The Braille Monitor                                                                                                  June 2005

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A Dark Day for Rehabilitation

by Fredric K. Schroeder

Fredric K. Schroeder, Ph.D.
Fredric K. Schroeder, Ph.D.

From the Editor: Dr. Fred Schroeder is a past commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration. His grasp of and perspective on the disturbing actions in the past several months of Department of Education officials are useful to have as we engage in the life-and-death struggle to preserve some form of effective rehabilitation services for blind and disabled Americans. In the following article, Dr. Schroeder describes and analyzes what has happened in recent months. This is what he says:

For many years the rehabilitation program has been the major source of employment-related training and job placement services for blind people and others with disabilities. With the help of state rehabilitation agencies blind people can receive comprehensive adjustment training and help in obtaining specific vocational or professional preparation. In addition the rehabilitation program is an important source of the specialized technology essential in more and more jobs today. But the fact that the program has been around for eighty-five years does not mean that it will be here forever. The threats today to the vocational rehabilitation program are significant and immediate.

For nearly two decades we have heard talk of consolidating employment-related training programs under a single system of job training services. The first serious attempt to consolidate employment training came in 1995 with a proposal to block grant vocational rehabilitation into a large employment training system to be administered primarily at the local level by boards dominated by employers. This proposal, HR 1617, known as the CAREERS (Consolidated and Reformed Education, Employment, and Rehabilitation Systems) Bill, would have eliminated the rehabilitation program as we know it and would have made it virtually impossible for blind people to obtain the comprehensive services needed to become employed and live normal, productive lives. Through the advocacy of state rehabilitation agency professionals and people with disabilities, but mostly through the advocacy of blind people organized through the National Federation of the Blind, the attempt to block grant vocational rehabilitation was defeated.

The major fallacy in HR 1617 was its assumption that the rehabilitation program is nothing more than a job-training program. Of course the rehabilitation program prepares blind people and others for employment, but the way it goes about doing so is substantially different from the way traditional job training programs in America work. Traditional job training programs such as JTPA (the Job Training Partnership Act) and its predecessor, CETA (the Comprehensive Employment Training Act), were founded on an assumption that the purpose of employment training-programs is to get people off welfare and other benefits as quickly and cheaply as possible. This means little investment in training and a great emphasis on fast, low-cost placements.

Following the theory that you get what you pay for, the outcomes were predictably poor. Quick, low-cost placements meant placement in low-wage, low-skilled jobs with few or no benefits and no prospect for upward mobility. Not surprisingly the history of traditional job training in America has been pretty dismal, helping neither the person in need of a job nor the taxpayer. Unlike other job-training programs, the rehabilitation program invests heavily in preparing people for a lifetime of employment. Nevertheless, the model of quick, cheap placements continues to drive employment policy in America.

Although the block grant proposal had been disposed of, its proponents were not. They continued to press for a consolidated system of employment-training programs. In 1998, when the Rehabilitation Act was last reauthorized, a compromise was struck. Rather than a block grant combining various employment programs under a single umbrella structure, a system of partner programs providing employment training and placement services was established. Under the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) vocational rehabilitation was linked with other job-training programs without compromising its distinct nature. However the press for consolidation is still with us.

When the Rehabilitation Act is reauthorized, it is typically for a five-year period, which means that the act was due for reauthorization again in 2003. As is often the case, the Congress was not able to reach agreement on needed changes to the act by the 2003 deadline. This did not present a problem since there is a mechanism for an automatic one-year extension if the act is not reauthorized in time. Everyone anticipated that the Congress would complete its work by the end of last year, but as with many other issues, with the presidential election looming, the process bogged down, and the Congress left the reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act unfinished at the end of its session. With a new session beginning this year, the reauthorization process had to begin anew. Early in January 2005 the House of Representatives introduced HR 27, its plan to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act, which includes the Rehabilitation Act. There were no great surprises in HR 27; it looked very much like the bill passed by the Congress in the previous session. Later in January the Senate introduced its reauthorization plan, S9 which looked very similar to the bill the Senate had been working on last year. While the House and Senate bills contained a mixture of good and bad provisions, they raised no new issues and posed no new challenges--that was until the Bush administration weighed in.

