President Obama stands in front of U.S. flag in suit with white shirt and blue tie, with mouth open and hands gesturing as he's speaking.

Blind, Deaf Communities Left Out of State of the Union Address

President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union speech lasted over an hour, calling attention to several issues including jobs, health care, technology, taxes, foreign policy and immigration. Notably missing was talk about physical disabilities, including those who are blind and deaf.

The word “disability” wasn’t mentioned in Tuesday night’s speech. Obama did mention the term “blind” when describing Army Ranger Cory Remsburg’s recovery, noting that he is still blind in one eye after nearly dying from a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Remsberg’s acknowledgement garnered an applause that lasted a minute and a half.

That’s not to say that some issues that Obama spoke about wouldn’t have an impact on blind and deaf people. For example, Obama’s touting of the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that an insurance company can’t deny someone based off a preexisting condition is a positive for most blind and deaf people. And Obama’s Executive Order to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for federally-contracted workers could benefit some blind and deaf workers, especially companies like AbilityOne, which sells products and services to the federal government and is ran by people who are blind.

There are a lot of groups that say Obama didn’t go far enough. Many organizations wished Obama would press the Senate to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, an international treaty signed in 2009 lead by the U.S., that serves as a framework for legislation and policy that embraces the rights of people with disabilities.

Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, said although he is disappointed that Obama didn’t mention issues pertaining to the deaf and blind communities, the most important thing is that Congress looks out for those communities when passing laws.

“There is much work to do in making everyone in society aware of the needs of those who are deaf, blind, or have other disabilities,” he said. While it is important to be recognized as people who deserve equal rights in State of the Union speeches, it is much more important that the government improve laws and enhance legal enforcement of those laws to ensure equality in education, employment, access to programs and services, housing, transportation, and all areas of life.”

According to the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency, only 34.5 percent of disabled people in the U.S. with just a high school diploma are employed and 75 percent of voters with disabilities have a hard time voting at their assigned voting location. There is reason to believe these numbers are lower and higher respectively in the blind and deaf communities. Groups would have liked to hear something about this from Obama as well as helping those who rely on Social Security save money.

Lawrence Carter-Long, spokesperson for NCD tweeted during the speech:

In the past, the Obama administration has focused on issues that affect the blind and deaf communities. In 2010, Obama signed the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, a law that establishes rules that communications companies must follow. And last November, Secretary of State John Kerry pushed the Senate to ratify the CRPD.

Still, many people wish Obama simply mentioned the word “disability” and that Congress would take more action.
Chai Feldblum, who serves on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission tweeted:

The lack of being mentioned doesn’t stop groups from putting pressure on their representatives and Obama. Lobbying for the introduction of the Alice Cogswell and Anne Sullivan Macy Acts will continue. And this week, the National Federation of the Blind held its annual Washington Seminar, introducing federal legislation that the organization would like to see passed in 2014.

It is unclear on what it would take for presidents to mention specific issues that affect people who are blind and deaf in their State of the Union speeches, but pressure will continue to be put on politicians to acknowledge those communities. During Tuesday night’s speech, the hash tag SOTU4PWDs was trending and it’s only a matter of time before future State of the Union speeches include the terms blind and deaf in policy talks. ADAPT, a disability rights organization tweeted:


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