Braille Monitor                                                                                July 1986

(back)(contents)(next)

Nightmare or Reality

by Joseph Van Lent

This article appeared in the Spring, 1986, Barricades, which is the publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa. Joe Van Lent is one of the very able and capable leaders of the NFBI. Despite all that has happened to Iowa's programs for the blind, there have been people who (until recent months) have claimed that the Iowa Commission for the Blind has remained unchanged and undiminished. This, of course, is not only nonsense, but pathetic nonsense. As a meaningful provider of services, the Iowa Commission for the Blind is dead. Symptomatic of the decline is the fact that the American Foundation for the Blind was invited to conduct a workshop for Commission staff members last year.

Because of the part the Iowa Commission for the Blind played in pioneering new concepts in work with the blind and because of the partnership which existed for many years between that agency and the blind themselves, we are publishing a detailed account of how the agency was destroyed. Note the part played by John Taylor. Also, note the determination which Joe Van Lent and the other Iowa Federationists expressed with respect to future action to reverse the damage and rebuild the agency. Iowa's programs for the blind have had a history of many chapters. There are chapters still to be written, and (hopefully because of the staying power and resolution of the organized blind of the state) those chapters will be more positive than the one which is related here. This is Joe Van Lent's account of what happened in the 1986 legislature:

How many of you at some time in your life had an event happen to you which made you wonder whether you were dreaming or actually watching something real? In fact, you may have even said to someone, "Pinch me. I must be dreaming."

Such was the case with the Iowa Commission for the Blind and the state reorganization plan this year. We go back, as dreams often do, into the past when the Iowa Commission for the Blind board changed the requirements for director so that their predetermined choice could be named director. This change made it possible to hire someone who had never worked with the blind and did not know anything about blindness or blind people. Many of us said then: "Pinch me. I must be dreaming." But we knew it wasn't going to be a pleasant dream. It was the start of a nightmare.

That was in 1981. Much has happened since then, but it has all been part of that same bad dream. The Governor and the Commission board wanted someone to "tame" the Commission--someone to make the Commission just like all the other state agencies. They never stopped to think that the success of the Commission was due to its unique partnership with Iowa citizens and its aggressive advocacy on behalf of the blind. They simply wanted the Commission to get into line and practice government as usual. If this resulted in harm to Iowa's blind, then that was just too bad. That was the way things were going to be. They got what they sought--government as usual--and they also got a typical state agency which sometimes helps, sometimes hurts, and mostly just talks about how good it is. And, in the process, they fractured the strong tradition of partnership and service and advocacy that had meant so much to so many blind Iowans. It was all part of the same bad dream.

In late 1985 Governor Branstad announced his plan to reorganize Iowa state government. As a part of this plan, the Governor recommended that the Iowa Commission for the Blind be eliminated as a separate agency and become a part of a larger "umbrella" agency, the new Department of Education. Blind people across the state reacted in one of two ways: Some were angry, knowing the meaning of the handwriting on the wall. Many were apathetic, believing that the good days in Iowa had never ended and would never end.

But the good old days for blind people in Iowa have ended. Anyone who thinks otherwise is simply living in a dream.

The Commission for the Blind board responded to the Governor 's recommendation by instructing the Commission director to advocate retaining the independent nature of the Iowa Commission for the Blind. But the Governor had other ideas for the Commission director. He was well aware that the Commission for the Blind was one agency that would be hard to reorganize out of existence. So he very cleverly appointed its director as head of a task force of state officials ordered to bring a Department of Human Rights into being. This Department of Human Rights, according to the Governor, should consist of a number of Human Services agencies which have historically been separate agencies. The heads of the task forces would very likely be the directors of the new agencies they brought into being--would be the directors, that is, if their performance during the 1986 legislative session pleased the Governor who could choose to appoint them or not. Thus, the Commission director was to bring about elimination of other state agencies while "advocating" for separate status for the Commission for the Blind.

