Fact Sheet: Blindness,
Rehabilitation, and the Need for
BACKGROUND: Under title I of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, federal grants assist every state to provide comprehensive vocational rehabilitation services to eligible persons with disabilities, including persons who are blind. The program's cost for fiscal year 1997 (the final year of the current authorized funding) is approximately $2.3 billion.
STATEMENT OF POSITION: Congress should enact legislation this year to reauthorize the existing vocational rehabilitation program. Vocational rehabilitation has been recognized as a shared federal and state responsibility for seventy-seven years. The program has received consistent and broad bipartisan support in Congress during each major review, leading to its periodic reauthorization. The last reauthorization occurred in 1992.
During the 104th Congress vocational rehabilitation was among the programs first included but later removed from a proposed job training, education, and employment system consolidation bill. The most decisive action occurred in the House of Representatives, where an amendment was passed on the floor to exclude vocational rehabilitation from the consolidated service delivery system. Nonetheless, with the program's reauthorization due for consideration this year, the possibility of consolidation with other programs has been discussed and could be proposed again.
RATIONALE FOR IDENTIFIABLE, BLINDNESS-SPECIFIC SERVICES: The consolidation approach is based on the theory that the administration and delivery of services to assist the blind are essentially the same as services to dislocated workers or unemployed welfare recipients. However, the mixture of vocational rehabilitation with job training, education, and employment programs for the general population is a fundamentally flawed concept. For example, the following essential rehabilitation services needed by blind individuals are not available from--and are completely unrelated to--generic job training and employment programs:
1. Comprehensive adjustment to blindness services. This training involves a sustained period of concentrated study to acquire the necessary tools for dealing with blindness and moving on to lead a normal life. Success in adjusting to blindness particularly includes integration of skills development with an understanding of relevant personal and social attitudes.
2. Travel training in using the white cane or the guide dog. This service must include all skills necessary to assess and move safely through the environment without seeing one's surroundings.
3. Adaptive methods of reading and writing. This training includes Braille instruction sufficient to perform at the level of literacy required for success in vocational preparation or on the job. Competent use of Braille requires the tactile identification of raised dots presented in prescribed patterns to form letters, numbers, and approximately 200 shorthand contractions commonly used. The extent of training needed will vary in complexity from learning the basic Braille code to specialized notations for computers, foreign languages, music, math, and other disciplines.
4. Assistive technology. This service includes individualized assessment of technology needs, procurement of appropriate devices, and personalized often one-on-one training in the use of the technology. High- or low-technology adaptations include use of specially adapted synthetic speech devices for computers, screen enlargement programs, Braille computer terminals, closed-circuit television or other magnification devices, and reading machines or scanners.
For someone who becomes blind in mid-career, unemployment is only one of many consequences. By comparison, however, the need for special help to deal with blindness is by far the most profound initial problem. Failure to provide services which respond to the blind person's fears, lack of confidence, and skills will almost certainly result in lifelong dependence. Under existing law all states are provided with a dedicated block of federal funding for the sole purpose of assisting people with disabilities to achieve individualized rehabilitation goals. Under the consolidation plan, however, both the dedicated funding and the resulting specialized services would essentially be sacrificed to meet other perceived needs.
It is a matter of historical fact that state agency organization and service delivery patterns tend to mirror the pattern of federal financial assistance. Moreover, the combination of programs would inevitably favor the largest and best-understood needs to be met. Unique services for blind individuals would be sacrificed in the merger since the needs of a person who is newly blinded are dramatically different from those of the typical unemployed worker.
ACTION REQUESTED: Each member of Congress is urged to assist with efforts to assure that programs which provide blindness-specific rehabilitation services are able to continue by:
1. Announcing support for reauthorization legislation to maintain dedicated federal funding and existing requirements for identifiable programs which specialize in providing vocational rehabilitation services; and
2. Opposing efforts to combine the funding and service delivery system of the vocational rehabilitation program with a consolidated job training, education, and employment system for the general population.