Braille Monitor August-September 1985
by Fred Wurtzel
(Note: Mr. Wurtzel, an active Federationist, is Lincoln's District Supervisor at the Nebraska Services for the Visually Impaired.)
For the past ten or so years Federationists have worked hard in Nebraska to build what many people believe is one of the best, if not the best, state agencies providing rehabilitation services to blind people in the nation. Nebraska Services for the Visually Impaired, or SVI as it is known, has built its programs on Federation philosophy an drawn heavily from the model which Federationists built and ran in Iowa.
In Nebraska, as in all states, the agency for the blind is funded through a matching formula process. The formula is simple: For each dollar Nebraska appropriates, the federal government will provide four dollars--up to a limit set by the Federal Education Department budget. The program, though operated by the state, must comply with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and its subsequent amendments and rules and regulations. Within the parameters of these federal laws and regulations, Nebraska has a considerable degree of flexibility. This flexibility is necessary in order properly to operate a quality program. Yet, this flexibility can be detrimental if not carefully watched.
For instance, Nebraska could elect to send blind clients to Arkansas Enterprises for the Blind or to the Minneapolis Society for the Blind rather than run a progressive center which promotes a positive attitude toward blindness. Nebraska could pay the full tuition for those clients choosing to attend the college of their choice. As it stands now, SVI will only pay up to the rate charged at the University of Nebraska. In other words, Nebraska and all other state rehabilitation programs can be as creative or as uncreative as they choose within the applicable rules and laws.
Nebraska has opted to separate rehabilitation of blind people from all other groups eligible for rehabilitation services under the law. The NFB has long advocated for this approach. This separation is desirable due to the specialized services needed by blind people and the uniqueness of these services. Experience has taught us that blind people get significantly poorer services in "umbrella agencies."
Recently here in Nebraska three related events have unfolded which threaten one of the last philosophically sound state agencies in the nation. First, LB-478 was introduced into the Nebraska Unicameral. Its intent is to consolidate SVI with the Division of Rehabilitation--the general agency. The bill was assigned to the Education Committee, which held a public hearing on the bill. Federationists testified. Federationists were magnificent. Our testimony was clear, factual, and informative. Students from the orientation center testified. Some of the students had received services (or NOT received services) in other states and eloquently contrasted the positive approach here with the less positive approach elsewhere. They told how "philosophy makes the difference."
It is clear that this bill did not mysteriously materialize in the Unicameral without prior priming. Jason Andrews, head of DRS (Division of Rehabilitation Services) has had a greedy eye on SVI for quite some time. In testimony Mr. Andrews claimed that this consolidation would save four to six hundred thousand dollars. Apparently Mr. Andrews possesses the ability to dream in technicolor since all administrative type costs--including administrative staff and all facility costs are less than three hundred thousand dollars! The only conclusion that can be drawn is that Mr. Andrews plans major cuts in program services to blind Nebraskans. The most obvious cut is the elimination of the orientation center. Another item in Mr. Andrews' pocket would be the Business Enterprise Program (BEP) which, it is clear, would include sighted operators in nonfederal locations thus reducing job opportunities for unemployed blind Nebraskans. By opening sheltered workshops for the blind, Mr. Andrews could make his productivity graphs look good by "employing" blind workers at subminimum wages. It's the same old story: reduced services, reduced jobs, reduced opportunities for blind people, while feathering the nest of a sighted bureaucrat.
The Education Committee voted twice on the bill. The vote was tied each time. The Committee won't consider the bill again until 1986.
Second, a resolution was passed by the Unicameral to study rehabilitation services in Nebraska. This could very well work to our advantage since the Committee can take the time to look closely at all the issues. This scenario played in Michigan with the result that Michigan now has a separate Commission for the Blind on whose board three of the five people MUST be blind. (We, the NFB, can take credit for that.)
The third event in this troublesome train is the indirect result of a state budget shortage. The Appropriations Committee made up a rather long list of targets for cuts. One of the Education Department recommendations was (you guessed it) to consolidate the agency for the blind with the general agency. This was nothing more than a cheap political trick on the part of Mr. Andrews and his friends to bypass the normal open and public procedures.
The plan was made public on Friday morning, May 23. Our President, Chris Roberts, acted decisively and effectively to do battle. The vote was scheduled for Tuesday, May 28, apparently well planned to thwart opposition since it was Memorial Day weekend and people would likely be scattered and preoccupied. The planners didn't know the NFB. A picket was planned, Federationists from other states were mobilized, press releases and leaflets were prepared, all chapters were contacted, all media were informed, signs were made, and the phones were buzzing as the strategy solidified. In true Federation style we were at the Capitol at 7:30 a.m. to greet the arriving senators and tell them our story. Again, the Federation prevailed, and no consolidation was recommended.
Special thanks to Iowa, which sent seven convention weary Federationists through the middle of the night to Nebraska. Thanks to Missouri who sent two welcome sojourners on a very long bus trip to Lincoln to support us in our battle. We had outstanding press coverage on all Lincoln television and Omaha television stations, most Lincoln and Omaha radio stations, and in most major newspapers statewide. It seemed as though reporters and photographers were everywhere! Jim Walker, our P.R. Chairman, did a great job. Not a little credit must go to Barbara Pierce and Ralph Sanders for teaching us what to do and how to do it.
I have lived in three states now (Michigan, Missouri, and now Nebraska). Each state agency has faced adversity from the politicians and the bureaucrats. There are certain constants. There is constant pressure from greedy bureaucrats like Jason Andrews who want what someone else has instead of using what they already have more effectively. There are constantly misinformed or ignorant politicians, such as Vard Johnson, sponsor of the consolidation bill. There is a separate agency for the blind. Most prevalent among these constants is a lack of understanding of the difference between quality services and efficient management.
The two ideals (quality services and efficient management) are not incompatible. In fact, quality service must include efficient management. However, efficient management can exclude such qualitative factors as a positive attitude toward blindness, a lack of paternalism and custodialism, a staff indoctrinated with a positive philosophy of blindness, a willingness to be creative in order to provide maximum opportunities for blind people, an effort to employ blind people at all levels within the structure of the agency, and a willingness and desire to listen to the ideas and view of blind consumers and citizens concerning policies, practices, and programs. These are factors which do not appear on organization charts, on productivity graphs, or on line item budgets. Yet, without these factors, the services provided will be substandard.
Unfortunately most blind Americans who need training to gain independence must depend upon these rather volatile and unstable state agencies for service. There may come a time when Federationists control and operate private high quality training services throughout the nation, but until then we must be ever vigilant and ready to defend quality agencies and challenge and improve poor agencies where they exist. We must also refrain from putting too much faith in any individual as the sole guardian of positive philosophy in programming. We each need to take the initiative in improving opportunities for all blind people. Most important we must keep the NFB strong and in a position to act quickly under any circumstances to further the interests of blind Americans. It is only as blind people speaking for ourselves that we have the right to determine how much and which services are needed. If there is any hope for Nebraska or any other state, it lies with us--the NFB--to insure a future of hope and promise.