Let us examine just how the Commission director handled this obvious conflict of roles. At a senate subcommittee hearing on the subject of reorganization the director was asked by a senator: "Will the services of the Commission for the Blind library be as good if the Commission is under the Department of Education?" Here was a clear opportunity to explain to the senators how important it was to keep the Commission for the Blind as a separate agency. The director could explain how the library reinforces rehabilitation; how rehabilitation benefits from the orientation center; how the orientation center draws strength from the library; how the vending program relies on the library; and how the interaction of all these programs under one completely independent administration brought about the strength and national reputation of Iowa's service program for the blind. The director could have "advocated" for a separate agency as the Commission board policy commanded. The director could even have put a little emotion into a plea to senators to leave alone the structure that had been found to serve Iowa's blind well. Instead, when asked if the library would be as good under an "umbrella," the director remained calm. No emotion was shown. The director did not "advocate." No lengthy response was given. The director did not explain how service areas at the Commission reinforced one another. No service areas were mentioned. She simply responded: "Yes, it would be." Was this a bad dream? Was this what the Commission board meant? Or was this an ambitious state employee looking for a little advancement?

Before this same group of senators, the director did show emotion. She did advocate. She did explain her reasoning with great clarity. When these things happened, services to the blind were not being discussed. One senator was very insistent that the Department of Human Rights should not be headed by the traditional director. Instead, he wanted the department head to be a "coordinator" with very limited powers over the divisions, each of which had once been a separate agency. The Commission director, serving as head of the task force bringing about the new department and its probable director, was asked to comment on this proposal. The director did not remain calm. She most certainly did advocate. She was impassioned and blunt. She heatedly told the senators that they certainly should not make the Human Rights director into a mere coordinator. If they did, said the director, then when directors of state agencies assembled for meetings, the Human Rights coordinator would be looked down on and told to go off and fix coffee for the directors.

When the senate committee voted, it voted to eliminate the Commission as a separate agency and to place it under the Department of Education. The vote was six to five. In the years when a partnership existed between blind Iowans and the agency serving blind Iowans, the Commission director would have advocated for a separate agency. The Senate would have voted to keep the Commission separate. In fact, in 1967, the director did and the Senate did just that. In 1986 there was no partnership. There was no advocacy by the director, and the Senate voted to kill the Commission.

Federationists do not give up easily. We went to work in the back halls of the Legislature-- particularly in the Senate--and soon there were more than thirty senators committed to vote "aye" for an amendment to preserve the Commission as the separate agency it has always been. The reorganization bill was scheduled to be discussed on the Senate floor the next morning. Federationists had, of course, been working hard to preserve the Commission's structure up to this point. We presented testimony. We attended hearings. We talked to legislators at the Capitol and at their homes. Other blind Iowans did the same. Up to the day we counted thirty senators, we heard only two comments about blind Iowans from the legislators and the Capitol lobbyists. One comment was that everyone was pleased the blind were working together this year. The other comment was that advocates for blind people were being very effective. Suddently, all this changed, too, and became part of the bad dream.

The night that Federationists counted thirty votes, John Taylor and several other blind people met with the chairman of the House State Government Committee, Jean Lloyd-Jones, whose committee would consider the reorganization bill as soon as the Senate had completed its work. Lloyd-Jones told Taylor that the Commission would have to be eliminated as a separate agency and asked whether Taylor would prefer the Department of Education or Department of Human Rights. This very question was one which Federationists expected. We discussed it at length at a state board meeting and decided as an organization that we would not be caught in any such trap. Whenever a Federationist was asked the phony question, "Which one?", we always answered, "Neither." We thought the matter out ahead of time and presumed politicians would try to trick us by pretending to present us with choices. The trick would be that they would leave out one choice, the choice we wanted. We knew that we would be told it was impossible to save the Commission. We Knew that politicians would say that we had to make hard choices. We knew that politicians would say that the Commission would have to be eliminated. But we had thought all this out. The only way to save the Commission's structure was to keep insisting that we had to have a separate agency and keep refusing to compromise.

