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The Braille Monitor–March, 2001 Edition

 

War Declared in Minnesota

 by Joyce Scanlan

Joyce Scanlon
Joyce Scanlon

From the Editor: During the roll call at the opening of the 2000 Convention of the National Federation of the Blind, Joyce Scanlan, President of the NFB of Minnesota, called attention to the fact that in the Minnesota delegation was Dick Davis, the man who had shown such commitment to serving blind Minnesotans with integrity that he had resigned from his job as director of State Services for the Blind rather than be a party to the shenanigans then going on in state government. That statement left little doubt that troubled times were ahead for Minnesota's blind citizens.

In the fall, 2000, edition of the Minnesota Bulletin, the publication of the NFB of Minnesota, Joyce laid out the unpleasant situation and reprinted the documents in the case. The struggle to protect separate services for blind people breaks out first in one place and then in another. Here is the description of what is now happening in Minnesota:

 

DES Commissioner Wilson Reveals His True Feelings About SSB
by Joyce Scanlan

Since January of 1999 members of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota have been keenly aware of a rising tide of hostility toward State Services for the Blind (SSB) and blind citizens of Minnesota. At the Semiannual Convention held in Rochester on May 6, 2000, I presented to the membership a review of the history of SSB and our relationship with each of the department commissioners and chief administrators of SSB over the past thirty years. That report was included in the Summer, 2000, edition of the Minnesota Bulletin. Many people who read the article commented on its fairness and factual accuracy.    However, Earl Wilson, Commissioner of the Department of Economic Security (DES), who is by law the designated administrator of SSB, was not happy with the facts of the report. Late in August we began to hear rumors that Commissioner Wilson was preparing a letter to send to the Federation, and his very angry letter, dated August 31, 2000, indeed arrived. The copies of the letter, as stated in the cc: to the members of the SSB Rehabilitation Council, were delivered before the letter to me, which was mailed to our office. Thus I began to hear about this "nasty," "ill-tempered," and "scathing" letter several days before the letter actually appeared.

Here is DES Commissioner Wilson's letter (note that, despite his interest in facts, he could not spell my name correctly):

 

August 31, 2000

Joyce Scanlon
National Federation of the Blind Minnesota, Inc.
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Dear Ms. Scanlon:

There are two serious threats to the continuous improvement of services to individuals with disabilities and workforce development in general. First, Congress, and to some degree state legislatures, have declared victory and do not see the need to sustain program funding, and secondly, categorical programs needlessly drain even more resources by operating redundant administrative systems, at the expense of service to the customer in the interest of preserving autonomy. These two challenges can only be overcome when the facts are presented to the budgeting bodies. Rhetoric can be effective in gaining attention. However, facts are the only reliable means to bring about change. In Volume LXV, Number 1, Summer, 2000, Minnesota Bulletin, you and Tom Scanlon have bylines for several selections of rhetoric. With an apparent license to revise history and permission to fill in blanks with fictional characterizations of what is occurring, you balance the budget for State Services for the Blind and set priorities for the remainder of the administration. Now I would like to have your assistance in dealing with reality. Even more so, rather than assassinate my, or any of my staffs', character with your continuing vitriolic attacks and unprofessional tactics, consider burying the hatchet so that you do not further jeopardize the funding for services through your well known "my way or the highway" approach to serving people.

The fact is we are finalizing a strategy based on a report from Public Strategies Group, Inc. that laid out facts from all perspectives as it relates to current services for the blind. This report will assist greatly in the enhancement of operating policies that will be used for delivering services. I'd like to hear that you are considering the same approach for your provider business and perhaps your advocacy work also. My reason for this suggestion is because I am told that the work of the two major national organizations is not as divisive and hostile in other states as it is in Minnesota. I am told that very often the two national organizations even agree on critical policy and budget matters. I've heard the tired old story of the blind waiting for Democrats to get along with Republicans and other such comparisons. That's good rhetoric, but the fact is there are places where blind services are advancing. I think it is time the National Federation of the Blind considers whether its Minnesota organization is helping or hindering. Facts aren't as entertaining as deeds, but in the end they are all we have.

