Braille Monitor July 1985
by John J. Dragona
When I was asked to serve on one of the New Jersey Commission for the Blind's self-evaluation subcommittees for accreditation by the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC), I wasn't told that the Commiswould have the opportunity to doctor-up our final report, after our signatures were on it. At first the invitation shocked me. Putting it politely, I've been an assertive consumer. The group, which met in the Commission's central office in Newark, was impressive. There was a senior vocational counselor, a VR supervisor, someone with the Commission's Education Department, another staff member, a representative of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, a professor from a rehabilitation counseling program, the committee chairperson, myself, and another gentleman (Dr. Richard Bleecker), who had been with NAC for eighteen years and who will hereafter be called, "Mr. Expert."
My suspicion level rocketed. "If the Commission wanted to legitimately study itself," I wondered, "why did they need someone who was an expert on NAC?" I soon understood. He said a person in the New Jersey State Department of Human Services (Lawrence Lockhart, Assistant Commissioner of Human Affairs) would review our findings. Interestingly, when that same person came to the agency, about a year and a half earlier supposedly to hear some of the staff's complaints, he warned, according to people who were present, "Anyone who complains about the agency can expect to pick up their check." I anticipated the objective perusal of our recommendations with great incredulity but took some solace in NAC's interest in our opinions, since about a week earlier, a NAC representative (Jerry Kitsafra) told me they would highly value our reports. But, now that I think about it, how can they if they don't see them?
Anyway, the subcommittee formed two smaller groups, each of which met twice more to evaluate the Commission's performance in specific areas. Eleven other subcommittees would do the rest. The evaluation was done by comparing the agency's philosophy, called "The Strategic Plan," with NAC's standards. "Ridiculous," I thought, "since the New Jersey Commission for the Blind rarely practices what it preaches."
Much to my surprise, however, some of the others were even more critical than I. Or, should I say, "objective?" Because that's what we were. We acknowledged weaknesses, made recommendations, and gave credit where it was due. Then the full subcommittee met again, with Mr. Expert. Near the end of that long, exhausting meeting, he mentioned that the administration would look at our report; and "if it wishes, develop a corrective plan," then, based on new facts, modify the report. When I asked who would determine that the corrections have been satisfactorily made, I got what seemed to be a useless conglomeration of rhetorical gobbledygook. Noticing that no one else picked up on it, I planned to check back with NAC, before going further.
"Would the administration be honest," I wondered, while recalling a past meeting, after which a Commission's employee was told by a higher up to leave the statements of a particular consumer out of the meeting's minutes.
I soon learned that the aforementioned Human Services person has been the main thrust behind this accreditation move. Why? Well, the agency has had some bad PR. Recently, the state attorney general's Program Integrities Unit reported many severe problems, after its two-year study of the Commission. This, of course, wasn't discussed at our meeting. There has also been talk of absorbing the agency into the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which would leave fewer openings for political appointments, many of which have been flooding the Commission of late.
I began seeing the accreditation as a mere vehicle for saying, "We have NAC accreditation. Therefore, we are wonderful." A second call to NAC revealed that most administrations modify the reports after they've been signed. However, a NAC team would verify all claims of excellence. This might account for our having been steered away from using the "E" rating. But can they verify what they're not aware of? How well trained are they? "What happens if the team isn't aware of certain weaknesses," I asked.
"That would make their job harder," he responded.
Frustrated, I snapped, "I wish you had said this before. I wouldn 't have worked so hard had I known they could whitewash our comments."
Now, I wondered about NAC, too. Is their main interest in improving agency performance or in fattening up their membership list? Why else would they allow the modification of reports, without first consulting the people who had signed them? Oh, ideally, NAC accreditation sounds good, but maybe I'm just worried about possible abuses. Maybe I've just seen too much insensitivity and callousness coming out of that agency. And I hate to see them decorated for doing a good cover-up job.
The VR counselors I spoke with were briefed on the accreditation. But when they asked about benefits, they were offered "window dressing," "prestige," and no calculable advantages. And Mr. Expert did mention (at our first meeting) the availability of increased federal funds for NAC accredited agencies. So it appears that the Commission covets this dubious honor for the wrong reasons. Beside myself, no one there talked about the need for improving client services. And if the accreditation is deserved, why did they have to hire someone who, after eighteen years with NAC, knows their loopholes, what pleases them, and what might displease them?
Here I am still wondering, "Is NAC accreditation something serious, or is it just window dressing, which will allow the New Jersey Commission for the Blind to continue admiring itself through rose-colored sunglasses?"