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The Braille Monitor October 2000 Edition
by Kristen Cox
From the Editor: Mr. Peace Stancil Tootle, a blind man placed in a sheltered workshop over fifteen years ago, recently made the following statement. "I have come to believe even more stronger than ever that the hardest obstacle that blind people in Georgia face is VR [vocational rehabilitation]." His statement illustrates the disappointment and frustration many consumers have with vocational rehabilitation policies and practices. Currently VR agencies can report placement in a sheltered workshop as an employment outcome. Too often placement in such settings leads to diminished expectations and dead-end jobs. However, if the rule proposed by the Commissioner of Rehabilitation Services, Dr. Fredric K. Schroeder, were adopted, VR agencies could not count sheltered, noncompetitive placements as an employment outcome.
During our National Convention this summer members of the National Federation of the Blind unanimously adopted a resolution supporting the proposed rule. The Department of Education accepted comments regarding this proposed rule through August 25, 2000. NFB members submitted comments in favor of the proposed change by the hundreds. At this writing the Department of Education has received over 1,200 comments in support of the rule from individual consumers and agencies. In contrast, only 300 letters were submitted opposing the rule. As expected, sheltered workshop staff members authored the majority of these comments. The strong consumer support of the proposed rule will be the key to its adoption later this fall.
Below is a continuation of Mr. Peace Stancil Tootle's remarks written to Charlie Crawford, the Executive Director of the American Council of the Blind (ACB). You will see for yourself the real and negative impact the current employment outcome policy has on the lives of individual blind people. For far too long Mr. Tootle has languished under a system which supports low expectations.
Very often people want to know how the National Federation of the Blind and the ACB differ. Our opposing views on the proposed rule are an excellent case in point. The National Federation of the Blind strongly supports the proposed rule and the systematic shift towards integrated and competitive employment it will ensure. In contrast, the ACB opposes the rule, favoring instead regulations which promote the ongoing placement of blind people in sheltered, noncompetitive jobs.
Following Mr. Tootle's remarks are the comments submitted on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind. Aside from the proposed rule, the arguments set forth in this document provide consumers with an understanding of the VR program and what they should expect from individual state agencies.
The policies of state VR agencies should affirm the capacity of individuals with disabilities to obtain high-quality employment in the integrated labor market. Accepting anything less undermines both the intent of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, and the dreams and aspirations of those being served by the program. Following is Mr. Tootle's letter in full. We have brought the punctuation into compliance with Braille Monitor style and corrected obvious typographical errors. Here is the letter:
Message from Stancil Tootle
Hello Charlie: I have had a problem with the resolution 2000-16 ever since I first heard it read in Louisville. From talking to several workers at Georgia Industries for the Blind, I have come to believe even more stronger than ever that the hardest obstacle that blind people in Georgia face is VR.
I have worked at GIB (Georgia Industries for the Blind) for more than fifteen years or more. The number one problem that I have seen is that most of the blind workers here did not make an informed choice. They were only told about the industries as their only choice from rehab.
Second, once they were brought to the industries they only saw their counselor when it was time to close their case. No assistance with training or O&M training in a new environment. "We just want to close your case."
Third, after rehab places a person at the industries, they leave it up to an untrained fellow worker at the industries to train the new worker. This should be rehab's job to train this person since they are supposed to be qualified to work with blind people. But closure is the name of the game.
I believe that, if RSA leaves the policy the way it is right now, that things will get worse for the working-age blind citizens of Georgia because there are no real choices here.
Yes, I will admit that some of the workers have lowered their expectations and gave up on their dreams, and love their work. Most of these people are the ones who have been placed on one job ever since they arrived at GIB and have never been shown nothing else.
Oh yes, it is not all about the money, which seems to be one of ACB's main reasons for being against the new policy change. If money was the issue, you probably would not have taken some of the jobs that you have taken in your life. You took them because that was where your heart was.
I believe that GIB is such a easy placement for rehab, and we all know that it's harder to place blind people into other jobs than any other disabled groups. Isn't it true that rehab gets rewarded for every closed case?
I also must tell you that last year I went to my local VR office and asked about being placed back on the caseload. It was a struggle to get back on. The guy tried his best for days and days to talk me out of it. I have three friends who are going through the same thing now with their counselor.
I think a lot of ACB and what it stands for and have done for the blind people of this country, and I really admire you, Charlie, but how and where do national office get the input from about workshops? It seems to me that the only people who truly benefit from not changing this policy will be VR agencies who will still be able to get more money year after year as a direct result of this easy placement of blind people so they can spend it on other disabled people. The management of GIB, who will never let a blind person move up, and NIB who will give contracts to industries for the blind that require sighted people to perform the jobs and just turn and look the other way.
