The Braille Monitor                                                                              August/ September 1997

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Dr. Kenneth Schroeder

Dr. Fredric Schroeder,
Commissioner, Rehabilitation Services Administration

 

Services for the Consumers: The Challenge of Rehabilitation
Today and in the Decades to Come

by Fredric K. Schroeder, Ph.D
Commissioner
Rehabilitation Services Administration
U.S. Department of Education

From the Editor: Fred Schroeder is more than the Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration; he is loved and respected by thousands of blind people across the country. Before assuming his current position with the U.S. Department of Education, Dr. Schroeder was Director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind. He addressed the 1997 NFB convention on Thursday morning, July 3. This is what he said:

During the elections this morning a number of those elected and reelected to the Board of Directors talked about the mentoring they had received in this organization. This is a powerful concept and very much a part of this organization. More than twenty years ago I remember spending an entire Christmas break listening to speeches that Dr. Jernigan had given and having those speeches change my life. Dr. Jernigan's words gave me hope at a time in my life when I had very little hope. I know that that has been the experience of many of you as well. Yesterday, in listening to the Presidential Report, I thought to myself: that flame of hope is burning very brightly.

I feel a solemn responsibility whenever I speak to the national body of the Federation. In preparing my presentation, I was talking with my children--I have a daughter (fifteen) and a son (thirteen), who is for sale if anyone's looking for a thirteen-year-old boy. I was explaining how precious time on the podium is and how important it is to do right by the membership. I said that very often people create a theme by picking a quotation from literature and using that to focus their thoughts. I asked my children whether they could help me think of an appropriate quotation. My daughter, who is not for sale, was studying Romeo and Juliet in school, and she said that she had a quote that she thought would be just right.

I thought: this will be terrific--a quote from Shakespeare! People will think I am learned and very intellectual. It will be very dignified and will set just the right tone. So she got the book and read me the quote. Here is what she came up with: "O single-soled jest, solely singular for the singleness." I said, "I don't know what that means." Now I did think about using it anyway on the assumption that no one else would know either, and you might all think that I had some very deep philosophical insight, but I was afraid that the President might allow questions at the end. . . so I come with no great quote from literature but some information about the Rehabilitation Services Administration that I can share with you.

Perhaps the reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act is the most significant issue facing the public rehabilitation program today. Later this summer the Administration will submit its proposal for reauthorization. In our proposal we intend to build on the principle that the rehabilitation system should not simply assist blind people in securing just any job, but instead, should assist blind people in securing the very best job possible. In our proposal we are committed to streamlining administrative requirements and keeping the focus of the program squarely centered on high-quality employment.

In May the House of Representatives adopted H.R. 1385, the "Employment, Training, and Literacy Enhancement Act of 1997." This proposal reauthorizes the rehabilitation program for a three-year period, rather than for five years as has been customary in prior reauthorizations. Very few substantive changes to the Rehabilitation Act were included in the House bill. However, the changes that were included are quite significant. Specifically, H.R. 1385 contains a new section on informed choice that draws together provisions that were previously scattered throughout the Act and strengthens the concept of client choice. The new section makes clear that clients must be active and full partners in the vocational rehabilitation process, making meaningful and informed choices in the selection of their own employment goal, and having the opportunity to participate in the identification of needed services and in the selection of service providers. This new section also provides for clients to be actively involved in determining how services will be purchased, thereby explicitly authorizing the appropriate use of vouchers. Additionally, H.R. 1385 renames the Individualized Written Rehabilitation Program (IWRP) to an Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE) and simplifies process requirements in ways intended to expedite the delivery of rehabilitation services.

The Senate is now beginning to take up reauthorization. The Senate will hold a hearing on reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act on Thursday, July 10, 1997, in Washington, D.C., and will hold a second hearing on July 21 in Columbus, Ohio. It is our understanding that the Senate will likely introduce bill language shortly after Labor Day. We are told that the Senate intends a bipartisan effort on reauthorization, and we are hopeful that the reauthorization process will be completed sometime this Fall.

On March 13, 1997, final regulations implementing Title I of the Rehabilitation Act became effective. These regulations contain a number of provisions of particular interest to blind people. In 1992, when the Rehabilitation Act was last reauthorized, additional emphasis was placed on the importance of state rehabilitation agencies' using professionally trained rehabilitation personnel. In developing regulations, RSA was concerned that the emphasis on professional training not unfairly discriminate against blind people in the field of Orientation and Mobility. Historically blind people have been excluded from university training in Orientation and Mobility and, consequently, were not eligible for professional certification. While in recent years the Orientation and Mobility profession has made important strides in opening university training programs to blind people, the fact remains that most blind Orientation and Mobility professionals do not possess university training or professional licensure. Accordingly, the preamble to the new Title I regulations sets forth RSA policy that state agencies and other service providers may continue to employ blind Orientation and Mobility instructors who do not meet current certification standards.

Specifically, the preamble reads in part,

The Secretary [of Education] is cognizant of the particular difficulty experienced by blind individuals who, historically, have been excluded on the basis of their disability from becoming certified as orientation and mobility instructors. The Secretary emphasizes that these regulations do not inhibit DSUs [state rehabilitation agencies] or other VR service providers from hiring blind individuals as orientation and mobility teachers even though those individuals may not meet current certification requirements.

