The Braille Monitor February 2003
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NAC in Isolation
by Peggy Elliott
From the Editor: Those unfamiliar with the history of the blindness field undoubtedly find the vehemence of Federationists' reaction to the National Accreditation Council (NAC) somewhat surprising. Even newer NFB members from the vast areas of the country that no longer have to fear the negative effects of NAC's influence on agency service delivery sometimes find it hard to believe that NAC could ever have posed a significant threat or might do so again.
The danger to blind people was very real twenty years ago in NAC's heyday, and blind people are painfully aware that, until the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Impaired ceases to exist, the threat inherent in NAC's possible revival is still serious.
Peggy Elliott is second vice president of the National Federation of the Blind and a close observer of NAC since the early seventies. She listened to the recordings made of the recent NAC meetings and prepared the following analysis of the discussions. The information offered here is complicated in places. Chapters should seriously consider forming study groups to discuss the article. This is what Peggy has to say:
The National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Impaired (NAC) has not been much in the news in recent years. Many knowledgeable professionals and blind people are startled when the subject of NAC is raised. Common reactions range from "I thought they had disbanded years ago" to "What is NAC?" NAC, having apparently noticed its image problem, decided to call what it termed a "summit" on Friday, December 13, 2002, the day preceding its biennial corporate meetings for its membership and board on Saturday, December 14, 2002, in Tampa, Florida. Having long opposed NAC, the National Federation of the Blind decided to picket the Tampa meeting.
Interested readers can find a description of the picket elsewhere in this issue; this report is confined to an analysis of the NAC summit--a term used for convenience and not because of its accuracy--based on the reports of observers in the room and on tape recordings of the proceedings. This report will cover both the summit and the next morning's membership meeting; the subsequent board meeting and executive committee deliberations were closed to observers, though no reason was given. This has always been standard practice with NAC--talk about openness but make sure that all decisions are made in secret.
A total of thirty-five people were present in the room for the summit, in contrast to the nearly three hundred protesters outside. For the most part, as described more fully below, these participants were people of good will whose intentions were sincere and whose motives were beneficent. The fact that most missed the point of what was happening is attributable largely to the design of the summit and not to any fault of the participants. With this in mind, most speakers will not be identified by name since their identities cannot add to the description of what happened, while their comments are often telling for what they did not say as much as for what they did.
Five exceptions to this rule of anonymity will be observed: Carl Augusto, executive director of the American Foundation for the Blind; Charles Crawford, executive director of the American Council of the Blind; Lee Robinson, new president of NAC and superintendent of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind; Steven Obremski, outgoing NAC president and executive director of the Iris Network in Portland, Maine; and Paul Edwards, immediate past president of the American Council of the Blind and incoming NAC board member.
The National Federation of the Blind chose not to participate in the summit and sent no representatives to the meeting room, although two Federation observers were present throughout the public portions of the NAC meetings. Some might say it comes with ill grace for the Federation to criticize NAC outside its meetings without offering the benefit of its analysis at the table. Federationists would reply that the analysis has been extensive and public. Fortunately, this difference of approach need not detain us since at the summit table Carl Augusto offered a succinct and dispassionate view of NAC with which the picketers outside would have agreed. So, though the Federation did not carry the message to the table, the message was delivered. The reaction of the summiteers is available in the pages of this report.
Charles Crawford of the American Council of the Blind provided the summit with some vintage Crawford material marked by his now familiar attitude toward the National Federation of the Blind; his wearyingly repeated claim that two or three people referred to as "Baltimore" run the Federation, the rest of the membership functioning as brainwashed puppets for "Baltimore"; and his customary conviction that anger and crudity move audiences. Anyone who has not yet experienced Crawford's predictable substance and style in person can sample it vicariously later in this report.
The incoming NAC president, Lee Robinson, made a significant contribution to political science, sociology, or perhaps mathematics, depending on one's reading of his analysis. The outgoing NAC president, Steven Obremski, contributed some valuable historical validation for the Federation's oft-repeated criticisms of NAC in his closing moments as NAC's president. Some of Paul Edwards's contributions to the summit are also provided. A sampling of the contributions of other meeting participants also appear later in this report.
NAC: A Primer
For those who really do not know what NAC is, here is a short history. In the early 1960's various professionals in the blindness field, led and largely funded by the American Foundation for the Blind to the tune of nearly half a million dollars, conceived the idea of an accreditation body for agencies in the blindness field. An occasional Federationist or blind client or professional was invited to the occasional committee meeting, and fieldwide unanimity was claimed for the idea of accreditation. NAC granted its first accreditations in 1967 based on the standards thus developed by the committees and then applied by on-site review teams.
From the beginning Federationists doubted the value of NAC's standards. We urged the importance of having knowledgeable consumer representatives deeply involved in shaping standards and accreditation, but our participation was barely tolerated. Our representatives to committees were expected to participate without access to the reams of print material. Then NFB president Kenneth Jernigan agreed to serve on the NAC board, but was routinely ostracized and attacked. He finally resigned in 1971 when it became clear that NAC officials had no interest in taking consumer participation seriously.
During the seventies NAC closed its meetings to all observers for a time, made the decision not to publish the names of organizations failing to meet its standards in the mistaken belief that rejection should be confidential (who will take a standard seriously if violating it is never seen to have consequences?), and accredited agencies known to pay less than the minimum wage or to condescend to blind clients or to be the subject of governmental investigations into allegations of embezzlement, sexual abuse, and even negligence leading to death. It attempted to have state and federal funding to agencies conditioned on having NAC accreditation. In other words, NAC's name came to be associated with arrogance in the delivery of services and synonymous with the view that anyone serving blind people professionally was above reproach and not subject to scrutiny. Yet, in its self-defined "universe of agencies," which it estimated at 500, NAC accredited only 106 at its height.
During these years agency after agency chose not to seek NAC accreditation or chose to drop it. As a result, today thirty states of the fifty-two (including D.C. and Puerto Rico) are NAC-free; and, at the start of NAC's December summit, only forty-five agencies were accredited. During the three decades in which NAC rose briefly and then fell on hard times, the NFB was developing its own approach to blindness, adjustment-to-blindness training, employment services, opportunities for seniors, and the future of blind children. Gradually more and more agency professionals have discovered the strength and value derived from working with their clients as partners, both individually and through organizations of the blind. Where once they thought it sufficient to proclaim that they "were the best," agency directors and other professionals now routinely sit down with representatives of blind people and ask: "What do we need to do to improve?"
Instead of developing as a standard-driven field, the blindness field has moved into an interactive model in which professionals more and more respect and seek partnerships with the people they serve, who then, when satisfied, can help to create or protect separate agency structures and to protect or increase funding streams both private and public. NAC's model, cast in the 1960's, would have had the field ruled by professionals because they knew what was best for the blind. Instead, through the steady and effective advocacy of the NFB, the blind are now often a desired partner at the table.
