Braille Monitor                                                                  October 1985

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Progress in Alaska

Remarks Delivered by
James Omvig, Director
Louise Rude Center for Blind and Deaf Adults
Anchorage, Alaska

At the Convention of the National Federation of the Blind Louisville, Kentucky, July 4, 1985 What we're really going to do is talk about a partnership of progress. As I think about the title, I wish we had call it a "Partnership of Progress for Blind People in Alaska. " What we're really going to discuss is the partnership which exists between the agency which I now head and the National Federation of the Blind of Alaska, for I simply wouldn't be there had it not been for the National Federation of the Blind of Alaska and the good and hard work which had been done. I believe, incidentally, that every agency serving blind people ought to be involved in a partnership with the blind.

A wise and ancient proverb says that if you give a person a fish, you can feed him or her for a day. If you teach that same individual how to fish, you have fed him or her for a lifetime. And that's really what we're talking about, and what we hope to do. Along that line, I believe that every agency serving blind people has a philosophy. Now, many of them do not happen to state it-- certainly not publicly. You've got to arrive at what their philosophy is by implication in terms of what they do.

Our philosophy--at least, since I came to the Louise Rude Center--is this: (Some of you may have heard it before.) Blind people are simply ordinary, normal human beings, and with proper training and real opportunity, the average blind person can cut it on terms of equality with the average sighted person. That's what we're going to talk about at the Louise Rude Center.

By way of history, until seven and a half years ago blind adults from the state of Alaska who were in need of rehabilitation training were sent, as we native Alaskans say, "outside" for rehabilitation, services. And that meant being sent down to the Seattle Lighthouse or the old Washington State

Services for the Blind--sometimes to Little Rock, Arkansas--a variety of fine training centers for blind adults around this nation. (Laughter)

It caused problems for blind people in two senses; First of all, that meant that blind Alaskan adults had to be gone from home for long periods of time. Secondly, the training received was not necessarily all that hot. Louise Rude happened to be an individual who got sent "outside" for training. And, as Louise tells me, the two things were problems for her. She was gone too long, and the training wasn't all that hot.

When she came back to Alaska she became very active in the National Federation of the Blind affiliate in that state and became its President. Sandy Sanderson also got sent "outside" for training and has horror stories to tell about what he saw happening to blind people in the training center to which he was sent. So Sandy and Louise started a campaign. I guess it was around 1975. They began to say, "Let us establish a rehabilitation training center; an orientation center type training program in the state of Alaska."

The Federation got behind that, got community support, got Lions Club support, got legislative support--got support, incidentally, from the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation; and ultimately it was decided that a training center should be established. It was decided to establish a private training center rather than to set up simply a state operated center such as most states do. It took a long time to get it done. Finally, in December of 1977, the program was established; and just to be very clear about the structure, the basic services for blind adults in Alaska still come through the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. There is no separate agency for blind people in the state. The Louise Rude Center plays the role of the orientation and adjustment center for the state. We're not involved in vocational training or in job placement services. We're the prevocational training center. And it was decided by somebody (also at that time) that if we're going to train blind adults in Alaska, we should also train deaf adults in Alaska. So an agency came into being called the Louise Rude Sensory Impairment Center. The name, we have all decided, wasn't all that hot. When I got there, the letterhead had huge letters "SIC," and a lot of blind people and deaf people said: "I'm not sick. Are you?" People didn't like it much.

So you note that none of the things we have done already is to change the name. It is now the Louise Rude Center for Blind and Deaf Adults. It is a private agency. Also, by way of history, at that time it was decided that this new training program should be put under something. There was fear on the part of state officials that the new program might not know precisely what it was doing, so it was put under a nonprofit agency called the Alaska Treatment Center--which is a physical medicine rehabilitation-type facility.

So that was 1977 when the program started. The directorship came vacant last summer, and I was contacted about whether I would have any interest in leaving the Social Security Administration and coming to Anchorage. It had been the furthest thing from my mind, and although I happen to love Alaskans and had enjoyed being a national representative at an Alaskan convention, and although I have always loved training people and being involved in direct orientation of blind adults, I had not planned on going to Alaska--but I got excited about it and went.

