Lighthouse for the Blind Closes Sheltered Shop and Feels that It Got a Bum Rap by Kenneth Jernigan
In the fall of 1995 The Lighthouse, located in New York City, decided to close its sheltered workshop and try to help able-bodied blind employees find work in the regular competitive market. Even though it would seem hard to quarrel with this action as a basic concept, some did.
In its December, 1996, issue, The Braille Forum, a publication of the American Council of the Blind, raked The Lighthouse over the coals. In an article titled, "Choice: Not Just for the Chosen Few," the Forum accused The Lighthouse of everything from robbing workshop employees of their right to make choices to a deliberate effort to try to prevent them from getting work in another sheltered setting. As will be seen from the article, which we reprint here in full, the language is anything but dispassionate.
We have never hesitated to criticize agencies doing work with the blind when we have thought it necessary. But we do not publish inadequately researched, politically motivated, biased articles, which (though they fit the classic definition of "muck-raking") try to disguise themselves as investigative reporting. Such tactics do nothing but create strife and ill will.
Before turning to the text of the Forum article, it might be worthwhile to examine some of its specifics. In the third paragraph from the end, there is a sentence which reads: "The Lighthouse said that the only choice these workers had was to give up their jobs and collect a benefit check--or to accept work in substandard conditions." Regardless of what The Lighthouse management might have felt, is it really reasonable to believe that a Lighthouse official would have said what is alleged? This speaks to the tone and flavor of the Forum article.
And so does a passage close to the beginning. The second paragraph reads as follows: "There is a controversy raging inside agencies serving the blind regarding the merits of operating ■facility-based employment■ for blind people." Regardless of how often one meets politically correct language, it is always just as distasteful as it was the last time. It attempts to deceive by using high-flown language.
As to the present instance, in case you are not familiar with it, "facility-based employment" is simply the latest way of trying to sugar-coat the term "sheltered workshop." Let me not be misunderstood. Sheltered workshops may be good or bad. But we shouldn't try to pretend by terminology that they are what they are not. A sheltered shop is a sheltered shop, and it must stand or fall on its own merit without the prop of a linguistic crutch.
By way of background, The Lighthouse was established in 1906 by two sisters, Winifred and Edith Holt. Its purpose was to help blind persons get opera tickets, and The Lighthouse still runs a music school. Later it established a sheltered workshop, and somewhere along the way it began to recruit volunteers to do reading and recording for blind persons. Barbara Silverstone, the president and chief executive officer of The Lighthouse, says that in addition to its New York City operation The Lighthouse is expanding its scope to the national and international stage. Among other things, this includes training of professionals to work with people who have low vision.
But back to the article in the December issue of The Braille Forum. Here it is in full:
Choice: Not Just for the Chosen Few by Donald Moore
(Editor's Note: The author is a former president of the American Council of the Blind of New York. He currently serves as vice chairman of the board of Industries for the Blind in New York state.)
There is a controversy raging inside agencies serving the blind regarding the merits of operating "facility-based employment" for blind people.
While the goal of integrating blind workers into the mainstream sounds good, the reality can be much different and should raise serious questions among those concerned with the continued employment and independence of blind workers. With 70 percent of all blind working-age people unemployed, mainstreaming today is more of a wish than a viable option, especially for those without a college education. As you'll see, it all comes down to the question, "Who should choose what's right for blind workers, the workers themselves or the people holding executive positions at blindness agencies?"
Having just passed the anniversary after The Lighthouse, Inc. in New York City chose to close its workshop, thus displacing fifty-five blind workers, it seems fitting to look at what "choice" really can mean.
The Lighthouse decided that its workshop facility should close so that workers could be retrained and integrated into the mainstream job market. That was the reasoning of its leaders. The workers had virtually no say in the decision. The Lighthouse was also facing a need to quickly raise cash because of additional expenses incurred in paying for what some considered unnecessary and extravagant expenditures on The Lighthouse headquarters building on East 59th Street in Manhattan.
The Lighthouse's answer to its cash-flow concerns? Firing the blind people and selling the land and building in Long Island City in which they worked.
The employees were given notice and told it was for their good. This despite the fact that they clearly wanted to work, and those who had been in charge of the former Lighthouse facility wanted to continue working as well. Furthermore, the operation had been generally operating at break-even or profitable levels.
This was a clear example of how a blindness agency's pursuit of theoretical ideals can run roughshod over a blind individual's right to choose what is best for him or her. Being blind or becoming blind does not--and should not--rob a human being of the ability to determine where, how, and if one will work to support oneself.
