Braille Monitor August-September 1985
(Reprinted from the June, 1985, Blind Missourian, the newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri.)
The Randolph-Sheppard Act was made law by the U. S. Congress in 1938. In Missouri that year the state legislature was considering withdrawal of funding from all the workshops for the blind and did so in 1939, based on a serious fiscal and cash flow problem.
The Commission for the Blind had been established in the state in 1915. The programs of the Commission were apparently three in number: prevention, the newly created rehabilitation teaching or home teaching, and the workshops.
The workshop system was scattered throughout the state, primarily visible through the term "Association." They were located in such cities as Jefferson City, Joplin, Springfield, Kansas City, and St. Joseph. Mostly they made brooms. One veteran tells of kicking the bundles of broom straw every morning to run the rats out of it.
One blind man who came through that period tells of his search for work, a fruitless, desperate search. Then, he hit upon the scheme of buying brooms from Kroger's grocery. He took them home, soaked the labels off, and peddled them door to door as "blind made." He stated that his neighbors were jealous because he always came home with money in his pocket at the end of each day.
In 1943 the vocational rehabilitation act was passed by Congress. Jack Raithel became the first counselor in the state, gaining national notice in his successful placement work. In 1946 the Commission was stripped of its separate agency status and made a part of the Welfare Department. In that same year the Missouri Lions created the Business Opportunities for Missouri Blind.
BOMB was a nonprofit corporation, just as it is now. It had and has a Board of Directors consisting of one Lion appointed from each district, currently eleven. They serve two-year terms, with a maximum tenure of four consecutive years.
In 1953 Mr. Roy Remick of Jefferson City became Executive Director of the corporation. He and Jack Raithel traveled the state, promoting the abilities of the blind. The irrepressible Raithel was widely liked and must be credited with pioneer work in employment of the blind in Missouri. He retired from the Bureau for the Blind in 1981.
At first, blind vendors were paid five dollars a week. That began a slow rise, until earnings were made contingent on income from the location, due primarily to the provisions of the Rehabilitation Act amendments in the early 1970's.
In 1973, with P.L. 93-112 as amended, the Missouri program gained in stability. In the late fifties and through the sixties income was low, locations were very uncertain, and the future was not yet clear.
However, the Kansas City Post Office cafeteria was a notable exception. "The Four Horsemen" were co-managers. These men were also pioneers and included George Rittgers and Bob Peterson.
A major problem for these men was the jealousy of the Postal Union employees. Some of these managers report being repeatedly cursed as they manned the cash register. Sugar, salt, and pepper were switched on the tables, or just plain spilled. Utensils were stolen or Dent into uselessness. Food shipments were delayed, and preparation was repeatedly criticized.
Ruth Peterson, Bob's wife, was fortunate enough to escape serious injury from an auto in at least two instances. In one, the guide dog with her was killed. In the second the dog apparently knocked her out of the path of a speeding auto. These were broad daylight episodes.
One black day George Rittgers was struck while crossing the street. He was thrown seventy-five feet by the impact, surviving by only a miracle. The auto was driven by the Postal Union steward or leader. He had just had the auto liability insurance cancelled two days before the "accident."
A civil suit was decided in favor of George, but the defendant union official took bankruptcy and never a cent was received by the Rittgers family. Until at least the early 1980's that Post Office was a hostile work environment. Bob Peterson managed a small stand there for many years, earning pittance wages, while postal workers were slurping up their raises. Presently, there are two small one-man operations in the building.
In the Bureau for the Blind the Business Enterprises Program (BEP) was charged with program oversight under P.L. 93-112. Across the years until the early 1970's Missouri Lions made periodic grants to the program, the last being $20,000 in 1971. The number of locations rose to approximately seventy in the mid-1970's. Many of these were "leakers." They were not profitable and the manager income had to be supplemented from other locations. Under
Charlie Freeman, Bureau Chief, many "leakers" were closed. In 1979 the number of locations had fallen to forty nine, because openings had not kept pace with closings.
An analysis in 1979 showed that the manager income was on a par with national averages. However, Missouri was far behind other states in the number of locations (which remains true today).
On the other hand, Missouri had cafeterias.
Other states were closing the cafeterias. One reason was the tremendous equipment costs. Other types of food vending were more economical. However, in Kentucky that state acquired (as Dave Dillon also reported about Minnesota) an armored division of vending machines. Maintenance and replacement costs in those states soared, while in Missouri costs were far more reasonable.