NAC has long maintained that the Federation's opposition to NAC grows out of opposition to accreditation. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Federation believes fervently in high standards, in improved service to blind people, and in categorical services to the blind. Everyone in the field knows it was the Federation that saved vocational rehabilitation from Congressional destruction in the 1990's. The Federation's position very simply is: NAC standards are minimal, meaningless, and intended to keep blind people away from the table. To get real improvement, start with getting rid of NAC and then invite knowledgeable clients and consumer representatives to the table. NAC's adherents do not see the world this way and have long chosen to accuse the Federation of opposing standards and quality, in an attempt to marginalize the Federation's criticism.
When meeting participants sat down on December 13 in Tampa, they found themselves in a room of thirty-five people, all of whom were on the by-invitation-only list prepared by NAC. Three of these people were self-described observers, and another was the meeting facilitator, a man aggressively willing to support the NAC president and the executive director, who had hired him, but who was nonetheless not technically a participant. This left thirty-one participants, of whom sixteen have a formal relationship with NAC's corporate structure: thirteen were members of NAC's board (some just completing service, some newly elected, and some in mid-term), and three were otherwise NAC functionaries (two serving on NAC's Commission on Accreditation and one as NAC's executive director). In addition, eight accredited agencies other than those represented by board members had officials in the room, meaning that twenty-four of the thirty-one meeting participants had some formal connection with NAC and could be expected to validate it.
When NAC's plans for its 2002 summit were announced, students of the history of the blindness field took note. In the creation of NAC, the Federation had appointments to a few committees, but its participation can only be described as that of a tiny minority of the people who collectively called NAC into being. Now in 2002 NAC sought once again to put one Federation person at the table with numerous others, all of whom were convinced of the value of NAC. Apparently NAC thinks this appropriate; obviously the Federation does not.
Here's President Obremski on the subject: "They [the Federation] were invited to participate in this meeting, and they were involved. They did receive an invitation to be here. Dr. Snider is here as an observer as a result of that invitation. So I don't know what else NAC can do, but I hope that we as a field can do something and find some way to work together for the betterment of services for people who are blind and visually impaired and the continuation of specialized services."
Many in the field might wish to reply to this by saying that, in fact, the field has largely taken care of that task already by ignoring NAC and beginning to work directly with organizations of the blind. Obremski seems to have missed this development and also seems to believe, as do many other meeting participants, that the only way to improve standards in the field is to improve NAC. In today's world of improved relations with clients and improved services over those of thirty years ago, this notion seems quaintly outdated.
What Is a Summit?
NAC termed this meeting of thirty-one a summit. Other phrases such as "foregone conclusion" and "sure thing" come more readily to mind, given the make-up of the participant list.
Summits are more commonly thought of as meetings which bring together evenly balanced teams from two sides of very difficult issues; for example, the summits between the American and Soviet chief executives during the Cold War. Summits do not always yield results and are often more notable for the discussion than for conclusions. NAC's summit met none of these criteria. Instead, NAC's summit brought together people largely persuaded of the value of NAC and asked them to discuss the value of NAC. The result was hardly astonishing. What was astonishing was Carl Augusto's contribution.
Confusion of Roles
Before detailing Augusto's comments, we should summarize the first several hours of the summit. Participants, prodded by the already persuaded facilitator, outlined, reviewed, re-hashed, reiterated, articulated, and voiced their support for standards. Really. That's what they did. Occasionally a participant would add that specialized standards were also important, in fact, probably even more important than standards in general. After a while this constant reiteration apparently hypnotized the participants, and they began to tell each other that the existence of NAC was the only way that specialized services for blind people would be preserved. No one actually claimed that NAC was responsible for specialized services in the first place, but a large majority of participants stated that having NAC was essential to the preservation of specialized services. Several went so far as to say that, should NAC for some reason cease to exist, specialized services would also cease to exist.
The entire morning session can be boiled down to these propositions, repeated over and over:
Standards are good.
Specialized standards are optimal.
Specialized services for the blind are essential.
Specialized services cannot survive without NAC.
Participants occasionally departed slightly from the text to mention related threads such as the importance of improving the quality of service to blind people. Any mention of improving services would draw the response that only NAC can bring about improvement in services, and then the general themes would reemerge.
As mentioned earlier, the participants seemed sincere, genuine, and committed to what they said. The problem they faced was that they were speaking to others equally convinced of their basic propositions. Their beliefs and reasoning could not be tested in the crucible of real debate since they all thought pretty much the same thing. The only astonishing development was the notion that NAC must thrive for specialized services to survive. That was a new one, and it really seemed to delight meeting participants.
Carl Augusto's Contributions
Carl Augusto made a heroic attempt to change all that, and he waited until mid-afternoon, possibly to see if any other meeting participants would try the novel approach of a reality check before he did. No one did. Though his statements, four in all, were delivered dispassionately and with the clarity of logic and a strict use of data notably out of keeping with the rest of the meeting, his comments went largely unanswered as meeting participants, after politely noting the remarks, simply went back to the morning's themes. Here are Carl Augusto's remarks , transcribed from actual tapes of the meeting. Pellucid in themselves, these comments need no explication beyond the actual words.
First speech: ". . . The American Foundation for the Blind was one of two founders of NAC. The Rehabilitation Services Administration (under a different name) and AFB came together, and AFB has been the largest financial supporter of NAC, supporting NAC for the first twenty or so years of its existence. I worked at the National Accreditation Council for ten years out of my career, and I was a supporter of what NAC stood for; I was a supporter of its standards and a supporter of its accreditation process. And I saw how NAC positively affected the agencies and schools that were willing to submit themselves to the process. When I left NAC, I came to Cincinnati and ran the Cincinnati Association for the Blind and was very happy that it was accredited, and if it wasn't, I would have pursued accreditation. I saw first-hand from another perspective how accreditation could benefit an agency for the blind, and I felt it was very beneficial in all aspects of accreditation.
"But with this background, I think this organization, NAC, and this board need to face a reality. And I think I know what this reality is, and I think maybe many of you know what the reality is, but maybe some of the nonblindness members of the board don't know the reality. There are some things that need to be said. First of all, the purpose of accreditation is to improve the overall level of functioning among the organizations that are eligible to apply. It is not just for one; it's not for ten if there are more than fifty or sixty. The purpose of accreditation is to improve the overall level of functioning for organizations. You can argue this point the rest of today and tomorrow.
"There are four hundred to five hundred agencies that are eligible to be accredited. So accreditation doesn't work unless there is a critical mass of those organizations that are willing to apply. A critical mass is not one hundred in my opinion. You might say that out of four hundred, five hundred, a critical mass might be two hundred, two-fifty. Maybe, if there were that many, there would be a stigma attached to those who don't apply. NAC reached its pinnacle in 1984 with 106 organizations. The number of accredited organizations has diminished since then. Now at this point there are forty-five.
"You can't pin it all on the National Federation of the Blind. There are some four hundred organizations that have either never applied or don't want to apply now. Whether or not they agree with the NFB that NAC is irrelevant and/or dangerous, that is irrelevant. They are not applying. They're not going to apply. And the NFB will continue to oppose NAC. No matter what you do--if you become the most effective accrediting body as viewed by President Bush--the blindness field is going to stay away as it has stayed away. The numbers may increase to fifty, fifty-five if you do some incredible marketing campaign, but you're never going to achieve your objective--accreditation, the purpose of which is to improve the overall level of functioning of the organizations eligible to apply.
