The Braille Monitor                                                                                       December 2002

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NAC: A Moribund System Hoping for Revival

by Marc Maurer

Marc Maurer
Marc Maurer

From the Editor: For many years Federationists considered that the annual meeting of the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Impaired (NAC) provided the highlight of the fall social season. Not that we participated in the meeting each year, but we were certainly present, making sure that the public knew that consumers of services in the blindness field were not satisfied with the accreditation process provided by NAC.

Then NAC sank into almost total obscurity, and picketing its meetings appeared to give the body more significance than it deserved, so with some regret for past enjoyment and much optimism for a future free of NAC, we abandoned our annual NAC-tracking and NAC carol singing.

Recently, however, we learned that NAC has decided to conduct what NAC officials characterize as a summit meeting in an attempt to revitalize NAC and its view of the world. The event seems an excellent opportunity to dust off our hiking shoes and revive the NAC carols of NAC holiday seasons past.

In the following article President Maurer explains how we got to this point. This is what he says:

NAC (the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Impaired), perhaps the most controversial and destructive entity ever created in the field of work with the blind, came into being in the latter half of the 1960's. With its establishment, it brought to programming for the blind the most confrontive and strife-ridden era known to the blind. NAC sought to control all of work for the blind through a system that made funding dependent on NAC's approval. At the same time NAC ignored the views of the organized blind movement, and it accredited agencies that permitted some of the shabbiest practices.

In 1972, with the influence of NAC increasing and with NAC officials continuing to refuse to consider the views of the blind except as a matter of tokenism, the blind declared that NAC's unethical practices would no longer be permitted to go unchallenged. We decided we would track down NAC wherever it went and expose its questionable tactics to the public. With this declaration began the NAC-tracking period. Whenever the NAC board met to try to expand its influence and cut out the blind, blind representatives from across the United States met on the streets to protest. These confrontations continued late into the 1980's. By that time NAC's capacity for destructiveness to the blind had diminished—the failure of ethics had become clear. Furthermore, a period of harmony and growth had begun.

About two years ago the man who was to become executive director of NAC, Mr. Steven Hegedeos, came to the National Center for the Blind to discuss the value of NAC. He said he was unfamiliar with the history of NAC but that he believed in the value of the accreditation process. Members of the National Federation of the Blind told him about the spirit and performance of NAC and gave him background material. We agreed that good programs for the blind are important, but we pointed out that NAC is not the way to get them. It has always been a political organization established for political purposes and functioning in a political way, and it cannot improve the performance of agencies for the blind.

At the 2001 convention of the Federation held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, NAC made a presentation inviting the Federation to believe that its standard of operation had changed. NAC urged the Federation to work with it to bring NAC back to life. The Federation declined the invitation but agreed to have three representatives meet with three NAC representatives. The NFB representatives were Mr. James Gashel, Mrs. Peggy Elliott, and I serving as our president. NAC's representatives were its president, Mr. Steven Obremski; its executive director, Mr. Steven Hegedeos; and a member of its board, Dr. Lee Robinson, who also serves as the head of the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind. A report of this meeting was printed in the Braille Monitor for May 2002.

The report of the NAC meeting was delayed in publication from September until May because the meeting had relatively little new content. However, NAC was suggesting to people that it and the Federation were working closely with each other, and this false impression had to be corrected. Consequently, the May 2002 issue of the Braille Monitor contained a fairly detailed description of the meeting.

Included in the report was a reprint of an article that had been reviewed at the meeting—an article about questionable practices at the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind. I asked the NAC representatives whether they had knowledge of the allegations of misconduct at the school and what NAC intended to do about those allegations. Mr. Obremski and Mr. Hegedeos indicated that they had no prior knowledge of these allegations. Of course Dr. Robinson knew all about them. He said that, since there had been no criminal convictions, he believed the allegations of misbehavior were irrelevant.

