Until the spirit of love for our fellow men, regardless of race, color or creed, shall fill the world, making real in our lives and our deeds the actuality of human brotherhood, until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.
I. What Would Helen Do?
Helen Keller was born on a sultry summer day in 1880 on her family’s cotton plantation in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Helen was her young mother Kate’s first child, but the third child and first daughter of Helen’s beloved father, Confederate Captain Arthur. Kate Adams Keller was a voracious reader with a razor-sharp mind, memory and intellect. Captain Arthur managed the local newspaper and routinely ran for local public offices. Curly, golden-locked Helen was the stand-out star of the large extended Keller family including many house and field servants and their children. Baby Helen was talking and walking before she even celebrated her first birthday. In the always active Alabama household Helen continued to thrive until just before her family celebrated her second birthday when a ravaging high fever turned Helen’s world forever dark and silent.
At the end of the 19th century, people with disabilities were legally sterilized, institutionalized, and denied the right to marry or even be in public.1 Schools systematically excluded children with disabilities except for a few visionary facilities that served individuals who were blind and/or deaf. Despite overwhelming discrimination and a dearth of resources, Helen excelled because of her unique and fortunate circumstances and undeniable genius. With the able assistance of her parents and others including her exceptionally gifted teacher, Annie Sullivan, Helen graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College at age 24 and authored more than a dozen books and countless articles in her 80 years.
Like her father, Heller was engaged in politics from an early age, vehemently supporting racial equality and peaceful conflict resolution while opposing violence and war. Helen travelled the globe and found her voice by lecturing worldwide as a bold and relentless advocate for the poor, people of color, and people with disabilities, especially those who were blind. For more than five decades, Helen Keller testified before the U.S. Congress championing disability rights including equal education opportunities, job and teacher training, uniform and affordable reading materials and accessible public transportation.
In 1944, a spry, engaged and active 64-year-old Helen Keller testified before the U.S. House Committee on Labor. She described the need for increased financial resources for people of color, those without access to an education, and for blind and deaf individuals. At the time, she argued that blind individuals had to incur “unaided peculiar expenses which lack of sight” entailed. “For instance they must pay a guide or a reader at the sacrifice of other precious necessaries.” She testified that most blind individuals “cannot afford Braille writers or typewriters.” Then she asked the committee members to imagine themselves in the dark “unable to send a written message to a son or a brother overseas.”
Seventy-four years later, Helen Keller would be deeply disappointed to learn that blind individuals in the United States continue to suffer “unaided peculiar expenses,” sky-high unemployment rates and workplace discrimination. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) reports that nearly 72% of blind Americans are unemployed or underemployed and more than 30% are living in poverty. The high rates of under- and unemployment and lack of livable incomes are due, among other reasons, to the fact that current opportunities for education and employment demand access to technology. Unfortunately, access to technology is expensive, with costs ranging from $1,000 up to $6,000. For example, a screen reader is $900, a Braille note taker is $5,495, a refreshable Braille display is $2,795, and a moderately priced Braille embosser is $3,695. Most blind Americans do not have the financial resources needed to purchase this or similar equipment. These financial barriers disable rather than enable work, education and training leading to prohibitive under- and unemployment rates, inadequate education and skills, and isolation from political, social and other community activities.
II. Enabling Work through the Tax Code
A. An Act Whose Time Has Come
Fortunately, Kimie Beverly Eacobacci, NFB’s government affairs specialist and a former student at University of Nevada, William S. Boyd School of Law, has been working with members of Congress on a bipartisan, bicameral bill to mitigate these financial barriers. The Access Technology Affordability Act of 2017 (the Act) (H.R. 1734/S.732) provides a refundable tax credit to offset out-of-pocket expenses of up to $2,500 for “qualified access technology” (QAT) for qualifying blind individuals for consecutive three-year periods. Thus, the credit is not a financial advantage, but merely reimburses blind individuals for any out-of-pocket costs for their employment and educational barriers not otherwise covered by insurance, employers or educational institutions. For purposes of the credit, QAT means hardware, software, or other information technology the primary function of which is to convert or adapt information that is visually represented into forms or formats useable by blind individuals. Blind individuals are defined by using the definition used for the additional standard deduction amount for blindness under section 63(f)(4). Therefore, individuals are “blind if their central visual acuity does not exceed 20/200 in their better eye with correcting lenses, or if their visual acuity is greater than 20/200 but is accompanied by a limitation in the fields of vision such that the widest diameter of the visual field subtends an angle no greater than 20 degrees.”
The credit is targeted to low- and middle-income blind individuals and their families so it phases out $100 for every $1,000 (or part thereof) over $75,000 of modified adjusted gross income ($150,000 for joint tax returns). Both the credit amount and the phase-out thresholds are indexed annually for inflation so that they remain consistent over time. By empowering blind individuals with a reimbursement of their employment-related expenses, the credit enables them to buy, own, and use technology that will enable them to work and engage in a fuller and richer life.
Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.
B. Examples of Taxpayers Who Would Benefit from—and Benefit Society Under—the Act
John is a blind Vietnam War veteran. John’s only income is $1,200 that he receives each month from the Veterans Administration (VA) in non-taxable compensation for his service-related disabilities. John does not receive any VA benefit for his loss of eyesight because this condition developed after he had completed his military service. In 2018, John purchased QAT for $1,500; in 2019 he paid $750 to update his QAT; in 2020, John, again, spent $750 to update and repair his QAT. John will spend $3,000 out-of-pocket on QAT from 2018 through 2020, but would receive only $2,500 in tax credits over this three-year period because of the overall limitation under the Act.
Because John’s income does not exceed the modified adjusted gross income limitation (MAGI) for single individuals of $75,000, he is entitled to refundable credits of $1,500 in 2018, $750 in 2019, but only $250 in 2020 (the credit is limited to $2,500 in any consecutive three-year period). However, to receive the credit John must file a federal income tax return even if he is not otherwise required to file.
Because the credit amount and thresholds are indexed for inflation, amounts for years subsequent to its enactment could be higher than those amounts shown above and in the following examples.
Alejandro is a blind individual under the Act and prior to 2021 was working at his cousin’s restaurant. Although Alejandro had successfully completed a two-year community college certificate in business before his eyesight failed, his cousin paid him only the minimum wage for his work in 2018.
In 2018, Alejandro acquired QAT that allowed him to finish his four-year degree in accounting and successfully pass the CPA examination. After graduation in June of 2020, Alejandro was hired by an international accounting firm and with his wages from the restaurant had MAGI of $76,000 for that year. During 2021, his first full year as a professional accountant, Alejandro earned $80,000.
Alejandro paid $1,500 for QAT in 2018; in 2019 he paid $500 to update his QAT; in 2020 Alejandro purchased an upgraded QAT system for $750; and in 2021 he paid $500 to upgrade the new system.
Although Alejandro continued to work at his cousin’s restaurant while he pursued his accounting degree, his MAGI in 2018 and 2019 did not exceed the threshold for single individuals of $75,000. Therefore, he was entitled to refundable credits of $1,500 and $500, respectively, in 2018 and 2019. However, because his MAGI in 2020 exceeded the $75,000 limit by $1,000, $100 of his total allowable three-year credit was phased out. Alejandro’s allowable refundable credit in 2020 was only $400 [($2,500 - $100 = $2,400) and ($2,400 - $1,500 - $500 = $400)]. Alejandro received only a $400 credit for the $750 of QAT he purchased in 2020 because of the $2,500 three-year limitation reduced as a result of his $76,000 income level ($1,000 above the MAGI threshold for single individuals of $75,000) down to $2,400.
In 2021 Alejandro will receive a tax credit of $500 for buying the upgrade for his QAT. Because his MAGI is $80,000, $500 of his consecutive three-year $2,500 QAT credit limit is reduced to $2,000 [($80,000 - $75,000 = $5,000) / $1,000 = 5) x $100 = $500]. Moreover, because this is the first year of a new three-year period, Alejandro is entitled to a credit for the entire $500 that he spent in 2021. Any subsequent purchases will be subject to the overall cap of $2,500 reduced by any phase-out for MAGI above the relevant threshold less the $500 of credit already received.
Lakshmi is a single blind parent and one of her two dependent daughters that live with her is also blind. During 2018-2020, Lakshmi pursues a technical degree at a local community college and also supports her family by working at the Center for the Blind, earning $35,000 per year. In 2018, Lakshmi purchases a QAT system for $3,500 to be used at home by her and her daughter to help them with their work and educational activities. In 2019, Lakshmi pays $1,000 to update the system and in 2020, she spends another $1,500 to update the QAT system again.
As long as Lakshmi does not earn more than $75,000, she is entitled to a refundable credit of $3,500 in 2018. Her 2019 refundable credit will be $1,000 [$5,000 ($2,500 x 2) - $3,500 = $1,500, but up to the amount of QAT purchased for the year or $1,000]. Her $1,500 of QAT expenses in 2020 will generate a limited refundable credit of only $500 ($5,000 – $3,500 – $1,000 = $500). In any consecutive three-year period, the credit is limited to $2,500 per qualified blind taxpayer including any qualifying blind dependents (here, $2,500 x 2 = $5,000).
Alexander and Eliza are married blind individuals. They have been married for ten years and have one dependent daughter who is also blind. Alexander is a stay-at-home dad. Eliza is an executive administrator at the Center for the Blind and earns $180,000 per year. In 2018, Alexander and Eliza purchase a QAT system for their home for $3,500; in 2019 they pay $200 to update the system; and in 2020 they purchase an upgraded replacement QAT system for $6,000.