"This board needs to face the reality that, no matter how good NAC is or could be, it's not going to be effective, and I strongly urge its board of directors to dissolve the organization."
In response to a request for clarification about whether he thought this situation was "due to the opposition or due to the nature of the beast?" Augusto's answer was "due to the lack of demand now and for ever."
Second speech: "This is not a well-formed recommendation, but if I were to have a recommendation right now with a gun to my head, it would be that the board of directors of NAC make a decision to dissolve by a certain day in order to protect some of the agencies that are accredited now and that need to remain accredited and then to bring the blindness field together to help decide what the future of specialized accrediting should be. Removing the question of the future of NAC, I think, is absolutely essential. NAC or any other form of this organization--we have got to make it clear that NAC is gone, and any other form of NAC is gone, and give time for the blindness field to work together to determine whether or not there is enough of a consensus that an alternative approach, which could be CARF and/or regional accrediting bodies, is viable.
"I think it could be. Perhaps years from now there could be specialized accreditation that would be established with greater consensus in the field. Or the third alternative would be that the demand for specialized accreditation isn't great enough to even warrant a specialized accrediting body. But I don't think that we in this room can make that decision. I think NAC can make the decision that it will no longer exist--but it needs to have time to find a resolution to the specialized accreditation in our field--I think [it] would be a constructive way that the organization, meaning NAC, could fold its tent at the same time and try to work with the field on possible alternatives."
President Obremski immediately responded by saying: "The purpose of this meeting was to bring people together to discuss this specifically but also to see a commitment from the field that there will be a continuation of the development and implementation of specialized, disability-specific standards for people who are blind and visually impaired." In other words, while Obremski didn't cut Augusto off as he did others who tried to raise this topic, Augusto's comments were out of bounds, according to Obremski's definition of why the meeting was occurring, an unspoken definition that the Federation had assumed all along and was pleased to find Obremski articulating. It is, however, interesting to watch the NAC president treating the president of the American Foundation for the Blind exactly the way he treats Federationists--in effect saying, "If you're not going to say something with which I agree, then I'm going to say you are irrelevant."
Third speech: Another participant asked Augusto what is different now in his view beyond the number of accredited agencies. Augusto responded: "Other than one hundred six to forty-five? I don't think accreditation is in the news; it's not a central issue in the blindness field. It doesn't get around in terms of the most critical issues facing our field. I'm not sure how else to answer that question. I think the most important thing that has changed is that the organization has grown from a staff of fifteen and a budget of about $500,000 to a staff of two, that there are fewer and fewer agencies that want to be accredited, that the agencies that have dropped out, many of which are the larger agencies in this country; so there's been a lot of change in NAC and accreditation, but certainly the support for accreditation and for NAC just isn't reflected in those numbers. The fact that there are no sponsors when there used to be ten or eleven sponsors--and I would disagree with Paul Edwards; ACB was an official sponsor, and if that's not an endorsement, then I don't know what is in terms of endorsing a specific accrediting body."
Fourth speech: Several participants in a row mentioned some aspect of the following: They only knew NFB opposed NAC and didn't know why and didn't know if the NFB opposed accreditation generally or had more specific criticisms. One participant stated that, if the criticisms were specific, then NFB should be at the summit table as a player instead of outside picketing. Augusto responded to several contributors at once by saying: "What part of the sentence `NAC needs to go out of business' don't you understand? Because they've been saying that essentially consistently for ten, fifteen years now. Back in the early days, in 1971, it was `reform or dissolve.' That was their battle cry, or words to that effect. In the last ten, fifteen years they have said consistently--I don't think they have said anything different, Steve and Steve--that first of all `NAC needs to go away.' Yes, you could start a dialogue, but I'm wondering what you're hoping to hear from them that they haven't said very firmly in the last ten or fifteen years."
At the very end of the summit, Augusto attempted to raise with participants the growing trend against specialized standards as more and more entities subject to accreditation demand a single source for their accreditation. Several other summiteers casually dismissed this point as essentially showing that Augusto didn't know what he was talking about. Actually Augusto is right, and specialized accreditations for specialized services are coming under growing disfavor by entities seeking accreditations. These entities seek to satisfy, not every possible accreditor, but the fewest number possible to preserve funding and licensure.
ACB Represented Representatively
Charles Crawford of the American Council of the Blind was a meeting participant of a very different type. Again, in his own words as transcribed from meeting tapes, here are Crawford's three major contributions to the NAC summit. As mentioned previously, they also represent fairly the style Crawford has adopted in his capacity as ACB executive director--confrontational, abusive to those he dislikes, confusingly convoluted, and earthy.
First speech: "In determining the relevancy of NAC to the blindness system, there is a foundation that needs to be laid before you can answer that question. And I think that the foundation is: Are services to blind people important, do they make a difference in the life of blind people? If so, then something has to mediate those services to ensure that the level of services is appropriate to the needs of blind people. How you mediate those services is a multifaceted question because on the one part of it there is the consumer opinion, to be sure, and that is, you know, what do blind people think of the services they are getting? Are they meeting the need? Are they contemporaneous with what the experience for a blind person is, and do people want them? That's one level of questioning.
"If the answers are yes to all of those, then there has to be some consequences to that, which is that the services are valuable. If the services are valuable, then there needs to be the ability to protect and enhance and move those services along so that the maximum amount of blind people can benefit from them, if we are all agreed on the original foundation.
"If that's going to happen, there have to be mechanisms in place to make that happen, and NAC is one of those mechanisms to ensure that there is some reasonable expectancy of some level of quality and assurance that a person is going to get decent services if they cross state lines into a new jurisdiction. So from that perspective I don't think there is any question that NAC, or some entity doing more or less the same thing, is relevant and necessary. I do challenge, on the other hand--with all due respect to my fellow consumers in the National Federation of the Blind . . . but I'll be damned if I'm going to expect any organization to hold itself hostage to the interests of any one particular organization. Dialogue is dialogue and requires two parties or more to the discussion. It requires some level of good faith on all sides to respect the other side and come to common agreement. I don't for one minute expect that any organization--ACB or anybody else--should ever claim to have the exclusive right to truth and therefore hold the process hostage to their interests."
Second speech: Speaking shortly after Carl Augusto's second speech, Crawford had this to say:
"I disagree with Carl to some extent, and the extent of that disagreement is about--let me bastardize a phrase and say that opportunity abhors a vacuum. If NAC were to go away, the reasons for its existence would not, and what comes in its place may be a worse problem than what's left. Speaking from ACB's point of view, Paul [Edwards] is right that we have not endorsed NAC, but it's clear from our resolutions and history that we endorse having a level of assurance of quality in the preparation of professionals and the operations of agencies and even accreditation, so that, if we are then faced with an answer that says, well all right, we'll have a sort of pragmatic, tacit standard operating wherein (no offense, NFB) dog guides don't get allowed into these centers, or, if they do, they stay in the room all day, or people are forced to use sleep shades, or people are not allowed to use low-vision devices or people are told that the long white cane is the only solution for their life, and from my point of view that's not a standard. (It may be a standard, but it's certainly not acceptable to a large number of consumers inside and outside of ACB.)
