by Melanie Brunson
On October 20, Judge William Alsup of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco issued a judgment in favor of the American Council of the Blind (ACB) and two classes of 3 million Social Security beneficiaries who are blind and visually impaired. Our lawsuit had challenged the Social Security Administrationís failure to provide its critical communications about benefits to recipients who have visual impairments in alternative formats that would enable them to have equal access to SSA programs as required by federal disability civil rights laws.
In his order, Judge Alsup held that the Social Security Administration's failure to provide recipients with notices and other correspondence in a manner that was accessible to them constitutes a violation of federal anti-discrimination laws. He noted that the Social Security Administration had "been quick to find lame excuses for non-compliance," and that they had failed to prove an "undue burden" defense, as required by law. The following is a summary of the relief granted by Judge Alsup to the nation's blind and visually impaired recipients of Social Security benefits.
First, by April 15, 2010, SSA must develop a means of producing notices and other communications in both braille and a navigable Microsoft Word CD, and shall offer blind and visually impaired people who are either recipients of Title II or Title XVI benefits, or authorized representative payees, notices and other correspondence in one of these formats. Second, by Dec. 31, 2009, defendants must provide notice to all recipients and authorized persons shown in its records to be blind or visually impaired advising of the availability of the foregoing new alternatives and giving them an opportunity to choose one of the two above alternatives for communications beginning on April 15, 2010. This notice should advise that selection of one of the two alternatives would discontinue any special notice previously selected under the special notice policy, i.e., that the recipient would not be entitled to both a SNP notice and a new alternative.
Another key requirement is that this notice must also advise the recipient that the blind and visually impaired are entitled by law to ask the SSA to provide any other alternative accommodation they believe would be preferable to meet their needs. Judge Alsup ordered that the notice shall describe the Section 85.51 procedure and that SSA must fully comply with its duty to both advise as to the individual's rights to request another form of accommodation and comply in good faith with its duty under Section 85.51 to consider such requests. A similar announcement must also be posted on the SSA web site, and SSA is ordered to train its staff dealing with the blind and visually impaired to communicate orally the notice described above when such individuals call in, e-mail in, or write in, all to be effective by April 15, 2010.
By Nov. 25, 2009, SSA was ordered to file with the court a specific description of the braille and Microsoft Word CD it proposes to offer, the specific form of notice, and its specific plan of dissemination. It must also spell out a systematic plan for receiving and ruling on requests for accommodation under Section 85.51.
After April 16, 2010, no Social Security benefits may be reduced or terminated to any individual shown in the SSA records to be blind or visually impaired (or whose authorized payee is shown to be blind or visually impaired) unless such person was first provided with the notice prescribed above and the method of notice, if any, selected by said person was followed.
The judge will retain jurisdiction over this matter so that he can monitor SSA's compliance with his order, and the adequacy of the remedy his order granted.
In summary, all Social Security and SSI beneficiaries, as well as representative payees, who are known by SSA to be blind or visually impaired should be on the lookout for a notice from Social Security before the end of this year outlining the alternative formats in which they can receive future communications from that agency. If you get such a notice, you will still be able to choose to receive a telephone call or certified letter from SSA if you wish. If you want to receive communications in another format that you can access independently, be sure to either choose one of the formats offered, or request another form of communication that meets your needs more effectively. It is important for everyone to realize that requesting another accessible format, such as large print or audio recording, is a perfectly acceptable alternative and such requests must be considered by SSA. Individuals who cannot read braille and don't have computer access may still find a telephone call or certified letter from SSA insufficient and should have the opportunity to request another form of accommodation.
This ruling is a major victory for the disability rights movement, and it sets precedent for the obligations of other federal and state agencies to accommodate people who are blind or have visual impairments. The text of the court's decision will be available on the ACB web site very soon. Copies can also be obtained from the national office if anyone is interested.
We owe a tremendous thank you to our lawyers from the Disability Rights Education Defense Fund, Howry, and the National Senior Citizens Law Center whose hard work made this victory possible. Now, they, and we, are counting on you to help with its implementation.