Social Security Accessibility

The Social Security Administration must give the nation's 3 million blind or visually impaired recipients the option of receiving benefit notices in braille or by audio computer disc, a federal judge in San Francisco said on October 20, 2009.

Ruling in a nationwide class-action suit, U.S. District Judge William Alsup said that by sending notices only by mail and phone calls, the agency is violating a law that guarantees the disabled equal access to its programs. He ordered the government to make the additional choices available by April 15, 2010.

The case involves some of the 100 million notices the Social Security Administration sends each year to its 61 million beneficiaries, advising them of scheduled appointments, program changes, tax filings and possible benefit cuts.

About 250,000 Americans receive benefits because of blindness, and another 2.7 million blind or sight-impaired people get Social Security for other reasons. Under rules authorized by Congress in 1988 and 1990, they can choose to be notified of agency actions by mail, with a follow-up phone call, or by certified mail with a return receipt. Those who make no choice are contacted by mail without a phone call. Alsup said the current system may have been effective 20 years ago, but no longer provides the "meaningful access" the law requires, in light of advanced technology.

Alsup said the Social Security Administration refused to acknowledge that it was even covered by the anti-discrimination law until after the suit was filed in 2005, and "has been quick to find lame excuses for noncompliance."

The agency must inform all blind and visually impaired recipients by Dec. 31, 2009 that they will have the choice of getting notices in braille or by Microsoft Word CD in mid-April 2010, Alsup said. He said those who want another option, such as notification by e-mail, must be allowed to request it and show why they need it.

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