Federal Judge Rules That SSA’s Standard Print Notices Discriminate Against The Blind And Visually Impaired

A federal district court judge in California recently ruled that the Social Security Administration (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 v. Astrue, No. C 05-04696-WHA (N.D.Cal. Oct. 20, 2009).

Plaintiffs in this nationwide class action, filed in 2005, sought to compel SSA to provide alternative formats of communication that would enable the class to have equal access to participate in SSA programs. Specifically, the plaintiffs seek to compel SSA to provide its standard-print notices in formats such as Braille, large print, audio CD, and e-mail. Currently, notices are not provided in any of these formats.

The Social Security Act includes a Special Notice Provision (SNP) which permits blind recipients of SSA benefits to chose to receive notices by certified mail, by first class mail followed by a telephone call, or by first class mail. However, the SNP applies only to recipients of SSA benefits based on blindness, and not to recipients of SSA benefits based upon any other classification, such as disability or retirement, even if the beneficiaries are otherwise visually impaired. Nor does the SNP apply to other categories of communications, such as overpayments or requests for medical information. The class plaintiffs argued that the SNP applies to all SSA recipients who are visually impaired, whether they receive benefits based on blindness or not, and to all SSA communications, and that SSA’s failure to provide appropriate notices to all eligible beneficiaries violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The Court concluded that SSA had not demonstrated that there would be an undue financial or administrative burden imposed on the agency if the relief sought by the plaintiff was awarded. As a result, the Court ordered SSA to develop and offer a Braille alternative notice and a navigable Microsoft Word CD alternative notice for all notice types utilized by the SSA for all recipients who are blind or visually impaired, among a variety of other relief.

Source: the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives Social Security Forum newsletter