Student Advocacy: Why It Matters

By Michael Ausbun

In the national Federation of the Blind, we often discuss this notion of a “vehicle for collective action,” but what is that exactly and why is it so important? The first long term president of the National Federation of the Blind, Jacobus tenBroek once said, “Individually, we are scattered, ineffective and inarticulate, subject alike to the oppression of the social worker and the arrogance of the governmental administrator. Collectively, we are the masters of our own future and the successful guardian of our own common interests.” Reflecting on this year’s Washington Seminar—an annual gathering of approximately 500 blind Americans on Capitol hill—especially in the context of our legislative priorities conjoined with the words of Dr. tenBroek, creates implicit, and almost innate, clarity for my question. Where do I, as a student fit into the bigger picture, though?

This was my third Washington Seminar, but my first as a member of the national Federation of the Blind of Louisiana. I was afforded this opportunity through the generosity and investment granted by the scholarship I received at the state convention this past year–my gratefulness and humility cannot be expressed in a mere blog post. This year, more than any, reminded me why involvement from our students is vital to our success.

Students find themselves in the enviable position of being uniquely positioned to affect, and be affected by, all our legislative priorities. This year, we advocated on behalf of three pieces of legislation and a posed one.

The Accessible Instructional Materials in Higher Education act (Aim High), will establish a purposed based commission comprised of all relevant stakeholders (people with disabilities, publishers and manufacturers, and representatives from higher education), who will then be tasked to draft voluntary accessibility guidelines that will assist institutions in complying with titles II. And III. Of the Americans with Disabilities act and section 504 of the rehabilitation act. When students attend college, there should be no discussion about whether educational materials are available and accessible for us. In most cases, universities do not say, “here is a student with a disability, let’s make sure they cannot compete on terms of equality!” What constitutes accessible and inaccessible is usually misunderstood. Therefore, eliminating clarity conflicts and increasing understanding of accessibility for those who are genuinely interested in inclusivity appears to be right and just.

The Access Technology Affordability Act (ATAA) will create a refundable tax credit which can be applied towards purchases pertaining to access technology not exceeding $2500 over a three-year period. When we consider the technological revolution that has occurred in the last few years, and the dependency upon technology in both the employment and education sectors, the need for access technology becomes obvious. What is less obvious is the astronomical costs of the equipment. When you take into consideration the unemployment rate of blind people in the United States (approximately 70%) and the rising tuition costs across the board, the probability of students gaining independent access to access technology is low. That places us in a conundrum–to get a job and education, students need technology; to get the technology, students need funding. Therefore, like in the prior case, students are proximal to the focal point of this piece of legislation.

The next priority is one we have had for several years, the Marrakesh treaty, which will grant the cross-border dissemination of accessible materials. If countries can send accessible books across borders, then more students will have access to more materials. If more materials are available, then more students will succeed, because they will have the materials to do the work.

Finally, students have an important role to play in the opposition to HR620; HR620 places the burden of responsibility of ADA compliance upon disabled people. The efforts to pass the ADA 28 years ago required large-scale demonstrations and collaboration across the generations. To ensure that the ADA does not become weakened, an intergenerational approach is required. Without student participation, prohibitive action is impossible.

As I contemplate the role students can, and must, play in advocating for our legislation, I cannot but return to the quotation from Dr. tenBroek. Although the members of the National Federation of the Blind come together and truly influence widespread change through collective action, lacking student participation would merely reinforce perception of individualism that he cautioned against. Collective action takes every one of us–student and non-student, seniors and millennials, teacher and pupal, parents and children. The proximal nature of students to our movement, to me, emphasizes the role students must play.

To conclude, I leave you with the words of Dr. Kenneth Jernigan:

“When the members gather to celebrate the hundred-year anniversary of our movement, perhaps they will remember and once again recall these voices from the past. If so, let this be our message to you of that generation. We of the first fifty years worked to create a climate of public opinion and opportunity which would permit you to have equal treatment and full citizenship. We leave you a proud heritage, and a strong vehicle for collective action. Take this heritage, this vehicle, this National Federation of the Blind. Use it. Cherish it. And never forget your link to those of us who went before you, or your obligation to those who will follow. Remember, that no one can give you freedom. You must either take it for yourself, or not have it. This is a lesson that each generation must learn again. We speak to you from the convention of the fiftieth year, and we send you our love and our bond of union to last through the centuries.”