Merger Madness by Wayne E. Shevlin ********** From the Editor: In recent years legislatures and governors in state after state have decided that multiplying the layers of bureaucracy thereby creating huge agencies will increase efficiency in delivering rehabilitation services while at the same time saving money. They argue that lumping accounting and other administrative services together will automatically and inevitably provide economy of scale. Sometimes they even argue that counselors, who after all know everything about rehabilitation, can be more efficient if they deal with a number of different disabilities in a small geographic area rather than specializing in one or a very few disabilities and traveling some distance to cover the case load.
But anyone who has ever tried to make his or her perplexed way through layers of the rehabilitation bureaucratic maze knows that such arguments benefit no one but the empire builders at the very top, where power and influence are available to a very few. Clients with specific needs are not served. Counselors only become discouraged trying to understand the access-equipment, mobility, and Braille needs of blind consumers; learn American Sign Language and other communicative skills to help deaf clients; and meet the specific needs of those with brain injury, orthopedic limitations of all kinds, or mental retardation. It can't be done effectively, but since the only people losing out are those requiring rehabilitation and the dedicated professionals trying to serve them, the disadvantages of such merger plans are frequently discounted.
The legislative battles that result when these consolidation plans surface are messy and unpleasant. The members of the disability community resisting the legislative juggernaut have little money, power, or influence; so why should legislators listen to us? We are frequently told that we don't really understand the situation, that no one intends to damage the rehabilitation delivery system, that we will experience no diminution in the quality of the services delivered. They dismiss the fact that we are the ones who have been on the receiving end of whatever rehabilitation has been available, and we know what works and what doesn't. We have learned the hard way that long chains of command, budget dispersal, and paperwork create chaos and confusion. We have all heard the stories of what happens when a counselor doesn't know enough about a disability to insure that proper services are procured for a client. And many of us can name the states in which services for the blind have been buried in much larger agencies for so long that the notion of effective service delivery would be a joke if human lives weren't being destroyed by the system.
Despite our best efforts we lost the most recent round of the separate-agency battle in Texas in early May. Happily, in North Carolina the blind are still up and fighting and appear to be holding their own against determined opposition. Wayne Shevlin chairs the NFB of North Carolina's Legislative Committee. Here is the way he tells the story of the latest confrontation in North Carolina: ********** I returned home from National Convention in July of 1998 to find that someone in our state legislature had introduced a bill to merge our Division of Services for the Blind, Services for the Deaf, and Vocational Rehabilitation into one generic agency called the Division of Rehabilitation Services. As Legislative Chairman of the NFB of North Carolina, I immediately went to work making calls to people in the organization, encouraging them to make calls and to write to their legislators, particularly those on the committee which had introduced this idea. I went as far as to get a permit to demonstrate in front of the Legislative Building if necessary.
At that time it turned out not to be necessary. (See Herman Gruber's article, "North Carolina Agency Survives Surprise from Legislature" in the November, 1998, issue of the Braille Monitor.) The bill was passed on from the committee to our State House of Representatives, and the bill to merge was voted down fifty-seven to fifty-five. But unfortunately it didn't end there; in fact, it was just getting started.
While the merger was voted down, a provision was passed to establish a study commission to look at the feasibility of merging the Division of Services for the Blind, Services for the Deaf, and Vocational Rehabilitation. The accounting firm of Price Waterhouse-Coopers--who better to work with the Blind than an accounting firm--were hired to do the study. Consumers were to be included in the study. However, we were told that the merger was a done deal, and what we thought didn't really matter. Nevertheless, our state president, Herman Gruber, was asked to participate in the merger study.
In March of this year the issue began to heat up. I began to hear all kinds of rumors, including more talk that the merger was already a done deal. A done deal, eh--I guess they forgot to consider the National Federation of the Blind of North Carolina. Herman and I had already been keeping in touch regularly; now it became daily. We also began having regular meetings with the North Carolina Council of the Blind, North Carolina Association of Workers for the Blind, and other groups and people who had no blindness-field affiliation at all.