I asked NAC to give the Federation a report of any investigation it decided to conduct of the policies and practices at the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind. Keep in mind that this meeting occurred on September 10, 2001. By the time the Braille Monitor article appeared in May of 2002, no report had been received about the Utah School. However, NAC accreditation of the school continued in effect. Apparently a re-accreditation had occurred in 2001 during the time that many of the allegations about the Utah School were being made.

Now a letter has come from the president of NAC dated October 14, 2002. In context this letter is nothing short of amazing. The letter comes well over a year after the September 10 meeting with NAC. Mr. Obremski attempts to shift the blame for the delay by arguing that the Federation had a responsibility to provide transcripts of the meeting (a thing the Federation has never promised to do), but of course in the intervening months he has not sent a note indicating that he had received no information from us. In one sense the attempt to explain the delay is characteristic of the rest of the communication. Whatever happens, it is always somebody else's fault.

The letter says that bad practices happen everywhere and that no system of accreditation can prevent them. One is left with the impression that the bad practices do not have an impact on the question of NAC accreditation. Mr. Obremski does not say that, as long as the paperwork is in order, poor practices may be tolerated. He even asserts that practices that are bad enough could (when repeated numerous times) cause a withdrawal of accreditation. However, one is left to wonder how bad is bad enough, and, although many self-serving statements are made about the value of accreditation, we do not hear about a system for evaluating allegations of misconduct. According to Dr. Lee Robinson, a criminal conviction must occur before allegations of misconduct are serious. Would that be enough for the withdrawal of accreditation? Mr. Obremski refers to sexual misbehavior, fraud in accounting practices, and mass killings in schools. The implication is that, if these things happen in accredited institutions, the accreditation body cannot be held accountable. Here in its entirety is Mr. Obremski's letter.

National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving
 the Blind and Visually Impaired

Lakewood, Ohio

October 14, 2002

Marc Maurer, President
National Federation of the Blind
Baltimore, Maryland

Dear Mr. Maurer:

Steven Obremski
Steven Obremski

I am writing in response to your question regarding a NAC member organization, the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind (USDB), which you published in the May 2002 issue of the Braille Monitor. My delay in responding is due in part to my expectation of receiving transcripts from the September 10, 2001, meeting, which you agreed to send me, in order that I might obtain a list of action items regarding what was discussed. The following is my response to your article in the Monitor that I am also publishing in the upcoming issue of the Standard Bearer as a means of sharing this response with the NAC membership. [The Standard Bearer is the NAC in-house magazine.]

The National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Impaired (NAC) exists to develop and apply standards related to the governance, administration, and provision of services by agencies and schools serving people who are blind and visually impaired. Agencies that choose to become accredited undergo a thorough self-study and onsite review conducted by teams of professionals in the field, including persons like myself who are blind. After an onsite review agencies are awarded varying levels of accreditation or are denied accreditation if they fail to satisfactorily meet the established standards.

There are numerous accrediting bodies in existence, from the Associations of Colleges and Schools, which evaluate functions and programs of both public and private schools; to the Rehabilitation Accreditation Commission (CARF), which evaluates a diverse group of agencies in the field of rehabilitation; to the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO), which evaluates medical institutions. All of these accrediting organizations have a process similar to NAC's for evaluating policies, procedures, and services provided by an agency seeking accreditation. All award varying levels of accreditation depending upon compliance with the established standards.

Unfortunately, schools, hospitals, and other organizations providing services to the community experience critical incidents which may be unintentional or are violations committed by individuals, and which sometimes mandate legal action. Recent events that have drawn national attention include mass killings in public schools, unethical medical practices in hospitals, alleged sexual abuse by teachers, fraudulent and unethical practices by directors of national for-profit and not-for-profit organizations and, regrettably, incidents of alleged abuse by a teacher at the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind. The accreditation process, whether performed by JCAHO, CARF, or the school commission, is not an assurance against misbehavior of individual employees. I am sure that you would agree that this is a reasonable statement. It would be most unwise to misrepresent the value of accreditation by suggesting that accreditation is a shield against any misdeeds by individuals within an organization.

