Braille Monitor                                                                  December 1985


The Minneapolis Society for the Blind and NAC Six Years Later:
Who Won the Proxy War

by Joyce Scanlan

(The National Federation of the Blind has a sense of history. It takes the long view and is more concerned with final outcome than with individual battles. The following report was given at the 1985 convention of the National Federation of the Blind by Joyce Scanlan, President of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota and member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind. Federationists and non-Federationists alike shall read and ponder.)

Beside a picture of a man from the waist down, stepping off the curb into the street with a white cane extended, we read the following: "After November 14 you'll hear a lot more tapping on Hennepin Avenue. On November 14 an election will decide whether the National Federation of the Blind will take over the Minneapolis Society for the Blind.

"If they do, seventy-five to ninety percent of the blind clients and workers will be put out on the streets, ending sixty-two years of services. You see, the National Federation would like to exclude anyone who has handicaps in addition to blindness. What's more, many blind persons will lose their jobs. Even our whole building will close--which makes these suddenly your responsibilities instead of ours. That's why we need your help. Right now. Our bylaws require that you be a member to vote. And they also require that each member pay a dollar a year in dues.

"So please return the coupon with $1, and we'll contact you for your voting proxy. We will also give you information about the National Federation of the Blind's position and their proxy. But please hurry.

"If you don't tap your wallet for a dollar and return your membership application, hundreds of blind people will surely be tapping on Hennepin Avenue."

This shocking advertisement appeared in the Minneapolis Star on October 23, 1979. It was the first in a series of malicious and highly sensationalized pieces of media propaganda bought and paid for by the Minneapolis Society for the Blind for the sole purpose of keeping the blind from obtaining any voice in the Society's operation as the result of the court ordered election scheduled for November 14, 1979.

The ad which has been quoted was followed by this one on October 28: The picture shows a pair of hands placing dark glasses over a person's eyes. The text reads in part: "If it's hard to face most of our blind people thrown out on the street, we can help you hide." Then, after the same attacks on the Federation and the same plea for help, the ad continues: "If you don't face up to the problem now, you'll see a lot more faces on the street."

For the period July 13, 1979 (when the Minnesota Supreme Court decreed that the Minneapolis Society for the Blind had violated state law and discriminated against blind people) until November 14, 1979, (when the court ordered election of the Society's officers and board members took place) was filled with frequent court appearances, encounters with the media over scurrilous attacks by the Society upon the National Federation of the Blind and its leaders, and vigorous and heroic efforts to gather votes to win representation on the Society's board. In the first ever proxy campaign we (the organized blind) found ourselves pitted against the entire agency establishment of the nation, with an estimated net worth of a half billion dollars and its professional staff, whose greatest fear was that it might lose its perceived control over the lives of blind people. Foremost among the agencies was NAC (the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped) with its Executive Director, Richard Bleecker. He, together with Society Executive Director Jesse Rosten and Society President Richard Johnstone spearheaded a nationwide campaign junket to drum up support, with the Society alone spending $150,000-at least, that's what they admitted spending. Money, time, and prestige were lavishly provided to arm twist blind people and the sighted population into signing proxies for the Society. In terms of sheer members the Society might claim it had a margin--24,000 for the Society and 14,000 for the Federation. However, even with that, certain facts raise such questions that any higher numbers become virtually meaningless.

Prior to the election (before the court ordered the Society to hand over to us the proxies and other election materials) the Society had unilateral control over all proxies. Federation proxies had to be in ten days before the election while the Society continued to accept proxies for itself. The court ordered examination of the proxies revealed at least eighteen percent of our proxies were measured by criteria which were different from those applied to Society proxies. Many of our proxies were erroneously disqualified. We have confirmed that many Society proxies were not accompanied by the required dollar for membership dues. Also, many of the Society's numerous mailings did not include the required Federation proxy and information sheet. Of the more than one million proxies mailed out by the Society in Minnesota alone, only 17,000 (or two percent) were returned. Outside Minnesota, the Society received 6,500 proxies to the Federation's 11,500. As for the "National Referendum," which was so loudly proclaimed during the election campaign as the touchstone which would determine who speaks for the blind, the Federation had sixty-four percent of the national vote--a veritable landslide by most election measurements.

