The Braille Monitor                                                                                                  July 2005

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Feet on the Street to Save Rehab

by Barbara Pierce

            
In recent months Department of Education (DOE) officials have signaled more and more clearly that the Rehabilitation Services Administration was in the crosshairs as they made plans to divert funding from rehabilitation to other DOE programs. Throughout the spring we have reported on initiatives being planned that will undermine whatever positive steps RSA has made in recent years. During the months since RSA commissioner Joanne Wilson resigned in protest, the disability community has debated what actions it should take to bring this crisis to the notice of Congress and the public.

            Eventually the NFB took the initiative to organize a rally in front of the Department of Education building, within walking distance of the hotel we use when we go to Capitol Hill for the Washington Seminar every February. In early May we chose a date, May 26, and began soliciting cosponsors. By the day of the picket and rally, forty-eight organizations had joined the NFB in sponsoring the event.

            By Wednesday morning hundreds of people had arrived on Capitol Hill to talk with members of Congress and their staffs about the emergency. Here is one of the documents NFB members circulated:

STATEMENT OF SUPPORT FOR VOCATIONAL REHABILITATION:
DON'T LEAVE BLIND ADULTS BEHIND

BACKGROUND:

            The program known as "Vocational Rehabilitation," authorized in Title I of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as last amended in 1998, provides almost 80 percent of the funds used by states to pay for training and adjustment services provided to persons with disabilities. These services are essential for blind people and others with disabilities to achieve productive employment and self-support goals and are planned to meet individual needs. This is why vocational rehabilitation has enjoyed consistently strong bipartisan support in Congress throughout its eighty-five-year history.

            The federal funds are paid to states through formula grants as long as certain requirements are met. Having a specific agency with full-time personnel dedicated to delivering vocational rehabilitation services is one of the most essential federal requirements, except states may have two such agencies if one of them is devoted to serving the blind. States receive technical assistance and monitoring through the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), located in the U.S. Department of Education.

THE PROBLEM:

            Without announcing a plan to redesign the vocational rehabilitation program, the Bush administration has initiated several actions to reduce emphasis on specialized services for the blind and others with disabilities. These include:

• Seeking Congressional authorization for states to consolidate vocational rehabilitation with job training and employment programs for youth, dislocated workers, and other unemployed adults under a proposal known as "WIA Plus Consolidation";

• Closing all of the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) regional offices used to monitor and assist states with implementation of Rehabilitation Act programs;

• Reducing the RSA professional and support staff by approximately 50 percent, with a disproportionate impact on jobs held by disabled employees;

• Possible elimination of the RSA Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which supports nationwide implementation of the Randolph-Sheppard Act, provides essential guidance to states for specialized services to working-age blind adults, and coordinates independent living services for seniors losing sight;

•Changing the head of RSA from a presidentially-appointed position requiring Senate confirmation to a Department of Education staff position not appointed by the president and not subject to Senate confirmation.

ACTIONS REQUESTED:

All members of Congress are urged to express a strong commitment to effective vocational rehabilitation programs by taking the following actions:

• Advise the chairmen and ranking minority members of the authorizing and appropriations committees that the administration’s vocational rehabilitation initiatives are unacceptable;

• Send or sign on to a letter (see attached draft) to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings supporting vocational rehabilitation as an identifiable, state-administered program with continued strong federal leadership.

At noon Thursday the crowd gathered to chant and cheer in front of the platform before settling down to listen to speakers.
At noon Thursday the crowd gathered to chant and cheer in front of the platform before settling down to listen to speakers

            Blind Americans are counting on you for support. Please help to maintain vocational rehabilitation as a vital service to meet our unique employment and independent living needs.

               The day on the Hill was cool and cloudy, but Thursday was clear and sunny. For almost two hours picketers marched and chanted, while volunteers leafleted pedestrians on nearby streets. By noon the crowd had gravitated to the Department of Education courtyard, where a platform had been erected with a banner across the back listing many of the sponsors. James Gashel, NFB executive director for strategic initiatives, served as master of ceremonies. He called the crowd’s attention to the large empty chair on stage ready for Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings so that she could see and hear what disabled Americans think of the department’s plans to dismantle RSA.

From left an American Sign Language interpreter translates what is being said. Jim Gashel stands with the empty Spellings chair in front of him, listening to Fred Schroeder addressing the crowd, while to the right Joanne Wilson stands at the top of the stairs and NFB President Marc Maurer stands on the steps below her.
Front left an American Sign Language interpreter translates what is being said. Jim Gashel stands with the empty Spellings chair in front of him, listening to Fred Schroeder addressing the crowd, while to the right Joanne Wilson stands at the top of the stairs and NFB President Marc Maurer stands on the steps below her.

            A representative from each of the rally sponsors had a moment to introduce his or her group and say something about the situation in which we find ourselves. Then each of the four past RSA commissioners who are concerned about the current Bush administration initiatives spoke briefly. They were Edward C. Newman, commissioner in the Nixon administration; Robert R. Humphreys, commissioner in the Carter administration; Fredric K. Schroeder, commissioner in the Clinton administration; and Joanne Wilson, commissioner in the Bush administration.

             All speakers were commendably brief, though passionate in their remarks. As an example of the views expressed, here is what Fred Schroeder said:

Remarks at the May 26 Rally
by Fredric Schroeder

             I grew up believing that we could expect, indeed require, that government be honest and forthright, truthful and accountable--that government officials say what they mean and mean what they say.