"So we're not about to sit here and say, 'Well, okay, we'll endorse; just let the chips fall where they may.' What we are prepared to do is to acknowledge the good work of people around this table. You run agencies, and those agencies provide services to people who benefit from those services. So from our perspective, yeah, it's fine to come up with another model, but it's gotta be a model where everybody around the table gets a legitimate recognition of what their interests are, and ultimately the standards reflect that consensus, and we will not participate in an operation to simply drive the knife into the heart of the reasons why NAC was created."
Third speech: "I'm going to say this as gently as I can. First of all, I view what's going on outside as a legitimate exercise of an organization's point of view. It's also simultaneously a temper tantrum because they didn't get their way with regard to what this organization ought or ought not to do. I think we ought to be clear about that. In ACB we thought pedestrian safety was important. Some folks in Baltimore didn't. So what? We thought that descriptive video was important. Some folks in Baltimore didn't. So what? Point is that somebody can be a player, but, to be a player, you gotta have some good-faith involvement in the process. It's not 'my way or the highway.'
"From my perspective, if you guys were suddenly to decide, well, we've got to make sure these folks are happy and can come in and talk to us, and, golly, we need to be open about this--screw that! You've done more than enough in terms of inviting participation of that group, and, if the organization doesn't have the intestinal fortitude to simply say at some point: You got to fish or cut bait; either standards are worth it or they're not, then I'm not sure we want to be a player."
The New President Speaks
NAC elected a new president, whose service began following this meeting. Lee Robinson is superintendent of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind, an institution much in the news recently in Utah because of parental allegations of physical and sexual assault on the institution's students. We have come to expect such incidents at NAC-accredited schools, just as we expect NAC's pretense that nothing is amiss when they occur. Robinson spoke up when the topic of support from the field of work with the blind arose, wading into the discussion two separate times with his own unique contribution and style. It is not clear whether Robinson, in his second speech, is plowing new ground in political science, sociology, or mathematics, perhaps all three. Here are his exact words:
First speech: "The demand [for accreditation] is also a function of time that's past. When we first started looking at changing our direction and investigating what might be possible, what became patently clear was that there were a lot of people in the field who didn't even know NAC existed. This was both true in both the education field as well as the rehabilitation field. My surmise is that that has a great deal to do with the current rapid turnover in the field, a whole new crop of people who are now performing these services, and in this day and age that happens very frequently and very often for economic and other kinds of reasons.
"Even if people at one time left NAC for their reasons, at this point in time I don't think that they even know what NAC is, what NAC has. They don't know the history, so I guess what I'm saying with all that is, when you say there is no demand or that it can't happen, I think first of all NAC has to be told that story. The second point that I would disagree with is, if you shut down this organization, how long will it take to gain, reestablish, construct all the things you want to do, and in the meantime several years, which I believe are terrifically important to a lot of folks, would be lost with no standards that anyone could look to. So time loss, and the fact that people just simply don't know all the things that I think many of us around the table are presupposing that they know about NAC just doesn't exist."
Various other participants at various times confirmed their agreement with Robinson that NAC's virtual invisibility in the field is a mere result of people not knowing about NAC. No one but Carl Augusto seemed to understand that people know enough about NAC and don't want any more. The "if we just educate, we'll survive" concept was repeated by numerous subsequent speakers.
Second speech (beginning his comments regarding the seeking of grant funding): "The thing that will kill a proposal, wherever it goes, is if you submit the proposal, and they specifically call somebody, or someone who they know on a personal level says, `I never heard of NAC,' or says `Uh, I don't know.' . . . There needs to be that sustained and supportive mass of agreement or support for where you want to go. I realize, and I agree with Carl [Augusto], that this is a critical piece of making a real outstanding success, and, as I mentioned earlier, what I part with him on is, I don't, I don't think other people know what NAC stands for. I think that support has to be garnered from people of the level of the people sitting around this table, and that's one of the reasons for calling this group together, I think. We need to not just listen to the Sterling report; we need to hear from folks like you [addressing other summit participants]. It's just critical.
"Well, put it from another perspective: in my state there have been times when one organization has gone looking for funds. And when they had the support of the rest, it was a given; when you have divisiveness amongst your own group, that's a problem. We all [unintelligible] have acknowledged that problem here today. There has to come a time when you can say, `We have 80 percent, 90 percent, 99 percent of the field behind this effort.' And if you can't get into those very high percentages, then, yeah, it's going to be a real tough pull."
Another summit participant interrupts to ask: "Do we have that--forty-five out of four hundred?" Robinson responds: "But that's not my point. Those are the ones who have taken the bullet and accredited; what about the people who don't know about NAC? What about the people who really believe in standards but just haven't had the gumption to come forth and support it? I think, if you took those numbers together, then, yes, we have it. I think the Sterling report said that; I think this group has said that."
In other words, Robinson asserts that, if you take the people who now support NAC, the people who don't know anything about NAC, and the people who don't care enough to know anything, then they all have some relation to NAC, and they can all be counted as supporting NAC, resulting in the conclusion that the entire field supports NAC. One's first reaction is to suppress incredulous laughter since the comment was meant sincerely. One's second reaction is to stand in bewildered awe before someone who builds his argument on the two classes of people, those who don't know and those who don't care. One's third and final reaction is to wonder just who thought of proposing a man for president of a frail and fragile organization who utters and believes such rank nonsense.
Perhaps the Federation should merely nod sagely and rejoice at this unexpected gift from the gods. Two things are certain: one is that Robinson is the only person who can actually believe that those who don't know and those who don't care can be counted as supporters. The other thing is that a very great many people in the field of work with the blind do indeed know and do care and oppose NAC.
A few minutes later, the summit falls to discussing whether consumer organizations should formally be invited to join NAC's board. No resolution is reached, but Robinson speaks up to state: "Organized consumer groups represent less than ten per cent of the population." He goes on to note that NAC already has blind people designated as consumers on its board.
Paul Edwards responds: "I think we have to be careful about discounting consumer organizations by saying they only represent 10 percent. Whether that's true or not (it may well be) I think there is an argument that can be made, and a fairly strong argument, that by default those organizations that have taken the time and trouble to work effectively with their members to develop consensus about what things should happen by default ought to be perceived to a much larger degree than one might think as speaking for the masses of individuals who are blind and visually impaired. Granted, there are loads of differences among blind folks, but I think we have to be careful about categorically arguing that we need to reach out for that 90 percent, because it isn't reachable."
While this is a bit convoluted, Edwards clearly has grasped the heart of the argument rooted in experience--the fact that people who don't join choose not to be represented. Edwards could have added the entire history of representative democracy to support his position. But Edwards is not the one who is going to sit in the president's chair; Robinson is. And to stretch credulity even further, because he has restricted vision, he will sit there as, according to NAC's peculiar description of its board members, "a consumer."
