the touch pads that activate the functions of the microwave ovens.

Microwave ovens are not unique by their lack of access to a blind operator. Televisions, VCRs, stereo systems, washers and dryers, ATM machines, public information, telephones, and other appliances distinguish themselves by their bold designs that are completely inaccessible to blind people. A few manufacturers provide overlays or templates, but these devices have no value when the control panel contains multimodal buttons or touch points that control a variety of functions, depending on what menu screen is displayed.

It is clear that the only way to ensure that computers and consumer home products are accessible to blind people is to require by mandate that the designers and developers of these products include provisions for such accessibility in their original designs.

Equal Opportunity and Public Service Agencies

The National Federation of the Blind has over 50,000 members, and one of its primary concerns is employment for the blind. The unemployment rate among the blind is in excess of 70 percent. Training in adjustment to blindness and education training are critical to equal employment opportunity for the blind.

In the 1980s more training agencies for the blind emerged. Many people who were blind began to receive such training at centers outside their home State. In Illinois, with the exception of a few individuals, the Illinois Rehabilitation Program refuses to pay the entire cost for customers training in adjustment to blindness, regardless of the freedom of choice amendment in the Rehabilitation Act. The Illinois Department of Rehabilitation states that a customer can choose where he wants to go for training in adjustment to blindness, but will only pay for part of it or sometimes not pay for any of it. Blindness adjustment training, from the NFBI’s standpoint, is not supposed to be a service under the State means test.

Consolidation of State Services to the Blind

In March of 1996, the Office of the Governor of Illinois told the NFBI that although all rehabilitation—including services to the blind—would be combined in Illinois into a much larger agency, the Department of Human Services, which also includes mental health, public aid, and several others, services for the blind would not change in any way.

This is a national trend. One of the places where it started was in Wisconsin. Public officials saw that idea and said, “That looks like a good idea. Let’s do it too.” The NFBI holds there to be strong evidence that supports the notion that agencies for the blind, whose sole purpose is to provide adjustment training for blind people and the peripherals that go with it, function much more effectively than agencies that are buried in huge umbrellas. Braille, computer technology, daily living skills, and most importantly, helping people to develop the confidence and belief in themselves to compete on terms of equality and self-reliance are not addressed in most State agencies, including Illinois.

College Education

There is a sentiment that the State program for the blind is trying to get out of paying college tuition for eligible blind customers. They are trying to do this by a statute called the Relatives Responsibility law. That law requires that certain criteria have to be met by the rehabilitation customer before the State will pay college tuition and housing. If the criteria are not met, the main body of the college tuition payment is the responsibility of the customer or his or her guardian. This policy was initiated by the Illinois General Assembly. The Bureau of Blind Services, which is part of the Illinois Department of Human Services, had little input into the new means test criteria and no voice at all as to its effectiveness. It is a real problem and it makes no sense.

The American Council of the Blind
M.J. Schmitt and Ray Campbell 3

Services to the Blind Community and Equal Employment Opportunity

The Illinois Council of the Blind and its local chapters remain opposed to the Bureau of Blind Services being placed within the Illinois Department of Human Services. Although the Bureau of Blind Services appears to be operating in an autonomous manner and in much the same manner as before its merger, it needs to be emphasized that blind and visually impaired people need disabled-specific services.

Generalists maintain that these services can be transmitted to people in general agency. But blind people need to be rehabilitated and taught by people who have been taught to teach and taught to counsel blind and visually impaired people. The successful blind people in this country are the people who have had a superior education and been taught by people who know the shortcomings of this disability, where the weaknesses are going to be, and how to help you be the best that you can be. Such services do affect the way the blind live. Individuals can afford to do many more things with a well-paying job than they can ever hope to obtain on social security disability income.

Additionally, within the Bureau of Blind Services there is a need for more rehabilitation teachers and more counselors. There is a particularly acute need for placement specialists who just work on behalf of blind people. If a blind person learns the basic skills that are needed, learns how to walk, how to talk, with a good educational background, learns good daily living skills, and has been trained properly—which comes primarily from an agency offering disability-specific services—that individual can succeed. With the high rate of unemployment among the blind, certainly more help is needed, as there are many barriers to employment for the blind and visually impaired. One important barrier is employer attitudes. Sometimes in corporations, corporate leaders support hiring the blind, but when the blind gets into the job and the person immediately supervising the person was not consulted about this and does not feel a part of this effort, it can make for a very difficult working condition.