There was also a disproportionate mix of locations: federal, state, and private. While the private sector placement in the nation was far greater, Missouri had a very high proportion of federal buildings. This was partly because private sector placements had been difficult to maintain.
Also in the late 1970's Bureau staff were actively turning down requests for assistance from the private sector, thereby ruining the enormous good will that had been built up. Regaining that positive image in the private sector has not been accomplished.
A fish market, a paint store, and a dairy farm were among the enterprises set up by the Bureau staff. In fact, there were a few early locations that were entirely independent of the Bureau, two being those of Otis Johnson in St. Louis and Clarence Foreman in Nevada.
Under BEP Supervisor Don Renn, the program grew to fifty-eight locations by February, 1984. In addition, managerial training for "totals" (the totally blind) was assured, as contrasted with the policy of "partials" and previously followed by some Bureau staff. The average income continued to increase, nearing $20,000 per manager by December, 1983. A major benefits package was negotiated after Tiny Beetle's severe accident in the late 1970's. There had been no insurance for managers until then.
The training program for vendors was piecemeal at best. The 1979 transition of Bureau direction brought more clearly defined training and management practices that helped managers be more aware of their costs, practices, and sanitation. New brochures were developed and added emphasis was made regarding color schemes on location and attractiveness of the merchandizing.
Again, as before, the Missouri Lions (along with consumers and vendors) pushed the state legislature to pass the "Little Randolph-Sheppard Act." Some hailed the 1981 signing of the legislation by Governor Bond as one of the first in the nation. However, the fact that such a law was passed in Iowa ten years earlier emphasized the distance Missouri was behind in that area. In 1982 Bureau staff began to research and support the Kennelly amendment where locations could be placed at rest stops on federal highways. We hope that will pass the state legislature this session.
Missouri's vending program is highly cost effective. During the early 1980's, including vendors (managers) and their employees, more than 200 people worked in the fifty-plus locations. The entire program was threatened by the National Governor's Association in 1982 and could have been lost but for vigorous response across the nation. Imagine 4,000 blind persons plus their many employees out looking for a job.
Current locations include cafeterias, snack bars, gift shops, and vending banks. Manager turnover is low but may equate fifteen percent annually. Meanwhile, the program gross income is well over $1,000,000.
Funds for the program come from two sources. Vocational rehabilitation funds provide for purchase of major equipment. Smaller items for location start-up, such as inventory, are purchased from the "set-aside" (administrative fee), the ten percent each manager pays into BOMB, which provides bookkeeping services and some other management assistance. All BEP supervisors are state employees, as is one secretary. Two bookkeepers are BOMB employees.
Events in the last sixteen months have brought the program to a stalemate. Deprived of its leadership, training was completely suspended for approximately one year. Several persons could have been in the labor force by now, and judicious use of Section 504, P.L. 93112 been made.
The root of the problem may have been the Truman Building cafeteria. Some state officials apparently wanted an alcohol-selling downtown cafeteria that featured an executive dining room and night hours. Design and Construction Director Walter Johnson had a feasibility study done, which cost $20,000. The study alleged enormous potential for profit, while completely ignoring the reality of competition. A Jefferson City councilman tried to gain the contract, using his position and even gaining support from the Mayor. He was admittedly working for an Atlanta-based firm that has subsequently gone bankrupt.
Mr. Johnson himself alleged that no blind person could operate the cafeteria. The three Bureau employees who heard him make this absurd statement are no longer Bureau employees. One wonders if it is because his view was contested by them.
Numerous plans were proposed and meetings held to gain support of the Board of Public Buildings. Governor Bond, Lieutenant Governor Rothman, and then Attorney General Ashcroft delayed decision until the resolution they signed January 10, 1985, as they were exiting office. Thus, the three top officials in this state have had a significant hand in the circumstances.
Among the early proposals for service in the building was one costing approximately $60,000. We now understand that over $1,000,000 will be expended and that the business will be offered to a private contractor.
Unfortunately the Truman Building of Missouri is beginning to gain national recognition because of the manipulations. Department Director Joseph O'Hara has stated that the various proposals were just too much money to spend in order to employ one blind person. Taxpayers of Missouri are going to spend many times more and find that their dollars have bought equipment for one of the major food merchandising firms in the nation. One cannot help but wonder aloud: Is this a "pork barrel" project? If not, why was it not resolved in 1983 at far less cost?
The National Federation of the Blind of Missouri continues to try to ferret out answers and secure favorable decisions. The future of programs for the blind in the state will be greatly affected by how successful we are.