Many organizations that have experienced employee or volunteer criminal activity are accredited. Most public and private schools and most hospitals are accredited. In many cases an organization is accredited by more than one accrediting body. For example, the USDB, the agency that you referred to in our September 10, 2001, meeting and subsequently in the May issue of the NFB Braille Monitor, is accredited not only by NAC. The Northwest Association of Schools, Colleges, and Universities (NASCU) and the Conference of Educational Administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf (CEASD) have both evaluated the policies, procedures, and programs of the school and have recently awarded the school full accreditation.

Given all of the reported negligent or unlawful activities in accredited hospitals, schools, and rehabilitation agencies, how do these organizations remain open and accredited? And, given the allegations that were cited against the USDB, how can three different accrediting organizations continue to accredit them? The answer is found in the function of an accrediting entity.

When an agency is evaluated for accreditation, the agency's policies and practices are measured against established standards. The extent to which an agency meets a specific standard is gleaned from a review of pertinent documents; documentation of activities, both administrative and service-related; interviews with staff; contacts with collaborative organizations; and interviews with a representation of those served. If policies and practices are found to be acceptable, standards are either met or exceeded. If policies and practices are not met or not in place, the standard is not met. If there are numerous accounts of unmet standards or significant violations of consumers' rights, the organization is given a probationary status with a period of time for correcting the issue, or accreditation is withdrawn altogether.

The three organizations that accredit the USDB found that the school has acceptable policies and practices in place. Events such as the allegations of abuse at this school, as well as in other schools, hospitals, etc., are impossible to predict and, as evidenced by our society as a whole, are unfortunately unavoidable.

Contrary to your report in the Braille Monitor article, NAC's Commission on Accreditation and NAC's executive director were notified of the allegations of abuse at the USDB during their Onsite Review in late April of 2001.

[I interrupt the letter to say that this is a most curious sentence. Both Mr. Obremski and Mr. Hegedeos indicated during our meeting of September 10, 2001, that they had no prior knowledge of alleged abuses at the Utah School. Which piece of testimony are we to believe? Were the principal NAC officials aware of the allegations at the time they were accrediting the school in 2001? Did they accredit the school despite these allegations? Did they investigate before making the accreditation? Or did they ignore the reports? Were Mr. Obremski and Mr. Hegedeos forthright in September 2001, or were they pretending they didn't have the background in order to buy time to consider the matter? Many of these questions must remain a matter for speculation. Despite the length of Mr. Obremski's letter, he does not address such queries except in a most cursory and general way. But, back to Mr. Obremski's letter.]

At the same time the two other organizations that accredit the USDB were made aware of this situation. It was determined by NAC's Commission on Accreditation as well as NASCU and CEASD that this incident was handled appropriately by the school's administration, that policies and practices are in place to avoid the probability of this incident reoccurring, and that corrective action was taken. Subsequently the USDB was awarded re­accreditation by NAC and accreditation was maintained by both NASCU and CEASD.

A letter written on September 25, 2002, to Dr. Lee Robinson, superintendent of the USDB, from Dan R. Larsen, assistant attorney general of the State of Utah summarizes the circumstances related to the issue. He writes, "As counsel for defendants in all three of these cases, it is my opinion that the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind and its administrators acted appropriately in response to these incidents. The Sutton jury obviously agreed. Had the other two cases gone to trial, I anticipated a similar result. It is unfortunate that the reports in the media about the allegations in these lawsuits made it appear that school administrators were indifferent to the rights and safety of their students. These media reports ignore the hard work and dedication of the many professionals at the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind who have dedicated their careers to educating and assisting disabled students. Anyone who actually visits the school and observes the classroom activities would be impressed with the facilities and staff. The negative media campaign pursued by plaintiffs' counsel in these lawsuits was not only untrue but was harmful to the students, the staff, and to those who may be in need of the services provided by the school. Now that the litigation has ended, I sincerely hope that the school can again focus on its primary mission, to provide an education to deaf and blind students in a safe environment."