This means that state agencies may continue to employ blind people to work as Orientation and Mobility instructors and may continue to purchase services from private agencies that employ blind Orientation and Mobility instructors.

Another important provision of the new Title I regulations concerns the definition of competitive employment. Essentially, RSA defines competitive employment as employment at or above the minimum wage in an integrated setting. We believe that, when describing different types of placements, the term competitive employment should be used in a manner that is straightforward and readily understood by policy makers and the public at-large. To say that an individual is competitively employed should mean that the individual obtained employment in an ordinary place of business and is earning a competitive wage.

It is our belief that the degree to which we, as a federal agency, are successful is the degree to which state rehabilitation agencies are successful. And the degree to which state rehabilitation agencies are successful is the degree to which blind people and others with disabilities receive training and encouragement, resulting in high-quality employment.

Measuring the number of people who go to work is easily done. Last year, the public rehabilitation program successfully placed in employment 213,334 clients, of whom 18,478 were blind people. If we chart the number of closures since the 1992 Amendments, we find an increase of 11.3 percent in closures overall from 191,890 in 1992, to the current level of 213,334. Accordingly, there is strong evidence that in President Clinton's first term in office the public rehabilitation program in America made significant strides in increasing the number of people placed in competitive work.

Yet the number of people placed in employment each year is not sufficient, in and of itself, to measure the effectiveness of the public rehabilitation program. We must also ask, is the program working with the right people, that is, those individuals who without assistance would have the least prospect of going to work--people who need orientation-center training as well as assistance in learning a particular job skill and who will likely battle discrimination in their job search? In 1992 the percentage of successfully rehabilitated clients who had severe disabilities, which includes blind people, was 69.7 percent. As of fiscal year 1996, 77.6 percent constituted the proportion of clients with severe disabilities successfully served by the program. Yet these two measures--the number of people placed in employment and the percentage of individuals with severe disabilities served by the system-- are inadequate to measure the true health of the rehabilitation program.

The rehabilitation system must find ways to place more and more people in employment each year. It must find ways of targeting services to those individuals most in need of help. Yet, if the rehabilitation system is to be truly successful, if it is to be faithful to the policy established by Congress, then the system must ensure that blind people and others receive the services and encouragement necessary, not simply to find any job, but to prepare for, and enter high quality employment. Accordingly, RSA will soon issue a policy directive formally rescinding the concept of "suitable employment" which focused on entry-level work for rehabilitation clients and will replace this concept with a policy that emphasizes that blind people and other clients must have access to a broad range of employment opportunities consistent with the individual's abilities, capabilities, and informed choice.

In short, the rehabilitation system has a responsibility to work with blind people in elevating our expectations for the future. The system must encourage blind people to pursue the very best quality employment possible. By elevating our collective expectations, we create a circumstance wherein blind people continually demand more of the rehabilitation system. Inevitably this challenges our resources and imagination, yet this is the process by which genuine progress is realized. The process of elevating expectations, with its accompanying new demands on the system, stimulates innovation and with it expanded employment opportunities for blind people throughout the nation. Hence, the measure of success for the rehabilitation system is the degree to which the system places more and more people in employment each year, the degree to which it increasingly targets resources to those most in need of help, and the degree to which the system works together with the blind to elevate our collective expectations for blind people. This is the principle which must guide our work and the principle by which we must measure our success.

If we are true to this principle, the public rehabilitation system, in partnership with blind people, will work better tomorrow than it does today and will work better the day after tomorrow than it does tomorrow. The need is too great and the stakes too high to settle for anything less. We must reduce the unemployment rate of blind people in this nation and yet, if the rehabilitation system does nothing more than place blind people in the quickest, easiest, cheapest placements--in dead-end, unskilled jobs, then the program will have failed to meet its most fundamental responsibility. Society today assumes that the blind are capable only of marginal, low-end employment. If the rehabilitation system merely fulfills this limited expectation by placing blind people in low-end jobs, it will have failed the blind and it will have failed society. We must reduce the unemployment of blind people in this nation, but we must do it by working collectively to elevate our expectations--the expectations of rehabilitation professionals, the expectations of rehabilitation clients, and the expectations of society at-large.

Recently Mr. Joe Cordova was hired as the Director of the Division for the Blind within RSA. Mr. Cordova's qualifications are impressive, both as a rehabilitation professional and as an advocate. He brings to the position experience and expertise, but, perhaps most important, he brings with him commitment and integrity. Mr. Cordova is a man who believes in blind people. He knows personally what it is to face discrimination, and he knows personally what it is to confront it successfully. I am very proud to welcome Mr. Joe Cordova as a colleague and as the senior federal official responsible for programs for the blind in America. Under his leadership I am confident that programs for the blind will meet the challenge of increasing the number of blind people who go to work in high-quality jobs each year and will do it by working collaboratively with the blind themselves to elevate our collective expectations and by so doing, expand employment opportunities for blind people throughout the nation.