Robinson's argument that the organized blind don't represent the unorganized blind is the oldest dodge in the book, allowing agency heads such as him to appoint themselves as the leaders of the unorganized blind and convince themselves that they are standing up for the unrepresented. It's also partly the reason why NAC got itself where it is today, by ignoring the result of thoughtful debate among thoughtful blind people who have chosen to step forward and join organizations of the blind.
The Outgoing President Shares
Steve Obremski served as president of NAC during the summit and the public membership meeting. At the end of the summit he explained that he was going off the board and made several jocular references to his board and staff being glad he was, implying that his work with NAC had been time-consuming. He jokingly assured NAC members that he would be available to help but that they would have to ask his board before calling him. As his sort of valedictory speech, Obremski offered summit participants his own unique analogy between the history of the United States and the history of NAC in these words:
"If we look at the history of our nation and democracy, at one time we enslaved people because of their color; at one time we attempted genocide on Native Americans. That's our history, and we overcame that history, and we have a much greater democracy now, and we've come a long way, and I feel that, even though NAC has a history that some folks think is the end-all and we should go away because of that, I feel that NAC can change and look at the needs of our service system and adapt to that and, in doing so, we are going to help insure the continuation of specialized services for people who are blind and visually impaired."
Obremski's tone indicates that these are phrases with deep meaning to him. The blind of America can certainly agree that the phrases have deep meaning. Applying the analogy strictly, Obremski as good as says that NAC's history is as rife with offenses against humanity as U.S. history is rife with slavery and mistreatment of Native Americans. The Federation's criticism of NAC has always featured anger at NAC's endorsement of sub-minimum wages, its looking the other way when police investigate financial or sexual abuses at an accredited agency, and its accreditation of agencies whose treatment of blind clients is reprehensible.
Federationists can well embrace the historical half of Obremski's analogy. We can wonder whether he really meant it even though he said it. Federationists can also reject the prediction of growth and reformation by using Obremski's own analogy. U.S. history includes a civil war and a widening understanding of inclusion as steps to the growth of our democracy. NAC's history includes only its long slide into insignificance and the summit at which NAC's value was assumed by all except Carl Augusto. Inclusion, as always with NAC, was not on the agenda.
Other Contributors: A Sampler
Former American Council of the Blind President Paul Edwards, somewhat puzzlingly, accepted election to NAC's board of directors. Here is some of what Edwards had to say: "There has been a history recently of cooperation, but it is accurate to say that at one point during the history of NAC certainly there was acrimony on both sides, and I don't think there was any shortage of name-calling during the height of NAC-tracking in the late seventies and early eighties. I make that point to say that one of the pieces of baggage that NAC carries, unfortunately, is its history. It's a long history that I think is perhaps its largest disadvantage because it doesn't really matter how good NAC is. It doesn't really matter how capable they are or how good the product they have to sell is. As an organization they are perceived by a pretty substantial proportion of the consumers--and I need to say a pretty substantial proportion of both consumer organizations--as bankrupt. . . .
"Initially it was the feeling that NAC, at one point in its history, was accrediting agencies--left, right, and center--without very much effort to assure that services that they were providing were very good. That's certainly the claim that was made. I am not here to argue whether that was ever true or whether it was ever not. Well, in fact I would argue that it was never so true as it was made out to be, but that is still the perception that persists among a pretty substantial number of consumers. The American Council of the Blind has never passed a resolution in support of NAC."
Near the end of the summit, Edwards commented that any revival of NAC was very dependent on having funds to perform desired goals. He then asked what the likelihood of funding for the requested grants might be and asked if a schedule existed to evaluate at some specified time whether the NAC revival plan was working. The NAC executive director offered platitudes about hoping for funding and then stated categorically that there is no bench mark planned for evaluation of whether the plan is working.
One summit participant described himself as currently being on a "rock tour right now going to all the optometric schools to work on these doctors to have more compassion, sensitivity, and awareness to the plight of the visually impaired and blind." No one chose to point out during the meeting how condescending and patronizing this comment was. Perhaps no one in the meeting thought there was anything wrong with the remark.
In discussing specialized accreditation, another participant commented: "I don't want to go to a dental hygienist who was a patient the day before. I have a friend who owns a gas station. He has to meet standards. If pumping gas requires standards, why should a person who has lost or is born without vision not expect some minimal level of services, whether they live in Florida, New Jersey, or California?" It is not clear but obviously possible that the dental hygienist remark was meant to reject the notion of blind people teaching travel. More broadly, it's not clear at all what either of these examples has to do with the existence of an organization others have already described as bankrupt and incapable of performing its mission.
Yet another participant could not resist blaming the whole NAC-NFB disagreement on Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, former president of the NFB, who died in 1998. He said: "It's been my perception that this division with NFB goes back to a battle of wills years ago. Those personalities are gone. It really irritates me that after this many years it, at least from my point of view, is what has kept this going. It's history. We have said that there is a need for specialized services. Steve and I talked on the phone, and I said, `You know, there's gotta be a way to bury the hatchet or at least to shame the people that are refusing to bury the hatchet into doing it.'"
This is the common variant of the Charlie Crawford main theme. Crawford holds that the entire Federation is run by two or three people, thus declaring the rest of the membership to be brainwashed puppets. This variant is that Jernigan did it: same lie, different words.
One summit participant suggested that the thing he had learned about the field was that there were "a lot of skunks" out there. This statement was greeted by laughter from fellow summiteers. He then told his colleagues that what the clients he serves want is "hope supported by science." Since the participant was speaking to and about NAC and had just accepted election to NAC's board for the first time, the implication is that NAC provides that hope and harnesses the science to do the supporting. Those of us long familiar with NAC can be sure of two things: NAC is commonly found where the least hope for real opportunity for the blind is present, and NAC is the antithesis of science, having operated for years and continuing to operate as a network of buddies playing "let's pretend" in accreditation garb. The sad thing is that this participant, a fairly new addition to the blindness field with no background in its issues, clearly means well, wants to do a good job, and is being misled by NAC into believing its propaganda.
If he meant something else, it isn't clear what, and it's particularly not clear what NAC has to do with hope supported by science. I guess Federationists will have to wait to have this comment elucidated.
Regrettably, several times during the summit President Obremski stopped discussion by fellow summiteers of topics he viewed as unpleasant. Such behavior, unchecked and uncorrected by other summiteers, doubtless spoke volumes to those few in the room who might have wished to discuss difficult topics. One effort to stop discussion has already been described in the case of Carl Augusto. Here's another example:
One summiteer tried to raise the question of the Sterling report, which in coded language identified the lack of support by the National Federation of the Blind as NAC's key problem. Referring to the slide of agencies away from NAC, he described NAC as "half-dead" and then said: "I don't think we are the ones who can answer that question [to be or not to be]. I'm not sure we will survive just by willing ourselves to be. My sense is that a lot of the reason that we're half dead right now is that we've had some folk who have trained their guns on us for many years because they think we're irrelevant and maybe even dangerous. Many of these folks are out here on Westshore Avenue right now, and the shame of it is that the kind of thing you just heard Steve Obremski say, which was eloquent, will not make it to the Tampa paper tomorrow or onto the 6 o'clock news. Likely those yellow and green signs will be on tonight's news and in tomorrow's paper."
