Braille Monitor February 2008
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by Lea Grupen
From Dan Frye: Following the theoretical discussion of elements necessary to effect substantial change in public rehabilitation programs, Lea Grupen, orientation center director and field services supervisor at Ho`opono Services for the Blind, a branch of Hawaii State Vocational Rehabilitation, spoke movingly about the reforms that she has shepherded at the residential rehabilitation center that she administers. Her remarks represent a model of how theory and practice can be successfully married. Readers will marvel at the change that has occurred in Hawaii, rejoice in the newly found promise for blind consumers of this state, and enjoy the vicarious Hawaiian cultural experience that her address provides. Here is what she said:
Aloha, my name is Lea Grupen, and I am the orientation center director and field services supervisor at Ho`opono Services for the Blind, a branch of Hawaii State Vocational Rehabilitation.
I am humbled and grateful for being invited to speak to you today about our experiences in changing our training program. I want all of you in the audience who are thinking about making a change to believe that it is possible. This sounds like such a cliché, but change is not easy. It is definitely easier to stay the same. Now I am going to throw a few Hawaiian words at you. I think you will be able to relate. You have to make a decision. You have to want pono--justice; you have to have ha`aha`a--humility. You must have an attitude of imua--moving forward; malama and aloha--genuine caring for your students. Your staff, from the administration down, must accept kuleana--responsibility; you must be wiwo`ole--courageous. And you need to have lots of help from friends who know what they are doing.
About seven years ago we had an adjustment-to-blindness-training program that was running under the traditional medical model. It was a day program in which students could come in when they wanted and take the classes they wanted using whatever vision they had, and it was run by primarily sighted staff who cared about their students and were doing the best they could to train blind consumers in the basic core areas of cane travel, Braille, computers, and home management. There was also a class called “GT,” or “Give and Take,” which was a sort of group therapy session. Many students had been coming to the center over and over again and did not really get to know one another. Staff and students did not interact much except in the classrooms. We ran a sheltered workshop producing items such as brooms, mops, and pens.
In the year 2000 my boss, Dave Eveland, visited the Iowa Department for the Blind as part of a conference and saw a very different kind of training program. He saw students who were independent, happy, and successful. As you all probably know, this program was founded by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan and employs a structured discovery model. Students are given instruction under sleepshades using long canes and problem solving, and—most important--are immersed in a positive philosophy of blindness. There, students come to believe that, given the proper training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to a nuisance level, a characteristic. Students and staff understand that the main problems facing blind people stem from the misconceptions they face from society. Shortly after Dave’s visit, I was hired at Ho`opono, having been a vocational rehabilitation counselor at the general agency in Hawaii for a number of years. I was fortunate enough to receive sleepshade training at the Iowa center. It all made sense to me. Why couldn’t we do it in Hawaii? After all, both consumer organizations in our state had been asking us to make a change for quite some time. We knew we needed to do better. It was our kuleana--our responsibility.
I came home and told Dave of my experiences. We decided that there was no reason why we couldn’t make things better for the blind of Hawaii. But where to start? Shortly after my Iowa trip, in early 2001, I went to a management-training program sponsored by RSA. There I met Carlos Serván, deputy director at the Nebraska Commission for the Blind, where they have been teaching the structured discovery method for a long time. We had long discussions about blindness and about good training, and he helped me to believe we could make it a reality. He suggested I call Fred Schroeder. Fred Schroeder! I thought, how can I just pick up the phone and call this guy? Will he really take me seriously? Well I swallowed my fear and made the call. He listened. He gave me encouragement. He suggested I call Doug Boone to have him come and do some training with staff. Doug did an excellent job with our staff, returning several times to work in small groups with staff under sleepshades, doing travel and philosophy discussions.
Then I was fortunate enough to meet Allen Harris, now director of the Iowa Department for the Blind, although at the time he was working in New York. He was in Honolulu for an NFB state convention. I told him of our thoughts and plans, and he gave me more encouragement, more ideas. He took me seriously. He told me we could do it. I started to really believe we could.
