Braille Monitor                                                             March 2007

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Change in Rehabilitation: Federation Experience Leads the Way

by Craig Kiser

From the Editor: Thursday morning, July 6, Craig Kiser, executive director of the Florida Division of Blind Services, presented one of the most exciting convention agenda items of the week. We have wished for years that Craig was the director of the state agency for the blind in Florida, and now he is. Here is the story of his first years in office:

Craig KiserGood morning. As usual it’s a great convention. Florida, are you out there? [applause] This past May 8 my wife of thirty-seven years passed away. She is with us here in spirit, I have no doubt. She knew and loved the NFB and what it stood for and stands for today. I promised her that I would include her favorite story in my presentation, so here it is. Three men were embarked on an important mission that entailed trekking across country. The first man reached the banks of a raging river. He looked at the river and began to pray, “Please give me strength to cross this river.” His prayer was heard, and poof, he was instantly endowed with muscular arms and legs. He plunged into the river, and despite nearly drowning several times, he struggled to the opposite shore. After witnessing the first man’s difficulties, the second also prayed; but he prayed, “Please give me the strength and the tools to cross this river.” His prayer also was heard, and poof, a row boat appeared. He got in the row boat, and after half an hour of struggling and nearly capsizing several times, he also reached the opposite shore. The third man, after witnessing the first two, also prayed. He prayed, “Please give me the strength, the tools, and the wisdom to cross this river. His prayer was heard, and poof, he was changed into a woman [applause], who promptly pulled out her map, studied it a few minutes, turned, walked several hundred yards upstream, and walked across the bridge. [applause] I think you can see why it was my wife’s favorite story.

In rehabilitation of the blind we the blind have the strength. The NFB can provide the tools through its training. We just need to convince agency bureaucrats to have the wisdom to take advantage of that strength and those tools. In April of 2000 I was sitting in my office as deputy controller of Florida, happily regulating banking, financing, and securities, when several of my blind friends came in. Some of them belong to the ACB affiliate, the Florida Council of the Blind, and some of them belong to the National Federation of the Blind of Florida. They told me that the division of blind services in Florida was in dire straits, that services were appalling, and that they were trying to get the then director fired. They asked, if they could get that done, would I be willing to take the job. I told them no for three reasons. I told them I loved the job I was doing. I have been involved in banking, finance, and securities all my legal career, for almost thirty years. Second, I have no background, training, or education in rehabilitation. Third, it would be a demotion from deputy controller to a division director. So they left.

About a month later they came back and again repeated their request, and I again told them no for the same three reasons. That night I spent a restless night. My conscience began to bother me, and it was as if I was once again back in Dr. Jernigan’s office getting a lecture, which happened quite regularly in 1968 when I was a student at the Iowa Commission for the Blind. It was as though Dr. Jernigan was saying, “Craig, think of the thousands of blind people who have sacrificed in order for you to have had the career that you have enjoyed. Maybe it’s time to give back. So the next time they came to me, I agreed to take the job. And I am so glad I did.

If I had known the true nature and status of the division at that time, I don’t know that I would have said yes even with Dr. Jernigan pushing me. The division was in trouble with the Rehabilitation Services Administration. They had been taking a million and a half dollars of federal VR money and misusing it. They were at odds with the private providers in the state to the extent that the private providers actually have legislation before the Legislature to dismantle the division and privatize services completely in Florida. And they were at odds with the organized blind. My predecessor, the former director, had steadfastly refused to attend the state conventions of the organized blind. A group had actually gone to the governor and forced him to attend a state convention. He stood up in front of the organized blind and told them that he knew nothing about blindness issues, nor did he care. He was only interested in keeping his job. He gave about a ten-minute prepared talk, refused to take any questions, and left.

The private providers in Florida had gotten the Legislature to create a new program for blind babies, an early-intervention program for blind infants from birth through age five. They had gotten it funded up to a million dollars over the objections of the director. He didn’t believe in the program, and he didn’t believe in it so much that the program was eligible to begin on July 1 of 2000. I was appointed director in February of 2001, and at that point he had allowed only 59,000 dollars out of one million to be spent. It was pretty bad. Fortunately I had the support of the organized blind. When I started making changes, the inevitable letters and calls to the governor and to the commissioner of education, my direct boss, came in. The organized blind, the NFB of Florida, was there to tell the governor, “No, you don’t have a lunatic running wild; he is really going about making changes that make sense.”

So we worked together for three years making changes in the overall Division of Blind Services in how direct services were provided to clients, trying to get counselors to view clients as whole people and to recognize that what they are doing impacts people’s lives. They need to talk to clients and find out who those clients are, what they want, where they’re going, and then try to help them achieve that goal. I am very taken with the motto of Home Depot. I’ve tried several times to see if I could steal it from them. It’s, “You can do it; we can help.” Isn’t that what we do? We can’t do it for anybody.

