By Mark Richert, AFB Director of Public Policy
The following letter was posted to the ACB’s leadership listserv for distribution to our members. Time-dated info has been excerpted. This was posted on November 18, 2016.
While it is crystal clear to anyone who has been awake during this seemingly endless election season that the 2016 Presidential election has been unprecedented for myriad reasons, we have, nevertheless, been here before. In fact, we have had a front row seat, fairly recently, to see what single party control of both the Congress and the White House means for the progress of a particular public policy agenda. It means exactly what you’d think it might mean; where divided government leads to gridlock, single party control allows for lots of movement. And lots of movement means lots of dangerous possibilities, and yes friends, lots of potential opportunities. It is going to be a very busy few years for sure.
Like nearly each of you I’m sure, I have very strong personal feelings about the in-coming Administration and the composition of the Congress. Do I believe, however, that last week’s election changes anything regarding what we know is right for those of us who are blind or visually impaired and what we need to do to achieve it? With all my heart, I do not. Here’s why.
Let’s just stick with the relatively limited issue of described TV for a moment. Is it my personal belief that the federal government has a role to play in mandating that national TV networks be compelled to describe their programming? Yes. Are there people who are blind or visually impaired who disagree with this perspective? Yes, of course. Does any of that matter? No. What matters is that, after decades of discussion, and even sometimes hostile debate, our community is unified in its enthusiastic support for described TV. Is a federal regulation inherently necessary to ensure that described TV is provided?
Well, if people with vision loss demand described TV, and the networks provide it voluntarily, then no, a federal mandate is not per se necessary. However, as we know all too painfully, the overwhelming call by our community for described TV was ignored and then opposed by the nation’s networks. So did that mean that we went home and felt sorry for ourselves? We did not. We determined that our overwhelming demand for described TV would manifest itself in federal legislation to compel the networks to provide described TV, and we prevailed.
At no time over the course of my career in public policy have I ever said that I wanted to advocate for this or that legislative or regulatory fix just because we felt that having a law on the books at the federal level was a good idea in itself. No, our advocacy has always been about achieving real results for people who are blind or visually impaired. Having the government involved is not the end goal; progress toward a more accessible and inclusive society is. And yet, as James Madison wrote more than two centuries ago, “If men were angels, government would not be necessary.” And since none of us are angels, we can be sure that human beings will not always do what is right.
Now let me come at this from a much broader angle. Neither Republicans, nor Democrats, nor the cross-disability community, nor anyone else is going to come to our rescue out of their very nature; only we can demand their understanding and allegiance. Neither Republicans, nor Democrats, nor the cross-disability community, nor anyone else is going to automatically understand and stand up for what’s right for children and youth who are blind, visually impaired, or deaf blind; we are the only champions for their right to a truly appropriate education. Neither Republicans, nor Democrats, nor the cross-disability community, nor anyone else understands our unique needs for technology and information accessibility and how to achieve it better than we do. Neither Republicans, nor Democrats, nor the cross-disability community, nor anyone else has ever made an appropriate long-term national commitment to meet the needs of older people who struggle to learn how to live with vision loss in their later years, but we have. And while Republicans, Democrats, the cross-disability community, and plenty of others, couldn’t figure out how to rework America’s job training and vocational rehabilitation system after more than sixteen years without leaving workers who are blind or visually impaired and older people with vision loss for whom employment may not be an option out in the cold, we have had the solutions all along, for decades, and continue to stand for what is right.
My basic point is this: the values we share as a community, the positions we have taken, the posture we have assumed, and the ends we hope to achieve, are not, and have never been, dependent upon a specific political ideology or party affiliation. As tough as this will be for some of us on the political left to hear, we in the vision loss community have been betrayed now and then by Democrats and have been championed by staunch right wingers. And as mad as this might make some of us on the political right, like it or not, we need people to help us make the case for doing the right thing when free market forces fail us or clueless state and local bureaucracies will not bend. More often than not, Democrats, and even a few Republicans, are willing to play this role for us.
So what are we to do? Well, each of us can and should decide for ourselves how we want to be involved in the policy process, and I am making absolutely no comment here about that personal choice.
Emotions are running very, very high right now, and there is lots of fear about the future of civil rights and liberties, the social safety net, and even the very character of our nation. Am I suggesting that we should not care about these things and not do our part? Not at all. And please remember that those of us who do this policy work for a living on behalf of people with vision loss have always been committed to big picture issues, especially when it is clear that those big picture issues have a direct impact on and are of significant interest to people who are blind or visually impaired.
I can promise you that we will, as we always have, make common cause with groups both within and outside the disability community when we share common concerns.
However, if we merely march in lock step with others on such macro-level issues, we will be leaving vulnerable many of the issues that are so critical to all of us. I for one, who have had the tremendous honor for many years of being able to enjoy a career working on behalf of people just like me who are blind or visually impaired, am urging organizations of and for people with vision loss to keep laser focused on the issues that are both most of interest to us and that nobody else is going to defend. You can do this work with us regardless of where you happen to be on the political continuum.
If you believe that government has a robust role to play in our society, then join us in our ongoing efforts to make use of government to break down barriers and to compel compliance with common sense solutions. If you believe that government is far too big and needs to get out of the business of micromanaging our lives, then join us in working to toss out those “one size fits all” power grabs that have been imposed on our community over many years that only serve to limit opportunity and consumer choice. There is plenty to work on, and plenty of ways to work on it.
All I am saying here is that our agenda does not change with the unpredictable, ever changing, and sometimes tumultuous political winds. If fighting for information accessibility, quality special education, meaningful services to older people, and a rich variety of opportunities for people with vision loss to achieve the American dream were worth fighting for before election day, then they remain worth fighting for after election day. But someone must fight for them. Nobody will, if we do not!
So with that, friends, let’s each of us be involved in the policy process as our values and consciences lead us. And, as a community of women and men who are blind or visually impaired, family members, friends, professionals and advocates, let us also renew our commitment to stand up for what we know is right.
Very sincerely yours,
Mark Richert, Esq.
Director, Public Policy, AFB