Braille Monitor                                                           May 2007

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The words "In the Spotlight" appear at the top of this article, and a spotlight is shining on the words "Affiliate Action."

From the Editor: This month’s spotlight is focused on advocating for blind consumers by improving the affiliate’s working relationship with its state agency serving blind customers.


Building Partnerships with State Agencies

by Tommy Craig

Tommy CraigFrom Dan Frye: Tommy Craig, president of our Texas affiliate, offers general strategies for cultivating a constructive working relationship between the NFB and the rehabilitation agency serving blind consumers in its state, and in doing so he focuses on the evolution of the relationship between the Texas affiliate and the blindness-specific rehabilitation agency there. His general observations and the unique Texas experience are both instructive. Here is what President Craig has to say:

Many of you who attended the 2006 National Federation of the Blind convention in Dallas heard me thank Barbara Madrigal, the director of our state agency for the blind, and her staff for working with the NFB of Texas as our partners. Since our national convention several people have asked me how to form a good working relationship with their state agency. This is a complex topic to address, but I will try to share some insights from the partnership that we have established with our state agency in Texas.

It is important for everyone to realize that it wasn’t always this way in Texas. The relationship that we enjoy took years of hard work by a number of very dedicated people. Years ago the only time we heard from the Commission for the Blind was when a hearing on their budget was scheduled before the state legislature. Of course they were always nice and made lots of promises. Once the funding was assured, they kept doing exactly what they had been doing until the next budget hearing.

One of my most vivid state convention memories was a resolution brought to the floor demanding the abolition of the Texas Commission for the Blind. We voted on the resolution, and the vote was too close to call. At this point the author of the resolution withdrew it. This should give you an idea of how bad services for the blind were in Texas and should convey the poor relationship that existed between the Commission for the Blind and the NFB of Texas.

During this time the NFB of Texas continued to grow, and we developed a very good legislative program. This brought us a lot of respect from members of the legislature, which forced the agency to recognize that they could no longer ignore the NFB and that they could no longer play one organization of the blind against another. At about the same time staff changes at the Commission for the Blind took place. Terry Murphy was appointed deputy director of programs, and he started attending our state conventions. He came, he listened, and he went back and did some of the things we asked him to do. Over the years Terry put up with a lot of anger and frustration from us, but he always kept coming back.

Slowly things at the agency began to change. Services for the blind in Texas started to improve. Blind Texans started developing better skills and being more successful in achieving their rehabilitation goals. The agency staff started to feel better about their jobs because the services they provided were actually making a difference in the lives of blind people.

As the years passed, more of the Commission for the Blind staff started listening to our suggestions. We all grew to trust each other more. I believe that trust is the most important building block of a partnership. Unless you can trust the people you are trying to work with, a partnership will never be forged. Trust has to be earned on both sides. Too many times agency professionals believe that they know what is best for the blind, and too many times blind people don’t give the agency staff a chance. When this happens, things continue to get worse instead of better. Once this trend begins, it can take years to turn it around. Many times through the years members of the NFB of Texas felt like giving up and taking our chances with a general rehab agency. I’m very glad we didn’t.

Another important point to remember about building partnerships is that both parties must benefit from the relationship. It can’t be one-sided. Our affiliate’s involvement with the Blindness Education, Screening, and Testing (BEST) program is an example of our giving something to the Commission for the Blind. This was a voluntary program we helped to establish, in which people who were renewing their driver’s license would donate one dollar to a fund to provide blindness education, screening, and testing. In reality this money is used to pay for sight restoration programs. The positive result of this program, from our perspective, is that the agency doesn’t have to use rehab dollars to pay for this service, so more funds are available to provide rehabilitation services. This program has been so successful that many other agencies have copied it.

About eight years ago the state legislature began an attack on the Texas Commission for the Blind. First the Sunset Commission, an entity that reviews state agencies, recommended doing away with the Commission for the Blind. Fortunately the NFB of Texas was there to fight this proposal. We could truthfully say that Texas had one of the best agencies for the blind in the country. Due in large part to the work of the NFB of Texas, the effort to abolish the Commission for the Blind failed.

