Fredric K. Schroeder, a Man of Confidence

by David Bolton

From the Editor: David Bolton is the Editor of the National Buyers Group Magazine. The following profile of Dr. Fredric Schroeder appeared in the first issue of the publication. Here it is:

 

Fredric K. Schroeder, Ph.D., has spent his adult years fighting the misperception over the capabilities of blind people, that they are somehow limited in what they can achieve. As Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, overseeing a multi-billion-dollar agency in the Department of Education, he is particularly dedicated to widening their entrepreneurship opportunities; he believes that the Randolph-Sheppard program has great potential.

But long before he began breaking down the barriers to blind achievement, he first had to defeat his own demons.

 

Dr. Fredric Schroeder (Photography by Breton Littlehales)Fred Schroeder describes growing up in a New Mexico household as "eclectic." Born in Lima, Peru, he was adopted at nineteen months. Along with his brother, he joined a family of two Pueblo Indian children, also adopted, and a University of New Mexico education professor, a single woman with a strong sense of purpose.

From the beginning Fred's mother instilled in him a powerful work ethic, an appreciation for the value of education, and a strong sense of giving back to the community.

He lost most of his vision when he was seven and became totally blind at sixteen. He had what he describes as "a common experience" with his blindness. He assumed that for the rest of his life he would have to be cared for by his family.

People brought to his and his mother's attention stories about blind people who had done remarkable things, recalls Schroeder. Those stories did not inspire him; rather they made him angry. He felt anything but remarkable. Either he was even more inferior than originally thought, or those blind people had not accomplished anything of note. "They hadn't really climbed a great mountain or sailed a great ocean. Their achievements were artificial . . . propped up."

What did inspire him were blind people with high academic credentials; blind people who had achieved a great deal in business; blind people who were teachers, social workers, or guidance counselors; who were factory workers, secretaries, and farmers. He learned about the National Federation of the Blind. The speeches of its president, Dr. Jernigan, drew the young man away from cynicism and defeat. Dr. Jernigan became his hero.

Recalls Schroeder: "Dr. Jernigan articulated that blindness is not all-encompassing, that a blind person is not just a blind person, that you are first and foremost a human being with a combination of strengths and abilities. Yes, blindness has a clear impact on the way you function. You can't drive. You can't pick up a newspaper and read it. But it's really not much more than that. . . . That difference doesn't in any way speak of your capacity to succeed. . . . If you fail, it's not because of blindness."

Armed with that philosophy, he earned a degree in psychology at San Francisco State University in 1977 with a dual major in psychology and elementary education, completing his undergraduate program in just two and a half years. "It was very important to prove my ability to compete," says Schroeder. Ironically, his oldest brother said he understood how Fred could go through school so quickly; after all, he was blind. He had nothing else to do but study all day.

Schroeder realized he was up against, not his own limitations, but the "underlying assumptions about blindness." He set about proving those assumptions wrong, earning next a master's degree in special education. He wanted to teach blind children. Instead of teaching children, however, he ended up in Nebraska, at an adult orientation and adjustment center. He taught cane travel to newly blind adults. He became the first blind person to earn a master's degree in orientation and mobility. There he met his future wife, also blind. She wanted to be a computer programmer.

Expedience vs. Quality Employment

In 1994 the Senate confirmed Schroeder as the ninth Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration the same day he was notified of completion of his doctorate.

His dissertation was a study on the use of Braille among legally blind adults. He investigated the way Braille readers versus non-Braille readers functioned. Those completely blind tended to embrace Braille, whereas those visually impaired tended to orient themselves around visual methods. The Braille readers ended up going farther in school and getting better jobs. The visually impaired gravitated toward jobs that required little reading.

Schroeder says his biggest challenge as RSA Commissioner is maintaining a focus on quality employment. He understands that the taxpayer wants to ensure that the program funds ($2.4 billion) are spent wisely on the one million recipients. The greatest danger, he believes, would be to oversimplify, to measure the effectiveness of the rehabilitation program according to "the number of people who go to work, how quickly they go to work, and how cheaply they go to work."

These are not necessarily bad measures, he adds, but they would tend to "drive the program toward expedience" rather than help the individual pursue the most appropriate employment. "If people have an interest in teaching, law, or some other profession, then they need the training and skills to pursue that profession."

The Future of Randolph-Sheppard

Schroeder believes there are many opportunities for growth in the R-S program. "The Randolph-Sheppard program historically has battled the assumption that blind people can't function as competently as sighted people. So very often the expectations for the Randolph-Sheppard program by state and municipal governments have been fairly low."

He cites as an example the state rehabilitation agency that he ran in New Mexico. "We continually had to battle for Randolph-Sheppard priority when it came to large food service operations. . . . If it was a little building that had a handful of employees and couldn't generate money, then we'd get called by the agency and asked if we couldn't put in a Randolph-Sheppard facility to provide coffee and donuts.

"But if you talked about a large-scale cafeteria, we were still confronted with the question of whether a blind person could, in fact, operate a complex food service operation. That continues to be the challenge to blind people generally . . . the lack of information about their capability."

Schroeder says the R-S program is becoming more sophisticated. "Vendors as a group have taken very seriously the need to modernize practices, to develop state-of-the-art business procedures to deliver high quality products at a good price. As that work continues, the opportunities for facilities that yield better incomes will increase."

