Victory for the Blind in the Maryland General Assembly

by Sharon Maneki

The NFB of Maryland had an ambitious agenda for the 2014 Session of the Maryland General Assembly. I am pleased to report that we achieved all of our goals.

Nonvisual access to information is one of the greatest challenges faced by blind persons today. We have several good laws in Maryland that require public information created by state government to be accessible. We also have some good laws requiring educational technologies and online learning systems and websites to be accessible to the blind. Yet we find that access is still out of reach. This year in the Maryland General Assembly we focused on some nuts and bolts. We hope to bring the elusive goal of nonvisual access closer by implementing three long-term strategies.

First, The National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute planned to open the Center of Excellence in Nonvisual Access to Commerce, Public Information and Education (CENA). Governor O’Malley appropriated $150,000 in his 2014 budget for this project. Our job was to make sure that the General Assembly did not take this funding out of the budget.

Thanks to Governor O’Malley and the General Assembly, the CENA is now open. The staff is hard at work. Here are some of the goals for CENA:

The CENA will develop a website of resources specifically geared to meet the needs of companies. From time to time, the CENA will also offer special training events to the business community. The CENA will also accept feedback from blind persons on challenges they face in using websites and in obtaining proper accommodations in the workplace. More access will be achieved because of this dialogue. Businesses will have a one stop shop to get answers to their questions. The results will be more employment opportunities for blind persons and more commerce for Maryland.

The CENA will assist governments by collecting and sharing information on best practices in nonvisual access. Staff at the CENA will operate a hotline to address accessibility questions. The CENA must examine access to government information because governments are changing the way they deliver information to the public and the way they accept public inquiries. The public can now send in questions, fill out forms, and report problems to many state and local government agencies on a 24-hour basis by using websites and other electronic media. The Maryland General Assembly and local legislative bodies use electronic means to provide greater transparency and openness in government as well as enhanced communication with their constituents. Blind citizens must have the same access to government information and services as the rest of the general public.

The CENA will help to create an environment that promotes learning for all students including the blind. The use of online learning has become very popular in higher education. Online learning is now moving into the K-12 educational arena. Educators rarely know how to make courses accessible to blind students, so they tend to ignore the problem. The CENA has the knowledge and expertise to advise course developers.

The second item in our agenda concerned The Maryland Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (LBPH). LBPH remains the major source of books, magazines and newspapers for blind persons. LBPH also offers cultural programs and other opportunities to enhance the quality of life for its patrons. This library is part of the Maryland State Department of Education, but it did not have its own specific budget. Therefore, it was an easy target when budget cuts were necessary. Our job was to begin the process of ensuring consistent funding for LBPH.

Senator Roger Manno sponsored SB419 and Delegate Sheila Hixson sponsored HB1242. These bills placed LBPH in the funding formula along with the other public libraries throughout the state.

Many Delegates and Senators did not know of the existence of LBPH, and certainly were unaware of its invaluable services. We had no problem finding people to testify at the hearings or write letters for our library legislation because we are passionate about library services. Governor O’Malley signed SB419 into law on May 15. We hope this legislation will provide consistent funding so that vacant staff positions can be filled and services can improve.

The third item in our agenda was concerned with educating future technology developers. If computer science and computer information systems college students learn about accessibility as part of their curricula they will be more cognizant of the need to incorporate nonvisual access into their web designs and other products as they progress through their careers. Delegate Frank Turner sponsored HB396 and Senator Joan Carter Conway sponsored SB446. These bills instructed the Maryland Department of Disabilities, in partnership with the National Federation of the Blind, to establish a work group to look at how Maryland colleges and universities currently handle the study of accessibility. This work group will also make recommendations to the Maryland General Assembly on how to fix problems that they identify. The work group must submit a preliminary report to the Governor and the General Assembly by Dec. 15, 2015. Its final report to these entities is due by June 30, 2017. We hope to reap the benefits of this work group for many years, and look forward to greater access to websites and apps.

Another bill of interest to readers was enacted into law during the 2014 General Assembly session. HB428 extends services to students who are eligible for the Infant and Toddlers program from birth to the school year following the child’s 4th birthday. Most blind and visually impaired children are eligible for the Infant and Toddlers program. Contact your local school system’s Special Education office for further information.

The National Federation of the Blind of Maryland has an effective partnership with the members of the Maryland General Assembly. Over the years together we have made a real difference in helping blind persons to live the life we want. Our list of friends and supporters are too numerous to mention in this article. However, we want to thank each of you and to let you know that we appreciate your support and assistance. To those who are retiring, we wish you many years of continued health and success. To those who are running for reelection, we wish you well.

Let me remind all of our readers to be sure to vote in the upcoming elections. Our voice is as important as any other group of citizens in Maryland.