by Donald C. Capps
From the Editor: For several years now the South Carolina Commission for the Blind has been in turmoil. The board was divided, and the director was pretty clearly engaged in some fairly unsavory activities. Eventually the governor stepped in and replaced the entire board and told them to go find an effective person to administer the Commission for the Blind. That is what they have now done. Here is the report of their action as Don Capps explained it in the Winter, 2000, issue of the Palmetto Blind, the magazine of the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina:
Monday, January 31, 2000, the Board of Commissioners of the South Carolina Commission for the Blind offered the agency's top post to Dr. Nell Carney, and she accepted. Her appointment was the culmination of a seven-month national search, which attracted some forty-three applicants. We commend the board for their outstanding work and selection of Dr.Carney. Because the NFB of South Carolina has an abiding interest in the affairs of the Commission, including the credentials of the individual who heads the agency, we applaud the Commission Board. It could not have chosen a more qualified person than Dr. Carney. Because of the Federation's great respect for and confidence in the current Commission Board, we did not seek to take part in its effort to select a Commissioner. Unlike the previous Board, which performed poorly, making unwise and irresponsible decisions which hurt the agency, the present Board has demonstrated its capacity carefully to think through serious matters affecting the Commission.
Dr. Carney has a lifetime of dedication and commitment to her fellow blind. She has a distinguished track record both as a highly competent blind person and as a professional recognized nationally. A native Tennessean, Dr. Carney attended the Tennessee School for the Blind. It was there that she first met the late Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who was a young teacher at the school at the time. Thus Dr. Carney was Dr. Jernigan's student. Dr. Carney, whose life was greatly enriched by Dr. Jernigan, whom she greatly admired, attributes her philosophy and faith in the blind to Dr. Jernigan's influence.
At an early age Dr. Carney determined that she would get the very best education she could and use it and her training to improve the quality of life of blind Americans. In 1989 Dr. Carney achieved the nation's highest office in the field of rehabilitation, being appointed by President Bush and confirmed by the Senate as Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Education. In this high office Dr. Carney had the responsibility of working with state agencies for the blind and with all state programs of vocational rehabilitation, which included supervision of numerous federal employees and oversight of millions of dollars appropriated by Congress for vocational rehabilitation programs.
Then, at a time when the New Mexico School for the Blind was in turmoil, Dr. Carney was chosen by its Board to serve as superintendent of the School and restore order. She accomplished this goal successfully and was head of the school when offered the Commissioner's position at the South Carolina Commission for the Blind. A Monday, January 31, 2000, article in the State newspaper reported that some people in the blind community, not named in the article, were not pleased with Dr. Carney's appointment. These are probably the same small number, including Willie Driggers, Solomon Bradford, and John Warren, who participated in last June's Senate Committee hearing attacking the current Commission Board as well as the NFB of South Carolina. They are continuing their attacks, including attacks against Dr. Carney.
While Dr. Carney's prime objective will be to restore order to the Commission, improve services to the blind, and exercise fairness and consideration for all, she is a strong leader and will not be a doormat for anyone. I know this absolutely because I have known Dr. Carney for more than thirty years, closely following her career during that time. I also served on the Board of Directors of the NFB with Dr. Carney in the late 1960's and early 1970's. Again we salute the Commission's Board in acquiring the services of Dr. Carney, whose credentials are not surpassed by anyone in this big program of serving the blind. Here is the article that appeared in the State on January 31:
by Kenneth A. Harris
A New Mexico woman with an extensive background in assisting the visually impaired was tapped Monday to become the Director of the South Carolina Commission for the Blind and restore public confidence in the troubled state agency.
Nell Carney, superintendent of the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped, accepted the post, which will pay her $84,000 a year, during an afternoon conference call with board members. Carney, selected from a nationwide field of forty-three candidates, is tentatively expected to begin March 6.
"Dr. Carney has experience in dealing with diverse groups and situations," said Jacqueline Brown, board chairwoman. "We think she'll bring that to the agency and help us to continue to strive to serve the needs of the blind in the state of South Carolina."
However, not all are delighted with the board's decision. Privately some within the blind community have lobbied against Carney, raising concerns that stem from her stint as executive director of the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services.
"Mrs. Carney had a very rocky experience here," said Mississippi state Rep. Daniel "Steve" Holland, a Democrat who was one of Carney's biggest detractors. "It was not very positive."
In a 1996 published report Holland called Carney "an incompetent idiot." That same year Mississippi lawmakers voted to slash her salary by nearly $20,000, but the governor vetoed the pay change. Carney's legislative woes emanated from grant actions she took against a nonprofit agency of which Holland was a board member. Carney's actions came amid a federal audit of the government funds.
Carney, citing health reasons, resigned at the end of 1996.
Donald Capps, President of the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina, said Carney was a "political casualty" while in Mississippi.
"I think she will be a good commissioner," Capps said of Carney. "This lady will have the overwhelming support of the state's blind. But she won't please everybody."
"Things were checked out, and we feel comfortable, quite comfortable with Dr. Carney coming on board," Brown said.
Patsy Jones, President of the American Council for the Blind of South Carolina, said she believes the board is trying to do what's best for the agency.
"It is extremely important that the agency get back on track and provide quality services to the people it serves," Jones said.
Carney will be the agency's first permanent director since Donald Gist, who was fired in the spring of 1998. In a dramatic turn of events, Gist was rehired in June, 1999. Less than a month after being reinstated, Gist resigned.