- Peace Stancil Tootle
There you have a powerful illustration of what shop employees think about the current RSA policy which Dr. Schroeder hopes to change. Now here are the comments submitted by the National Federation of the Blind:
Redefining Employment Outcome:
Comments of the National Federation of the Blind August, 2000
The 1992 and 1998 amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, (the Act) codified a positive belief in the capacities of individuals with disabilities. Section 100 of the Act finds that "individuals with disabilities, including individuals with the most significant disabilities, have demonstrated their ability to achieve gainful employment in integrated settings if appropriate services and supports are provided." [Sec.100. (a)(1)(C)]
This presumption that individuals with disabilities can be successfully employed in the integrated and competitive labor market is relatively new. Historically societal expectations favored segregated employment in the belief that it provided the most practical option for individuals with disabilities. Naturally the policies governing vocational rehabilitation were created within this cultural context. Consequently the VR policies allowed for, and essentially favored, the placement of individuals with disabilities in extended employment arrangements. As a result sheltered employment has become the option of low expectations and the reality for far too many individuals.
While working in integrated, competitive employment used to be the exception rather than the rule for persons with disabilities, that is no longer the case. Last year only 3.5 percent of VR participants were placed in extended employment. This is a decrease of 50 percent as compared to placements in sheltered employment just two decades ago. Not surprisingly, individuals with disabilities are thriving in the competitive and integrated labor market. The emerging and positive paradigms of disability and employment have helped to reshape and define the mission of the VR program. No longer is the Act's purpose merely to render an individual employable but to assist individuals in obtaining high-quality and gainful employment in the integrated labor market that is consistent with an individual's strengths, resources, priorities, abilities, capabilities, interests, and informed choice.
Adoption of the Rule Is Necessary
to Fulfill the Requirements of the Act:
The Act's purpose is to secure "full inclusion and integration" into all areas of life for individuals with disabilities. [Sec.2. (a)(3)(F)] Specifically, the Act clearly requires practices that promote the placement of individuals with disabilities in integrated, competitive employment. Not only does the Act stipulate that individuals with disabilities have demonstrated the ability to work in such environments, but that "individuals with disabilities must be provided the opportunities to obtain gainful employment in integrated settings." [Sec.100. (a)(3)(B)] The clear and repeated emphasis on inclusion and integration supports the definition of "employment outcome" now in the Act.
Current law defines employment outcome as "competitive employment in the integrated labor market," or "supported employment." [Subsections (A) and (B) of Sec.7. (11)] Subsection (C) allows the Secretary to determine if any other form of employment should be included.
The repeated stress on integrated and competitive employment becomes even more pronounced upon review of the Act's legislative history (see Senate Report 105-166, accompanying the 1998 amendments). One example among many is the following quote from Bobby Simpson, the then President of the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation:
The clear purpose and function of the vocational rehabilitation program should be to place individuals with disabilities in competitive employment in integrated settings with earnings at or above minimum wage. People with disabilities want the same kinds of jobs that you and I want. They want real jobs in the competitive labor market, wherein they can perform real work which contributes to the national economy.
Further, Section 102 of the Act stipulates that an individual is eligible for assistance if the individual requires services to "prepare for, secure, retain, or regain employment." [Sec.102. (a)(1)(B)] Therefore the services required must lead to an employment outcome, not simply to more service.
Extended employment programs, normally conducted as a part of community rehabilitation programs, are part and parcel of the VR system. Placement of a disabled person in the positions available in these programs is essentially automatic, and the work opportunity is an extension of the VR program itself. Work in such programs normally begins as a VR service, and it is actually hard to determine when (if ever) the service ends and the real employment begins. In fact, community rehabilitation programs have steadfastly resisted the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that they are service and not employment settings.
Thus these programs are a mixture of training activities and work activities, but they are not employment in the sense that the statute defines it. This is not to suggest that the activities are not legitimate or beneficial but just that they are not employment as defined by the Act. Since the Secretary is required to adopt policies which promote employment as defined by the Act, it is also necessary for the Secretary to determine which activities, such as sheltered work, are not employment.
Adoption of the Rule Will Promote
the Benefits of Integration
The purpose and intent of Vocational Rehabilitation is met when an individual obtains high-quality and gainful employment in an integrated setting consistent with an individual's strengths, resources, priorities, abilities, capabilities, interests, and informed choice. This goal vastly differs from previous policies, recognizing that work:
(i) is a valued activity, both for individuals and society; and
(ii) fulfills the need of an individual to be productive, promotes independence, enhances self-esteem, and allows for participation in the mainstream of life in the United States.
A question then arises about how the VR program can best assist individuals in obtaining an employment outcome which meets the expansive and broad definition of work. Sheltered employment has consistently fallen short in providing individuals with career choices and social experiences needed to fulfill the requirements of the Act.