The Lighthouse workers were very concerned about their loss of employment and ultimately contacted Jean Mann, president of the American Council of the Blind of New York, with their concerns. Jean contacted The Lighthouse, asking that it reconsider its decision to shut down the manufacturing operation, but to no avail. Jean then spoke with Steven Ennis, the president of Industries for the Blind of New York State, and, with me in my capacity as the vice chairman of the Board of Industries for the Blind, and-- together with National Industries for the Blind--helped to form a new organization to employ these displaced blind workers.
The first meeting with the former Lighthouse employees was held last fall after work in a modest diner in Queens, New York, where several of us involved with the new enterprise tried to give them some hope. We told them of our plan to start a new shop--from scratch, if necessary--and told them what we'd done so far to get the shop off the ground. After listening to different employees tell their stories, I felt really good knowing that we were trying to offer them the option of employment rather than unproductivity and unemployment. I feel good knowing we were working to give them what they wanted--jobs.
Dr. Barbara Silverstone, CEO of The Lighthouse, Inc., promised her board of directors that she would find competitive employment for all the former Lighthouse employees. However, employment never materialized for most of them. Several received training, but that was for jobs that would have paid them less than they could earn at the former workshop and with worse hours.
The negotiations with The Lighthouse were really difficult. Dr. Silverstone apparently felt that her reputation would be tarnished if a new blind workshop--which the former Lighthouse employees wanted--were to open and operate in New York City. Rather than allowing for a smooth transition of the Lighthouse's former blind employees to a new workshop employer, The Lighthouse created one obstacle after another to try to prevent the new workshop from functioning.
Even though The Lighthouse was shutting down its workshop and selling the property, it determined not to sell some essential equipment to New York City Industries for the Blind that the facility would need to function appropriately. NYCIB has since purchased some of that equipment from those to whom The Lighthouse sold it.
New York City Industries for the Blind, Inc., is open and has already been able to re-hire all the former Lighthouse employees who wanted employment, plus some additional people. Last June Jean Mann and I visited the workshop and were flattered to receive plaques from the employees thanking us for ACB of New York's help in getting the workshop off the ground.
Today New York City Industries for the Blind is celebrating its successful progress as a new employer of blind people under the dynamic leadership of Rick Bland, the former Lighthouse workshop director.
The moral is that blind people are no different from anyone else when it comes to their right to choose how they will live their lives and that they are willing to fight to be able to make their own choices. The Lighthouse said that the only choice these workers had was to give up their jobs and collect a benefit check--or to accept work in substandard conditions.
If blind social workers and blind agency executives have the right to choose where and how they work, why not blind workers? As one NYCIB employee put it, "Not every blind person can go to college, but that doesn't mean we should be told we're not entitled to work."
New York City Industries for the Blind is living proof that choice is important for every blind person, not just the chosen few.
That is the article as it appeared in the December, 1996, Braille Forum. And as might be expected, The Lighthouse was not amused. Under date of January 2, 1997, Barbara Silverstone wrote to Nolan Crabb, Editor of The Braille Forum. She said in part:
Recently I received two communications in the same mail from the American Council of the Blind: the first, a request for a donation from The Lighthouse to support The Braille Forum; the second, the December, 1996, issue of The Braille Forum with an article on page 18 that includes grossly distorted and incorrect information about The Lighthouse. I am bewildered that you did not choose to check out the facts before printing this article...
I am enclosing an article entitled "Facts from The Lighthouse," which I am requesting be printed in its entirety in the next issue of The Braille Forum.
So said Barbara Silverstone, and at the time of this writing (late January) I don't know whether her request will be granted. Be that as it may, here is the full text of what she asked the Forum to print:
Facts from The Lighthouse, Inc. by Barbara Silverstone, President
Donald Moore's article in the December, 1996, issue of The Braille Forum contains inaccurate information about The Lighthouse, Inc., and the circumstances surrounding the reorganization of its career services program over the past two years. The following FACTS are presented so that the readers of The Braille Forum can be fully and accurately informed.
FACT #1. After lengthy study and as part of its strategic planning, the Lighthouse Board of Directors decided in the Fall of 1995 to phase out its sheltered workshop for fifty-seven able-bodied, legally blind workers in Long Island City and to move its work activity program for fifty workers who have multiple disabilities to The Lighthouse facility in Woodside, Queens. Now, one year later, Lighthouse Industries has been closed, the work activity program, as an enhanced therapeutic employment program, is thriving in its new quarters, and Lighthouse consumer and professional product catalog operations have been reorganized and expanded under the banner of Lighthouse Enterprises.
