Your Rights: Practicing Self-Advocacy

Silhouette of a person showing their muscles with confidence

Some organizations advocate on behalf of people who are blind or low vision. Friends and family can offer assistance. Ultimately, however, living independently requires learning self-advocacy—the ability to speak and act on your behalf.

Blindness or low vision makes you no less a person. And while the nation has made great strides in fighting discrimination and social neglect based on age and disability, such problems persist, and it pays to be prepared for them.

New Skills for a New Life

Self-advocacy skills are essential for anyone experiencing vision changes because they enable you to:

  • Acquire essential information
  • Make informed choices
  • Get needs met
  • Take charge of a bad situation
  • Experience genuine feelings of autonomy and self-reliance

The Essentials of Self-advocacy:

  • Be assertive rather than aggressive.
  • Be direct, clearly, firmly, and politely stating your needs.
  • If something isn’t clear to you, ask questions.
  • Take time to listen to others, respecting their points of view. (Remember, low vision can create communication barriers that make simple misunderstandings seem worse.)
  • Ask for help when you need it.
  • Acknowledge your own mistakes.

Americans with Disabilities Act

Effective self-advocacy begins with knowing your rights, and some laws help define those rights. The most well-known is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. It requires that people with disabilities be given equal access at all levels of society, including jobs, government services, public accommodations, and public transportation.

Who is protected by the ADA?

  • A person with a disability or who has had a disability—someone with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. This might include seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, or walking.
  • A person who is perceived to have a disability, e.g., an individual who is a cancer survivor.

If you are living with vision changes, it’s essential to understand the basic facts about ADA and how it protects you.

Title I

Title I of the ADA covers employers of 15 or more people. Employers must make employment application and testing procedures accessible by providing “reasonable accommodation.” For example, all employment applications must be available to you in an accessible format.

If you are required to use a computer to complete testing, the employer must make that computer accessible to you. The employer may choose the accessibility software, but it must give you an opportunity equal to other sighted applicants.

Employers must make memos, benefits information, employment-related documents, and on-the-job training accessible. If, as an employee, you experience vision changes, your employer must make “reasonable accommodations” to allow you to perform your job.

For more information on Title I, see:

Title II

Title II of the ADA covers state and local governments. State and local government entities must make their facilities, programs, and services accessible to individuals who are blind or low vision. They also must provide access to print information in an individual’s chosen format.

Title II of the ADA also covers access to public housing and public transportation. Privately owned housing is covered by the Fair Housing Act; private transportation, e.g., hotel shuttles, over-the-road buses, and taxis, is covered by Title III of the ADA.

For more information on Title II, see:

Title III

Title III of the ADA requires places of public accommodation to make their written material accessible. Still, unlike state and local governments, they do not have to provide that material in an individual’s chosen accessible format as long as they provide effective communication. For example, a restaurant does not have to provide large print or braille menus—a waiter can read the menu to the patron.

Covered entities include, but are not limited to, sales and service establishments—supermarkets, boutiques, dry cleaners, theatres, restaurants, travel agencies, doctors’ and lawyers’ offices, and banks.

For example, supermarkets must assist in making shopping easier; boutiques and other sales establishments must make prices and information on products accessible; banks must make information on loan and mortgage documents accessible.

In addition, ADA’s Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) require braille and raised-character signage in places such as elevator car controls, offices, hotel rooms, and restrooms.

Title III of the ADA covers access to private vehicles and services, e.g., hotel shuttles, over-the-road buses, and taxis.

For more information on Title III, see:

Dog Guides

The ADA protects individuals who use service animals, including dog guides. The ADA defines a service animal as “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to assist an individual with a disability.” While service animals are specifically covered by Title III of the ADA, individuals who use a dog guide are also protected under Title I as a reasonable job accommodation and under Title II as a reasonable modification of policies and procedures.

Therefore, anyone who uses a dog guide may go anywhere a sighted person can go, including—but not limited to—schools, hospitals, the workplace, restaurants, theatres, taxi cabs, trains and buses, grocery stores, museums, and health spas.

ADA does not allow an entity to charge extra admission for a dog guide or to isolate a person using a dog guide. The owner of the dog guide is responsible for controlling its behavior and is liable if the dog guide causes any property damage or harms someone.

For more information on dog guide protections, see:

Title IV

Title IV of the ADA, Telecommunications, covers only telecommunications for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. However, Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 has provisions that apply to individuals who are blind or low vision.

White Cane Laws

White Cane Laws are a set of state laws that were the first to provide people who are blind or low vision access to public facilities and transportation. The first White Cane Law dates back to 1966, and now each state has its version. While the language varies from state to state, all White Cane Laws protect pedestrians with white canes in similar ways.

The laws oblige operators of vehicles to stop when approaching a pedestrian whose cane is extended or who is using a dog guide. The driver must take precautions to prevent accidents or injury to the pedestrian, even if the pedestrian should cross at the wrong time or place. The laws also state that the white cane (or white with a red tip) is only to be used by people who are blind or low vision.

Warning: Many drivers are either unaware of the White Cane Law or choose to ignore it. Always take care to use official crosswalks and obey traffic signals.

FYI: October 15 is White Cane Day! Observed annually, White Cane Day honors the independence gained by people who are blind or low vision.

Getting What You’re Entitled To

How do I get my Identification Card?

An identification card replaces a driver’s license for individuals unable to drive. It has the same value as a driver’s license for travel, such as when flying.

Although the process can vary from state to state, most states typically require that you call or visit your local Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or whichever government office addresses public safety concerns. For faster service, it may help to make an appointment in advance.

Be prepared to:

  • complete an application;
  • provide a thumbprint;
  • have your picture taken;
  • provide your social security number, date of birth, and proof of residency and/or citizenship; and
  • pay any required application fee(s).

FYI: Almost all federal, state, and local government forms and their respective requirements are accessible online. If you have web access, it’s a good idea to consult your state’s web page before you begin the application process.

How do I get a handicapped parking permit?

You are eligible for a special parking permit or license plate if you have one or more severe disabilities that affect mobility. You must contact the local issuing agent that provides this service to individuals in your home area. The issuing agent can vary from state to state. Visit your local city or town hall, automobile tag office, or tax collector’s office to find out where your nearest permit issuing agent is located.

Keep in mind:

  • You must fill out an application.
  • It is necessary to have a medical professional verify your disability.
  • A parking permit may be issued for a permanent or a temporary disability.
  • While permits are issued in the name of the person with the disability, you do not have to be a driver or the registered owner of a vehicle to get a parking permit.
  • If you have a driver’s license or identification card, bring it when you apply for the permit.

Other Disability Rights Laws

Other disability rights laws cover access to telephone equipment and services; federal government information; private housing; voting; and air transportation. See the Department of Justice’s Guide to Disability Rights Laws for an overview of these federal laws that ensure equal opportunity for people with disabilities.

For More Information:

  • APH Press. Self-Advocacy Skills Training for Older Individuals. By Alberta L. Orr and Priscilla A. Rogers, Ph.D. This manual, available through the APH Press bookstore, trains older individuals and their family members in self-advocacy skills.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act Home Page. The ADA home page has many documents—technical assistance manuals, brochures on ADA and businesses, and more. State laws vary in language and specifics, so it’s best to become familiar with your state’s rules and regulations. The ADA prevails unless state law is more stringent.
  • The National Center on Physical Activity and Disability. Self-Advocacy Resources. This page features an extensive listing of self-advocacy resources and web links.