President’s Message

By Tony Swartz

In my last message I expressed our organization’s concern regarding the depletion of the Social Security Disability Trust Fund. In fact, how we would address it as an organization was the subject of a convention resolution. Fortunately what might have turned into a financial crisis for many of our members was avoided as the two-year budget compromise that was approved by the U.S. Senate and sent to President Obama at the end of October ensures that the Social Security Disability Trust Fund will remain solvent through the end of 2022. Was it the best we could have hoped for? Not quite, for though it was more than a “kick the can down the road” action, an all too regular formula for addressing issues by the 114th Congress; our desire was for a permanent solution for funding the Disability Trust Fund.

There is some hope that Congress is perhaps ready to address what is known as the “cash cliff” issue. In 2015, individuals receiving Social Security Disability payments may earn up to $1,820 per month. A dollar a month more and the individual risks losing benefits including Medicare. There are of course, extenuating circumstances such as work related expenses and the cost of specialized equipment which are taken into consideration in the calculation of the $1,820 monthly earnings limit. As a hard cap, this one dollar over the cliff limit has had an unintended consequence as a disincentive to employment. Fearing the loss of all benefits some individuals with disabilities have chosen to avoid employment or have feared to seek advancement. The solution which many disability rights and advocacy organizations have proposed for many years is a $2-for-$1 phase-out of benefits. The current budget deal which includes funding the Disability Trust Fund contains an allocation for a demonstration project to measure the effectiveness of a $2-for-$1 phase-out formula. Though details aren’t yet available, and the number of individuals to participate in the demonstration project will be quite limited, at least it is a foot in the door for future consideration.

Is there one branch of government which has served our interests better than another? Is there one political party which has been more supportive of our legislative agenda? Personally I love the old quip, “how can you tell if a politician is lying? Their lips are moving.” Ah, president of PCB doesn’t count. Besides, my lips never move while I’m writing.

I bring this issue up because just before Thanksgiving, Mark Richert, Esq., a long-time ACB member and public policy advocate posted an uncharacteristically blistering message to the ACB Leadership listserv entitled “a bipartisan rant.” In his message, Richert was critical of both the Obama administration and the Republican led Congress.

With regard to the Obama administration, he pointed out that a number of federal regulations we’ve patiently waited for from the administration have been delayed yet again. A final rule for the process to refresh section 508 has been put off until July of next year, never mind that we’ve been hearing promises of a final rule since the summer of 2006. ADA regulations having to do with online-only public accommodations as well as medical and other technologies have been put off yet again and won’t even be formally proposed until 2018.

“Particularly regarding the ADA web regulations, I think this announcement by the administration, through their semi-annual regulatory agenda announcement that has just come out recently, is absolutely a slap in the face of the blindness community,” wrote Richert.

In his post Richert also had harsh words for the Republican led Congress.

“Let me also say that I’m so sick of hearing from some folks about how Republicans in Congress will come around on our issues if we just talk to them the right way. If I have to listen to yet one more Republican staffer spew nonsense out-of-touch ideology to justify their deliberate indifference to the education of blind kids as they fail to act on the Macy Act, I think I’m going to explode…. The truth is that we’ve done literally dozens and dozens of meetings with Republican legislators in both the House and the Senate, and you would be amazed, or maybe you wouldn’t be, at the imperviousness of those folks.”

My point in citing the remarks of an advocacy veteran such as Richert is to point out that in advocacy work we have no natural allies and we owe no loyalty to either party. If we are serious about our advocacy work and if we believe in the issues for which we advocate, then we absolutely have a responsibility to learn where a candidate stands, see beyond the rhetoric, and for goodness sake, never cast a ballot against our own self-interest.
This is my closing message as president of the Pennsylvania Council of the Blind. I believe that one of the responsibilities of a leader is to know how to step aside for the next leader. PCB’s Immediate Past President, George Holliday, has been an excellent mentor in that respect. George has always been extremely supportive, given advice when it was requested, and kept a low profile. I have much to live up to if I am to emulate my good friend’s example. Thank you George! What sets my heart at ease, what makes my relinquishment of the reigns of leadership so much easier is PCB’s great fortune; to have elected a new president with such remarkable potential. Beyond her intelligence, her talent in so many areas, her energy and enthusiasm, I believe that Sue Lichtenfels is a true visionary. I ask that you join me in welcoming her vision for PCB and, that we all enthusiastically support and work to bring about that vision.

So now what am I going to do in PCB? If you ask me where I failed the organization as president, I would remind you that one of my goals was to develop a new funding stream to help support the work of our organization. I failed to accomplish that so with that in mind, with Sue’s consent, I will head the Fund Development Team. If you are interested in working with me to secure PCB’s financial future, please write or give me a call.

Lastly, I wish to thank the officers, members of the board, and committee chairs with whom I’ve served. It has been an honor to serve the membership as president of PCB. Whatever has been accomplished over the last four years is a result of your willingness to work and your dedication to advocacy.

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