Thus, numbers alone tell us very little about the outcome of the election. Even the numbers gained the Federation eight seats on the Society's board--eight more than we had ever before held.

At the time of the proxy campaign in 1979 (if one is to judge by their behavior at the NAC board meeting in Oklahoma City that November) Rosten, Johnstone, and Bleecker were confident that they had thoroughly defeated the Federation. As Rosten put it: "We got more votes, and I still have my job." Johnstone's bluster was surpassed only by his estrangement from the truth as he gave his version of the status of work with the blind in a speech before the NAC meeting. Their jobs and power over the field of blindness were what really mattered to NAC and the Minneapolis Society.

As far as the blind are concerned, there is much, much more to the outcome of the election and to the whole series of changes which have occurred in the six years since the proxy battle. Let's talk about jobs first since that was so important to Jesse Rosten. At the NAC meeting Rosten was bragging about still having his job. Well, he shouldn't have done that--because in September of 1980 Rosten was parted from his employment at the Society. From the rather pleased reactions of Society staff people, it seems clear that the decision for Rosten's departure was not entirely his own.

Mel Saterbak, who replaced Rosten as Society Executive, lasted until 1983, when Jane Pazlar stepped into the position. Incidentally, September of 1980 was also when Bill Gallagher replaced Gene Apple as Director of the American Foundation for the Blind. Dick Bleecker lost his seat as head of NAC to Dennis Hartenstine in 1983. Then, Dick Johnstone was moved aside as chairman of the Society board. His successor was John Crother. So, you see, the Society's ad about "a lot more faces on the street" proved to be true--except instead of the faces of blind people, they were the faces of ousted agency executives. During the past six years the Society has been plagued with staff turnover throughout its rehabilitation program. Even many long-term staff members at the rehabilitation center have left. The Society board has also undergone great changes in faces since 1979. Of course, our eight Federation representatives served until 1982, when they resigned amid widespread publicity concerning the Society's unwillingness to operate openly and permit the board to act in a policy setting capacity. While our people served, the board consisted of sixteen blind members out of thirty. Two officers were blind. Today, we are told by a staff person that only three or four of the voting board members are blind. We know of several blind members of the Society board who resigned in disgust when they too realized that their presence counted for little in the way of meaningful participation. Before the proxy fight six years ago, the Society was the only show in town as far as blindness was concerned. Almost every blind citizen of Minnesota sooner or later encountered the Society, and the metropolitan community of Minneapolis and St. Paul thought of the Society first when questions about blindness arose. Then, as a result of the publicity surrounding the proxy fight and the lawsuit which continued beyond the proxy fight, the community learned that there were two dramatically opposed philosophies of blindness and that blind people don't agree with the image of the helpless, hopeless blind portrayed by the Society.

We learned that if we were going to change public attitudes toward blindness, we had to do something about removing the Minneapolis Society for the Blind from its position of recognition as the expert in the area. The election campaign had cost us less than $5,000, but when we were confronted with the Society's $40,000 ads with their degrading portrayal of blind people wallowing in the gutters of the city, we began to understand that a gigantic task was out there waiting for us.

We were now ready to take this business of public education seriously. A specific brochure called, "Why Minnesota's Blind Don't Always See Eye to Eye," was prepared and widely circulated. It lined up the Society and the Federation side by side and drew graphic comparisons as to the structure, membership, philosophy, governing body, funding sources, and purpose. We also circulated a huge quantity of Federation literature, especially the "What is the NFB" pamphlet.