In contrast, integrated competitive employment is more likely to provide better pay, better career and advancement opportunities, and the chance to participate directly in the social mainstream. For example, according to a longitudinal study reported by the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), individuals placed in integrated employment earn substantially more than those placed in sheltered settings. Of the 7,765 people placed in sheltered workshops last year, 6,934 or 89.3% earned less than the minimum wage-- $5.15 per hour. The average hourly rate for individuals placed in integrated work that same year was $8.65.
Similar inequities apply when comparing access to medical insurance. For example, the study found that two years after placement only 11.7 percent of individuals in sheltered work had access to health insurance, whereas 55.3 percent of individuals in integrated and competitive employment had access to these benefits. In sum, the findings of this study consistently demonstrate that individuals in integrated settings earn more per hour, have more hours of work, and are more likely to have health insurance. These findings are supported by the fact that individuals placed in sheltered settings are employed in direct labor jobs and are rarely recruited for supervisory or management positions.
Clearly placement in integrated employment provides individuals with measurable economic and career advantages, but the Act has an even broader focus on full integration into society. Integrated employment allows individuals to participate fully in society. It validates an individual's worth and capacity to contribute. By contrast, segregating individuals with disabilities in the work place limits their perspectives and aspirations.
The impact is even greater if the limits are supported by regulations and practices of the VR program, which can have a powerful influence on the choices that participants make. Moreover, promoting a separate work environment for people with disabilities lends credence to the widespread view in society that people with disabilities are apt to be inferior employees. This is clearly a view that should not be sanctioned by regulations or policies of the Rehabilitation Act.
The negative impact resulting from the segregation of minorities is well established. Deliberate steps have been taken to sweep away the policies supporting segregation and to replace them with requirements for inclusion and integration. As expressed in the Rehabilitation Act, the fight for inclusion is as relevant to individuals with disabilities as it is to other minority groups. It is a fight for equality and civil rights. It is a fight to affirm disability as a "normal part of the human experience" rather than a medical condition. Consistent with the principles of the Act, integrated employment is an essential part of achieving equality in society for people with disabilities.
Adoption of the Rule Is Not a
Denial of Informed Choice
Provided by the Act:
The opponents of the proposed rule argue that it would infringe upon an individual's capacity to exercise informed choice by restricting the scope of available employment outcomes. However, their position is not supported by either the Act or the facts at hand.
First, informed choice must be exercised within the context of the Act. Informed choice is a decision-making process that occurs throughout the individual's participation in the VR program. Implementation of informed choice ensures that the individual or, if appropriate, the individual through his or her representative, has sufficient data available to make decisions regarding assessment of needs and the development of the Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE).
The key word is "employment." For example, an individual would not be able to support a goal of "beggar" by citing an exercise of informed choice. This is so because the goal of begging is clearly inconsistent with the purposes of the Act. Informed choice must be exercised within the context of the Act and cannot be used to distort the purposes of the program merely to suit an individual's preference.
Besides, as a practical matter, the rule will not prevent individuals from working in sheltered environments. Individuals would still be able to choose industrial or assembly work as an employment outcome. Training for industrial or assembly work is often provided in workshops, and it is likely that a certain number of trainees will decide to remain in the workshop as employees. Nothing in the proposed rule prevents them from making this choice.
Current regulations require VR agencies to close an individual's case when an employment outcome is achieved, whether the setting is sheltered or not. In contrast, the proposed rule would allow the individual to remain eligible for further VR services because the employment outcome specified on the IPE would not have been achieved. This will encourage state VR agencies to assist individuals in obtaining more lucrative jobs in the competitive labor market rather than sheltered employment. This rule provides the best of both worlds: continued opportunities for disabled persons to receive training in sheltered settings and the choice for workers in sheltered employment to have ongoing access to VR services.
Further, people who want to work specifically in sheltered workshops can bypass the IPE process entirely. The VR agency can refer them directly to extended employment programs. In these cases for individuals who are receiving benefits from the Social Security Administration, the costs related to the training and employment provided can be paid under the Ticket to Work and Self-Sufficiency Act.
The proposed rule would redefine "employment outcome" to include employment in integrated work settings only. This rule is necessary to reflect the intent of Title I of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, to enable individuals with disabilities to obtain an employment outcome in a competitive and integrated environment. Making this change will ensure that job placements are consistent with the new paradigm reflected in the Act and will not prohibit an individual from working in sheltered employment. It is important to note that either decision--to reject or adopt the rule--will have a systemic and lasting effect upon the VR program and those it serves. If the rule is rejected, the option of placement in sheltered employment will be affirmed and result in continued placements. If, however, the proposed rule is adopted, the capacity of individuals with disabilities to work in the mainstream will be affirmed and will result in integrated employment for persons with disabilities. With either approach it is clear that the choices of individuals will be influenced by the direction of the VR program. In the final analysis this direction must be governed by the Act, which clearly promotes competitive work over sheltered work and integration over segregation.
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