Braille Monitor April-May 1985
by James Gashel
On February 3, 1984, Ramona Walhof was summarily fired as director of the Idaho Commission for the Blind. Some attempted to lay the blame on political rivalry among the blind. But this turned out to be a smoke screen to mask the real motivation behind Mrs. Walhof's dismissal.
Mrs. Walhof had beaten the governor in a battle over demolishing the Commission. Plans were afoot to merge the agency into a giant state department as part of a reorganization of government. Mrs. Walhof resisted and went to the media. The governor backed down. He denied plans to consolidate the Commission with other agencies. Then came the firing. John Cheadle, Deputy Director of the Commission, was also fired.
Howard Barton, director of the Commission (from the Spring of 1975 until September, 1982) has once again been given the duties of agency head (with the official title of "acting administrator") after months of wrangling in the courts. Barton resigned without warning in September, 1982. Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Walhof was hired as his replacement.
Barton's style of management might well be termed "hide and seek." His previous performance as director of the Commission was marked by avoidance of responsibility. The governor and other state officials would know this. So, Howard Barton would be a logical choice to replace Mrs. Walhof if the eventual plan is to abolish the agency.
And, true to form, the governor's plan to destroy the agency now seems to be unfolding. Beginning on November 26, 1984, several Idaho newspapers carried a notice of intended rulemaking for the Commission for the Blind, signed by Howard Barton. Of course, no effort was made to inform the blind of the state through any form of special notice to organizations or individuals. Still we learned of the notice.
The substance of the Commission's intended action was truly novel and likely very dangerous. The notice said that federal laws and regulations for vocational rehabilitation services to the disabled would be adopted as state administrative rules for the Commission for the Blind. The Commission has no other administrative rules. So by implication, all programs of the Commission would have to follow federal requirements relating to vocational rehabilitation.
But not all programs of the Idaho Commission for the Blind are strictly vocational rehabilitation. Take for example home teaching services given to someone who is not seeking employment. Unless an employment objective can be shown, services to improve personal management and self-care in the home cannot be given under the federal vocational rehabilitation program. That's what the federal rules say. To overcome this barrier, commissions for the blind and other separate agencies can give home teaching services by using funds they have other than federal vocational rehabilitation funds or state money necessary to match the federal dollars. By doing so, services for the blind need not be limited to that which can be paid for by vocational rehabilitation.
As an aside, federal vocational rehabilitation funds can sometimes pay for home teaching. But not always. It depends upon the facts in each ease. Responsive agencies will organize their spending practices to meet individual needs. To do this, an agency must avoid becoming locked into rigid funding requirements.
Of course, it is true that the federal requirements for using vocational rehabilitation money (including the state money which matches federal funds) must be followed. But federal laws do not control programs or services when they are not paid for with federal or state matching vocational rehabilitation funds. So why would a commission for the blind deliberately make a rule implicitly locking in all of its services to the requirements laid down by the federal vocational rehabilitation law and regulations?
That was the question being asked by the blind of Idaho on January 15, 1985, at a public hearing on the Commission's proposed rule. With this rule (following only federal requirements for vocational rehabilitation, even when not compelled to do so by the federal government) would the Commission begin denying services to anyone not eligible for assistance under the federal program? No one from the Commission would say for sure. All they would say is that the hearing (requested by the National Federation of the Blind) was being held as required by law to hear statements from anyone about the proposed rule. There was plenty to be said. Speaker after speaker predicted the Commission would become rigid and unresponsive if all decisions would have to be made under the federal guidelines.
Furthermore, the Commission had failed to include all of the federal requirements in citing the federal laws and regulations it intended to adopt. Omitted, for example, were the 1984 amendments to the Rehabilitation Act-Public Law 98-221, signed February 22, 1984. Also left out were federal regulations on independent living services and client assistance programs. Federal regulations for the Randolph-Sheppard Program were included, but the Randolph-Sheppard Act, itself, was not.
In addition, even though many significant requirements for vocational rehabilitation are found in a document called the Vocational Rehabilitation Services Manual, it was not included in the Commission's proposed rule. Why these omissions? Some said it was administrative ineptness. Others thought the Commission was deliberately not honoring guidelines that could be helpful to the blind, such as several found in the Vocational Rehabilitation Services Manual.
Whatever the reason, the Idaho Commission for the Blind, now under Howard Barton, is intending to cut services to the blind. That much is clear. Debi Smith is an example of the trend, and there are several others like her. Debi is blind and unemployed. She has a small child named Kyle. Her husband (Rocky Smith) is also blind. Both get Social Security Disability Insurance.
But despite these facts, Debi Smith has been denied services by the Idaho Commission for the Blind. So has Rocky. Under date of January 15, 1985, (ironically, the same date as the hearing on the Commission's new rules) Debi Smith got the following letter from a Commission supervisor.
January 15, 1985
Dear Mrs. Smith:
At this time the Commission for the Blind is unable to continue with doing anything in regards to your case file until we can document clearly a vocational handicap to employment. As a result of our recent audit, we must have documentation which supports the provision of any service. The Acting Administrator insists on these proper processes being followed so that services can be correctly provided.
Your counselor has discussed this with you and has explained the need for this documentation. It is apparent you understand the need for documentation by your request for this letter.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.
Edward A. Easterling
Rehabilitation Services Chief
Commission for the Blind
Ed Easterling is the Rehabilitation Services Chief at the Commission. He, too, is part of the new trend. His former job (immediately before coming to the Commission) was with the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. State officials are even now reviving the plan of consolidating the Commission for the Blind with the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. According to one report, it could happen within two years. It may be that Ed Easterling was brought on board at the Commission to preside over the transition. Under the circumstances, what difference would it make?
Ed Easterling says he is unable to document that Debi Smith has a vocational handicap. Yet, Debi is blind with only a high school education and no vocational training beyond. She has held two jobs, both of which were obtained with the aid of agencies for the blind. The first one was at the Iowa Commission for the Blind, where she worked as a library assistant for about six months. Debi's second job was operating a telephone switchboard at a bank in Boise. She left that job after being turned down for promotion or transfer to other duties. People at the bank said Debi was not qualified to do anything but operate the switchboard. Due to her blindness, they could - not find other duties for her to attempt unless Debi would explain in advance how she could do other work and what accommodations she might need. Now she wants training and employment assistance. This would help her become better qualified and able to prove her skills. But the Idaho Commission for the Blind under its new management says it won't help because Debi does not have a handicap to employment. I doubt that Congress ever imagined that an agency would so twist and distort the law.
There is plenty of evidence that the decision not to give services to Debi Smith is not an isolated incident. But it shows in personal and human terms how an agency can turn in upon itself and turn its back on the people it is required by law to assist. If Debi Smith, Rocky Smith, and the others who are being denied services cannot qualify for rehabilitation, who can? Very few, if any.
Then the next question will be, why have an agency at all if so few people qualify to be helped by it? Legislators and state finance officers will shake their heads in dismay over the colossal waste of maintaining an agency that helps so few or none. Then we will read the Commission's obituary, and the doors will be locked up tight.
There is little doubt that if events are simply allowed to take their natural course, total destruction is the future of the Idaho Commission for the Blind. The only matter in doubt is how long the agency will linger on its death bed. Should the blind try to save it or help pull the plug? That, too, is in doubt. In the 1960s the blind of Idaho and the nation built the the Idaho Commission for the Blind with dreams that it would one day become a model agency. Those dreams are not lost, but it may be too late to save the agency. Under the circumstances, it is hard to see why anyone would care to do so.