The Braille Monitor                                                                                       December 2002

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Victory for the Blind in California Rehabilitation

by Jim Willows

Jim Willows
Jim Willows

From the Editor: Jim Willows is past president of the NFB of California. He has worked hard to bring about the transformation in the prospects for blind Californians that he describes in the following article. This is what he says:

September 29, 2002, was a great day for the blind of California. On that day Governor Gray Davis signed Senate Bill 105, which created a division for the blind with line authority over supervisors, counselors, and counselor‑teachers serving blind and visually impaired clients within the California Department of Rehabilitation. All members of this division, from its director to supervisors and counselors in the field, will be required to have expertise in serving, rehabilitating, and placing blind clients.

The signing of this legislation was the culmination of four years of effort by the National Federation of the Blind of California and more than thirty other organizations, agencies, and individuals providing services to the blind of California. Our new division for the blind provides the first opportunity California has taken to establish a meaningful separate, identifiable entity responsible for providing all rehabilitation services to the blind of the state.

How bad is California rehab? In the fall of 1998, as president of the NFB of California, I learned a shocking fact from a survey done by researchers at Mississippi State University. The MSU report stated that the California Department of Rehabilitation was forty-eighth of forty-eight states responding to their survey in placements in meaningful employment per counselor of blind and visually impaired clients. We knew that California rehab was not putting many blind clients to work, but we had had no idea that things were this bad. Immediate action was needed.

At the time California was in the midst of a hot race for governor between Democrat Gray Davis and Republican Richard Lundgren. I was joined by Catherine Skivers, president of the California Council of the Blind, Anita Aaron, director of the Rose Resnick Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco, Bob Ralls, president of the Foundation for the Junior Blind in Los Angeles, Dr. LaDonna Ringering, director of the Center for the Partially Sighted in Santa Monica, Gil Johnson, director of the San Francisco office of the American Foundation for the Blind, and Bryan Bashin, executive director of the Society for the Blind in Sacramento and a board member of the NFB of California. This group contacted both the Davis and Lundgren campaign staffs. We heard nothing from the Lundgren staff, but Mr. Tal Finney, a prominent member of the Davis campaign, agreed to meet with us. Tal later became one of Governor Davis's chief policy advisors.

Mr. Finney met with us in late October, just a few days before the gubernatorial election. I believe he came to convince us that Gray Davis should be our candidate, but he left with a new appreciation of the high unemployment record for blind people and of how little the Department of Rehabilitation had done for us.

Of course Gray Davis was elected, and we went into strategy-planning mode. I wanted to be sure that membership in this loose group would not violate any coalition policies of the Federation. I called to brief President Maurer on the California situation. I asked what he thought of the NFB of California's joining other groups of and for the blind to improve our rehab situation. He reminded me that the Federation opposes broad, long-lasting coalitions. He said that an alliance of blind organizations formed to solve a specific problem was in line with Federation policy and cited Dr. Jernigan's participation in creating the Joint Organizational Effort (JOE) Committee.

Our next step was to call a blindness summit, held in Los Angeles in mid‑January of 1999. In addition to the seven organizations listed above, some thirty other organizations for the blind and several blind individuals were interested in putting blind people to work and came to our meeting. The NFB of California was represented by Don Burns, Nancy Burns, Nick Medina, Maria Morais, and Jim Willows.

At this meeting we agreed on the name Blind Alliance for Rehabilitation Change (BARC), and we made the decision to introduce legislation to establish a commission for the blind in California. As we went forward, we found that old-timers in the legislature and in state government recognized the historic significance of having virtually the entire blind community come together in BARC. This realization was a great help in achieving our ultimate victory in a state that had never before considered forming a separate agency for rehabilitation of the blind.

At this point Bryan Bashin calculated that, at the department's current rate of placing blind clients, even if no new clients were added to the caseload, it would take over six hundred years to find jobs for all of the current clients—a bit of whimsy, perhaps, but it grabbed the attention of some legislators.

At this time a series of four articles was published in the Sacramento Bee. The author quoted blind clients of the Department of Rehabilitation and several leaders of the blind in California. All described, and the articles emphasized, the department's lamentable state of placement efforts for blind clients. Soon after Governor Davis was sworn in (January 1999), we began hearing that he would not support creation of any new boards or commissions in state government. He wanted to evaluate the usefulness of existing boards and commissions first. Tal Finney confirmed this policy when we met with him in the governor's office. It was further confirmed when we met with Grantland Johnson, Davis's secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), the agency containing the California Department of Rehabilitation.

We were unable to find a legislator to author our commission bill, largely because of the governor's opposition to new commissions. However, we made very good use of the 1999‑2000 legislative session. BARC adopted a three-pronged plan of operation for this period. The first involved collection of data and reports supporting our position. The second was a huge education campaign in the legislature and within various departments of state government. Our final prong provided advice to the governor in his choice of the new director of rehabilitation.