Even though Alexander and Eliza’s MAGI is greater than $150,000, they can claim the entire $3,500 of purchased QAT as a refundable credit in 2018. Their credit in 2018 is $3,500 [$7,500 (3 x $2,500) reduced by the phase-out of $3,000 = $4,500, but limited to annual QAT purchases of $3,500]. The credit limitation is reduced by $100 for each $1,000 or fraction thereof in excess of $150,000 MAGI or $3,000 (30 x $100). In 2019, they will be entitled to a $200 credit for updating the QAT system ($4,500 - $3,500 = $1,000 up to the $200 of annual QAT purchases).
Assuming the same income level for 2020, credit for the $6,000 replacement system that they purchase in 2020 will be limited because of their MAGI and the overall three-year limitation. The total credit for the three-year consecutive period cannot exceed $7,500 ($2,500 x 3 qualified blind individuals). In addition, Alexander and Eliza’s total three-year QAT credit is limited by their MAGI in excess of $150,000, to $4,500 ($7,500 – $3,000). Therefore, they would only be entitled to claim $800 ($4,500 - $3,500 - $200 = $800) of the $6,000 QAT purchase in 2020.
If Alexander and Eliza had waited to purchase the new system in 2021 (the start of a new three-year period), assuming the same level of MAGI they would have been able to claim a credit of up to $4,500 of QAT reimbursement ($7,500 - $3,000).
Marco and Dave are both blind. In 2018, they each purchase $2,000 of QAT. In 2018, Marco worked as a lawyer for the Center for the Blind and earned $85,000. As an assistant professor Dave earned $65,000. Marco and Dave file 2018 tax returns as single individuals. Dave’s MAGI does not exceed the limit, therefore he receives a credit for the entire $2,000 paid for his QAT system. Marco’s QAT credit is partially phased out to a $1,500 credit. [$2,500 – $1,000 ([$85,000 – $75,000 = $10,000/$1,000 = 10] 10 x $100)].
If Dave and Marco had married before the end of 2018 and filed a joint tax return they would be entitled to a full reimbursement of their $4,000 QAT expenditures in 2018 ($85,000 + $65,000 = $150,000, thus they do not exceed the $150,000 MAGI limit for a married couple and their credit would not be reduced).
As these examples demonstrate, the credit will reimburse out-of-pocket expenses for QAT for low- and middle income blind taxpayers up to $2,500 per qualifying individual for each three-year consecutive period. Given barriers to education and work, the average annual household income for visually impaired individuals is less than $40,000. As a result, most blind individuals will qualify for full reimbursements up to the $2,500 three-year limitation. Hopefully, in time, these reimbursements will help to mitigate work and education barriers and thus increase self-confidence, skill sets, job opportunities and household income levels.
III. #CripJustice 2
Almost 75 years after Helen Keller had the foresight and tenacity to testify before members of Congress for reimbursements for “unaided peculiar necessities” for the blind, this Act is more than ripe. Helen said she longed “to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.” This Act would enable countless small tasks that may well coalesce to be as great and noble as Helen Keller. ■
* We derived #CriptheCode from the #CriptheVote nonpartisan campaign that was started by the Disability Visibility project on Twitter to engage voters with disabilities and encourage a national conversation about disability rights. The term Crip is used intentionally.
“Crip” is considered to be an inclusive term, representing all disabilities: people with vastly divergent physical and psychological differences. Crip represents the contemporary disability rights wave and is an ‘insider’ term for disability culture. Not to be confused with a gang name, the term Crip within the disability community reflects the political reclaiming of the historically derogatory term ‘cripple,’ which not only diminished the person to an image of ugliness but also excluded those with non-physical disabilities from the disability community. To identify as a Crip or with the Crip community means you identify as a member of the disability community or as an Ally to the disability community, and that you recognize a distinct disability culture. As a Crip, you are also fighting to challenge and reclaim the negative words and terminology historically used to objectify and pathologize the minds, bodies and souls of disabled individuals. Finally, the term Crip extends beyond the inclusion of all disabilities and encompasses members of other diverse groups historically invisible and ignored, such as disabled persons of color, disabled members with LGBTQI identities, those who are both disabled and linguistically diverse, and many other intersecting identities.
Breaking Silences, Demanding Crip Justice Conferences, Wright State University (Sept. 2017).
1 For a discussion of disability rights now and then, see Rhonda Neuhaus and Cindy Smith, Disability Rights Through the Mid-20th Century, 31 American Bar Association GP-Solo (Nov./Dec. 2014) noting that:
The laws of a nation reflect societal values. Historically, the laws of the United States devalued persons with disabilities as society as a whole viewed such persons as a group of people to be pitied, ridiculed, rejected, and feared, or as objects of fascination. Persons with disabilities were seen as objects of charity or welfare or as needing to be subjected to medical treatment or cure. As a result of these views, persons with disabilities were denied basic human rights (as is quite frequently still the case today).
2 “Crip justice” is a call for action by and for the disabled community to fight for their dignity, equality and inclusion. For a discussion of Crip Theory and Crip Justice, see https://www.wright.edu/event/sex-disability-conference/crip-theory#justice.