Blind Missourians seek funds for 2 programs

Lawmakers need to continue at least last year’s funding levels for two state programs created to assist Missouri’s blind and visually impaired citizens, members of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri plan to tell the Legislature this week.

Every year, the NFB members visit lawmakers throughout the Capitol, distributing a news release that explains the group’s priorities, and answering any questions the lawmakers may have about those issues.

The group said Gov. Jay Nixon’s recommendation that Rehabilitation Services for the Blind (RSB) be funded at $2.5 million of general revenue money actually is only 87 percent of this year’s budget.

“Any cut in appropriations will result in the state being unable to to take advantage of the full federal grant available to Missouri,” the NFB said in its three-page release.

The group reminded lawmakers that the agency “provides a variety of blindness-specific training such as instruction in Braille, cane travel, use of adaptive technology and assistance in purchasing appropriate equipment. ... Their services also provide transition services to youth as they develop their chosen careers.”

The agency also “funds the education of blind adults who have graduated from high school and wish to pursue technical training or attend a college or university” and, the release said, blind people who receive that assistance generally “go to work ... become participating consumers and support the businesses, charities and churches in their communities.”

That’s money well-spent, because “Every employed person returns more than seven times the money spent for their training, in taxes.”

The current funding issue is that Missouri in recent years has paid the state’s matching share from the Blind Pension Fund — “but that surplus is not available for the upcoming fiscal year.”

The RSB is part of the Social Services department’s Family Support division, which asked Nixon for a $2.9 million budget line from general revenues.

The National Federation of the Blind’s second budget request is for continued level-funding of the Blind Skills Specialist Program in the Elementary and Secondary Education budget, at $236,164.

“Although this program has never been fully funded, due to budget constraints,” the group’s release explained, “our Blind Specialists have bridged the gaps that have enabled them to better serve visually impaired students.”

The program is intended to help school districts and classroom teachers meet the special needs of blind students.

This year’s blind lobbying effort also focuses on two non-budget issues.

One is a request for a new law, requiring accessible voting machines for all elections — not just for those involving federal candidates.

The machines are required under the Help America Vote Act for all federal elections, the group noted, “and each polling place has at least one accessible voting machine.”

Since the special machines already are part of the election officials’ available inventory, the group said, the Legislature should order their use in all elections, because “the right to a secret ballot should apply in all elections.”

Finally, the National Federation of Blind is asking lawmakers to reject the so-called employment discrimination bills that, sponsors have said, bring Missouri’s law in-line with federal law.

“Protections ensuring fair treatment of disabled people in the workforce is a nationally recognized principle,” the news release said, citing two federal laws and the Missouri Human Rights Act, but the proposed new state law “would substantially weaken existing protections by requiring individuals with disabilities to prove that their disability was the motivating factor in an adverse job action.”

Current law and court rulings say a disability may be a contributing factor to an employer’s decision to terminate someone.

The NFB also questions the proposed cap on damages that could be awarded someone who wins a discrimination lawsuit, eliminating the “individual liability for an employee who performs discriminatory actions on behalf of an employer” and changing the current law affecting the Human Rights Commission’s operations because that could cost the agency “as much as $1.6 million in federal funding,” or 70 percent of its budget.

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