The Braille Monitor                                                                                                April 2005

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Joanne Wilson's Resignation

by Fredric K. Schroeder

Fred Schroeder
Fred Schroeder

From the Editor: Dr. Fred Schroeder is a past commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) and currently a research professor at San Diego State University. Periodically he writes brief policy analyses for his students. The following comment was written on the occasion of Joanne Wilson's resignation as RSA commissioner and has been slightly edited for publication here. This is what Dr. Schroeder says:

Issue: On Tuesday, February 8, 2005, RSA commissioner Joanne Wilson announced her resignation. What prompted her resignation and what does it mean for the future of the public rehabilitation program?

Response: Joanne Wilson's last day in office was Tuesday, March 1. During her tenure as commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), Dr. Wilson has shown herself to be an effective advocate for the public rehabilitation program and the people it serves. She brought to the position vision and leadership, qualities far too often absent in Washington. She believes that the strength of the vocational rehabilitation (VR) program lies in its ability to change lives one at a time. She knows this intellectually and personally. As a blind person herself she faced the fears and insecurities common to people growing up with disabilities. She knows what it is to live in a world that, however well intentioned, assumes you can do very little; she knows what it is to have a family that wants to protect you believing you cannot protect yourself; she knows what it is to face discrimination; and she knows what it is to have your confidence eroded, accepting what society believes about blindness and learning to believe it yourself.

In the world of Washington politics someone like Joanne Wilson stands out and is a threat. She stands out because she has never been afraid to speak her mind. She stands out because she is honest and has always been determined to do the right thing. She stands out because she has taken seriously her pledge to advocate for the people who count on her to defend the public VR program--not protect the status quo but defend the program while helping it grow. She is a threat because she cannot be controlled; she cannot be bought; she cannot be flattered or threatened into selling out herself or the people who count on her.

Shortly after taking office, she released a list of six principles, principles that lay out her beliefs and values about the capacity of people with disabilities and their right and ability to live full, integrated lives. While they are her principles, they are also our principles, principles that embody the hopes and dreams of people with disabilities. Here they are:

Joanne Wilson's list of principles is more than window-dressing. As RSA commissioner she translated her principles into action. She believes that the program should be a partnership between the professional and the consumer and that consumers are not the trade organizations, not the service providers, not the self-appointed spokespersons for the disabled, but people with disabilities themselves. She believes in consumerism. This is why she led the initiative to integrate mentoring into the work of the state VR program. Dr. Wilson has always understood the importance of people with disabilities knowing other people with disabilities, having their support, sharing a common life experience, and learning that the limitations of disability are largely the product of society's well intended yet stereotypic thinking and assumptions about disability. She believes in informed consumer choice and expects the system to believe in it and take it seriously too. She believes in consumer empowerment and funded initiatives to help consumers to become full and equal partners in the rehabilitation process. She believes in reaching out to all people with disabilities, meeting them where they are and not expecting them to fit into a predetermined, one-size-fits-all mold. She has remained true to the principles she articulated at the outset of her administration, and people with disabilities the nation over have benefited from her work. In short, she did what few accomplish; she brought to the job a human face and human values and an unbending sense of honesty and determination.

But my intent is not to catalogue her work and accomplishments; I simply want to highlight the way in which she remained true to herself and true to people with disabilities. She recognized that the life-changing aspect of our work needs to be nourished and strengthened and that this requires a true partnership between the rehabilitation system and people with disabilities.

So why did she resign? On Monday, February 7, 2005, the Department of Education unveiled its plan to close the RSA regional offices. The same day the Administration announced its intent to seek super waiver authority to allow the block granting of a number of employment-related programs, including VR. The next day Dr. Wilson resigned. I believe she thought these plans, if implemented, would mean the end of comprehensive employment services for people with disabilities throughout the nation, and as a person of conscience she would not--could not--be a part of any plan that would harm people with disabilities.

On March 1, 2005, we lost Joanne Wilson as RSA commissioner. On that day the Administration lost a capable leader; the RSA staff lost a valued colleague; and state rehabilitation agencies, independent living centers, and tribal VR programs lost a powerful ally within the Administration. While her departure closes an important chapter in her life, it does not mean the end of her advocacy, nor does it signal the end of her contribution to improving opportunities for blind people and others with disabilities. She will continue to work, continue to build, continue to inspire, and continue to tell the truth--both the good and the bad. She will continue to press the system to develop partnerships with consumer organizations and raise its expectations for each VR consumer. Joanne Wilson knows that partnering with consumer organizations and through that partnership, raising expectations and opportunities for individual consumers are what it takes to build and strengthen the rehabilitation program in America and secure its long-term stability. All of us in the rehabilitation community--service providers, community partners, advocates, and people with disabilities--owe Joanne Wilson our heartfelt gratitude and respect for her past efforts, her advocacy as RSA commissioner, and her many contributions yet to come.

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