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Blind Missourians present 2019 agenda to lawmakers

Blind Missourians present 2019 agenda to lawmakers

February 12th, 2019 by Bob Watson in News

Debbie and Gary Wunder, of Columbia, visited several legislators' offices Monday as part of National Federation of the Blind Lobby Days at the Capitol. One of their stops was to Rep. Bryan Spencer, D-Wentzville, seated at right, who listened to and asked questions of the couple. They delivered a packet of information to the legislators they visited, along with the group's talking points regarding legislative proposals and their view on them.

Photo by Julie Smith /News Tribune.

Members of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri will spend more time today visiting with lawmakers about their 2019 legislative agenda after beginning their visits Monday afternoon.

Part of their goal is helping people understand that "blind people can do whatever they want to do if they're motivated enough to work for it," Missouri NFB Chapter President, Sheila Wright, told the News Tribune.

Gary Wunder, the NFB of Missouri's past president, added: "I think one of the mistakes (many) people make is, they believe that if what they do requires vision for them to do it — it probably can't be done, or can't be done well, if you're blind.

"Luckily, God has endowed us with a lot of different resources to use," including touch and sound.

Braille education

Again this year, their agenda includes more emphasis on Braille education for blind children.

In a four-page memo being shared as part of the lobbying effort, the NFB notes: "The equivalent of print for the sighted is Braille for the blind, and this is recognized in the education laws of Missouri. Though the law says that no blind person shall be denied instruction in Braille, it does allow school districts to conduct evaluations to determine whether print or Braille is the most appropriate method for reading and writing for a given student."

Braille — originally developed in the 1820s — is based on combinations of six raised dots that represent every letter of the alphabet, numbers, punctuation symbols and some complete words.

A person who can't see is trained to recognize the various combinations with their fingers — then comprehend those combinations in the same way sighted people read letters.

In its memo, the federation noted: "Far too often, print is determined to be the most appropriate reading medium because the process used in making evaluations is flawed and because the strong preference of teachers and school administrators is to teach what they know and use the resources easily available to them."

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However, statistically, 80 percent of the blind people who have jobs in America read Braille, the NFB said, while less than 10 percent of blind children are taught Braille.

Wright, of Kansas City, was diagnosed as legally blind when she was 16. However, she doesn't remember being able to see very well before that, even with her thick, "Coke-bottle" glasses.

She taught herself to read Braille when she was an older teen and young adult, and said it's been frustrating that lawmakers haven't emphasized its use for younger students with visual impairments.

"Last year, we came so close to getting the Braille bill — the national reading media assessment — passed," Wright said. "But at the final hearing, five or six blindness educator professionals came and objected — so it set us back a bit."

The NFB said using that national assessment, or another research-based assessment, would improve Missourians' ability to read and understand materials.

"We know hundreds of adults and many children who have been denied the opportunity to learn Braille," the group said in its written materials. "A research-based assessment could have avoided their education being compromised. Our state must have a clear standard which is both reliable and valid to use in determining who will be taught print, who will be taught Braille, and when both print and Braille are appropriate for a student."

Wright told a reporter: "If they don't have Braille to use, they're basically illiterate," noting she was in college before she learned "how to spell words that had silent letters, if they didn't come up on a spelling list."

The example she used was "subpoena" that she thought should have been "sub-piano."

Wright thinks many educators believe "that audio and computers technology replaces Braille, but there are things I can do with Braille that I can't do with those (other) things."

She added: "I don't want something talking in my ear, for example, if I'm giving a speech."

Teaching Braille also would help some people's health, the group said.

Some people who have poor-but-partial sight strain their eyes by holding printed materials too close to their faces so they can read it, or they develop posture issues.

Ending injury waivers

Wright said a second priority this year is erasing a "very old statute that says an employer can ask a blind person to sign a waiver — so that, if anything happened at work, any kind of injury — (the employer) wouldn't be responsible for it."

Although she's not sure how many employers require that waiver to be signed, she said, "Having it there reinforces attitudes people already have — that blind people are a big risk. But blind people are no more a risk on-the-job than anyone else."

Getting more opportunities for blind people to find jobs is one of the NFB's long-standing goals.

Improved voting machines

The federation once again is encouraging lawmakers to fix the voting laws so blind people can vote without requiring the assistance of a sighted person.

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"We've worked with the secretary of state. They're going to be getting new machines, and we're going to be involved in that process," Wunder said.

"But what we really would like the Legislature to say is, if the right to vote privately and independently is important, it shouldn't just be for federal elections — it should be for state elections, school boards, mayoral elections and that sort of things."

Federal law requires a voting machine that assists the visually impaired to be set in each polling place, during elections where federal candidates are on the ballot.

Wright said, "If they've got (the machines), why not use them in all elections?"

The modern equipment creates a paper ballot, just as sighted people use.

And, Wright noted, they're not connected to the internet, so they can't be hacked.

Improved salaries for blind counselors

The NFB members again want lawmakers to improve pay for the Vocational Rehabilitation counselors who work for the Rehabilitation Services for the Blind — because they make "markedly less" than the Vocational Rehabilitation counselors who work with people with other disabilities, through the separate Division of Vocational Rehabilitation in the Elementary and Secondary Education Department.