After making some changes in those first three years to the overall program, I turned my attention to the residential rehabilitation center in Daytona Beach. One of my difficulties is that I am located in headquarters in Tallahassee, and the residential rehabilitation center is 250 miles away in Daytona Beach. So I removed the director of the orientation center and replaced him with Ed Hudson, a man who, like me, has no training in rehabilitation but who has a great attitude and philosophy about the blind and blindness. And he is a known quantity; he has been working for the Braille and Talking Book Library in Florida for fifteen or twenty years, so he was well known among the blind, and they supported his appointment. Because of the distance involved, I told Ed what I wanted him to do and then went back to Tallahassee and expected him to do it. He kept calling me: “Craig, it’s tough down here. You know I’m kind of all alone. I have a staff meeting and tell them what to do, and they walk out laughing and then go do what they have always done.”

What they had always done was really bad. The residential rehabilitation center wasn’t really in the business of rehabilitation. It had become a vocational training center. That may have been good because the little rehabilitation they tried to do was just holding hands and catering to all the wants, needs, and desires of the students there. They had a cafeteria that provided three square meals seven days a week. Staff would take the tray for the student, get the food for them, bring it to the table, and then take the dishes away after the meal. If the students needed anything off-campus at a grocery store or drug store, they would give a list to staff, and the staff would go and get it. There was a policy that students could not leave campus until they got a clearance from a mobility instructor. Now these are adults, not children. I could go on and on about the things going on there.

Well, Ed finally convinced me that he needed help, that he couldn’t do it alone. It was impossible to do it alone. So I called an old friend of mine, Dr. Joanne Wilson. She told me that the NFB was just starting a program through the Jernigan Institute to provide training in how to run an orientation center. So we agreed to meet at last year’s convention in Louisville, and we did. Ed Hudson, Fred Schroeder, Joanne Wilson, and I met in Joanne’s room, and we agreed to a plan and contracted with the Jernigan Institute.

Bureaucracy being what it is, it took from July to January to get the contract approved. But we got it approved, and then in February Joanne and her team came down to Daytona Beach, and I met them there and participated in the first day’s meetings. It appeared to be going very well, so I left and went back to Tallahassee. The next day all hell broke loose. During a meeting with staff and students some of the staff got up and walked out. Some of the staff verbally attacked and abused Fred Schroeder. The students we found out had been lectured at lunch by some of the dissident staff and told that what we were doing was wrong and dangerous and that we were trying to destroy their lives. So we had to meet again and retool and make some different plans. So that’s what we did. Joanne and her team have been coming down every month for the last six months, and things are turning around. It’s kind of like turning an aircraft carrier around. Yeah, you can do it, but you’re not going to do it very quickly, and you will need a lot of room. But it’s getting done.

When Joanne and her team came down, I was immediately accused of trying to turn Florida into an NFB state. My response was a simple one. I told them, “As you knew when you hired me, I don’t have training or education or experience in rehabilitation. So the only experience I can draw upon is that which I learned at the feet of Kenneth Jernigan in 1968, and it works.” I told them I’m less interested in the messenger than I am in the message. We’ve lost some staff along the way. We need to lose a few more. We have one O&M instructor who absolutely refused to train students with sleepshades, so much so that I had a student not too many months ago call me up to say that he had been to the NFB convention last year in Louisville and had gone to the Colorado Center for the Blind reception, where he had learned about training under sleepshades. He asked to be trained under sleepshades. This O&M instructor told him, “No, I won’t do it, because you have so much residual sight that when you take the sleepshades off, you will forget everything that you learned. What you need to do is train without sleepshades; then, when you lose more sight, come on back. He said, “Mr. Kiser, do I really have to interrupt my life twice to go through training?”

I said “No” and sent him to Louisiana.

Most of us have heard it as a joke. I saw it as a fact; it really happened. I was at a public meeting where a blind woman stood up and, intending to praise blind services, said, “You know that residential rehabilitation services center is just wonderful; I’ve enjoyed it every time I’ve been there.” I thought, why would anyone have to go through it more than once? If it’s done right, you don’t. It’s been difficult. The challenges are great. The abuse is great, and I really admire what Joanne and her team have been doing. They’ve been talking one-on-one with staff and students, and the situation is turning around. It just takes a lot of work and thick skin.

It’s kind of like this farmer who had this old donkey. One day the poor donkey fell into an abandoned well, and the donkey was crying pitifully while the farmer was trying to figure out how to get him out of that well. The farmer finally concluded that the donkey was really old and the well needed to be filled anyway. So he called upon his neighbors to come help fill in the well. As they began shoveling dirt in, the donkey realized what was going on and cried even louder, but after a few minutes there was silence. They continued shoveling, and after a while the farmer decided to look in the well to see how it was progressing. What he saw was an amazing sight. As each shovelful of dirt landed on the donkey’s back, the donkey would shake it off and step up on the dirt, thereby elevating himself by a few inches each time. As they continued shoveling, to their astonishment the donkey finally stepped out of the well and trotted off. The moral of the story is that life is going to throw a lot of dirt at you. To be successful you have to shake it off and step up. There is a little more to the story. It seems that later the donkey returned and kicked the stuffing out of that farmer for trying to bury him alive. The moral of that part of the story is, if you try to cover your ass, it will probably come back to get you.

Thank you all for what you do. It is difficult to impart to you just how much the organized blind means. I could not do the things I do without the support of the blind. It would have been impossible. So stay with us and keep at it.

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