On March 24 we held a meeting in Raleigh to plan and inform people about what was happening. People were also encouraged to visit their legislators as long as they were in town for the meeting. We decided to schedule a demonstration in front of the Legislative Building on April 6. I was asked to set up the demonstration. I had participated in NAC-Tracking and in a number of demonstrations held at Washington Seminars through the years, but I had never organized one before.
I learned very quickly just how many details are involved in organizing a demonstration, especially one which turned out to be as big as this one was. We needed to obtain permits from Legislative Security and the Raleigh Police Department. We had to find a place for people to gather and for them to park cars and vans. There were press releases to write and send, slogans and signs to invent and make, people to notify, and on and on. Peggy Elliott, Second Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind, and her secretary Darla Hamilton arrived the day before the demonstration to help and give us moral support. We met with them the night they arrived to cover last-minute details.
The big day arrived. The demonstration was to be held at noon. We were all to gather at the Holiday Inn and walk about five blocks to the Legislative Building. Only as people began arriving did we realize the size of the group we were going to have. By all counts, ours and the media's, we had between four and five hundred people in attendance. We had people from all parts of the state: agency employees; AER, NFB, and ACB members; deaf-blind people, folks in wheel chairs, and members of the Lions Club in their orange vests. The media were well represented by our four major local TV stations, reporters from the Raleigh and Charlotte papers, and several other papers from across the state. We marched up and down in front of the Legislative Building for almost two hours with Mrs. Elliott in the thick of things helping to organize and leading the chanting. A number of legislators came out to watch and talk to us.
After the smoke had cleared, several of us who had been recognized as organizers of the opposition movement received phone calls inviting us to a meeting of the joint Senate and House Appropriations Committee the next week. Now was the time to let those with the real power know how we felt, as if the demonstration hadn't. The first folks in line to speak to the committee were representatives of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the parent agency of the state agency serving the blind. They presented their study results and their recommendations, which were--surprise, surprise--that Services for the Blind, Services for the Deaf, and Vocational Rehabilitation be merged into a Department of Rehabilitation. Some of the more interesting things said by the Secretary of DHHS were "they were trying to help the blind and that we ought to be grateful" and that "the blind were the only consumers who opposed the merger." We were also told that a few of the blind had stirred the rest up.
The next day the consumers had our say. The first people to speak were two advocates from the deaf community. They were very much opposed to the merger. Hmmm, what was that about the blind being the only group opposed? Then we had our chance. Mr. Gruber was the spokesman for blind consumers and was eloquent. He was asked whether the blind would be satisfied if we were guaranteed a voice in deciding the way the merger would be done. Mr. Gruber's response was, "If the input on planning the merger was as significant as it had been on the Study Commission, it wasn't worth much."
Since the committee meeting we have heard many rumors about what may happen: everything from "it's a done deal" to "the legislature will wait until the consumers forget and then try to slip it through." In the end I think they are likely to combine our school for the blind with the three schools for the deaf but leave our agency alone. The Secretary of DHHS can merge the agencies without the backing of the legislature, but I don't think it is likely. We are continuing to keep in touch and build support with our legislators to let them know we have not forgotten and are continuing to keep our plans current. It's not over yet, and blind North Carolinians are in no danger of forgetting or of ceasing to keep a watchful eye on those who think that bigger bureaucracy is better.
I want to extend thanks to all who participated and who have expressed their support. Thanks especially to our National Office. Peggy Elliott and Herman Gruber provided excellent advice and leadership. Thank you to the members of the NFB of North Carolina, who by their hard work have made my job as legislative chairman easier. If anyone still wonders why the National Federation of the Blind, our experience in North Carolina is an eloquent illustration. Without the commitment, experience, and momentum of the Federation, we would never have come as far as we have. **********