The Braille Monitor                                                                              October 2005


Allen Harris Honored

Iowa Governor Thomas Vilsack (left) stands with Allen Harris (center), who is receiving the distinguished service award of the National Governors Association from Virginia Governor Mark Warner.

Iowa Governor Thomas Vilsack (left) stands with Allen Harris (center), who is receiving the distinguished service award of the National Governors Association from Virginia Governor Mark Warner.

From the Editor: On July 16, 2005, at its annual conference the National Governors Association presented eight awards for distinguished service to state government at its opening session in Des Moines, Iowa. One of those so honored was longtime NFB leader Allen Harris, director of the Iowa Department for the Blind. The following brief article describes why Allen was a recipient:

Director Allen Harris Receives Prestigious Award from National Governors Association

by Karen Keninger

On July 16, during the National Governors Association annual conference, Governor Thomas Vilsack presented the National Governors Association Award for Distinguished Service to State Government to Allen Harris, director of the Iowa Department for the Blind.

"This award," Harris said, "is a recognition of the achievements of the entire department. I am of course honored, but it is really because I am the director of a department which, quite frankly, continues to find ways to improve our results and provide increased value for the resources we use. After all, the department is in the business of changing lives. When you take our programs apart and look carefully at each effort to change attitudes about blindness or teach blindness skills, it comes to transforming individuals to become confident and capable blind persons."

Mr. Harris was appointed director of the department by the Board of the Iowa Commission for the Blind in September of 2001. Under his leadership department staff have been encouraged to creativity and excellence by his positive and dynamic leadership. The results have been significant. During austere fiscal times department staff have created programs and mechanisms for improving services, adding opportunities for blind Iowans, and maintaining national status as a leader in the field of blindness.

In the Orientation Center, Steppingstones and Camp Discovery have added new dimensions to transition services, while the Pathfinders Mentoring project has linked youth with adults. Enrollment in the center has increased, and a fresh approach to training was introduced by its director, Sandy Tigges, this year.

Vocational rehabilitation has maintained the high standards for job training and placement which keep IDB at the top of national rankings in the categories which make the most difference to the people we serve--competitive job placement and high wages. The mini-training programs in independent living have burgeoned, providing much-needed training opportunities for Iowa's older population in settings that work well for them.

The assistive technology team has continued to break ground in training blind persons and assistive technology trainers in the ever-more-complex use of computer systems equipped with assistive technology. One specialty in this area has been training materials for deaf-blind people and others who must rely strictly on refreshable Braille displays.
The Business Enterprises Program has expanded its opportunities in all areas, including a new project at Camp Dodge. The library has implemented new programming, including teleconferenced book discussions and a BookPort project as well as initiating the move to digital audio recording and digital Braille.

"The credit for these accomplishments," Mr. Harris says, "goes to an extraordinary staff, creative managers, and blind citizens who take an active role in the Department's work."

Here is the profile of Allen Harris circulated with the NGA press release:

Born with congenital glaucoma and permanently blind by age fifteen, Allen Harris has defied odds and broken down barriers his entire life. Despite being a valedictorian of his high school, Mr. Harris was told he could not attend college. Undeterred, he not only graduated from college, but went on to earn a master's in education. When told he could not student teach, again he ignored the naysayers and successfully completed two semesters as a student teacher in downtown Detroit. In 1968 Dearborn High School hired Mr. Harris to teach and coach wrestling. Mr. Harris has committed his life to public service, first as a teacher, coach, and school administrator and then in 2001 as the director of the Iowa Department for the Blind.

Despite a soft labor market, increased service demands, and budget limitations, Mr. Harris has done an outstanding job providing blind Iowans, many of whom have secondary disabilities, with better, higher-paying jobs. Mr. Harris upgraded Iowa's Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and bolstered the state's innovative Model Distance Learning program. "Allen Harris learned the true challenges blindness poses and has overcome these with a genuine zeal to effect positive change," said Iowa Governor Thomas J. Vilsack. "Under Allen's leadership the Iowa Department for the Blind provides the nation's most successful and progressive services to the blind, and the economic livelihoods of blind persons here are steadily improving."