Sincerely,

Earl Wilson, Commissioner

cc: National Federation of the Blind, Baltimore, Maryland State Services for the Blind Council Members

That was Commissioner Wilson's letter. During the summer of 1999 I had written two letters to Commissioner Wilson; he did not respond. Only when he read the report in the Minnesota Bulletin did he feel inclined to write to us. I immediately began preparing a response to the commissioner on behalf of the members of the Federation. Here is the letter we sent:

 

September 13, 2000

Earl Wilson, Commissioner
Minnesota Department of Economic Security
St. Paul, Minnesota

Dear Commissioner Wilson:

I have received and carefully reviewed your most fanciful letter of August 31, 2000. It is curious that your inspiration to communicate comes when you have had an opportunity to read the Minnesota Bulletin, the newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota.

While your reaction is disappointing--considering that you have never accepted our invitation to appear before a Statewide Convention so that you could inform and educate yourself about the needs and desires of blind people and the services appropriate to provide them, it is not surprising in light of your behavior toward blind people ever since you became Commissioner of the Department of Economic Security (DES) and the chief person in charge of State Services for the Blind (SSB), the designated state agency providing services to blind citizens. Both the tone and content of your letter speak volumes in explaining the basis for the extensive rift between you and the blind community.

I say "fanciful" with respect to your letter, because there is such a large quantity of pure fantasy in it. I found this ironic, given the emphasis on "facts" in your letter. Whatever you agree with is labeled "facts"; all else, because you dislike it or disagree with it, is labeled "rhetoric."

In your opening paragraph you describe two major threats to continuous improvement of services to persons with disabilities: that Congress and the state legislatures don't seem to see the need to sustain program funding, and that categorical programs drain away money through redundant administrative systems simply to maintain their autonomy.

In other words, if lawmakers would just give you more money and if blind people would just stop trying to preserve the integrity of the programs serving them and turn all the money over to you, letting you spend it on other workforce-investment programs, everything would be just fine. How self-serving can you get?

Commissioner, you really must get out of your fifth-floor office at 390 North Robert Street and start breathing the same air as the rest of us! I would suggest the real threat to services to persons with disabilities is the DES and to be more specific, your administration. Since you like to talk about "facts," here are some for you:

Until the middle of last year the Federation was a supporter of DES. When Wally Hinz, Tom Heinl, Shelli Nelson, and other persons affiliated with Vision Loss Resources and the American Council of the Blind of Minnesota opposed Governor Ventura's budget and tried to interfere with increased funding for SSB, we, the Federation, fought for that funding. One of our members literally camped out in Representative McElroy's office until he would listen to her. The positive effect of our actions could be seen between the first and second SSB budget hearings. At one point the SSB deficiency funding was dead in the water until the Federation held a rally in the Capitol Rotunda, and the funding bill was revived.

Did you berate the people who made it harder for SSB to get its appropriation and thank those of us who helped you? Not a bit! In fact, you and your deputy had at least two special meetings with those who opposed the appropriation and worked to address their issues. Perhaps one reason for your interest is that they offered to support your proposal to merge SSB and the Rehab Services Branch (RSB) in exchange for your getting rid of Assistant Commissioner Dick Davis, a member of the Federation. At the same time two letters from me to you expressing the Federation's concerns went unanswered.

Moreover, at the very time we were struggling to get funding for SSB through the Legislature, you commissioned a secret reorganization in an attempt to combine the administrative functions of SSB and RSB. When your moves became public and we disagreed with the outcome and asked you to reconsider your decision, you ignored us. Clearly it was "your way or the highway"!

Almost four years before, when you were DES deputy commissioner, you and your current deputy, Al St. Martin, led an attempt to combine SSB and RSB into one branch within DES. That attempt was also handled in a secretive manner. When the blind community, led by the Federation, caused the plan to blow up in your face, your boss, Commissioner R. Jane Brown, sent you to the Legislature to explain that no reorganization was intended.

Given this history, I imagine it was inevitable that you would try the same thing again when you became commissioner. In fact, when you saw the blind community divided over the issue of funding for SSB and therefore weakened, I am not surprised that you chose that time to make your move. I am sure that is why you gave aid and comfort to those blind persons opposing the Federation and made a point of emphasizing the disagreement between the two blind organizations. It is called divide and conquer, and as a former military officer you know how it works. However, this divide-and-conquer tactic never works with the blind community, so your plan became a mere smoke screen behind which you could hide in order to blame the blind community for the problems you yourself were causing.

Now you are engaged in yet another reorganization of SSB, based on a study by Public Strategies Group. As a matter of fact, you postponed the August Rehabilitation Council for the Blind meeting until September 7, allegedly to give Public Strategies Group more time to complete the study. Since you have examined the results and completed a reorganization plan (which you plan to reveal to the world late in September, 2000) it is obvious that the delay gave you time to accomplish this without the inconvenience of having to deal with the blind community.

