2017 LEGISLATIVE PRIORITIES FROM THE BLIND OF VIRGINIA*

Priority #1: Protect Civil Rights of Blind Parents

Action: Co-patron HB 2273 / SB 1199 (Patron Delegate LaRock, 33rd District and Patron Senator Favola, 31st District) which creates stronger protection under the law to eliminate the bias and discrimination that blind persons face in court decisions regarding custody, visitation, foster care, guardianship, or adoption.

Issue: With increasing frequency, blind parents in Virginia and across the U.S. are enduring instances where their Constitutional right to raise a family is being infringed. Competent blind parents have sometimes been denied adoption, or have lost child custody on the basis of blindness.
Social service agencies are often asked to investigate to ensure that children receive proper care and protection. Unfortunately, a prospective parent’s lack of vision often becomes the overriding factor used by the courts and social service agencies when making decisions about the care of children.

The National Federation of the Blind has documented thousands of cases of blind people who are successfully raising children, many right here in Virginia. This vast experience demonstrates that blindness is not a relevant factor in deciding whether a person is fit to be a parent. We have represented many blind persons in child custody cases across the country, as well as in other situations involving the care of children.
Unfortunately, blatant discrimination still occurs in too many of these cases. Even when no other problems were uncovered, blind parents were forced to demonstrate their child-rearing capabilities beyond that reasonably expected of sighted persons. The capabilities of blind individuals to care for children are often brought into question even when they had been successfully caring for their children for many years.

Despite improved technology, training, and support systems, myths about the capacity of blind parents persist. Even judges, social workers, and other state employees are not immune from these latent biases. Many of them have never met a blind person and cannot imagine raising a child while having limited or no sight. Because of this lack of understanding, some of these individuals miscalculate what is in the best interest of the child because they underestimate the ability of a blind parent to raise a child using alternative non-visual techniques.

Solution: HB 2273 / SB 1199 will solve this problem by doing three things. First, it will establish, as a substantive right, that a parent’s blindness will not serve as a basis for denial of rights when enforcing those rights is in the best interest of the child. Importantly, these new protections will add to the protections in the Americans with Disabilities Act, which only ensures an accessible court proceeding, by protecting the substantive rights of blind parents to raise a family. Second, when a parent’s blindness is alleged to have a detrimental impact on the child, it will require clear and convincing evidence that that is actually the case and that training in the alternative non-visual techniques would not ameliorate the problem. Finally, it will require ultimate decision makers to put their findings in writing to ensure that they consider training before deciding whether to break up existing families or prevent the establishment of a new one.

Priority #2: Ensure That Blind Riders Are Not Excluded from Use of Highly Autonomous Vehicles.

Issue: Autonomous vehicles have the potential to tremendously increase or decrease access to transportation for blind and low vision Virginians, especially in rural parts of the Commonwealth. Autonomous vehicles are already being tested in Phoenix, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere throughout the United States. Google’s autonomous vehicle was recently tested in Austin, TX where a blind rider successfully rode alone in a vehicle without any manual driving capabilities. This technology could greatly increase a blind person’s ability to travel independently, especially in areas without public transportation. Yet, many states are requiring passengers to have a driver’s license to legally operate highly or fully autonomous vehicles.
This restriction will likely decrease access to transportation by preventing blind passengers from even riding in a taxi or other vehicle for hire such as an Uber or Lyft because these businesses are actively trying to reduce costs by eliminating human drivers. Therefore, requiring a driver’s license to operate an autonomous vehicle could actually greatly reduce or eliminate the only access blind passengers have to cars.

Importantly, ensuring that there will be no legal barrier to blind riders operating highly or fully autonomous vehicles will also incentivize manufacturers and developers to incorporate accessibility during the initial design process. However, if blind riders are locked out of autonomous cars, then manufacturers will have little incentive to develop this new technology with our needs in mind, making it much more difficult for us to ever gain access to this technology. Virginia must ensure that any autonomous vehicle legislation ensures that there will be no legal barrier preventing blind and low vision passengers from an equal opportunity to operate autonomous vehicles.

ABOUT THE NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND

The National Federation of the Blind is America’s largest and most active organization of the blind. With more than 50,000 members, we are not an “agency” claiming to speak for the blind; we are blind people speaking for ourselves. In Virginia, we are organized into 11 local chapters throughout the Commonwealth, and into various special interest divisions; including a parents division. We are the only organization that believes in the full capacity of blind people and because of that, we strive to transform dreams into reality so that blind Virginians can live the lives we want.