Neither NAC, NFB, nor any other organization can predict, control, or avoid actions taken by an individual. The integrity of any given organization is based upon the policies and practices the organization has in place. It is this foundation that NAC fosters through established standards. Events occur, however, which are beyond any organization's control. To evaluate an entity only on the merit of such incidents does not reflect the principles of the organization as a whole in most cases. As stated earlier, the Utah School handled the critical matter mentioned above in an appropriate manner.

As we discussed at last year's meeting, NAC is moving forward with its plans to hold a summit in the near future to receive input and direction regarding the renewal of NAC and its services. There will be many blind people in attendance to present consumers' views. I am hopeful that you will participate.

Sincerely,
Steven Obremski
President, Board of Directors

With such arguments in mind, it is worth asking, what is the purpose of NAC? If its accreditation cannot assure proper practices, then what does it assure? Is the accreditation system created to serve as a shield for those prepared to tolerate shabby behavior or worse? Is NAC once again attempting to serve as the arbiter for the blind, deciding for us what is beneficial for us to have, even if we want something else?

Mr. Obremski's letter states, "It would be most unwise to misrepresent the value of accreditation by suggesting that accreditation is a shield against any misdeeds by individuals within an organization. Many organizations that have experienced employee or volunteer criminal activity are accredited." Such statements attempt to make a distinction between the actions of an organization and the actions of individuals serving as agents for the organization. How can an organization take an action unless the individuals who serve it act? Mr. Obremski suggests that the actions he finds laudatory are the actions of the school; those he finds reprehensible are not chargeable to the school but to the individuals at the school. Apparently he has never heard of the legal maxim "respondeat superior"—the principal is responsible for the actions of the principal's agent. A school cannot act except through the individuals who serve it.

Another letter from Mr. Obremski indicates that NAC is seeking to revive its position in the blindness field and improve its public image and prestige. Notice in this letter that once again the organized blind are relegated to one representative. It is plain from Mr. Obremski's letters that he intends to have scores of others present to discuss the value of NAC—many of them senior staff members of NAC-accredited agencies. NAC has not changed. It wants to dominate and control. It wants to plan for the blind what their lives shall be and what services will be good for them. In the midst of the rhetoric, NAC claims that its accreditation "has proven to be the preeminent management tool for organizations that provide quality services." Sometimes when reading NAC's high-flown, self-appreciative statements, it is hard to determine whether NAC officials meant them as a joke or they really believe them. Here are the pertinent portions of the letter of invitation to come to the NAC summit in Tampa in December of 2002.

National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving
 the Blind and Visually Impaired

Lakewood, Ohio

Mr. Marc Maurer, President
National Federation of the Blind
Baltimore, Maryland

October 16, 2002

Dear Mr. Maurer:

On behalf of the NAC board of directors I invite you to attend a summit meeting on accreditation for agencies serving people who are blind or visually impaired. This meeting will be held on December 13, 2002, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Tampa, Florida. Mr. Don Wells, director of the Duke University Certificate Program in Nonprofit Management, will facilitate this important meeting.

The following day, on December 14, 2002, NAC will continue with the biannual membership business meeting.

At this summit on the 13th, we are bringing together the NAC board of directors, NAC member agencies, and the top executives of national organizations in the field of services to people who are blind or visually impaired, in order to participate in the agenda concerning:

   —The value of and need for specialized standards;

   —Streamlining the accreditation process;

   —The coordination of accrediting organizations, CARF, JCAHO, and SACS, with NAC; and

   —Relationships between NAC and national consumer organizations.

In addition to leaders in the field of blindness, Dr. Brian Boon, president and CEO of the Rehabilitation Accreditation Commission (CARF), has accepted a special invitation to attend. Representatives of the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) have also been invited.