Our efforts to make educational presentations and show films to community organizations and schools were increased. We offered our services to human service agencies, employers, etc. to do training seminars about blindness. For more than three years we employed a person as Director of Educational Programs to coordinate all community relations efforts. And we began publication of The Blindside, a newsletter to provide information about blindness to the public. That newsletter has won awards in several public relations categories, and we have received recognition for our total public relations program. Articles from our newsletter have been reprinted by human service groups and by other public newspapers. Our articles have inspired editorial comment from all around the state. We have tried to promote blind people and what they are doing. Problems have been dealt with also, but our main goal was to present the Federation in a positive light and to help the public understand what really is important to blind people. The Society had a vested interest in presenting the blind as needy and helpless. After all, if blind people don't need the Society, the Society might go out of business--and all of the professionals would lose their jobs. Our best option at the time seemed to be to work on the general public--introducing the need for blind people to share in community life, presenting the Federation as the guiding force in our lives, and showing how the Federation is in the forefront of social change with respect to blindness.

You may wonder if we have abandoned our efforts to reform the Society, this fine NAC accredited agency. No, we haven't. We're simply attacking from a different direction. We're convinced that our educational blitz has been extremely successful, for there have been other changes which have taken place with the Society--changes which greatly affected blind people.

The Society, too, launched a public relations crusade. It put together a very slick looking and high priced packet to promote a program it called: "Partners in Freedom." A newsletter entitled: 20/20 also appeared. Always the Society's publicity stressed the importance of the agency and its funding. Conspicuously underplayed is the role of blind people. Federationists have been on the alert for reprints of articles from 20/20 or editorial comments as the results of some 20/20 article. In examining newspaper articles carefully, we have seen no public response whatsoever to Society promotional efforts. It is clear from comments by Society staff and board members (even at the time of the proxy battle) that everyone recognized the potential damage of the Society's ad campaign, not only to the image of blind people, but also to the standing of the Society in the community. The meager publicity efforts to salvage the Society's good name could not undo the damage caused by the desperate campaign tactics to "guilt" the public into signing proxies for the Society. If the Society was to survive and those professional jobs be maintained, far more stringent measures than mere publicity about this wonderful institution were required. The Society has never been effective or comfortable dealing with blindness. It has never been willing or able to respond to the changing and rising expectations of the blind population. In all of our best efforts to describe how negative the Society's attitudes toward blindness really are, the Federation has never accomplished what the Society did on its own behalf in those ads. Although NAC and Bleecker were credited by Johnstone with providing help to the Society in fighting the Federation, NAC (in the reaccreditation report for the Society in 1980) termed the ads unfortunate for the Society.

In one of the ads the Society offered to help the public "hide" from its responsibility of taking care of blind people. As circumstances have developed, it is the Society which is searching for a way to "hide"--to hide from embarrassment, to hide from its past, to hide from blind people. How could this charitable agency escape from the situation it had created for itself? Richard Johnstone's statement in 1979 before the NAC meeting that agencies must be "business oriented" has been implemented at the Society. Jane Pazlar, the current chief executive officer, has no background in rehabilitation. Her experience with blindness has been as a Society board member only. When Tom Hansen left as head of the rehabilitation center in early 1984, the position was not filled until very recently. More and more blind Minnesotans are obtaining adjustment to blindness training from programs in other states. Services for the Blind, the state agency which has traditionally purchased adjustment training services from the Society, was not pleased with the shift away from a rehabilitation perspective. Before 1979 blind residents of Minnesota had little hope of receiving training anywhere but at the Society.

What else could the Society do to hide from its unsavory past? It could change its name. In 1984 a supposedly new agency appeared on the scene. It was called MSB. We have been told that those letters actually stand for nothing. The new name is MSB. Yet, most publicity gives the name this way--"MSB, formerly the Minneapolis Society for the Blind." 3M never has to explain what its name means. IDS never has to explain its. Why should they? They have no identity problem. MSB does. If blind people had become disenchanted with MSB and had become successful in finding training elsewhere, what was MSB to do for clients? A new market had to be found. Low vision! No more blindness! A brand new area, where people's sight can be improved through the use of high priced gadgetry. MSB has made a desperate attempt to sell this low vision idea to the state agency so that clients' low vision services could be paid for just as rehabilitation services had been.