In early 2002 Sandy Tigges, director of the orientation center in Iowa, agreed to come to Hawaii to meet with Ho`opono administration and staff, and to discuss our plans for change further. She helped us all to understand the commitment we were about to make, and as a large group we created a mission and vision. We were a little bit further along the path to change. We began sending all staff to Iowa for two to three weeks at a time, so they could receive training and also shadow teachers and counselors there. Staff came back with a slightly better understanding of the structured discovery method, but we knew we needed much more. Imua…we moved forward. In November 2002 we renamed ourselves as the New Visions program. We changed our training program to one using sleepshades and the long cane exclusively (no exceptions), taking all classes (with the addition of woodshop), and coming every day. Classes were now taught in groups. We were trying our best to work toward change. We had a core group of committed staff and the support of large numbers of consumers in the community. We closed down our sheltered workshop.
Now don’t get me wrong, we also had opposition on our staff and in the community. Some staff thought we weren’t changing fast enough, or we weren’t doing it right. Some staff strongly disagreed with the change. People said we were not providing informed choice. People said we were cruel. People said we were being given orders by the National Federation of the Blind and that the NFB has a one-size-fits-all approach for only the superblind, the cream of the crop. It was for only haoles--white people, and was not culturally sensitive. It went on and on. Attacks came daily, weekly, monthly. We had countless town hall meetings, letters, and phone calls. We even had to face legislators because of complaints. We had to hang tough. We knew what we were doing was right. We were working for pono--justice. We were wiso`ole--tireless. It was our kuleana, our responsibility, to do the best we could for the consumers we served. And we definitely had malama and aloha from friends in the National Federation of the Blind, in Hawaii and here on the mainland.
I was the first staff member ever to become active in a consumer organization when I joined the NFB and attended my first national convention in Philadelphia in 2001. There I would seek out confident blind people and ask them questions: Where did you get your training? What was it like? Now that I think about it, I was probably a pest, but no one ever turned me away. Every single person I talked to had graduated from a structured discovery program and was willing to take time, to encourage, to show interest, to answer my millions of questions. I found more support from people such as Jim and Sharon Omvig, who invited me to their hotel room for Grape Nuts and juice and talked with me, encouraged me, made time, and showed aloha for what Ho`opono was undertaking. Don’t give up, they said. We are here for you, they said. Anything we can do, they said. Ramona Walhof, Chris Boone, Ron Gardner, and countless others answered the call.
We still had staff going to the Iowa center for training. Some started going to the Louisiana Center for the Blind as well. We kept learning. Staff were returning with new ideas and with a renewed energy in their jobs. The naysayers also kept on. We were wiwo`ole. We wouldn’t turn back. Some staff left us when they realized we were heading in this direction and were not going to compromise. We hired new people with open minds, blind and sighted. They became role models for our students. We got rid of the GT class and changed it to BOBB–Business of Being Blind. We no longer had a psychologist or occupational therapist on staff.
So we had a taste of structured discovery training, but we still didn’t fully understand how to make it work. We needed to take the next step. With the help of Dave Eveland, Dr. Schroeder, and Dr. Eddie Bell, a contract was negotiated--and it wasn’t cheap, but it was well worth it--to bring staff--we called them coaches--from the Iowa department and from the Louisiana Center for the Blind to Honolulu each and every week for a period of twelve months starting in January 2006. A coach from each instructional area would come to work one on one with our staff on a rotating basis, observing and modeling the way for us. They worked with each of the orientation center staff and students. Now we were starting to understand more. Things were starting to click. And, most of all, our students were learning faster, exceeding our expectations. They were finishing the program, which was now about nine months, more ready to continue to college and good jobs. We were working harder, but also laughing and enjoying ourselves. Students and staff were eating lunch together, going out together, and just hanging out.