John Taylor did not think the matter out.

When he was told he would have to make hard choices and that the Commission could not be preserved, he responded that, if the Commission had to go in another agency, he wanted to see it in the Department of Human Rights.

He hadn't thought it out. So he compromised.

John Taylor will tell you that he did not compromise. He will tell you how he tried to preserve the Commission. He will tell you he is a realist and knows when hard choices have to be made. But remember that six-to-five vote. Remember those thirty senators committed to a separate Commission. What happened next?

The morning after John Taylor's meetings with Jean Lloyd-Jones, every senator had heard that the blind had agreed to go into the Department of Human Rights. It was a major break for them. They could now eliminate the Commission according to the Governor's recommendation with the backing of some Iowa blind people. And now, for the first time in the 1986 legislative session, the blind began to receive criticism from legislators. On this morning and for the rest of the sessions, legislators complained that the blind were always fighting one another and would never get together to work for the same thing and nobody could ever satisfy them anyway. These gripings by Iowa legislators have now been revealed as a simple defense mechanism. When the legislators do not want to think about blindness and try to understand what blind constituents are saying, they simply say the blind are always fighting and nobody can satisfy them anyway.

The senators had their compromise. Almost all of those thirty senators changed their minds that day. They no longer supported a separate agency. Instead they supported an amendment to put the Commission for the Blind in the Department of Human Rights. That day the Iowa Commission for the Blind as a separate agency vanished for good. It was a bad dream for sure. What was worse, we knew how it had happened and couldn't stop it.

After the Senate passed its bill eliminating the Commission as a separate agency, the reorganization issue and Federationists moved to the House of Representatives. Here again Federationists worked hard to try to preserve the Commission as an independent agency. We soon found there was worse to come. Someone in the Legislature had taken a look at the Department of Human Rights as created by the Senate and noticed that the new department was dominated by the Commission, whose budget and staff were far greater than those of the other agencies. A plan had grown up to put the whole Department of Human Rights into the present Commission building by turning over two floors of the building to these new agencies. All of this would be done to save money. Federationists got immediately to work and prepared Position Paper 86-02 (explaining that sharing the building would cause a loss of federal rehabilitation funds), which was presented to Speaker of the House Avenson and later to all members of the House. The plan for sharing staff and building space died an instant death.

But there were nightmarish qualities even at this point, too. The plan had been discussed publicly at a Human Rights Appropriations Subcommittee meeting attended by Federationists. The Commission director was not at this meeting. The chairperson of the Human Rights Appropriations Subcommittee told Federationists that the Commission for the Blind building did not belong to the blind, it belonged to the State of Iowa and the blind had to realize they might have to share the building. However, the Federation quickly distributed the position paper. Then the Commission director once again showed some emotion. She hustled about in the back halls of the Legislature accusing the Federation of making up a vicious rumor that staff and building were to be shared so that the Federation could frighten people into supporting an independent agency. The Commission director was either unaware of the sharing plan (which is very unlikely) or was hoping to sneak the sharing plan into effect so that she could become the Human Rights director and keep her nice office at the Commission building while her new agencies came to her (the likely explanation for the director's anger).

Facing what now seemed to be overwhelming odds, Federationists continued to work for an independent Commission structure. Representative Florence Buhr of Des Moines proposed an amendment to save the Commission in the House State Government Committee. It was defeated. Representative Dale Cochran of Eagle Grove stepped up and gave his wholehearted support by proposing an amendment on the House floor to preserve the Commission as a separate agency. Representative Jack Holveck of Des Moines also lent his support, as did some other House members. Every courageous effort by these representatives to save the Commission was defeated by combined Democratic and Republican pressure added to the Commission director's efforts and the compromise by some blind people. The Commission director, building on this compromise and the political party pressure, assured House members that everything would be all right if the words "Commission for the Blind" were preserved as the designation for Iowa's blind service agency, even if everything else about the agency changed. This assurance, along with the compromise and the pressure, finally ended the hopes of blind Iowans for an independent agency in Iowa.

