Promoting Legislation to Help the Blind

Promoting Legislation to Help the Blind

by Peggy Chong

After its founding in 1920, the first legislative action by this organization was to secure a Pension Bill for the Blind. This bill would provide a monthly pension of $30 (remember, those are 1920 dollars) to each adult blind person in Minnesota. The ultimate goal of the pension bill was to provide a monthly income that blind people themselves would control. Another goal was to allow blind recipients to make their own choices about where they would live, the jobs they would hold and the type of services that they would receive from state or county welfare agencies.

The pension bill took years to pass. When it was finally adopted in 1936, it was short lived. In the fall of that year, the new federal Social Security board declared it invalid. One objection was that the bill still allowed for the county to disburse the money.

A positive result of the pension bill was the formation of the Bureau for the Blind. It came into being in 1923, with an appropriation of $25,000, three employees, and an office in the State Office Building. Mr. M. I. Tynan, a teacher at the Perkins School for the Blind, was the agency's first director. In 1921, the organization introduced legislation that called for the State School for the Blind in Faribault to be moved from the Department of Institutions to the Department of Education. Unfortunately, the organization was not successful in accomplishing this goal. A resolution was passed at the 1952 annual convention that was much the same. In 1952, the Braille and Sight Saving School was still located in the Department of Institutions. The cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul passed White Cane ordinances in 1933. In 1945 a state White Cane law was passed. To educate the public to the meaning of the White Cane Law, members spoke on radio talk shows, passed out leaflets at a variety of functions, and distributed book covers to Twin Cities school children.

In the 1940-41 legislative session, the organization worked successfully to obtain a budget for the Department for the Blind of $376,000, with money specifically designated for rehabilitation and the vending stand program. This was a substantial increase. The organization was also successful in amending the Aid for the Blind law to provide for the right of appeal. On February 23, 1947, the legislative committee held a public hearing in downtown Minneapolis to inform and educate officials on the legislation affecting the blind for that year. Over 100 persons attended the meeting. Legislation discussed that day and later passed by the state legislature included lowering the age for collecting Aid to the Blind from 21 to 18, a burial allowance for blind persons, and reducing the residency requirement for collecting Aid to the Blind to one year instead of five years. The speakers at the public hearing included the Mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey, and Paul Martin of WTCN News.

Some problems required many years to resolve through legislation. Today we take for granted many rights that our forebears had to fight for. We owe a great debt of gratitude to them. Among their achievements that benefit us today are the following:

ensuring the right to choose one's own doctor while receiving Aid to the Blind, requiring at least a 30-day notice for any changes in the Aid that a recipient would receive, removing the requirement that a blind traveler be accompanied by a sighted person when using public transportation, providing the right to choose one's own rehabilitation plan instead of being told by the state agency for the blind what to study and where to study it, providing the right to refuse corrective surgery and not lose aid nor be turned down for rehabilitation services, building a cost-of-living adjustment into the Aid for the Blind program (continued in the Supplemental Security Income program that replaced Aid to the Blind).

It seems that the more things change for the better the more we need to correct the loopholes made by those changes. This organization pursued changes to Aid for the Blind nearly every year. In 1976, we called for a pass through of cost of living increases in the Federal SSI (Supplemental Security Income) program to the Minnesota recipient instead of having Minnesota Aid for the Blind reduced.

In 1970, we introduced legislation to prohibit discrimination in employment for blind persons. We also worked with the legislature in 1970 to bring to its attention the fact that blind persons were being discriminated against in the insurance industry. After the legislators realized that blind Minnesotans were being charged higher insurance rates (or denied insurance altogether) solely because of their blindness, they passed the Fair Insurance Bill in the spring of 1975.

One of our active pieces of legislation today is the Braille Literacy Law, first passed in Minnesota in 1987. This law ensures that every legally blind child in the state is given the opportunity to learn Braille. The bill has needed tightening up to assure that the intent of the law was being observed. A teacher competency standard is currently being addressed in the state legislature to ensure that the teachers who teach Braille know how to read and write it proficiently.

To this day, the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota stays vigilant in monitoring all legislation that could affect blind persons.