All organizations are limited to having one representative in attendance. Please return your RSVP sheet in the envelope provided or by e-mail at your earliest convenience to Steven K. Hegedeos.

The detailed agenda for this summit and the NAC Biannual Business Membership Meeting will be sent in the near future.

The quality of specialized services for people who are blind or visually impaired is critical, and the peer-review process for accreditation has proven to be the pre-eminent management tool for organizations that provide quality services. Your participation in this conference is important for the future of specialized services to those whom we serve.

Thank you for your participation in the provision of specialized services to people who are blind and visually impaired. I look forward to our time together in Tampa.

Sincerely,

Steven Obremski

President, Board of Directors

Then there is the most recent missive from NAC's executive director. In view of what has been said and written about NAC, it is apparent that NAC's executive director is attempting to use dissembling language to achieve diplomatic objectives. He wants to portray NAC as willing to listen to the blind, which of course it is not. He wants to demonstrate chumminess and friendly discourse while at the same time he is forcing a discredited so-called standards organization down the throats of the blind. He thinks his chattiness will distract us from the real mission of NAC. However, pretending that NAC is fair or even-handed or willing to consider the views of the organized blind or a force for positive change in the blindness field will not make it so. NAC is what it has always been—a divisive, destructive, discredited attempt to shield those who cannot stand on their own. This is the most recent exchange of correspondence.

National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving
the Blind and Visually Impaired

Lakewood, Ohio

October 28, 2002

Marc Maurer, President
National Federation of the Blind
Baltimore, Maryland

Re: NAC Summit Meeting

Dear Dr. Maurer:

Steven Hegedeos
Steven Hegedeos

Thank you for your communications dated September 17 and October 3, 2002. Our communications with each other are valuable to me, and I appreciate the clarity that you practice.

This letter is a follow-up to my telephone message from last week, replying to your request for information about the upcoming NAC meeting. Mr. Steve Obremski said you, the president of a major organization, should receive advanced notice about the upcoming NAC meeting. The invitations to the NAC summit meeting set for December 13-14, 2002, have been sent, and I trust you have received yours by now. Your receptionist called today and asked for a faxed copy of the invitation. It has been faxed.

In your October 3rd letter you state that in the past NAC gave the impression that it prefers ". . .to do its business without the blind discovering what it is planning." I am sure that you have reasons based in history for saying that; however, I wish to assure you that it is not the preference nor the intent of the current NAC board or any of its officers nor employees to operate in such a manner. On the contrary, our aim is to solicit as much input as possible.

The summit meeting agenda will touch on the issue you laid on the table September 10, 2001. The letter from Steve Obremski to you and the NAC Newsletter being sent out this week acknowledge, privately and publicly, NFB's position regarding NAC.

While it is my belief that you and I do not disagree much about what needs to be done, I wish to communicate to you my feelings about how we should accomplish what needs to be done, based on the following premise:

The field of blindness and visual impairment rehabilitation and education needs credible specialized standards and an accreditation program for service providers. Anything less then a credible system should not be done. To be credible, such service standards and an accreditation program must be the responsibility of an independent entity. In our field special standards are needed to address issues concerning communication (including Braille), travel, activities of daily living, workplace and classroom modifications, access to new technology, and services for persons with other disabilities who also may be blind or visually impaired.

Toward this end I am working on and advocating the following long-range action plan.

   * Firstly, securing funding for a national conference about specialized standards.

   * Secondly, developing a plan for establishing specialized standards based on research findings.

   * Thirdly, securing funding for research that will serve as the bases [sic] for specialized standards.

Support for such an action plan has been expressed by the U.S. government standards system referred to as ISO 9002, the VA, Emory University, Hopkins University, school accrediting bodies, CARF, and JCAHO. My personal hope is that NFB will participate in this process. One way of participating might be to house such activities in the NFB Research Building, which is a desirable location.

