by Pam Schnurr
From the Editor: Pam Schnurr is Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind of Indiana. In the following article she describes the events of this past winter as blind and deaf people, along with supporters who understood the seriousness of the threat, joined forces to pressure state government to reverse its decision to merge services to the two groups. This is the way it happened:
On Tuesday, January 9, 2001, members of the National Federation of the Blind of Indiana heard for the first time that our state umbrella agency, which houses services for the blind, was planning to combine two separate agencies: services for the blind and services for the deaf. The plan was first described in a letter written December 29, 2000. During the January meeting of the Indianapolis Chapter of the NFB of Indiana we were given a draft copy of the proposed changes in the agency structure. Indiana Secretary of Family and Social Services Administration Katie Humphreys and her acting Director of the Division of Disabilities, Aging and Rehabilitative Services Alex Braitman established the new organizational structure for the Division of Disability, Aging and Rehabilitative Services, which would combine the Separate Blind and Deaf Services. Their plan called for the Deputy Director of Blind Services, Linda Quarles, to be appointed Deputy Director over both blind and deaf services. The resulting fused agency would be called Blind-Deaf Services.
Needless to say we were outraged that we had not been consulted about this decision. Linda Quarles had already assumed the position as Acting Director of Deaf Services.
As many of you know, services for the blind in Indiana have left a lot to be desired for a very long time. We knew that, if the state combined deaf and blind services, the outcome would be disastrous. NFB of Indiana President Ron Brown and his wife Jean, Mike Dixon, Marina White, my husband Tony, and I decided to meet with members of the deaf community. January 21 was our first meeting. We soon learned that the deaf organizations felt the same frustration that we were feeling. Together we devised a battle strategy.
The first order of business was to get the word out to as many constituents as possible. We e-mailed all the blind and deaf people we had addresses for. We asked them please to call, write, or e-mail the governor's office. We also contacted all of the other organizations we could think of that would be interested in helping our cause. Our plan worked well. On Monday, January 22, our President called the Secretary of Family and Social Services Administration, Katie Humphreys. By the end of the day a meeting was scheduled with Ms. Humphreys for January 29.
We wanted to be prepared for the meeting, so we printed copies of a document I had received earlier from Jim Gashel, Director of Governmental Affairs for the NFB. It was entitled "Separate Agencies Best" by Jim Omvig, and it appeared in the July, 1999, issue of the Braille Monitor. We also took a copy of the model commission-for-the-blind bill. We combined these two documents and a cover letter in a binder. The result looked very professional. We handed these documents to Katie Humphreys, Alex Braitman, and Russell Brown, who was attending the meeting as a representative from the Governor's office.
Three representatives from the NFB attended this meeting: NFB of Indiana President Ron Brown, Ron Matias, President of the Indiana Blind Merchants Association, and our Legislative Chairman, Joe Money. Other organizations were also represented: the Independent Living Center, Every Body Counts, and several deaf organizations. The meeting began with the state officials telling us why they thought this merger was a good idea. Then they opened the floor for consumer comment. I am sure they were not prepared for the outpouring of frustration and anger they received from every consumer representative present.
Although I did not personally attend this meeting, I have it on good authority that Joe Money, Ron Matias, and Ron Brown took significant part in the discussion. Ms. Humphreys said she would make a decision on the matter by the following Friday.
We held another meeting with the deaf community on Tuesday, January 30, to decide what our strategy would be if Ms. Humphreys announced that they would proceed with the merger. We decided to keep the pressure on until Friday by continuing to call and write the governor's and Katie Humphreys's offices until we received confirmation. We scheduled another meeting as soon as we returned from Washington, D. C., to organize either a protest march or a celebration at the government center.
On February 1 President Ron Brown received a phone call from the Governor's representative Russell Brown saying that they had made a decision to keep the agencies separate. He commented that the documents we had given them had had a great impact on this decision. He also said that they would like to stay in touch with us and our organization. He then asked Ron please to call off the dogs. We were lighting up the switchboards. They had gotten so many calls that they were answering the phones by saying, "We know you don't agree with the merger of blind and deaf services."
Here is the letter that Ms. Humphreys sent to the NFB of Indiana when the dust settled:
February 1, 2001
Thank you for expressing your concerns about the reorganization of the Division of Disability, Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DDARS). We understand that your specific concerns address the apparent merging of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services (DHHS) and Blind and Visually Impaired Services (BVIS) into a single unit and the quality of services that will result. At this point, after hearing the concerns of advocates representing those who receive services from both bureaus, the decision has been made to stop the realignment of BVIS and DHHS into one branch of the agency.
We are interested in sharing with you some of the other changes that will result through the reorganization of DDARS. During this reorganization process we have implemented several new aspects that will support and enhance the services of DHHS and BVIS. Under this plan three new bureaus, Fiscal, Quality Improvement, and Strategic Support Services, were established. Fiscal will support and assist the DHHS and BVIS programs in looking at funding needs as well as fiscal accountability. Quality Improvement will examine the delivery of services and whether those services are meeting the needs of the individuals receiving the services. This unit will investigate complaints about services and make recommendations on improving the quality of services provided. Consumers of DHHS and BVIS will still be able to make their voices heard about the quality of services through DHHS and BVIS as well as through the Quality Improvement unit. Finally, Strategic Support Services will be constantly looking for ways the service delivery systems can be improved. Consumers of DHHS and BVIS will also be able to make their voices heard by making recommendations that will be reviewed by this unit.
Please rest assured that I share your concerns about quality assurance. This reorganization of DDARS is directed not only to quality assurance but also to quality improvement of services. We hope that you will join with us in our efforts to improve services to the consumers of DDARS through this reorganization effort.
Thank you for your concern and your passion. I look forward to working with you to make a positive difference in the lives of many that are involved with our agency. I encourage you to remain active in this process and to work with us to serve all Hoosiers better.
Family and Social Services Administration
That is what the letter said, and with luck the agency has now learned that it makes sense to consult the consumers before making radical changes in the programs that serve them. I wish to thank the deaf community and the other organizations that helped us with this project.
We have some very strong leaders in our affiliate, which is a good thing because we have an uphill battle in Indiana. But it is truly amazing what the National Federation of the Blind can do when we put our minds to it. Now maybe we should go for that separate commission for the blind!