The speaker then hypothesizes a newspaper interview in which President Obremski gives his eloquent statement about NAC, after which the reporter naturally asks Obremski the "next question: Have you talked to the folks who are picketing? Have you invited them to your meeting? And Steve will have to say `no' to both, I think." At this point, the speaker is interrupted by President Obremski, who says distinctly and firmly: "Not true." The speaker pauses and then says: "I'm going out on a limb here, and I'm saying some things that may be unpopular, so let me finish." Obremski says, again very firmly: "You're getting near the end." The speaker pauses again, and someone explains that Obremski meant the "end of the limb." But the speaker chooses not to continue. Obremski and then the facilitator attempt to get the speaker to continue, but he remains silent. Eventually someone else takes the floor on a completely different topic; so concludes the thought patrol incident.
It is regrettable that this speaker was argued with and interrupted, one of very few instances of participants interrupting one another. To other participants in the room, the meaning had to be bitingly clear: going too far into the issue of relations with the Federation will result in interruption and argument as no other topic will. Other participants heeded the warning and avoided the thought patrol. Except for Carl Augusto. And he was simply ignored wholesale once he had his say.
The effort to avoid truly difficult subjects continued the next day as a summiteer, also attending the membership meeting, attempted to raise the idea of dialogue with NFB for discussion. President Obremski briskly announced that the membership meeting was out of time and moved to the ceremony of recognizing retiring board members.
NAC's Current State
While the summiteers assured each other of NAC's importance, the membership meeting the next day received a few bits of data more grounded in reality. Prior to the meeting NAC was generally assumed to have forty-five accredited agencies, but the disassociation of three agencies was announced at the membership meeting, bringing the total to forty-two. Each of the three, NAC explained, had not paid its dues and had had its accreditation extended in the hopes that the agency would pay up and stay in. All three have now made it clear that they are not paying and not staying. They are the Alphapointe Association for the Blind of Kansas City, the Elizabeth Olmstead Center for the Visually Impaired in Buffalo, and the Susquehanna Association for the Blind and Vision Impaired in Pennsylvania.
To balance these three losses, NAC has a new agency in Akron, Ohio, for which the executive director, a man with no background in service to blind people, served as half the on-site review team, along with NAC's previous executive director. Unsurprisingly, the agency has been accredited. The agency was described by the executive director as a for-profit agency whose job is to get blind people jobs. He stated that he was impressed at the extent to which the agency will go to get a person a job. For example, he said, a woman living in a nursing home who is blind and paralyzed needed a job. The new accreditee got the nursing home to hire the woman for twelve hours a week making up menus. While it is certain that the woman's income has been improved by this activity, one can hardly take delight in an agency that sees part-time work as its goal. In fact, this is the criticism many in the blindness field have of existing agencies and particularly of one-stop shopping as the new trend: any job, any minimum-wage job; any part-time, minimum-wage job is good enough for a blind person and can be claimed as successful service. More and more people in the blindness field are rejecting this demeaning and ineffective approach to rehabilitation, but apparently not NAC. Of course, from NAC's point of view, this is one more agency to count.
NAC also suffered a reduction of its endowment of $70,000 and an operating loss of $49,251 in its most recent fiscal year, ending June 30, 2002, and reported assets at that time of $113,000.
The membership meeting also saw some discussion which began very gingerly to lift the cloth from over NAC's secrecy. The Federation has for years asserted that NAC accreditation consists largely of three items: willingness to associate with NAC, willingness to pay NAC dues, and the mere formality of an on-site team visit. Discussion erupted during the membership meeting which further verifies the characterization of NAC as interested only in willing dues-payers.
First, the mention of agencies that had not paid dues being extended in hopes of persuading them to pay and stay verifies what Federationists have long suspected. We have heard anecdotal reports of such extensions and have even heard from individual agencies that, after several years of not paying dues, the agency still had to write a letter formally requesting that its name be removed from the list of accredited agencies. So much for the value of the list of accredited agencies.
Federationists have also long suspected that, once accreditation occurs, nothing in the way of monitoring or review occurs until the arrival of the next on-site team. This allegation was verified in two interesting ways: first, a member of the Commission on Accreditation since 1997 objected to the new executive director's revision of paperwork for accredited agency annual reporting. A fierce supporter of NAC, he nonetheless described in exhaustive detail his unease with the system he has helped to administer for the past five years and which the new reporting form merely tinkered with. This board member said that he served on an on-site team and should have received the annual reports from the agency being reviewed for reaccreditation. Only one report was produced, and it said merely "nothing to report" in every blank. Someone asked if he meant that there were no reports for the other four years, and he said that he didn't know, that only one was produced.
He then went on to say that in his five years on the Commission on Accreditation, Commission members would get ten or so annual agency reports per meeting and would devote a minute or two to each agency. He referred to the annual progress reports as "no-action" reports and suggested that they should instead chart annual progress on on-site team recommendations as well as progress on other agency goals. His description confirms what Federationists have long suspected: once accredited, the agency can ignore NAC for the period of the accreditation.
The board member asked that the streamlining planned by the new executive director be delayed so the annual reporting function can be beefed up instead of merely carried forward, that the agencies' annual reporting be more thorough, and that NAC dedicate more time to the annual reports. And this from a guy who supports NAC. One can only shake one's head and say yet again that the Federation's allegation of empty accreditation has been correct all along.
That was the first revelatory point of disagreement. The second broke out over a proposal to require accredited agencies to report immediately "significant and unusual events," namely "investigations, litigation, catastrophe, unexpected death, serious injury, or threat." Some felt that suggestion was onerous, should only be reported annually, or was far too broad because it picked away at the whole concept of confidence in the agency that has been accredited. Others felt that accredited agencies should have to report such events to their accreditor and that this was the only way to assure continued quality and knowledge on the part of the accreditor. The difference of opinion petered out, and nothing was resolved.
This has been another long-standing criticism by the Federation: accredited agencies get in trouble with the police, the courts, or child protective services; and their accreditation is unaffected to the extent that NAC often does not even know of the events. The discussion of this point suggests why: once accreditation is granted, at least some at NAC believe it is a static and unchangeable state for the period of accreditation, regardless of events in the real world. Again one shakes one's head and asks why any agency would want accreditation from such an entity.
As followers of recent events in the ongoing NFB-NAC arena would expect, this topic brought forth a comment from NAC's new president, Lee Robinson. Monitor readers will recall the September 10, 2001, meeting between three NAC and three NFB officials, reported in the May 2002 issue. Robinson was a member of NAC's team, and Federationists raised with the other two NAC officials (NAC's president and executive director) the fact that the Utah school had recently been reviewed for reaccreditation and the additional fact that a number of articles had recently appeared in the Utah papers reporting allegations involving the Utah school's inappropriate handling of students. As reported by the Monitor, both the NAC president and executive director indicated at the time that they had no knowledge of the allegations.