Besides being one of the most politically unsavvy documents to come from a public appointee's desk, your letter is totally lacking in clarity and specificity. In your third paragraph you refer to "finalizing a strategy based on a report from Public Strategies Group, Inc. . . ." You say that "This report will assist greatly in the enhancement of operating policies that will be used for delivering services." The only clear point is that this is a threat from you to do something to SSB, a fact of which we have been well aware for some time. You seem to be tossing out some further barb about how you'd "like to hear that (I am) considering the same approach for (my) provider business and perhaps (my) advocacy work also." What "same approach"? Be specific.

You ask us to consider following your lead in addressing the results of the study by Public Strategies Group, a study which you commissioned and controlled. How can we do any such thing when we don't know the results of the study or the nature of your reorganization plan? What we saw only last week in the form of handouts for the upcoming Rehabilitation Council for the Blind meeting is so vague that you could do anything you want to SSB. We do not know what scientific methodology (if any) was used in conducting the study, the size and validity of the study sample, the procedures used, or anything else that would cause us to regard its results as valid.

What exactly is your problem with advocacy work? It is clear that you don't approve of advocacy work, although any enlightened agency administrator understands and appreciates its value in bringing about improvements in program services. You are aware--although you can't admit it--Federation advocacy work in the 1999 Legislature made it possible for you to have the requested funding for SSB. Perhaps you do not understand advocacy work.

Your next point about the work of the two major national organizations not being "as divisive and hostile in other states as it is in Minnesota" is most interesting coming from you. Unless you know something of which I am unaware--again because your letter is in no way specific--the major issue upon which both major national organizations of the blind agree is that agencies serving the blind should have separate identity, budgets and funding, and service-delivery systems from those serving people with other disabilities, the very issue with which you disagree so vehemently.

Commissioner, you have absolutely no control or authority over the work of the National Federation of the Blind. The work of the Federation is simply not your business. You don't understand it or care to learn about it. So tend to your own garden, and carry on as best you can. Direct your attention to SSB, the one agency dealing with blindness for which you have been assigned responsibility.

Where in the world did you get the idea that we are "waiting for Democrats to get along with Republicans"? That is your own rhetoric, I guess. Then you go on to say, "but the fact is there are places where blind services are advancing." Where is this? Please be specific. Please name just one state in which "services are advancing." The only state where it might possibly be construed that "services are advancing" could be Nebraska, where the agency serving the blind has just been legislated out of an umbrella organization such as yours into a completely separate department. How could you, Commissioner, possibly regard that as "advancing," in light of your well-known opposition to that new structure?

You have so much yet to learn. You are uninformed and out of touch with reality. In fact, as experienced advocates, Federationists have witnessed many times in the past in numerous states the very same problems we face in Minnesota under your administration. Statements such as "It's just an administrative change" or "it won't affect services" have been heard repeatedly, only to be followed by deterioration and reduction of services until there is very little left. That is why you are not trusted. That is why blind people cannot believe what you say.

Very frankly, you have been anything but truthful with blind people. In presenting your goals for SSB and in setting your reorganizational plans for SSB in motion, you have been secretive and underhanded. You and your top administrators childishly tease your staff and the public by making frequent references to your proposed changes, while you refuse to divulge the details of your plan until a later date. If you indeed can't discuss the plan, why persist in talking about it, only to claim secrecy when asked for specifics?

Already you are reassigning duties to SSB rehabilitation counselors; you are dumping the older blind program, which has been by far one of the SSB programs with which customers have been most satisfied. You have not been at all honest in reporting to blind people on the financial status of SSB. You held category B on Order of Selection far longer than necessary, and category C is still on a waiting list. You are causing fear and intimidation throughout the SSB staff. The very charges you level against me in your letter (e.g., in your reference to "your well known `my way or the highway' approach to serving people") could more appropriately be raised against you. SSB management and staff are so traumatized by your treatment of the agency that they just shake their heads and wait for the next stroke of your redesign hatchet.

Perhaps it would be well for you to look to your own doorstep before you accuse others. Just examine your behavior, and you may realize why blind people are angry with you, why they don't trust you, and why you find it necessary to make such violent attacks against the Federation. You have made zero effort to learn anything about or come to understand blindness, services appropriate for blind people, or the blind community with whom you should be working in partnership. Instead you fire sarcasm and bitter attacks against the Federation and its leadership and grab for smoke screens, blaming blind people for not getting together. Then you wonder why we are angry with you, do not trust a word you say, and have no hope for any good you will do as the chief administrator over SSB. And if you regard this as sarcasm, again, look to your own doorstep and read the letter you mailed out on August 31 to me.

