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Recollections and Hopes
by Michael Jones
From the Editor: A recurring subject of news during the years I have edited the Braille Monitor has been allegations of shenanigans at the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind. Except for the state rehabilitation agency, the Institute in Talladega is the only game in town for blind Alabamians. On its grounds are housed the schools for the deaf and the blind, a technical college for blind students, and one of several sheltered manufacturing facilities run by the Institute around the state. All the outreach to young blind children in Alabama is done by the Institute. In short, unless you want rehabilitation services, you will deal with the Institute if you are blind, live in Alabama, and want any special services.
Periodically one facet or another of the Institute's program makes the papers, the NFB of Alabama makes an outcry, and eventually things quiet down again. It will be no surprise to anyone to be reminded in passing that through all the scandal and bad press over unfair or illegal treatment of blind consumers, the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind has remained a member in good standing of the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Impaired.
In recent months, however, we have actually heard some good news to go along with the most recent helpings of bad press. Here is NFB of Alabama president Mike Jones's report:
August of 1993 brought new leadership and hope to the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind with the appointment of Dr. Joe Busta Jr. to the presidency. The Institute had traveled a rocky road just before Dr. Busta was appointed. The resignation of his predecessor, rough treatment by the legislature, and the administrative cover-up of the embezzlement of blind workers' pay checks (see the June 1993 Braille Monitor) provided many programmatic challenges for Dr. Busta.
Dr. Busta came from an impressive background in university fund raising. But it included no experience at all in rehabilitation, special education, or school administration, all of which would have been helpful to the superintendent of the Institute. The Board of Trustees had decided that the Institute needed an accomplished fund raiser, and under those circumstances they chose the right person to bring in money. Many people were full of hope for a new beginning in services, and we the organized blind had great hope for new opportunity.
Opportunity of one kind came early to the blind. In March of 1996 blind workers in the Institute's industries workshop were laid off by Dr. Busta while sighted administrators were given raises. This same pattern was followed when in May of 2001 Dr. Busta announced that twenty-eight blind workers at the industries for the blind would leave their jobs. During the same time sighted administrators were again receiving raises. Each time the loss of jobs was attributed to a shortfall in appropriations, and each time the National Federation of the Blind of Alabama challenged the rationale of these decisions and saved the workers' jobs.
The pattern of Dr. Busta's leadership was set early. The Institute set out on a campaign to raise money regardless of the cost to the jobs, dignity, or well-being of blind people. The most frequent casualty of the marketing and money-begging program was services to the children. Funds were allocated for brick and marble fencing and golf carts to drive potential donors around the grounds, while children needing comprehensive speech, physical, and occupational therapy were denied services. The Institute's endowment grew, and so did the hiring of accountants and fund raisers, but despite all the marketing the enrolment in the Institute's several schools remained unchanged.
The year 2002 brought Dr. Busta's grand plan to create a National Junior College for the Deaf and Blind, which many presumed would be the catalyst for fund raising by Dr. Busta all over America. The proposal and the concept behind it were laughed at by blind and deaf people as well as professionals from coast to coast.
The blind of Alabama had been steadily asking probing questions about the general funding and allocation of state funds for some time. January 28, 2002, brought the report from the Alabama Auditors of Public Accounts, which shed light on and provided insight into the management of state funds by the Institute. The state auditors charged the Institute with failing to adhere to standards of general accounting practices and violation of state ethics and competitive bidding laws. The audit caught the attention of many state leaders, who began to listen to the Federation when we asked that a blind person be appointed to the Institute's Board of Trustees. On February 16 Governor Siegelman granted the Federation's request and appointed longtime Federationist Melissa Williamson to the Board of Trustees. Here is the text of the announcement:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Siegelman Appoints Melissa Williamson to the Board of Trustees of the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind
Governor Don Siegelman has appointed Melissa Williamson to the Board of Trustees of the AlabamaInstitute for Deaf and Blind. This appointment is effective immediately, and the term will expireNovember 28, 2006. She replaces John Woods as the representative of the Sixth Congressional District.
"I am proud that Melissa has agreed to serve the state," Siegelman said. "I am sure that she will prove herself to be a devoted public servant."
Williamson received her bachelor's degree from Birmingham-Southern College and did graduate work at the University of South Alabama and the University of Alabama, Birmingham.
She is a member of the National Federation of the Blind. She has also served as a board member and vice president for the National Association of Blind Students.
Williamson lives in Trussville.
Then, on April 18, 2002, came the announcement that Dr. Busta was resigning as president and returning to university fund raising. His last day at the Institute will be July 1, 2002. Dr. Busta served the Institute well insofar as he brought in significant financial resources. Unfortunately the cries of blind people for spending priorities that would meet the needs of children, students, and shop employees were consistently ignored. Dr. Busta was always cordial and friendly to blind people, and we certainly wish him well in his new job. We believe that this move will be good for him, good for the institution he joins, and good for the blind of Alabama.
But April also brought more controversy and criticism to the Institute. Late in the month a case burst into the news in which two tax preparers got hold of the names and Social Security numbers of eight children, some of whom were enrolled at the deaf and blind schools. They then sold this information or used it themselves to claim federal tax exemptions on personal income tax filings. It is apparently not clear how the information was leaked; by some reports former employees of the Institute and the Children's Hospital were responsible. The United States Attorney's office made a statement that institution officials were not responsible for the breaches in confidentiality, though it is not clear how they could be certain of the truth of that statement. Nonetheless, the public outcry was immediate. Here is an opinion, for example, published on April 29, 2002, in the Birmingham News:
Scamming the Children
As if regular identity theft isn't bad enough, now there is a case where tax preparers admit appropriating the names of sick, blind, and deaf children to bolster their clients' income tax refunds.
Ernest Baskin, thirty-six, and Detra Sherman, thirty-three, acknowledged they sold their clients the names of Children's Hospital patients and Alabama School for the Deaf and Blind students to claim as dependents in tax returns. They filed more than 250 false returns for clients and themselves in 1997 and 1998, reaping $721,000 in fraudulent refunds. They charged their clients $400 for each child's name.
The duo, which operated Xpress Rapid Refund, Rapid Refund Express, and Xpress Tax Kingston in West Birmingham, got the children's names and Social Security numbers from private records at the hospital and school.
As a first course of business, both institutions should investigate how their private records fell into the wrong hands. Any security lapse on the part of their staffs calls for appropriate punishment, and steps should be taken to prevent a similar breach in the future. Other institutions that routinely record such personal information should examine their policies as well.
It's a matter of protecting the public. Adults already worry that someone will get their names, Social Security numbers, and other private information to use on an all‑out shopping spree. Now the identities of children, even those who are sick, blind, and deaf, are subject to theft.
While the tax preparers face up to ten years in the forty-seven‑count indictment, their pleas will probably work in their favor at sentencing. But these two conspired to steal from taxpayers in a most unsavory scheme. Their clients must be required to repay any undue refunds. But a stiffer sentence is in order for professionals who abused positions of trust and scammed children's names to do it.
So things continue pretty much as they have always done at the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind. May 18 will bring yet another beginning for the blind of Alabama, and we can only hope that this time it will be a beginning with a difference. Mrs. Williamson will take her seat at the Board of Trustees meeting. She will join that body in time to help select the Institute's new president and therefore shape the future of programs for the blind in Alabama. We are hopeful that good candidates will be available and that our friend and colleague will be successful in helping the board recognize and appoint the right person to guide the Institute wisely.
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