Let me tell you what I found and what progress we have made. The program was underfunded, understaffed, underdeveloped, virtually unknown--and I could go on and on. We had in the program for blind adults a part-time secretary and three part-time orientation teachers. No money to really do training, and not much money for anything else. There were three blind students at the center. We have six rooms counting a kind of a common home economies area; three classrooms; and three staff offices. That is what I found when I came.

Now, let me talk about some things which have happened since, and I think you'll find these to be exciting. We certainly do. Well, one more thing that I should add in terms of what I found. It was a day training program only--no residential training facility. Students simply come in during the day and leave, and we all know that that sometimes is a problem in running a good orientation center.

These things have now happened. As of July 1, we separated out from under the Alaska Treatment Center and are a private separate entity, a nonprofit corporation operating in the state.

Incidentally, many of you here know Mr. Darrel Nather. He is the First Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind of Alaska. He is the President of the board of the corporation. Then, we took off for Juneau. For those of you who do not know about Alaska, it's interesting. You have to fly to the state capital. You cannot go there by car. I suppose you could by dog sled in the winter time. You can't by car.

We took off for Juneau, and just to make a very long story short, we have now doubled the budget so that as of July 1 we will have twice the operating budget which we would have had had I, as the Director, and the Federation, as the organized blind movement, not gone to Juneau to work directly on the state legislators. What that means is that the program for the blind will now have five full-time orientation teachers rather than three part-time teachers. And we'll have money to buy a lot of equipment which is needed, and a variety of other things. Also, we have now signed a contract to buy a building to have a residential training center for the blind.

I received some real happy news last night. I had been fairly frustrated and wondered if I could even come here because we were in a crisis over a whole series of building permits, zoning permits, safety permits, fire permits, and other permits. I learned last night that we got the last final permit yesterday for construction.

We're remodeling an existing apartment facility, and we should be in that probably no later than October 1--and I would hope sooner than that. The building will be able to house up to sixteen students at any one time, and we'll have space in there for the staff offices and all of the training facility. We're going to be working to try to get involved more in job placement activity and a whole lot of public relations effort. We've started that already.

Sandy and I both have become very much involved in Lions activity and attendance at the state Lions convention.

We're trying to get funds from the Lions organizations to help equip the building properly, and we're confident that that will be done.

I've made public service television spots. I have kind of a moral dilemma. It's good up there to get the spots about the training center on television because the Center was not well known in the state when I came. We also need to get the NFB spots on television. I guess that means that what we've got to do is work and get both on television-- and we'll do it. We've been out speaking to a lot of Lions clubs and Rotary clubs and are quite rapidly becoming known in the state.

Two other things that are not directly related to the Center program. Louise Rude never seems to give up. She's the one who worked so hard to get the orientation center established, and she figures that's now off in somebody else's hands. She's got new things to do. She's been working hard to establish a radio reading service for the blind in Alaska, which we have never had before. It is our hope that that service will be a reality within the next few months.

Here is something that is, I think, fairly unique, and some other affiliates and some other agencies may wish to do the same thing. We all know that the real problem we face as blind people is the attitude which exists in society. We know that we have a tremendous job to do to educate people to the truth about blindness. We also, incidentally, need Braille transcribers. So, we have set up a program. I was involved in establishing it. One of our staff members

(Pascal Lambert, who is here at the convention) has been involved in it. Sandy and Louise have been involved in it. This summer we started a class at Anchorage Community College. What we are doing is teaching philosophy about blindness and then teaching Braille to people who want to come to that class.

It is a full-fledged college credit class at Anchorage Community College. Pascal Lambert is the head professor if you will. I will make appearances there. Sandy will, and others will. We're going to do a lot of educating about blindness in the next little while. Obviously there is good literature to use in such a class. If you're going to try to teach the public about blindness, what better literature would there be than the literature of the National Federation of the Blind? The class is going extremely well this summer. It is now fully scheduled to continue on and on. It's scheduled for sure in the fall. It's a permanent three-credit-hour class. So that's again an exciting thing that's really on a different front from the training center, but part of the progress which we're making.

As I said, I think we are making progress because of the partnership. I would conclude my remarks simply by saying this: We know who we are, and we will never go back.