Despite the nightmarish dream, Federationists pinch themselves and know it is reality. We continued day after day to attend the state reorganization conference committee meetings long into the night. After much persuasion and talk, the Legislature decided that the Department of Human Rights was still so controversial that it should live for only one year. The law creating the department expires next year unless reenacted by the Legislature in 1987.

One question that must be asked in reflecting on the 1986 legislative session is: "What kind of service will blind Iowans receive?" One way to answer this question is to examine the quality of leadership at the agency serving the blind. During the legislative session, appropriations for services to the blind were discussed. The Legislature proposed to cut the Commission's appropriations from the Governor's recommended budget of $1,023,000 to $959,000, a savage cut which can only be explained by reference to the new Department of Human Rights. Legislators planned to fund the overall administration of the new department by taking money from the biggest agency in the new department--the Commission for the Blind. The slashing cut in Commission funds was publicly discussed on a Tuesday. The Commission for the Blind did not even find out about it until the following Friday. Then, legislators had decided that they had better not balance the budget of the new department on the backs of the people who had fought so hard to keep the Commission independent. They restored the money to the blind services budget, taking it from the budget of the residential schools for the blind and the deaf. The overall administration of the Department of Human Rights was thus balanced on the backs of the blind and deaf children instead of blind adults. But the Federation's prediction about "umbrella" agencies has already started to come true. The Governor and Legislature claim that reorganization will save money. Yet the first thing they do in creating this new department is to take money away from services to fund administration. Saving money by simply not spending it is one thing. Saving money by taking it from those who need it and giving it to already well-to-do state employees is quite another. Who needs help more, the Commission director or blind and deaf children?

The Federation worked hard in the 1986 Legislature to preserve the separate agency we know is efficient and cost effective. We worked virtually alone. We virtually won. We will be back again next year and the year after that until we achieve our purpose. The root of our nightmare, the event we have feared for years, has come to pass in Iowa. Once, for a short time, blind people were invited into the councils of government in Iowa. Our views were welcome. Our opinions were valued. No more. The Governor and the Commission board and the Commission director have worked together vigorously to put blind people back into the second-class status we worked so hard to leave. Iowa's atmosphere for blind people has regressed, so much so that one legislator told a Federationist that she should be "thankful" to have what she has. The blind are now commanded to stay in the corner and speak only in gratitude. What a different world from ten years ago.

People may differ in describing the road that brought us here. No one can dispute that we have moved backwards. Commission chairperson Arlene Dayhoff went out of her way to praise Nancy Norman and John taylor for the result of this year's legislative session. Federationists can only say to this: Amen. We certainly didn't do it. But we plan to undo it just as soon as we can.

Commission independence is gone. Budgeting authority is gone. Personnel decisions are gone. Exemption from Merit is gone. The Commission director will tell you that all these things are cloudy and depend on future interpretation of the law. But one thing is clear. The Commission for the Blind as we knew it is gone. Should the future of blind Iowans depend on legal interpretations and whims of administration? It will. Or it would if there were no National Federation of the Blind. The Federation will work until the future of blind Iowans is back in our own hands. As we have so often told the Commission director, she is sighted. She does not live in the world she so casually entered. She will leave someday. We will still be here, forced for the time to live under circumstances affected by her. But we will stay, and some day we will prevail. We must, or give up forever the belief that the blind are capable of first-class citizenship.

Our day of triumph will be nearer as more and more blind Iowans realize what has happened and join with us. Numerous non-Federationists telephoned Federation members throughout the legislative session. Many of these blind Iowans were members of other organizations or of no organization or were staff at the Commission. All were concerned about the Commission. Few worked to preserve it. But they cared enough to wonder what was happening. The only place they could find out what was happening was the National Federation of the blind. Someday, these men and women will move from curiosity to activism. Some day, they will join with us. And, when they do, the strength they add to the Federation will bring our day of triumph nearer. Until then, we shall continue to work for the good of all blind persons. We must.