On Monday, February 7, 2005, the Bush administration unveiled its Job Training Reform proposal, its strategy for improving employment training in America. The plan seeks the ability to give governors waiver authority to consolidate as many as nine programs under a single state plan. The proposal, known as WIA Plus, combines four labor programs and gives the authority to consolidate an additional two Department of Labor programs and three Department of Education programs, including vocational rehabilitation, under a single state plan.

The proposal has been crafted in a politically attractive way. To sidestep criticism for cuts in funding in the major job-training programs over the last several years, the administration has developed a plan to offer governors increased flexibility in administering employment-training services in the states. At the same time, under WIA Plus states are not required to include Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) in the consolidated system; the authority is permissive. This lets the administration off the hook in that it does not mandate any consolidation; rather it provides the authority for greater state flexibility. To stave off complaints that flexibility may mean leaving some groups behind, the administration has included in its WIA Plus plan linking greater flexibility to greater state accountability. But what is this new increased accountability? The proposal identifies two accountability measures: a 100% placement goal within ten years and prohibition of drops in participant levels for targeted populations, including people with disabilities.

Unfortunately the proposed accountability measures are not accountability measures at all. There is no explanation of what constitutes compliance, nor is there any description of how compliance would be measured. In addition, the so-called accountability measures provide no explanation of what is meant by a "100% placement goal." Even if it were defined, the states have ten years to meet it with no indication of what would constitute progress toward meeting the goal or what would happen at the end of the ten-year period if the goal were not met. We do know that the VR program would cease to exist in any recognizable form long before the ten-year period had ended.

On the same day the administration unveiled its WIA Plus Job Training Reform proposal, it released its 2006 budget proposal for the Department of Education, including the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA). Contained in the budget is a plan to close the RSA regional offices and carry out all agency functions within the central office in Washington, DC. This means the elimination of as many as sixty-six positions from RSA, representing approximately half of the total 126 RSA workforce. But the department does not intend to wait for the budget to be passed. It has announced that the regional office closures will occur by October 1, 2005, the beginning of the new fiscal year.

Shortly before the formal release of the department's budget, a memorandum was released by the Department of Education announcing its plan to close regional offices. However, the communiqué was unclear about the effect of the closure on the performance of the functions presently carried out by the regional offices. The memorandum stated, in part: "We will be moving forward to implement a plan to consolidate the work of the RSA regional offices in headquarters in Washington, D.C. This is a great opportunity to strengthen and streamline monitoring, technical assistance, fiscal management, and program implementation for the vocational rehabilitation program."

While the memorandum states that monitoring and other functions will be consolidated into the central office, implying that the regional office functions and staff would be transferred to Washington, D.C., the plan is not a consolidation at all; it is a plan to decimate the RSA workforce, leaving it entirely incapable of carrying out any semblance of monitoring or technical assistance. This leads to the question of who or what is behind the plan to dismantle RSA and render it ineffective.

On Monday, April 18, at the spring conference of the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR), Acting Commissioner Troy Justesen stated that the idea of eliminating the RSA regional offices was his alone and was not initiated by the White House or the Office of Management and Budget. Later the same day Assistant Secretary Hager announced that the plan to close the regional offices came from the White House and not from within the Department of Education. On Wednesday of the same week Acting Deputy Commissioner Jennifer Sheehy tried to resolve these diametrically opposed statements by saying that Dr. Justesen "gets nervous" speaking before large groups and misspoke. She stated that Dr. Justesen meant to say that he is fully supportive of the plan.

Although the plan ultimately received the blessing of the administration, it is clear that the idea did not flow from the White House down. Dr. Troy Justesen, who now serves as the acting commissioner of RSA, served as the acting assistant secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) for the year prior to the appointment of Mr. John Hager last December. It is no secret that Dr. Justesen has been very critical of the RSA and in particular the regional offices for some time. A year ago he reported to have said that he asked five state VR directors who their regional commissioners were and, in every case, was told that the state VR director did not know. Such a statement by Dr. Justesen lacks serious credibility, except to the extent that it reflects his disdain toward RSA and in particular its regional offices.