However, things were not all rosy. Union grievances were filed by some staff who either did not agree with the changes or did not like having coaches working with them so intensively. After all, it takes a lot of ha`aha`a—humility--to open oneself up to admit to not knowing how to teach and think in this new way. But almost all of the staff, as time went on, came to see that the rumors were not true: the structured discovery method, yes, is employed by NFB centers, but the Iowa and NFB center staff are not militants or robots, advocating a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach. They have students of all kinds, just like we do. Blind people in Hawaii have the same needs and the same possibilities as blind people anywhere else.
After the first coaching cycle, we started another. We were in this for the long haul. We had come a long way, but we still needed more. We were wiwo`ole. We wanted to get it right. And we now had a new vocational rehabilitation administrator who really believed in what we were doing: Joe Cordova. With Joe’s unwavering support, in January 2007 we expanded the coaching staff to include weekly visits from instructors and directors from the Colorado Center for the Blind and BLIND, Inc., the other two NFB centers. He gave us his commitment to find funding for student apartments. We took recommendations from the coaches. We implemented almost all of them because they made sense and because it was our kuleana--our responsibility to do this thing right. The coaches were never condemning or scolding, always patient and respectful. They were obviously dedicated to their jobs and made us feel proud about what we were doing. And our staff were ha`aha`a, wanted to do their best and continue to learn. They were not passive in the process. They were fully engaged, they worked hard, and they saw that this new way of doing things was paying off in huge dividends for our students. I am so proud of all of them; seven of them are here today. Why don’t you guys stand up.
Now the coaching cycles for the teachers have finished, although many continue to stay in touch with their coaches by phone calls and emails. The administrative coaching continues as well. I am still fortunate to be receiving enormous amounts of support from my administrative coaches. Dr. Schroeder, Allen Harris, Pam Allen, Shawn Mayo, Julie Deden, Sandy Tigges, Joanne Wilson, Dick Davis, and the countless others I know I can call on any time, and they will be there. They are wiwo`ole, they always believe, they always encourage. They are generous with their time, always willing to listen and give advice, to tell me when I am doing things right and to tell me when they think things could be done differently. All of our coaches, without exception, have also told us they have learned things from the Ho`opono staff.
Finally we are in the process of taking all that we have learned so far and synthesizing practices and beliefs that enable us to work toward doing the best that we can do. We are a little bit Iowa, a little Louisiana, a little Minnesota, and a little Colorado. But we also know we are Hawaiian, and we must have our own identity. What I know for sure is that we are a very different place than we were seven years ago. We are now functioning at full capacity and have a long waitlist to get in. We have students wanting to come to our center from Guam, Saipan, Samoa, and here on the mainland. We have off-campus apartments that are extensions of our classrooms and have built a whole other dimension into New Visions.
Our students are traveling independently all over the state, with the majority now using the bus rather than paratransit. They are reading the Braille code. They are confident users of technology. They are giving back to the community through volunteer efforts and participation in consumer groups. They are managing their families and households independently. They are making more money per hour now at closure than they ever have before; in fact, I believe their wages at closure are some of the highest in the nation. Our staff are functioning as a cohesive team. We believe deeply in what we do. We have hired a couple of New Visions graduates as well as some from the Louisiana center and the Nebraska center on our staff as NOMC cane travel teachers, Braille teachers, home ec teachers, and counselors. We now have new staff go through training in our center for up to four months before they start their jobs.
We still have rough days, but now that I look back, and with reminders from our supporters and our students, I see that we have come further than we ever imagined. On behalf of all the staff at Ho`opono, I want to take this opportunity to thank all those who have believed in us from the beginning, who have given your tireless support and encouragement, and helped us to get where we are today. I feel great hope knowing that we will continue to have your support in the future as well. We promise to imua, to malama, to be wiwo`ole. The wisdom you have shared with us is priceless, and we promise to continue to do our best with the gifts you have given us.
And again, to those of you sitting in the audience today, where I once was, wondering if change can be realized: please believe that, if you are committed, humble, tireless, and courageous and really care about the consumers you serve, all you need to do is reach out to the experts. If you are serious, they will support you every step of the way. Please find me and talk to me if I can be of any help to you as well.
Mahalo nui and aloha.