During the membership meeting's discussion of proposed mandatory reporting of such events by accredited agencies, Robinson asserted that the on-site team reviewing NAC for reaccreditation was aware of the allegations--which is hardly surprising since they were repeatedly splashed across the state's newspapers--and that he had also called NAC headquarters to ask what to do. (One wonders what the "what" was; was he really asking what to do, or asking merely how to get reaccredited?)
The question still remains: How could NAC's president and executive director indicate on September 10, 2001 (shortly after the school's on-site team visited the school) that they were unaware of the allegations--regardless of what they or Robinson have said since? While it is likely that some member of the on-site review team or some staffer at headquarters did hear about the allegations, that was never the Federation's point. The Federation's point has always been that agencies, once accredited by NAC, aren't scrutinized further until the next round of reaccreditation.
One would think that an agency providing accreditation to a school accused of harming or endangering children would undertake additional scrutiny, additional paperwork documenting that NAC representatives believed the allegations to be unfounded, and additional monitoring to assure that safeguards asserted to be in place were in fact present and effective. Instead of this additional paperwork, monitoring, and therefore cognizance by NAC as a whole, we find NAC officials, including its new president, quibbling about who told whom what and when, in order to bolster the position that the accreditor knew about the allegations, when its two top officials patently did not. The Federation isn't interested in the question of who told whom and when; it is interested in the broader issue of whether NAC's standards mean something when applied.
Then, as a continuing matter, the whole debate whether reporting should be mandatory ought to be embarrassing; of course it should be mandatory, but NAC doesn't see it that way. The whole discussion of who knew about Utah at what point should be seen in the same light--not a factual question to be answered but a topic representative of the problem: no routine reporting, no reliable monitoring, no accountability to the standards NAC claims to hold so dear. Robinson's very quibble proves the point that the system wasn't holding him accountable.
One final note on the issue of reporting and monitoring: this discussion demonstrates that NAC adherents are not in agreement on the need for or the frequency and depth of proposed reporting and monitoring. Even clearer is that the Federation's raising of the issue at the September 10 meeting brought the whole issue to a head and caused the discussion which, in turn, revealed NAC's current lack of commitment to reporting and monitoring. If the Federation had not raised the Utah issue in a sensitive context, it is unlikely that NAC would have discussed the issue at all.
This discussion led to one more interesting point. Various summiteers alluded to the lack of training of on-site team members and the need to establish it. From the discussion it is apparent that NAC has never trained on-site reviewers, assuming that people chosen to conduct reviews know what is needed. Once again Federationists find the topic familiar since we have believed for years that on-site reviewers are chosen primarily for their willingness to accredit a fellow agency willing to accept accreditation.
The gentleman who brought up the topic is classified as a public member of the NAC board, apparently meaning that his expertise lies outside the blindness field. He served on the Commission on Accreditation for five years before being tapped for an on-site team for a hometown agency he already believed was wonderful. Again unsurprisingly the agency was reaccredited, but one is forced to wonder how NAC can pretend to accredit anything when it admittedly has no standards and has no training for its on-site teams. The answer from NAC adherents seems to be that they're now asking for grant money to establish such training--thirty-five years and countless accreditations after NAC's founding.
The same discussion also revealed that the list of on-site reviewers had recently dwindled to a mere twenty, once again reinforcing the Federation's criticism that only those willing to accredit are tapped for teams and underscoring our contention that interest in NAC accreditation is virtually nonexistent.
Another subject that recurred several times during the summit is NAC's lack of follow-up. Not only were the annual reports not required or heeded; agencies that wished follow-up on individual pieces of advice or recommendations from on-site teams couldn't get it, and the team members who made such recommendations made no effort to follow up themselves, according to several participants who head NAC agencies.
NAC's Future, According to NAC
NAC's future, according to the summiteers, is rosy. However, listening more carefully to the discussion, one must conclude that the future seems more filled with thorns. During the summit and especially the next day, summiteers congratulated each other on their collective openness and willingness to discuss difficult issues. They assured each other that this amounted to an affirmation of NAC's continued health and survival. Warning notes kept sounding, but the self-congratulatory statements continued to pour out, apparently in an attempt to drown out the warnings.
For example, one NAC board member, retiring from the board after twelve years, told the Saturday membership meeting that the discussion during the summit had been "good, professional, and surface." She added that, without abandoning the professionalism (used by participants as the highest praise and apparently standing for not bringing up anything unpleasant), NAC needed to get well below the surface if it was going to thrive. This summiteer's assessment of the depth and value of the discussion was scorchingly accurate; yet she sat through the summit and made no effort to brave the thought patrol and force deeper discussion in her waning hours as a board member.
The NAC summit began with a review by officials of the Sterling report, a survey commissioned by NAC two years ago to determine whether there was a need for NAC. In the view of NAC officials, the Sterling report validated all their beliefs, registering widespread opinion in the field of work with the blind that standards are good and that there is a need for quality. One hardly needed a report to discern that much.
But the Sterling report went on to record the view of the field that NAC's continued value is tied to its forming partnerships with what were termed by Sterling "national organizations and consumer organizations." With the exception of Carl Augusto and a brief statement by an official of the Association for Education and Rehabilitaion of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER), the consumer-organization topic then dropped off the table. Everyone knows that the Sterling report coded phrase "consumer organizations" meant getting the support of the National Federation of the Blind. Whether summiteers did not wish to do so or couldn't figure out how that could be managed is unclear; that they barely paid attention to the point is indisputable.
Twenty minutes before the summit ended, an AER official asked the group to consider "institutionalizing" the participation of consumer organizations in NAC's governance. This led to a confused discussion involving questions about whether the NAC bylaws would have to be changed; questions from participants about what a consumer group was and a long list of answers; and assertions that NAC's bylaws currently require equal representation from accredited agencies, public members, and consumers. This means that five consumers are currently on the board, suggesting apparently that there is no need for change. This discussion petered out as the summit ended.
NAC's executive director presented a plan to the summit and the membership essentially involving lots of grant applications. His outline of things NAC needs to do was prefaced and elucidated by statements that steps would be taken as funds were made available. These steps included updating and adding to the NAC standards, which everyone seemed to agree were outdated; streamlining office procedures (which led to the discussion about annual reports mentioned earlier); training on-site reviewers (which led to another discussion already reported); and developing databases.
From the emphasis placed by the executive director on the word "databases" every time he uttered it, a listener is led to conclude that "databases" is the executive director's mantra and cure-all rolled into one. Once NAC has them, all will be fine. He referred several times to the half-million dollars, largely from AFB, used to start NAC and suggested that a like amount would be needed again. He and others thought it unlikely that the whole amount would be quickly and readily available. They commented that improvements would be made in chunks as the necessary funds were acquired.
Another part of NAC's rosy future is relations with other accrediting organizations, apparently the NAC interpretation of the Sterling report's mandate to partner with national organizations. NAC had invited a national health care and a national rehabilitation accreditation organization to attend the summit. The health care organization declined; the rehab organization considered sending its national president but, when it learned of the NFB protest, switched to a board member living nearby, who was then classified by his own organization as only an observer.