During the next session the legislature undertook a major reorganization of state government. Once again the Texas Commission for the Blind was scheduled to be abolished and consolidated into a general rehab agency. Once again blind people from across the state came to the capital to stop this attack. The NFB of Texas was the loudest and most effective voice supporting the Commission for the Blind at the capital.

Unfortunately this time we were not completely successful in our attempt to save the agency, though our efforts did minimize the damage that could have been done to services for blind Texans. The Texas Commission for the Blind was consolidated into the Health and Human Services Commission, but we did manage to assure that blind Texans would still receive services from a separate and distinct department within the larger agency.

I believe that, if it had not been for the partnership between the Texas Commission for the Blind and the NFB of Texas, no separate department for the blind in Texas would exist today. I have no doubt that sometime in the near future we will once again have a separate agency for the blind in Texas. When this happens, the cause will be the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind.

As a result of the partnership we have in Texas, things have improved for everyone involved. The agency has grown and developed services that better address the needs of their clients. Commission leaders have also gained confidence in the fact that the members of the NFB of Texas will support them when members of the state legislature challenge their programs.

We in the NFB have gained the assurance that our ideas and suggestions will be heard and acted on. The NFB of Texas has now partnered with the Department of Blind Services on a number of projects including: NFB-NEWSLINE®, a mentoring program for students at the Texas School for the Blind, outreach to parents of blind children, and getting a record number of Texans to the 2006 national convention. Now, when I hear that someone is having a problem obtaining services, I can usually fix it with a phone call.
It takes time and dedication to develop this kind of partnership. It takes people with integrity on both sides who are willing to listen and learn from each other. A two-way flow of communication is imperative, and both sides must understand the benefits that can be gained from a successful partnership. Both sides have to learn to trust each other. This is not an easy process. If you are successful, everyone involved will be a winner.

Advocating for High-Quality Rehabilitation

From Dan Frye: The following practical list of ideas about how blind consumers can get involved in fashioning good rehabilitation services is excerpted from the Training and Organizing People to Serve (TOPS) handbook produced and published by the NFB’s Department of Affiliate Action. It nicely complements the previous article by Tommy Craig. Review these lists and make sure that you and other Federationists in your affiliate are doing most of these things. They will truly make a difference. The suggestions follow:

As Federationists we want every blind person in this country to have the opportunity to lead a productive life. In order to make this goal a reality, we must become partners in the rehabilitation of blind people. The organized blind can provide the experienced-based information, technical assistance, role modeling and mentoring, blindness training, job matching, consumer advocacy, and many other services that can improve the quality of service our agencies provide. Keep the following suggestions in mind as you work to establish a partnership with your state agency:

Mentoring and Role Modeling
Consumers come to the rehabilitation system because they want the experts on disability to tell them that there is hope for their lives. Who better to give that kind of hope than the National Federation of the Blind? The following strategies can help Federationists provide the mentoring and role modeling that rehabilitation consumers and employees need:

Program Evaluation
Who better to evaluate the rehabilitation system than Federationists, who bring to the job the collective thoughts and experiences of blind people from around this country? Successful businesses listen to what their consumers have to say. Begin thinking of yourselves as the mystery shoppers in our rehabilitation system. Consider the following ways that consumers can help monitor and evaluate rehabilitation services:

In order to evaluate your state agency effectively, you should become familiar with VR standards and indicators. These are measures of the numbers but, more important, of the quality of employment outcomes in rehabilitation programs. The first standard has six indicators. Three of these are critically important:

How many people were placed in competitive jobs?

How many of these were people with significant disabilities?

What kind of wages did these people earn?

Here are a few important questions to ask when assessing an agency's performance:

Policy Development
An agency's policies lay the foundation for the quality of services it delivers. NFB chapters and affiliates can take the following steps to promote the development of sound policies:

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