But the state wouldn't bite. MSB has now gone to Hennepin County, complaining that it needs a contract to provide emergency-type rehabilitation services to blind people--because the state agency cannot offer such services. The county has signed a short-term contract--which, we believe, will not be renewed when it is learned that the state does, indeed, fund all of the services blind people need, and that in fact MSB has misled the county in order to open a new funding source for its low vision program. Citizens aren 't going to be happy about paying for services for the blind through their state and federal taxes, and through their property taxes to the county as well. MSB may have believed that working with the county would be easier than dealing with the state agency since the county would of necessity regard MSB as the expert. Thus, MSB could establish its own eligibility criteria.

There is another reason why MSB may feel a need to develop a new source of clients and funding. In an attempt to upgrade rehabilitation services for the blind in Minnesota, we (the organized blind) have worked to pass legislation requiring the state agency to promulgate a rule detailing all services available--eligibility, standards for contracting agencies, and the whole body of information we need in order to know what services we can expect from our agency. It has been a lengthy process, and several drafts of the rule have been proposed. One of the early versions (which was totally unacceptable) contained the requirement for NAC accreditation, did not mention the word "blind," and emphasized low vision and restoration services--just to name a few of its shortcomings. Obviously MSB had been hard at work on the rule writers. However, Federationists did not stand still. We undertook to persuade a number of officials that that particular draft would not meet specifications in terms of resolving problems the rule was intended to deal with. The most recent draft is much improved: No more NAC; "blind" is back; low vision and restoration services have been relegated to their appropriate priority level; and the standards included are those which we the blind developed. MSB has probably read the writing on the wall. Its habitual behavior of manipulation, intimidation, flimflam, and downright dishonesty will not bring back the steady flow of clients and dollars from the state.

Who won the proxy fight? One general comment is possible. The states of all parties involved in the 1979 struggle has changed. NAC, with its new personnel, is attempting to alter its approach and take a less confrontive stance than in the days of Bleecker. NAC, too, longs for a new image. A struggle to persuade Federation leaders to cease criticism of NAC has been under way for some time now. As to whether there has been any substantive change in NAC and its standards for dealing with the blind, the jury is still out. MSB has almost left blindness. It has almost fled from the field, moving into the business of dispensing low vision devices. Its former position of supremacy and power has been blown away. Jane Pazlar, the MSB chief executive officer, refuses to appear before the organized blind at conventions--always some excuse. But, then, can you really blame her? What could she say? And about what since she knows little or nothing about blindness?

The most outstanding result of the MSB/NFB proxy fight is what has happened to blind people ourselves. I suppose we were all a little frightened in the proxy campaign--wondering whether we should even undertake such an overwhelming task, doubtful as to any success we might have. Now, however, there can no longer be any doubt whatsoever. We have proved to ourselves and to the rest of the world, including NAC and MSB, that we can take on the established agencies and win. Our standing in the community is higher than ever before, and we have replaced MSB and NAC as the authority on blindness.

People don't very often ask anymore: "What is the National Federation of the Blind?" They know. And they know also that the Federation is the organization which is truly in touch with blind people.

As a result of our ultimate victory in the proxy campaign blind people have learned that there really is widespread support among the sighted population for our independence and acceptance as first-class citizens. It was to MSB's advantage to keep the blind in the background--helpless, powerless, and unnoticed. It was to our benefit to emerge--free from agency control, with choices for our lives (among which we will decide), and with a fuller understanding of our own potential as normal people. It no longer matters what MSB and NAC believe about Federation philosophy and Federation policy. We can sell those to the sighted public. Perhaps one day, when they no longer have a vested interest in keeping us down, MSB and NAC will join with us. Until then, though, we're on our way and making progress. Our greatest success has been in learning to deal with agencies by removing them as the most important factor in our lives. We can go much farther by working on public attitudes; and as expectations for blind people on the part of the public increase, we can force the agencies either to shape up and come into the modern age or go "play in another sandbox."

The proxy business was only a small skirmish in a tiny battle of a much greater war. It was important for indicating to the blind of the country that we have unlimited potential and that we have far greater resources for handling our lives than anyone (especially we) ever realized. We have leadership with the wisdom to understand the difference between a battle and a war, so we will keep on fighting until the war has been won and our goals achieved.