A federal judge in San Francisco today ordered the U.S. Social Security Administration to send benefit notices to blind and partially sighted people in Braille or on CDs that can be converted to speech.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge William Alsup will affect about 3 million blind and partially sighted people nationwide who receive Social Security benefits.

Alsup said in a 41-page ruling that the agency’s current notification methods – mail with the option of a follow-up phone call – violate federal law because they do not provide “effective communication.”

The judge wrote, “(The) Social Security Administration has not provided meaningful access for its … programs to all blind and visually impaired individuals as required” by the U.S. Rehabilitation Act.

The decision follows a two-week nonjury trial held before Alsup last month on a lawsuit filed in 2005 by the American Council of the Blind and eight individuals.

Alsup ordered the agency to offer recipients the option to be given notices and other communications in either Braille or CDs that can be used with text-to-speech technology by April 15.

Mitch Pomerantz, president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Council of the Blind, said, “This is a great civil rights victory.”

Pomerantz said in a statement, “Blind people across the country have been trying for years to get SSA to send notices in a format we can read, and up until this ruling, we have been resoundingly ignored.”

Representatives of the Social Security Administration were not immediately available for comment late today.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of blind and visually impaired people who receive Social Security payments through either the Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance program or the Supplemental Security Income program.

Last year, Alsup certified the case as a nationwide class action on behalf of all such recipients.

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