The summit on December 13th is being designed to set the course for the short-range action plan. The goal is to maintain and continuously improve specialized service standards that are implemented in a credible accreditation program.

I do not wish to feed into any acrimonious challenges of the past, however strongly the past adversities related to NFB and NAC might have affected our respective organizations. Based on my contacts with NAC-accredited agencies and participating in accreditation decisions, I can categorically testify to you that I have seen no evidence that the NAC accreditation process has damaged any service organization in delivering valuable services to people who are blind or visually impaired. On the contrary, there are many examples of the NAC accreditation promoting the improvement of service delivery.

I believe, however, that the acrimonious relationships that exist, not only between NFB and NAC, but in the field, is damaging efforts toward the elimination of barriers and disadvantages endured by people who are blind and visually impaired. There is an unacceptably high unemployment rate, a low level of representation and participation in the mainstream of our society, and ever-present indignations [sic] are suffered due to ignorance of the general public.

In your December 20, 2001, greeting, you mentioned that you suspect that your mind is made up about NAC. Since then your views seemed to be more solidly against NAC, which makes the prospects of reaching a short-term and a long-term action plan more difficult.

I wish to rekindle some thoughts from earlier conversations you and I have had regarding our beliefs and principles we live by. Whatever the final outcome of the NFB/NAC adversarial relationship will result in, education and enlightenment could be and should be part of the resolution of this and any problem. One's beliefs have to be shared to be of value.

I recently watched the news talk show "Crossfire," which caused me to reaffirm my own beliefs, and I wish to share that with you.

The attorney Johnny Corcoran [sic] was on the show last week promoting his book titled Justice. Even though the OJ Simpson circumstances are repulsive to me, the real world is what it is, and I can live with it.

However, Corcoran went on to promote his agenda of restitution for slavery in the U.S. This I cannot accept.

Corcoran said, "you have benefited from the labor of the slaves, and restitution is justified." I can accept this as partially true, but it is more completely true that all Americans, including African-Americans living in this country, have benefited from the slave labor of the past. Corcoran has certainly benefited. Restitution based on racial grounds is just as evil as slavery based on racial grounds. Where does it end? If restitution is justified, all Americans should pay.

The principle is that we should all participate. No one organization or one individual should claim to be the exclusive representative of a particular group of people. Everyone must have the opportunity to participate in processes. More to the point, service standards for organizations must be free from conflicts of interest in every possible manner. Both NAC and NFB should be part of the renaissance of specialized standards.

I am looking forward to your reply and thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Steven K. Hegedeos

Executive Director

November 6, 2002

Mr. Steven K. Hegedeos
Executive Director
National Accreditation Council for Agencies
 Serving the Blind and Visually Impaired

Lakewood, Ohio

Dear Mr. Hegedeos:

I have received your letter of October 28, 2002, and I find it positively astonishing. Perhaps I have lost my capacity to communicate. The first time we met, I told you that NAC was destructive to the field of blindness, and I recommended that you avoid becoming embroiled in it. On each subsequent occasion when we have met, I have stated the same principle. Your letter implies that we were working jointly to revive NAC, which has never been the case.

Contrary to your assertion, NAC is not independent; it has never been independent; and it cannot be independent. It is controlled and dominated by the agencies that have created NAC for the purpose of establishing a place to hide their inadequacies—they want to use the name of accreditation as a shield. This is the way it is now, and it is the way that NAC has always been. If you insist on attempting to revive this discredited, destructive system, you will create the acrimony you tell me you want to avoid. I suggested to you a way to avoid it the first time we met.

You have listened to the blind with the same attention that previous NAC directors gave to the sentiment expressed. You have ignored what we told you, and you have insisted that the blind, who are the consumers of the services allegedly provided by the agencies you accredit, may have one representative in a gathering of scores. In other words, you offer the blind the same tokenism that your predecessors offered. I strongly suspect you will get the same result.

Sincerely,

Marc Maurer, President

National Federation of the Blind

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