Services to Children and the Elderly

Service providers have been giving children tape recorders and computers, and maybe a smattering of Braille. These children need to have a concentration in Braille. Being without Braille to the blind person is like taking paper and pencil away from sighted people. When you don’t have that, all of the machines in the world aren’t going to help you. Again, working with a knowledgeable blind community and Braille is essential.

Inclusionists who advocate that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act should be all inclusive are right. However, for the children going to public school, they need to have the proper support services. If they do not have that, then inclusion is not a good thing, and until and unless there are those services, inclusion is not going to work. There are many children out in the public school system here in Chicago that are not getting Braille or not getting enough of it. There are many teachers who know Braille… but not many teachers who know how to teach Braille. These are two separate things.

The elderly who are blind and visually impaired are often neglected when it comes to public services. The Rehabilitation Act concentrates primarily on employment outcomes. But with macular degenerative retina pigmentosis and similar diseases, many more people are coming into the elderly blind program every year, and there is not much money to do anything for them. The appropriations this year is only asking for $1 million for the elderly blind programs. These people are getting lost in the shuffle. The State rehabilitation agencies for the blind are having to have to find money from other places in order to give the elderly people the services they need.

Computer Technology

Computers have allowed many blind persons to live fine lives, do things, and go places. Now that may be taken away from people. Developers of computer systems should have consulted with knowledgeable blind people and with vendors who do screen reading technology, and that just wasn’t done. Now blind people all over this country are losing their jobs, and it will be difficult for them to find another one. There is a desperate need for the large computer companies to work with the visually impaired community in order to make things accessible in the future.

The use of computers is an essential skill that almost everyone, every adult must have today. Computer technology is constantly changing and making greater opportunities available for everyone except those who are blind or visually impaired. The blind and visually impaired community continues to lag behind mainstream computer users in what hardware and special software we can use, and are therefore not nearly as productive as sighted people who have comparable qualifications. Blind people cannot use the applications that both public and private sector employers are using to get their work done.

Why do blind and visually impaired people lag behind? This is due in large part to the failure of computer manufacturers to provide little more than lipservice to making their operating systems and application software accessible. What can be done to help solve this problem? Both Federal and State Government agencies across the Nation must make it clear to manufacturers that they will not purchase software from them until it is fully accessible to all blind and visually impaired people. This means computer systems must work with large print magnification, speech output, and in-front output equipment. Private sector employers must be encouraged to take similar actions. If no action is taken, blind and visually impaired people will continue to lose jobs. How ironic it is that the computers, which opened up vast new opportunities for the blind and visually impaired community, now could take them away if something is not done.

ATM Technology

Another specific technology that needs to be addressed is access to automatic teller machines. Everybody thinks that if you put Braille on the keys of the ATM machine, then blind people can use it. Wrong. The people who think that way and who designed the Braille on the keyboard never thought to ask the blind how they were going to read the screen, which is what tells the individual everything about the transaction.

What is needed are requirements for manufacturers of ATM machines to build in access to the screen of the ATM machine, either through speech interface or through Braille display. There are privacy issues, but those can be easily addressed. Suffice it to say that there are ways with smart card technology in which one can encode the card to do voice only, and this comes on when a particular card is inserted into the machine. Or, there can be a headphone, and the blind person plugs into the machine. These are the kinds of things that need to happen. The Braille on the keyboard is very nice, but if a person cannot read the screen, the ATM machine cannot be used.


Transportation is a worrisome issue for the blind. For example, meetings for the blind and visually impaired usually are held in either Springfield or in Chicago, because so many of the other towns are so difficult to get to. It is particularly difficult for people in southern Illinois. They do not seem to have any train transportation at all…and very little bus transportation either. Transportation is a real problem and something that really does need to be addressed.

It will make no difference, however, what is done to make technology on the job more accessible if blind or visually impaired people can’t get to the job. Over the years, we have seen an erosion in Federal and State Government support for mass transit. The Chicago Transit Authority just completed the third in a series of devastating service cuts. Also, jobs are moving out of major cities where public transit has always been more plentiful and then into the suburban areas where everyone has two cars and public transit is almost nonexistent. As goes public transit, so go the opportunity for blind and visually impaired people to work.

Lack of access to transportation also causes the blind and visually impaired people to lose flexibility in where they can live, go to school, or access community activities. In today’s fast-paced jobs, employers want people who have the flexibility to work late on occasion. They do not want to hear that someone can not work late like the rest of the team because of their need to go home at 5 o’clock since that is when the only bus that serves the worksite goes to the train station. Travel restrictions similarly inhibit the blind and visually impaired from taking classes after work to enhance their skills, something many employers all but demand today. And it all but prevents them from participating in lunch outings, team-building activities, and after work get-togethers, all of which build camaraderie at work with colleagues. Because of this, blind and visually impaired people are shut out from opportunities to network and engage in office conversation.