Commissioner, in 1997 we had legislation introduced to make SSB into a separate agency. In an explanatory meeting with Commissioner Brown, which you also attended, we said that, if SSB was not a separate agency, we would prefer to have it remain in DES. Because of the actions of your administration we can no longer say that. Any other agency of state government would be better. You have made it clear that with respect to SSB it's either "your way or the highway." We choose the highway, and in the upcoming Legislative session we will do our best to take SSB with us. And, rest assured, we will vigorously resist any effort to reorganize SSB which results in reduction of services to blind people, any merger with other DES units, or any effort to siphon off SSB funding to support the Workforce Centers or your own expanding administrative systems.

In a nutshell, sir, we don't trust either you or your administration. Your modus operandi, demonstrated in three separate instances, is to go behind our backs and make decisions that affect blind persons and the services we need without consulting us, then get defensive when we don't like what you have done. In short, you don't care what we think unless it happens to agree with what you want to do. DES under your direction will never earn public trust or respect until you drastically change your approach.

Moreover, you have made it clear that you are interested in using more SSB money and staff in running your Workforce Centers. I believe you would use SSB rehabilitation funds to pay for generic services for all job seekers if the Rehabilitation Services Administration did not oppose their use for this purpose. Your argument about SSB administration drawing money away from services is equally bogus. Remember, you did a reorganization last year. Initially we were told its purpose was to save money which would be redirected to services. Later we were told there would be no cost savings, just administrative efficiencies. We have seen neither.

Furthermore, Commissioner, if you are truly tired of the public criticism your past behavior has brought and if you are truly unhappy with blind people reporting in their newsletters about your misdeeds and destructive plans for SSB, there are some corrective steps you can take:

1. Begin to tell the truth. Cease lying to the blind community. Strive to build up trust and credibility.

2. Cease your secret decision-making and communicate openly with the blind community and the public. Demonstrate some respect for people.

3. Quit launching into childish temper tantrums and the use of cheap shots when communicating with constituent groups. It simply does not become you as a Governor's appointee to a high public position to vent hysterical rage as you did in your letter of August 31, 2000. Such behavior discredits you, the Governor, and your own staff.

4. Set about learning something about blind people: how they live and work, how they set goals and dream of successful and fulfilled lives. Then try to understand the proper role you and SSB can play in making those dreams reality.

Believe it or not, Commissioner, you will need to have some friends in the blind community who can help you down the road. In this letter I have made a valiant effort to give you guidance and help. You have made countless errors in the past. What you do in the future, of course, could be very different. The choice is yours.

In the meantime we in the Federation will move forward advocating for the rights of Americans who are blind to have proper training and other necessary services so that we can take our place in the world, participating and contributing, using our many skills and talents.

Yours truly,

Joyce Scanlan, President

p.s.: Thank you for the opportunity to share these thoughts with you. Have a pleasant day.

 

You will remember that, according to his note of carbon copies, the commissioner sent a copy of his August 31 letter to our National Federation of the Blind President, Marc Maurer, in Baltimore. Immediately after I received the commissioner's letter, I called President Maurer to discuss the letter. I was surprised to learn that he had not received the letter as indicated. In fact, apparently no copy of the commissioner's letter was ever sent to President Maurer. Therefore I sent copies of the commissioner's letter and our response to Dr. Maurer, whereupon Dr. Maurer sent the following letter to Commissioner Wilson with copies to those indicated.

 

October 1, 2000

Mr. Earl Wilson
Commissioner
Minnesota Department of Economic Security
St. Paul, Minnesota

Dear Mr. Wilson:

I serve as President of the National Federation of the Blind, the largest and oldest organization of the blind in the United States. I have now received a copy of the letter you sent to Mrs. Joyce Scanlan dated August 31, 2000. I received the letter from Mrs. Scanlan, not from you. I mention this because your letter shows that a copy was forwarded to me. However, I did not receive one from you. I wonder whether all of the allegations of fact in your letter are as accurate as the one at the end, which purports to show that you did me the courtesy of forwarding a copy of your letter to me. Of course, you may blame the post office for the failure of your letter to arrive. I have practiced law now for over twenty years. I have found a number of people willing to blame the post office.