The Fight for Mess Halls

Schroeder says there has been "some conflict" over certain federally-operated food service operations, particularly in the military. "The question has been whether Randolph-Sheppard applies to certain military food service activities, specifically military troop dining facilities. Second, if it does apply, then where does the Randolph-Sheppard program step in, and where does the JWOD [Javits-Wagner-O'Day] program step in?"

The RSA has been working with the Committee for Purchase along with other federal agencies to resolve these conflicts. "It makes no sense to have two very important employment programs postured against one another....

"We just rescinded a policy issued by my predecessor; it had attempted to clarify when a facility met our definition of a cafeteria. In practice the RSA policy guidance didn't help with the situation at all. . . . We have been working particularly with the Department of Defense to issue clear policy direction so that appropriated-fund activities, such as military troop dining, are in fact subject to the Randolph-Sheppard Act. We are now working with the Defense Department on some additional policy guidance that would be aimed toward the people who handle military procurement. We are also working with an interagency work group to work out other issues that have been put forward as impediments to the further expansion of the Randolph-Sheppard Act."

And what about the conflict between R-S and JWOD? The way Schroeder sees it, there should be no conflict. The law is quite clear. "The Randolph-Sheppard priority is a specific priority," he explains. "Once you get past the hurdle of recognizing that the Randolph-Sheppard Act applies to military troop dining as well as other food service operations, then the priority would be triggered." Those facilities would thus fall under the domain of the state licensing agency.

The SLA, however, may decline to take that facility, if there is no blind vendor available to take advantage of the opportunity. In that case, Schroeder says, the facility would then be available "for issuing a contract under the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act."

By viewing the R-S priority as a very specific one, you resolve the conflict between the programs. "JWOD food service is only one of many types of service contracts available under the programs," he adds. "We believe there is considerable room for both programs to live and work in harmony, benefiting considerable numbers of people with disabilities."

The Act Is Just the Beginning

The Randolph-Sheppard Act represents only a crack in the door. People who make the procurement decisions must be convinced that it is in their best interests to be served through the Randolph-Sheppard program. "If you don't have open-mindedness," says Schroeder, "then you run into resistance. You run into people looking for loopholes in the law, for ways to circumvent what we regard as [Congressional] intent. You can fight those in court, and if you're tenacious enough, you can likely prevail."

Schroeder would rather see greater cooperation from federal agencies. He cites the post office as a good example. "It has entered into a cooperative relationship with the Randolph-Sheppard program . . . to expand employment opportunities for blind people. Some of the efforts go far beyond any statutory obligation." Schroeder says that the post office--its staff and the public that it serves--has realized some significant benefits, in particular, service of the highest quality.

When asked what advice he would give to blind vendors, Schroeder listed the things they should do in reverse priority. "Certainly they need to be vigilant about what's happening at the federal level, and they need to be vigorous about contacting members of Congress to educate them on the Randolph-Sheppard program and how it benefits blind people in their home districts and states."

They also need to be involved with their state licensing agencies, to be active, participating members of the Committee of Blind Vendors. They must take an active role in guiding the program's policies at the state level. "But the most important thing any vendor in this country has to do," adds Schroeder, "is provide excellent, quality service to every customer who comes through the door. Ultimately, if this program has loyal, satisfied customers, then no amount of political threat will ever damage it because we'll have a constituency that will say, `Look, this blind vendor is fantastic. We get good food. We get good service. We get reasonable prices and clean, comfortable, locations.'"

Toward that end Schroeder urges vendors "to capitalize" on every training opportunity and run state-of-the-art, competitive food operations. "That, in my view, is the single greatest thing that can be done to protect this program."

A Sense of Obligation

An estimated 70 to 80 percent of blind people are wholly unemployed. Those who are employed are often underemployed. That realization drives Schroeder, who says that every time a blind person enters a new field or new occupation, "never again will there be the question of whether a blind person can perform that type of work. . . . That collective momentum will expand opportunities for blind people. That growth can never be turned back. That to me is the exciting part of rehabilitation."

Schroeder, the father of a seventeen-year-old daughter and fifteen-year-old son, greatly admires his wife, who at the age of ten wanted to be a computer programmer. "When I was ten, I didn't know there were such things as computer programmers."

His wife, blind since birth, became a computer programmer at a time when it was "very exploratory" for blind people to do that kind of work. "She is exceedingly good at it."

Digital technology has been extremely helpful. "The work that my wife does using sweep synthesis and other technological breakthroughs would not be possible. That's true for many other jobs."

Schroeder cautions, however, against giving technology too much credit. "There is a tendency for society to point to something external to account for the competence of blind people. Technology is not what makes us competent. It is a tool, just as a paint brush in the hand of a great artist is a tool. The brush does not lend itself to inspiration."

He uses the guide dog as an analogy. Often someone seeing a blind person using a guide dog will say, "`Isn't it wonderful that they train these dogs to take blind people around?' . . . Well, the dog doesn't take you around. The dog is part of your ability to travel independently, but he's not a caretaker."

And what is the most essential quality for a full life? "Fundamental confidence," replies Schroeder. "Self-confidence comes from having good training, from working hard, and from being able to see tangible evidence of your work. But there are other things that are part of that self-confidence ... a sense of obligation. . . . You cannot give unless you believe that you have something worth giving.

"I don't mean to sound overly philosophical," he concludes, "but a person who believes in him- or herself will succeed. Success comes from seeing yourself as a truly integrated, contributing member of society, somebody who benefits from society, and a person who contributes back to society."