Mar. 8, 2021 11:57 am

Meeting with legislators is ‘the only way things will be addressed’ for blind and visually impaired citizens

Congressman Dwight Evans confirms he will co-sponsor the Access Technology Affordability Act — one of four legislative acts the National Federation of the Blind has on its priority list for 2021.

John Paré (at right), National Federation of the Blind's executive director of advocacy, and NFB interns at a previous year's Washington Seminar.

(Courtesy photo)

Each year hundreds of people with white canes and guide dogs descend on the Capitol for what is known as Washington Seminar. Since 1973, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) has led its members to face to face meetings with their respective congressmen, where they present the group’s legislative priorities of the year.

The NFB President determines the priorities that would most affect its more than 50,000 members nationwide. In pre-pandemic days, meetings were crunched within a 2–3-day period in January or February. With this year’s virtual platform, meetings extended throughout the month of February. The Pennsylvania affiliate is meeting with Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon later this month.

“In some ways we had a lot more flexibility this year,” said Emily Gindlesperger, the legislative director for the NFB of Pennsylvania. Gindlesperger has coordinated the Pennsylvania meetings for the past 10 years.

As the mother of a blind teenager and visually impaired herself, getting in front of lawmakers is a personal labor of love for Gindlesperger. Angelina, her 15-year-old daughter has also been an active participant since she was about 10 years old.

The NFB’s 2021 priorities are:

Ideally the group secures sponsorship from the chair of the committee overseeing the act. From there, NFB members push for as many cosponsors as possible. The more cosponsors an act  receives, the easier it moves out of committee and to the full house.

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Considering the backdrop of the January 6 raid on the Capital, the impeachment trial and a pandemic that put staff in a myriad of remote locations, the Pennsylvania team secured meetings with the offices of 16 of the 18 Pennsylvania representatives. They also met with aides from both Senators Pat Toomey and Bob Casey.

Efforts are already paying off. The Access Technology Act has been assigned a bill number in the House, while a Senate version was introduced during the Seminar.

Congressman Dwight Evans’ office has met with NFB members for several years and said, “I’m pleased to continue working with NFB Philadelphia members — it’s important to me to hear about their needs and priorities.” Evans confirmed he will co-sponsor the Access Technology Affordability Act.

Esther Gillyard is new to the NFB and attended her first seminar. She lost her sight in 2015 while a student at Temple University. Now a mother, she shared her experience of having to withdraw from school due to the lack of accommodations, and the challenges of being a blind parent.

Gillyard hopes her story dispels any generalizations about the blind community. “I think it’s really important that they hear other perspectives. That’s the only way things will get addressed,” she said.

The scheduling process is hectic and changes at a second’s notice but Gindlesperger believes it is well worth the time.

“If they don’t hear it from us, they won’t hear our passion and our needs. There’s no one else better to tell our story but us,” she said.


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