Once the decision to close the regional offices had been made, the idea went forward without consultation, analysis, or planning. It was developed in secret with no input from the disability community, no input from the VR agency community, no input from the community of private rehabilitation providers, and no input from the department's own experts in disability employment policy. Finally, Commissioner Joanne Wilson was not consulted or even advised of the plan to close the RSA regional offices. Such an action shows unprecedented disrespect to the individual and the office (a presidential appointment with Senate confirmation). In other words, the one person in the department who had VR background and experience in rehabilitation was not consulted in the decision. Now Assistant Secretary Hager, who has no VR experience, Acting RSA Commissioner Justesen, also without VR experience, and the Acting Deputy Commissioner, Jennifer Sheehy, again, without VR background, are left to figure out how to make the system better and more effective with half the staff. The result has been an incoherent and contradictory series of statements from department officials that raise more questions than they answer.

At the April CSAVR spring conference Acting Commissioner Troy Justesen explained that the reason for closing the regional offices (reducing the RSA workforce by half) is to make the agency function better--more efficiently, providing more effective monitoring and technical assistance. At the same time Dr. Justesen announced plans for a summit to be held in August to develop a blueprint to guide the development of the agency's new monitoring design to replace the regional-office structure. It needs little comment to point out the impossibility of resolving these two statements--a decision was made to decimate the RSA staff to make its operations more efficient, and only later is the process established to decide what the new structure will be. According to this logic the administration believes that the way to strengthen a program is to cut it in half and figure out later how to perform the work. With this in mind, one wonders why the staff was not cut in half in the No Child Left Behind program, a top administration priority. Surely the department is as deeply committed to the No Child Left Behind initiative as it is to the employment program for people with disabilities in America. Why then not cut the No Child Left Behind program staff in half or, for that matter, all Department of Education program staff in half or, better yet, the staff of all programs throughout government?

Of course, the reason one program is cut and another not is the perceived relative value of each program. No Child Left Behind is a priority, and it appears that the employment of people with disabilities is not. In other words, no number of public proclamations, no blithe statements of optimism, no promises of better services can change the perception, which could better be regarded as fact, that the administration would not cut a program in half if it regarded it as important. This action, initiated by a poorly informed individual with his own grudge against the rehabilitation program and with the complicity of the Department of Education and ultimately the White House, shows little regard for the employment needs of blind people and others with disabilities.

The department's budget request does not decimate others of its programs. It does not even include the elimination of the department's regional offices, only the elimination of the RSA presence in the regional offices. Student Financial Aid, the Office for Civil Rights, and the Inspector General will all continue to operate through the department's ten regional offices. Only the RSA staff has been eliminated. Yet department officials want us to believe that RSA and disability employment services were not singled out for cuts.

On April 20, at the spring meeting of the National council of State Agencies for the Blind, Acting Deputy Commissioner Jennifer Sheehy stated that the closure of the RSA regional offices was simply part of a larger administration management initiative to streamline government. But of course there is no consistent plan to close regional offices throughout the federal government, as was pointed out by Brian Friel of the National Journal in an April 27 article entitled, "It's a Big Country." More to the point, the Department of Labor is not closing its regional offices, making it clear that the closure of the RSA regional offices is not simply part of an administration management agenda to centralize functions for the sake of greater efficiency.

But the contradictions do not stop there. In her remarks at the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind spring meeting, Acting Deputy Commissioner Sheehy stated that the eventual number of RSA staff is not known. She indicated that the department is conducting a workforce analysis of RSA, and the analysis will determine the number of staff needed to carry out the agency's essential functions. It seems incredible that we are asked to believe that a workforce analysis will drive the number of RSA staff and not an a priori decision. The president's FY 06 budget request clearly contains a reduction of sixty-six positions within OSERS; the department has announced the closure of the RSA regional offices; RSA staff have been told that they will be offered buyouts; and a summit has been scheduled to sort out how the agency will handle its monitoring responsibility with half its workforce; yet we are told that no decision about the number of RSA staff has been made.

We are left with these facts:

The plan to eliminate the RSA regional offices comes at a particularly bad time. There is a strong relationship between the Department of Education's plan to eliminate the RSA regional offices and the threat posed by WIA Plus. The Department of Education has made it clear that it has no idea how it can maintain its monitoring and technical assistance functions with the RSA workforce cut nearly in half but insists that the reorganization will lead to greater efficiency and more consistent policy interpretation. Of course the idea that serious monitoring can continue with a decimated workforce is implausible.