FACT #2. Training and career placement opportunities were offered to all fifty-seven able-bodied, legally blind workers. All workers who accepted The Lighthouse's career- placement assistance have been kept on the payroll until internships could be provided, and their former salaries were maintained through their internships. All others received comprehensive severance or retirement packages. Each worker made his own choice. A number of workers declined training and placement assistance and opted to wait for employment with New York City Industries for the Blind, which was in formation. Fifteen workers chose retirement. Four have completed training and/or internships and are now working in competitive jobs at salaries higher than their pay at Lighthouse Industries. Eleven other individuals are in various stages of training for competitive jobs.
FACT #3. The closing of Lighthouse Industries was a philosophical, not a financial, decision. In short, the Lighthouse commitment to a philosophy of inclusion in the workplace for all able-bodied legally blind workers cannot, and does not, support the sheltered workshop concept.
The Lighthouse subsidized Lighthouse Industries for many years so that a workshop option could be available for unemployed, legally blind workers. The Lighthouse decided to end this subsidy and devote its financial and personnel resources to career training and placement in competitive jobs for the following reasons: - Passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and accompanying increased receptivity of employers. - Increased job opportunities in the service and information industries offering better pay and benefits accrued from working in the mainstream. - Advances in adaptive computer technology. - Marked growth in the Lighthouse career training and placement capacity.
FACT #4. The Lighthouse did consider the desires of able-bodied legally blind workers--the workers of tomorrow. Consultations with representatives from all secondary schools in the New York City area which serve students with impaired vision, and the job goals expressed by applicants for placement, revealed that the youth of today are not interested in workshop employment or workshop training opportunities.
FACT #5. The demand for competitive employment opportunities by legally blind adults is increasing, as is the receptivity of employers. In the last two years Lighthouse career staff have placed 160 individuals in competitive employment in a wide range of jobs in the industrial, service, and office sectors. Only a fourth of the positions required college preparation. The demand for training and internships is growing, and The Lighthouse is expanding its career-training and placement staff. The Lighthouse also recently opened a customer service training program at its Queens facility and continues to offer competitive employment opportunities at its newly opened Lighthouse Enterprises and in SPECTRUM, The Lighthouse Store, located in Manhattan.
FACT #6. While Lighthouse Industries had always been subsidized by The Lighthouse (in FY 1995 the subsidy was $238,000), it was not closed for financial reasons (i.e., "a cash flow problem"). The resources of The Lighthouse, however, are finite, and all programs are examined not only from a philosophical perspective but in terms of their outcomes and cost effectiveness. The Lighthouse has chosen to devote its resources to services for the many hundreds of visually impaired youth and adults seeking employment in the competitive marketplace.
FACT #7. The recently renovated Lighthouse headquarters building in Manhattan was financed by a tax-exempt revenue bond issued by the New York City Industrial Development Agency. The bond issue enabled The Lighthouse to protect its endowment and expand its programs to meet the rehabilitation and training needs of a growing population of people with impaired vision.
The new Lighthouse facility is recognized as a national model of universal accessibility and has tripled the organization's training and classroom space.
FACT #8. In closing its own sheltered workshop for able-bodied legally blind workers, the Board of Directors of The Lighthouse chose to direct its resources to training for competitive employment and not to subsidize other sheltered workshops for able-bodied legally blind people.
However, inventory and equipment were sold for approximately $750,000 to the newly-established sheltered workshop, New York City Industries for the Blind. As of January 1, 1997, The Lighthouse is still owed a considerable amount of money from that sale.
FACT #9. The Lighthouse mission, philosophy, and advocacy efforts are carried out through regional, national, and international programs to enable people who are blind or have partial sight to lead independent and productive lives. Headquartered in Manhattan, The Lighthouse provides rehabilitation services to adults and children with impaired vision through eight regional offices in the greater New York area. It also offers a broad range of educational opportunities for the public and health and human service providers and conducts major research studies on the impact of vision impairment and its amelioration.
The Lighthouse is a staunch advocate of full inclusion and equal access for people who are blind and partially sighted and for full health insurance coverage of basic vision rehabilitation services.
The Lighthouse is a not-for-profit organization and depends on support from individuals, foundations, corporations, government, and the proceeds from Lighthouse Enterprises, which comprises its catalog operations and SPECTRUM, The Lighthouse Store.