In your letter you resort to name calling without supporting evidence. You say that Mrs. Scanlan is willing to make vitriolic attacks against you and members of your staff. You accuse Mrs. Scanlan of fantasy in reporting. You go on to say that she makes up untruths and that she revises history. You accuse her of character assassination and a failure to accept reality.

Mr. Wilson, it would be difficult to imagine a letter containing more vitriol than the one you yourself sent. You are a public official. You get your salary from tax dollars paid by Minnesotans. You have a responsibility to respond to the wishes and needs of those in Minnesota. As the president of the largest and oldest consumer group of blind citizens in Minnesota Mrs. Scanlan has a right to ask you to account for your stewardship as a public administrator of programs established to serve the group she represents. It is written that there is a right to peaceable assembly and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. You are responsible to Mrs. Scanlan, not the other way around. The blind of Minnesota have no obligation to tolerate intemperate behavior from you. You do have an obligation to treat those you are appointed to serve with courtesy and civility. If you do not, the constituents, who have a right to expect good service from you, may feel called upon to seek your resignation from office and to ask for a replacement who will behave responsibly.

With respect to the allegation in your letter that specialized services for the blind are damaging, I offer this observation. Your letter makes an assertion which implies a certain belief that cannot be supported. Your assertion is that categorical services for the blind are wasteful and damaging. Such a claim is without foundation when programs for the blind are properly administered. Specialized services for the blind are absolutely necessary for blind people to compete successfully in society. Furthermore, the need for specialized services for specialized groups is almost universally recognized. This principal is so universally known that it is hard to decide which example to emphasize. Consider, as an illustration, the experience of lawyers and ministers. Specialized schools are established for each of them. It may be desirable for the ministers to know something about the law, and it may be desirable for the lawyers to know something about divine scripture. However, the demands of each specialty require specialized training. These demands are sufficiently distinct from each other that training at separate schools with separate administrations is demanded.

The blind have this same characteristic. Specialized services for the blind demand special attention. Reading Braille, traveling with a cane or a dog, communicating, using devices that provide information with speech or refreshable Braille, and other matters associated with these are essential for the blind to become self‑supporting. The statistics show that better than 90 percent of blind people who come to know Braille fluently are employed. [The statistic alluded to here shows that 90 percent of the employed blind people who could not see well enough to read print in a group consulted by the American Foundation for the Blind identified themselves as Braille readers.] Better than seventy percent of blind people are not employed. Current educational systems (most of them not specialized, I might add) provide Braille training to fewer than ten percent of blind students. These numbers indicate a tragedy in the making. Your letter suggests that you want to make this tragedy worse. You want to deprive blind people of the training essential for their success.

You say in your letter that Mrs. Scanlan uses rhetoric rather than logic. You seem to favor positive action. I would point out that your own letter is almost entirely a rhetorical statement. The action you recommend is to diminish special services for the blind--a positive danger for blind people. It is worthy of recognition that Mrs. Scanlan has taught more blind people Braille than you have.

The next time you decide to write a broadside, I urge you to begin by getting the facts straight. Then you may embellish your screed with whatever rhetoric takes your fancy.

Very truly yours,

Marc Maurer, President
National Federation of the Blind

cc: The Honorable Jesse Ventura, Governor
Members of the Minnesota Congressional Delegation
Members of the Minnesota Legislature

 

Thus it is clear that we are in a major battle. At the September 7 meeting of the SSB Rehabilitation Council, Federationists attempted to circulate print, Braille, and tape copies of the Minnesota Bulletin that was the target of the commissioner's letter. We knew Council members had received the commissioner's letter, so we thought they should also receive the articles he attacked. We were, however, prevented from presenting the information. Bonnie Elsey ordered the copies picked up from the Council members and returned to us.

At that same meeting what we are faced with became apparent: an administration with little interest in blind people and the services we need to be independent and self-sufficient, and major interest in playing the game of bureaucracy by counting the dollars and relabeling the little boxes. To the Wilson DES management team, SSB is not blind people coming to receive appropriate services so we can be independent and employed; instead SSB is fourteen million dollars to play with and see how much more can be collected from other governmental units to build up his new computer system and Workforce Centers.

If these words sound harsh, re-read the commissioner's letter. It speaks volumes (without details) about how he really feels toward SSB, and he also makes it abundantly clear that he has no respect for blind people. We will all remember that the commissioner's time in office will be limited. The Federation will not deviate from our mission of advocating to meet the needs of our blind brothers and sisters. When the commissioner and his assistants are gone--and they will one day be gone--we can rebuild SSB to become a viable, service-providing agency of which all of us can be proud.

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