With virtually no protections for VR in the new WIA Plus waiver authority together with the loss of RSA's regional presence, one has little hope that any serious monitoring will occur. The inevitable losers will be blind people and others with disabilities. The WIA partner programs have a poor track record in achieving physical accessibility, let alone program accessibility. Given their lack of knowledge and experience (setting aside their far too frequently demonstrated lack of interest), it is nothing short of fanciful to believe that people with significant disabilities will continue to have access to comprehensive employment training and assistance under the WIA Plus plan.

The administration's plan to seek WIA Plus super waiver authority is being pursued aggressively. However, in Washington the future of any piece of legislation is less certain than anyone would have you believe. WIA Plus is not, by any means, a done deal, but it is a clear and immediate threat. Make no mistake, WIA Plus is a block grant plan. No claim that it will lead to greater efficiency, more integration, or the elimination of wasteful duplication can change the fact that its goal is consolidation of employment programs under a block grant structure. It has no serious policy objective. Its goal is budget reduction--reduced federal commitment in exchange for greater state flexibility. No evidence exists that the employment needs of people with disabilities were considered, much less taken seriously. WIA Plus offers nothing to blind people and others with disabilities other than the replacement of comprehensive services with quick, cheap, one-size-fits-all employment services. It is not a plus at all but a retreat from the administration's commitment to comprehensive rehabilitation services.

From the administration's perspective the plan to close the RSA regional offices is simply icing on the cake. It insures that nothing will impede the consolidation of rehabilitation into the larger workforce system. No one will be on hand to stop the misuse of funds, no one to insure compliance with the most basic program requirements, and no one to prevent blind people and others from being left behind or shut out completely from a take-it-or-leave-it system of job training.

At this point we do not know with certainty whether the regional offices will be closed; we do not know whether WIA Plus will become law; but we do know that, if either occurs, the future of the rehabilitation program will be bleak. Perhaps the saddest part of this very sad story was the resignation of Dr. Joanne Wilson as commissioner of RSA. Dr. Wilson was the one bright light in an otherwise dismal situation. Under her leadership the rehabilitation program was moving toward greater consumer empowerment, greater consumer choice, and greater emphasis on comprehensive services leading to high quality employment--not just a job but a lifetime of challenging, rewarding, integrated employment. Under her leadership the program had a clear mission of partnership with consumers--a partnership in which the program supported and encouraged blind people and others to achieve all that they could, according to their individual abilities and hard work.

The current administration has shown lack of interest in the employment needs of blind people and others with disabilities; it has shown a lack of interest in maintaining the oversight structure that helps sustain it; and it has shown a lack of respect for one of our nation's most effective advocates. Dr. Wilson was a leader, not a bureaucrat. She had lived the consumer experience and had devoted her entire personal and professional life to building programs that embodied the very best in rehabilitation--encouragement and high expectations. Her appointment as RSA commissioner was the administration's highpoint in disability employment policy, signaling a strong, serious commitment to employment services for blind people and others. Her resignation--a resignation arising out of frustration and disappointment in the system--represents the loss of any true leadership, any true direction for the rehabilitation program in America.

It is incumbent upon us to make the administration take us seriously. The plans to close the RSA regional offices and to combine the rehabilitation program with the general workforce system are not surprising. They reflect a lack of belief in the ability of blind people to work and contribute. We must continue to press the administration to halt its misguided WIA Plus plan for super waiver authority; we must press the administration to reverse its plan to close the RSA regional offices; and we must press the administration to seek out another true advocate--true leader--to replace Dr. Wilson as the head of RSA. Blind people in America and others with disabilities need and deserve the opportunity to live normal, productive lives. A strong, functioning rehabilitation system is a vital tool in making it happen.

It is not too late, but getting the serious attention of the administration will take our collective energy and determination. The administration is not our enemy, but as with society generally its attitudes about the ability of blind people reflect low expectations. We must change those low expectations through advocacy and through our example--blind people living active lives, paying taxes, raising children, and participating fully in community life.

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