            Department of Education officials say that the plan to close the RSA (Rehabilitation Services Administration) regional offices was simply the outgrowth of an ongoing management agenda to make government more efficient. The truth is that the plan to close the regional offices was made in spite of a GAO (Government Accountability Office) study and numerous internal department studies documenting the value of the regional offices. Maybe the department has conducted new studies, new analyses, but if so, would you not expect that any new study, new analysis, would be based on discussions with the blind and other consumers, on discussions with state and private VR (vocational rehabilitation) agencies? Wouldn't a new study, new analysis, at least include talking with the commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration and members of her staff? The department says that the plan to close the regional offices was the result of study and analysis; the truth is that the decision was made in secret with no study, no analysis, no planning, and no consultation with blind people, advocates, or even the commissioner of RSA. We say to the department, be truthful; say what you mean and mean what you say.

            Department officials say that the closure of the regional offices reflects good stewardship and the administration's commitment to services not bureaucracy, that the $7 million saved will be used to expand services for transition-age youth--less fat and more money for people with disabilities. The truth is that the department is reducing its support of direct services for consumers, cutting programs--not increasing support. The department's current budget request--the same budget request that includes the elimination of the RSA regional offices--eliminates funding for the Supported Employment Program, $37 million; eliminates funding for the Projects with Industry Program, $22 million; eliminates funding for the Migrant and Seasonal Farm Workers Program, $2.5 million; eliminates funding for the Special Recreation Program, another $2 million--$63 million in cuts overall to direct services--not an increase. Department officials say they are trimming fat to direct more money to client services. They say it is a $7 million increase, but the truth is that the department’s budget cuts $63 million in valuable direct service programs. The department is walking away from people with disabilities, not strengthening its support. We say to the department, be truthful; say what you mean and mean what you say.

            Department officials say that by cutting RSA’s staff in half, eliminating the regional offices, and consolidating functions into the central office, RSA will be able to provide better technical assistance and better monitoring; they say the agency will become more efficient and responsive and that the elimination of the regional offices will not weaken the agency’s commitment to specialized services or programs. In fact they say that specialized services will receive better support under a centralized structure. The truth is that the RSA reorganization plan shows the elimination of the blindness division, the elimination of the Randolph-Sheppard branch, the elimination of the deafness and communicative disorders branch--no support for any specialized service or program. Department officials say that specialized services will receive more attention and better support. But the truth is that the department’s reorganization plan eliminates support for specialized services and special populations. We say to the department, be truthful; say what you mean and mean what you say.

            We are here today to express our objection to the planned closure of the RSA regional offices and to the elimination of the department’s commitment to specialized services. We are here today to say to the department, these programs do not belong to you; they belong to us--to the people of America and to the people who need the opportunity to receive the training, supports, and encouragement to live normal, productive lives. We are here today to say that we want the RSA regional offices restored; we want the blindness division and the Randolph-Sheppard and deafness branches restored; and we are here today to say we expect department officials to restore honesty and integrity to their work, to work openly and honestly with consumers and other stake-holders. And we are here to say that we will not give up; we will not give in; and, unlike the department officials who set these damaging changes in motion, we are truthful; and we say what we mean and mean what we say.

             The concluding speaker was President Maurer. As he stepped away from the podium, dirge-like music began playing over the loudspeakers. Jim Gashel explained that though they had been invited, no one from the Department of Education had seen fit to come out and take note of the dissatisfaction with their actions being expressed by disabled Americans and our friends. Suddenly he corrected himself. A figure was emerging from the direction of the department building. It was the Grim Reaper, more than seven feet tall, swathed in a filmy black cloak and carrying a scythe (that was, conveniently enough, of a length to be used subtly as a white cane. In front of him were six pall bearers dressed in black tie and carrying a casket. They placed it in front of the platform and opened it. The Grim Reaper, who was wearing a sign around his neck identifying himself as the Department of Education, followed them forward and took up his post in front of the casket.

Kevan Worley dressed as the Grim Reaper and  representing the Department of Education, destroys signs representing the hopes and dreams  of disabled Americans,
Kevan Worley, dressed as the Grim Reaper and representing the Department of Education, destroys signs representing the hopes and dreams of disabled Americans.

   

Six pall bearers carry the casket containing the Grim Reaper away from the rally.
Six pall bearers carry the casket containing the Grim Reaper away from the rally.

       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

             As Jim Gashel described the unfolding scene, a line of disabled people approached the Grim Reaper. Each was carrying a sign with a word or phrase on it. The Grim Reaper took each and tore it to pieces before crumpling it and throwing it into the casket. Twenty signs, saying things like “Opportunity,” “Choice,” “Freedom,” “Hope,” and “The Future” were crushed by the Department of Education before a crowd of sign bearers revolted and tipped him over into the casket. Then they closed the lid, and the pall bearers bore him off stage.

             That action concluded the rally proper. So what difference did a thousand or so protesters have? It is still too early to know. Congress will have to find a way to intervene if the Department of Education is to be stopped. Whether our senators and representatives will bother to make the effort depends on those who care about whether the disabled people who come after us will be forgotten and left out, which is clearly what the Department of Education has in mind. Each of us must write to Secretary Spellings to register our objections to what the department is doing, and we must let our members of Congress know what we have said to her. We must also educate our communities about this crisis. After all, it is those who are not at the moment disabled who have the most to lose from the destruction of the rehabilitation system.

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