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Legislative Update

Dr. Karen Wolffe, Alliance of and for Visually Impaired Texans (AVIT)

TEXAS LEGISLATIVE NEWS

There are two compatible bills related to access to information technology for people who are blind or visually impaired that have been introduced in the 75th Texas Legislative Session: Senator Mike Moncrief is sponsoring SB 1059 and Representative Elliott Naishtat is sponsoring HB 2619. In both of these bills, equal access to information technology for people who are blind or visually impaired is required in the dissemination of services to the public and for state employees. The bills both require a technology access procurement clause to be included in all state contracts.

Naishtat's bill also establishes an advisory board to "1) establish performance standards for information resources technologies designed to provide the blind with equivalent access to visual display devices; 2) recommend procurement specifications for information resources based on the general performance standards developed by the board; 3) research and provide information to state agencies regarding information technology that is accessible to the blind; 4) in cooperation with the General Services Commission and the Department of Information Resources, develop a technology access clause under Section 2054.051, Government Code; and 5) evaluate specific information resources technologies and report to the Department of Information Resources on the quality of the technology to enable the Department of Information Resources to develop a state strategic plan under Section 2054.092, Government Code."

Representative Naishtat has also filed a bill (HB 2620) to establish and fund a blindness education, screening, and treatment program seemingly to be administered by the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (formerly known as Texas Commision for the Blind) . (Although Naishtat's bill references "the commission," it does not specify the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (formerly known as Texas Commision for the Blind) . However, staff in Naishtat's office report that it is the Representative's intent to have the program administered by TCB.) The blindness education program would include written educational materials, information available by telephone, and public presentations about blindness and other eye conditions. It would be funded through the contribution of an additional $1 fee for licenses and collected by the Department of Transportation.

U. S. LEGISLATIVE NEWS

Both IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and the Rehabilitation Act are up for reauthorization. Members of the 105th Congress are currently considering IDEA and it is expected that once it has been reauthorized, they will begin work on the Rehabilitation Act. Issues of concern to advocates in the blindness community related to IDEA include the following:

• Orientation and Mobility services need to be added to the list of "related services" in the statute;

• Opportunities for instruction in Braille reading and writing need to be increased;

• The significant increase in the use of technology in the schools and access to telecommunications services, requiring assistive technology must be addressed and included in the IEP process;

• A separate program within IDEA for preparation of low-incidence personnel must be established in order to address significant shortages of instructional personnel to teach O & M, Braille, and other blindness-related skills,

• Parent rights, particularly the right to due process, should not be weakened.

The most critical issue facing the field with regard to the reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act is the threat from proponents of generic rehabilitation services to eliminate blindness-specific programs and, specifically, to eliminate separate authorization for independent living services for older blind adults. Please urge Congress to protect and preserve 29 U.S.C. Sec. 721(a) which allows states to provide separate rehabilitation services to people with visual disabilities and 29 U.S.C. Sec. 796(K) which authorizes specialized independent living services for older blind Americans.

Another concern at the national level is the delay at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with implementation of the requirements spelled out in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Until the FCC establishes rules to govern accessibility to telecommunications services, manufacturers and service providers are operating without a clear understanding of what they must do to make products and services accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired. The FCC needs to be actively encouraged (how's that for diplomatic!) to issue regulations under Sec. 255 and exercise its discretion to issue regulations governing video description of television and other video programming.

Finally, Senator McCain (S. 375) and Representative Kennelly (H.R. 612) have introduced companion bills to restore the statutory earnings test linkage between seniors and blind workers under provision of the Social Security Act, Sec. 223(D)(4) which was disrupted last year leaving blind workers behind. Without the restoration of the earnings linkage between blind social security beneficiaries and retirees, blind beneficiaries are likely to be discouraged from returning to work because they will abruptly lose all social security benefits, including Medicare, if they earn above the current earnings limit.

For further information on federal legislative initiatives, please contact either the AFB governmental affairs office at 202-457-1496 or the ACB office at 202-467-5081.

Thanks to Mary Ann Siller, American Foundation for the Blind, who provided information related to federal legislation presented at the recent Tell It To Washington meeting cosponsored by AFB and the American Council of the Blind.


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