Despite these disappointments, the executive director outlined elaborate plans, more in the nature of hopes, to partner with both organizations for joint accreditation. In addition, one regional accreditor of colleges and schools has agreed to some sort of joint project with NAC, though the descriptions of this partnership were hazy. As summiteers dabbled in discussing a partnership not well defined, one asked why such partnerships had not been formed years ago. A long time NAC official responded with a stellar description of the two kinds of accreditation. He explained that NAC's accreditation instrument was like taking a temperature, ascertaining class size and presence of certified teachers and the like, while the educational accrediting bodies use outcome-based measures. The two are so very different that it's very difficult to conduct both at once in a single review of a school, according to the NAC official. Federationists could hardly agree more except to add that the value of measuring objective "temperatures," which can be done purely from documents, has long been abandoned by educators but not by NAC.
A small discussion on this topic erupted for a moment, focusing a piercing light on the differences NAC has with other accrediting bodies of today. Some summiteers wanted to consider outcome-based accreditation, referring to it as a need to avoid locking an agency into a specific methodology and wishing to emphasize goal-setting with clients and achieving those goals instead as the key factor in agency performance. Others clung to the temperature model, commenting that outcome-based standards would allow an agency to hire someone without a university education who simply uses a cane well to teach cane travel--obviously a bad thing from the speaker's point of view. Several summiteers referred to outcome-based standards as bringing about deprofessionalization--also a bad thing from their point of view.
One participant described outcome-driven standards in this way: "One need only look at the realm of community-based services to see in many states, when we look at having something done or an outcome, that the level of professionalization tends to deteriorate--there's a lot of pressure in human services to dumb things down; we have great personnel shortages in our field, and there's great pressures on any agency administrator not to have really highly qualified people. I think that, in designing standards, what we need to recognize is that there are multiple paths to the same outcome, but I do think that there's got to be some sense that people have specific qualifications. Do we need to be rigid about which certification someone has? I don't know. I mean, that's something that has to be discussed, but I do think that we have to have some sense at least that people have specialized qualifications, or we don't need accreditation."
Most of the blindness field has actually come to this same conclusion: There are many paths to good results; the good results are the key, not the paths; since there are many paths, no accreditation involving qualifications is needed. This does not mean the field has abandoned good results; in fact, they're more prevalent as NAC declines. The reason is agency focus on results and listening to consumers rather than obsession with paper degrees.
Interestingly enough, NAC's long-held desire to have state and federal funds conditioned on NAC accreditation came up once, early on, and never again. It was one of the topics in the Sterling report, reviewed at the beginning of the summit, and thereafter it dropped from sight. Only entities that feel their services are essential and their position is strong can dream of such mandatory accreditation. NAC summiteers didn't.
An interesting undertone underlay the comments of a number of summiteers representing accredited agencies. They viewed their step forth to seek accreditation as symbolizing risk-taking and were proud of it. They view agencies who have not sought NAC accreditation as either too lazy to put in the time or too worried about low quality or public embarrassment to risk contacting NAC. This view is truly astonishing considering the fact that most outside the NAC world view NAC's standards as a combination of minimal and irrelevant standards which have often been used to shield low-quality or questionable behavior. No one at the NAC summit seemed to have the slightest notion that NAC's standards are anything but high and accreditation with NAC reserved only for the best. And this despite the immediate and ready agreement that the standards are outdated and need revision.
In fact, NAC has no commission on standards at all. It used to have one, but somewhere during the dark years in the wilderness of the last decade the commission on standards was formally disbanded and eliminated from NAC's corporate structure "for financial reasons," according to NAC's president. One of the areas of focus for NAC's future involves standards: NAC is seeking grant funding to revise existing standards, to add new areas of standards, and to resurrect the commission on standards in order to manage the revision and addition. It is interesting to note that summiteers believed simultaneously that the standards are outdated and incomplete; that NAC stands for quality standards; that the commission on standards should be resurrected; that training of on-site reviewers can await funding; that NAC on-site teams and NAC itself do not perform follow-up during the period of accreditation; and that NAC's mission is to improve the quality of service in the blindness field.
Outgoing President Obremski has often expressed his belief that NAC should be the leader in the blindness field and should be the self-appointed creator and enforcer of standards to achieve that goal. The field in general has long since rejected this view of NAC, and the summit did not change that rejection. It merely confirmed that devoted NAC adherents remain convinced that NAC should lead the field, though they are slightly puzzled that it hasn't happened. Summiteers seem to have missed the point clearly made by Augusto that mostly the large agencies in the blindness field weren't in the room. Objectively viewing the available annual budgets and staffs of the agencies that have chosen not to affiliate with NAC as compared with those who have, the observer could reasonably ask why this handful of the smaller agencies serving the blind would ever think that they are the field's leaders, the possessors of wisdom for the entire field, the self-appointed standard-setters. Of course, these have been the questions Federationists have always asked about NAC, but its present state, as Carl Augusto said, makes the Federation's questions starkly real. Yet none of the participants seemed interested in probing this question of leadership. Instead they were content to thump themselves on the chest and proclaim that they were now the leaders, yet again side-stepping the question posed by the field: "Just why do you think you're the leader when you have no followers?"
The best way to summarize NAC's minority view of itself is to quote a summit participant who spoke near the end of the membership meeting Saturday morning. He claimed to have first "tangled" with "Jernigan" in the 1970's but could not accurately name leading organizations in the field such as the National Federation of the Blind (the first word of which he replaced with "American") or the American Foundation for the Blind (which he described as "Carl's organization"). After a lengthy list of what he thought the faults of the National Federation of the Blind were, he concluded by saying: "We're not the kind of enemies where one is accusing the other of creating weapons of mass destruction; we're all looking for a better life for blind people. That's really what everybody wants to do."
After thirty-five years we are still at the same point with this gentleman and many of the other summiteers. Had the field of work with the blind followed NAC's prescriptions starting thirty-five years ago and continuing through the intervening years, work with the blind would be frozen in the model of service used in the 1960's, which blind people so vehemently rejected and have largely swept away. We rejected the role of the grateful client, the silent client, the client satisfied with anything certified professionals said we should receive. Instead, blind people have redefined what it means to be blind, what it means to be a client, and what it means to succeed as a blind person. In the process NAC was left back in the 1960's and hasn't noticed.
No, Mr. Summiteer, we do not all want the same thing. And, when NAC adherents finally realize that, we may have actually taken a long step forward in the field of work with the blind. It is NAC who is out of step and marching to the wrong tune and listening to a different drum. The rest of us, blind people and agency officials of good will, have calmly swept the NAC model of leadership by the all-wise standard-giver aside and have worked diligently to create real improvements for real blind people in agencies serving those blind people. If the NAC summit can end with summiteers affirming their belief that everybody is working for the same thing, NAC has missed the key developments in the field during the past thirty years, which means it truly does stand alone, and that's a darn good thing.
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