Judge William Alsup of the US District Court, Northern District of California in San Francisco, on Oct, 20 issued a judgment in favor of the American Council of the Blind (ACB) and two classes of 3,000,000 individuals with blindness and visual impairments. The suit challenged the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) failure to provide its critical benefits communications to recipients in alternative formats that would enable people with visual impairments to have equal access to SSA programs as required by federal disability civil rights laws.
Eagle Point resident Scarlett Miles was a plaintiff in this action. Scarlett Miles’deposition was read into the trial record and was, like all plaintiff and witness testimony, instrumental to the determination that SSA should provide alternative formats to the blind and visually impaired.
This ruling signals a major victory for the disability rights movement, and it sets a precedent for the obligations of other federal and state agencies to accommodate people who are blind or have visual impairments. The Social Security Administration (SSA) sends out 390 million notices and forms each year.
Although SSA has been able to provide Braille or navigable data CD format alternatives for receipt of official communication, SSA has declined to systematically put in effect these options. Instead, SSA exclusively relies on an alternative Special Notice Policy (SNP) which offers over 3 million blind or visually-impaired the option of having notices read verbatim over the telephone. Consequently, members of this population are frequently denied access to crucial information regarding their benefits.
Plaintiffs won the right to receive communications in a format that is accessible to them, and Judge Alsup ruled that these formats, at a minimum, must include Braille and CD.
Not until the lawsuit was filed in 2005 did the Social Security Administration acknowledge that it was covered by anti-discrimination laws that protect people with disabilities. Judge Alsup observed in his ruling that the agency “has not given primary consideration to the requests of the blind and visually impaired for alternative formats.”
Judge Alsup cited the hardships that the plaintiffs endured because SSA sent them critical notices in print that they could not read or respond to. Examples cited by the court, such as: Arlene Doherty, of San Francisco, who is age 74, received an application from SSA to complete within 10 days or risk losing her benefits. The application contained circled questions to answer, check marks where she was to sign, and instructions to initial any corrections. SSA didn’t call to help her with this application, which she could not read or fill out. When the agency suspended her benefits, she became destitute. She was unaware that she could have applied for a hardship waiver.
“Blind people across the country have been trying for years to get SSA to send notices in a format we can read, and up until this ruling, we have been resoundingly ignored.” commented American Council of the Blind President, Mitch Pomerantz. “This is a great civil rights victory.”