There must be more public transit service, not less. Special incentives should be given to agencies to provide all-day fixed route transit to areas traditionally underserved by mass transit such as the suburbs. Also, lobbying for more funding for highways must be encouraged to work more closely with advocates for mass transit.

Committee for Justice for the Visually Impaired
Jonathon Butler 4

Transportation is a form of independence, and the Committee for Justice for the Visually Impaired concentrates its efforts on ensuring that equitable, affordable, and available transportation is available to the blind and visually impaired citizenry in Illinois. There exists in the Chicago metropolitan area an adjunct to the transportation system called the paratransit system. This system is federally funded and designed so that individuals who are blind and cannot ride the main lines can have access to an affordable public transportation service.

The Committee for Justice for the Visually Impaired goes to the different transportation organizations in the area, i.e., RTA, CTA, Pace and Metra, and advises them on ways to better meet the needs of the riders who are disabled who are passengers. This is ongoing because there are problems that always arise, no matter what is being done or what efforts are implemented to provide transportation services for the disabled.

As a result of the provision of these public transportation services to the blind and visually impaired, people who formerly were at home can now go to jobs, can go to school, obtain vocational rehabilitation training, visit their friends, and do many of the things sighted people take for granted.

One of the obstacles being addressed is certification, or the qualification, to be eligible for the paratransit service. In most instances and for most travelers, one can go and catch the Pace or CTA bus by standing at the bus stop and getting on the bus. The paratransit system comes to your door, picks you up, and takes you to where you have to go.  Later it returns for you at a time you designate. For instance, in order to come to this conference, I had to have called yesterday morning at 5 a.m., requested the carrier to pick me up and bring me to this location, and then tell them the time to return. That is what the paratransit system is, because I, as a blind person, would not have been able to do this on the regular bus schedule. The paratransit service allows the blind person to get where he or she has to go, though the service is limited and sometimes the destination places are restricted to medical service delivery points.

Sighted people may come to a conference such as this of the Illinois Advisory Committee and when it ends leave by catching a train or getting in a car to go home or do something.  But if sighted people would just step back and try and imagine getting about without sight, things taken for granted such as going to work or going to the doctor. How does one get there if he or she cannot see and has to get there on their own? These issues face the blind daily. Being able to get out of the house and on your own without someone to help you has a way of changing one’s life from dependency to independence. Because a blind person may have lost one physical attribute, i.e., sight, does not mean that it should cause the loss of everything else. Accessible transportation is a form of regaining access to society and essential to the mental well-being of the blind community. Public transportation systems that give special services to the blind and disabled community should continue to be funded, even in the wake of budget cuts everywhere.


1 Statement by Paul Schroeder to the Illinois Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, conference on “Civil Rights Issues Facing the Blind and Visually Impaired in Illinois,” Chicago, IL May 29, 1998. Paul Schroeder is the director of the Midwest region of the American Foundation for the Blind. The headquarters of the AFB is 11 Penn Plaza, Ste. 300, New York, NY 10001.

2 Statement by Stephen Benson and Brian Johnson to the Illinois Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, conference on “Civil Rights Issues Facing the Blind and Visually Impaired in Illinois,” Chicago, IL, May 29, 1998. Stephen Benson is the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois (NFBI), and Brian Johnson is second vice president of the Chicago chapter of the NFBI. The headquarters of the NFBI is 1800 Johnson St., Baltimore, MD 21230.

3 Statement by Ray Campbell and M.J. Schmitt to the Illinois Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, conference on “Civil Rights Issues Facing the Blind and Visually Impaired in Illinois,” Chicago, IL, May 29, 1998. Ray Campbell is president of the American Council of the Blind of Metropolitan Chicago, affiliated with the Illinois Council of the Blind; M.J. Schmitt is president of the Illinois State chapter of the American Council of the Blind (ACB). The headquarters of the ACB is 1155 15th St., NW, Ste. 720, Washington, DC 20005.

4 Statement by Jonathon Butler to the Illinois Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, conference on “Civil Rights Issues Facing the Blind and Visually Impaired in Illinois,” Chicago, IL, May 29, 1998. Jonathon Butler is president of the Committee for Justice for the Visually Impaired.