U.S. District court orders SSA to provide correspondence in alternative formats for the blind or visually impaired

As reported on the NOSSCR (National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives) website, “a federal judge in the northern California district has ruled that SSA violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and its implementing regulations, by failing to provide “meaningful access” for SSA programs to all blind and visually impaired individuals. American Council of the Blind, et al v. Astrue , No. C 05-04696-WHA (N.D.Cal. Oct. 20, 2009).”
The history of this case is fairly amazing.  It has been going on for four years and involved 329 filings made either by the government or the plaintiffs’ lawyers. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) had an opportunity to end it earlier. Last year, after the Judge ruled that the SSA had to comply with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, he gave both sides the opportunity to stay the proceedings and allow SSA to engage in rulemaking so as how to comply with the Rehabilitation Act.  The Social Security Administration refused and continued on with the litigation.  The judge stated in his order:

Both sides, including SSA, requested that the litigation continue with a decision on the merits. Having spurned the opportunity for a stay pending rulemaking, the agency has, in effect, consented to resolve the case by litigation, not rulemaking.

The Court ruled that the SSA has to provide two alternative modes of communication when sending out notices to people who are disabled by blindness.  The notices must be either:  1) written in Braille or  2) contained on a CD in  Microsoft Word.
And since the Judge was now making the rules, he did so. He gave the SSA strict guidelines as to when they must comply:

  • November 29, 2009, Defendants must file with the court a description of the Braille or Microsoft Word CD and plans on how it is to be distributed;
  • December 31, 2009 – the SSA has to send out notices asking claimants to elect either receipt of a CD or notices in braille;
  • April 15, 2010 – the SSA has to develop and offer either a Braille alternative or a navigable CD in Microsoft Word;
  • The SSA  has to post a notice to their website and train staff on how to deal with people who are blind or visually impaired.  They must offer to read the notice which indicates how claimants are supposed to choose between a Braille format or a CD;
  • 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.

This is a great result and will undoubtedly benefit many people in the future.

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