In the data-collection effort we met with Gilbert (Doc) Williams, commissioner of Region IX of the federal Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA). Doc and his staff were helpful in providing comparative data between California and several states with commissions for the blind in placement of blind clients in quality jobs. This group also put together a large database of reports from many sources favoring commissions for the blind over serving the blind within umbrella agencies as we have always done in California. A large number of us worked to educate legislators and administrators about the deplorable level to which California rehab had sunk and about the need for a separate and identifiable structure for rehabilitation of blind people in California.

Don Burns, our NFB of California legislative representative, and Dan Kysor, who holds a similar position with the California Council of the Blind (CCB), took the lead in these educational efforts. We issued several press releases throughout the state telling of the rehab problems of blind clients and of what BARC proposed to do about solving these problems. As for the director of rehabilitation position, BARC had been approached by all the leading applicants to ask for our support. As president of the NFB of California, I worked with Cathy Skivers, president of the CCB, in interviewing these candidates. We concluded that Dr. Catherine Campisi should have our support, and the BARC Steering Committee concurred. Catherine Campisi turned out to be a good choice, as later events would verify. Dr. Campisi was appointed by Governor Davis to head the California Department of Rehabilitation.

Early in this preparation period we received heartening news. The Nebraska legislature had just passed and their governor had signed a commission for the blind bill. Shortly after the commission became operational, we contacted Barbara Walker, Michael Floyd, and Carlos Serv�n, leaders of the NFB of Nebraska, to ask questions about how they succeeded in getting their bill passed. Michael and Carlos came to California to meet with us. They reviewed many of the details involved in their efforts. They said that the Nebraska commission was the result of a cooperative effort among several organizations of and for the blind in their state. We concluded that the Nebraska experience indicated we were on the right track.

As the 2001‑2002 legislative session approached, we concentrated on finding an author for our commission bill. Our work of the past two years bore fruit. Senator John Burton, a Democrat representing the San Francisco area, agreed to carry our bill. Our legislation was introduced early in the session as Senate Bill 105. Senator Burton is a longtime champion of the rights of disabled individuals. As president pro tempore of our state senate, he is obviously a man of influence. Many long-term Federationists will remember John Burton's brother, the late Congressman Phil Burton of San Francisco. Congressman Burton worked with the NFB on many of our bills during his time in Congress.

SB 105 was quickly opposed by three cross‑disability organizations. This opposition was not unexpected because of these groups' ideological opposition to categorical services for the blind. This opposition was serious in that Senator Burton had long championed the rights of all disabled people. He asked that we try to work out some agreement with the opposition. We met with them, but they were adamant in their position.

Two events of wide-ranging impact in California also affected SB 105. These were the rate gouging of California by energy suppliers and the terrorist attacks of September 11. Both contributed to the huge budget deficit in our state. California had gone from significant budget surpluses to large deficits in a few months. Senator Burton realized that even the minor costs of establishing our commission for the blind would kill the bill in the current poor fiscal climate. He proposed making SB 105 a two-year bill to see what we could do in the next half of the legislative session. We agreed to this.

As the year 2002 and the second half of the legislative session dawned, California's fiscal situation was no better. In fact the costs of Homeland Security had made it more bleak. Senator Burton's staff sent us amendments to the bill proposed by Dr. Campisi. She proposed replacing the commission for the blind with a division for the blind within her Department of Rehabilitation. Her proposed division would incorporate services for the blind within the department's central office only. There would be no line authority over counselors and counselor‑teachers for the blind in the field offices.

We in BARC had already agreed among ourselves that, considering the current fiscal situation, a reasonable fall-back position would be a division for the blind within the department, but that we could not abandon our position that line authority over the field staff working with blind clients must be included in the statutes resulting from SB 105. We met many times with Dr. Campisi and department staff along with Diane Cumming of Senator Burton's staff. Finally Dr. Campisi and her staff agreed to our line-authority position and agreed to declare to the governor and the California Department of Finance that line authority would be an absorbable cost for the department. These were the magic words that assured the passage of SB 105, as amended.

With this agreement with Dr. Campisi, all opposition to the bill was dropped. The bill passed both senate committees and the senate with no dissenting votes. It did the same in the California assembly. The hearing rooms were packed with blind people at all of these committee hearings. Again, Don Burns, Dan Kysor, and others played a large role in educating members of both the senate and assembly. Members of the governor's staff assured us that Governor Davis would sign the bill. However, until we got the word that SB 105 had become law on September 29, we were still edgy.

Dr. Catherine Campisi worked with us in a fine spirit of cooperation in developing the final language of SB 105. I believe that we acted wisely in supporting her as director of rehabilitation. Dr. Joanne Wilson and Dr. Fredric Schroeder attended our California convention the last weekend of October in 2002. Dr. Campisi was also present at that time. Wilson and Schroeder met with Campisi on the evening of the 25th. They later declared at a convention session that they believed Dr. Campisi would work with us in good faith toward a successful implementation of our division for the blind. They said they believed she was truly consumer oriented.

Dr. Campisi is at work in implementing a division for the blind, which will come into being on July 1, 2003. As a longtime member of the Department's Advisory Committee on Services for the Blind, I attended a meeting of this committee on October 10 and 11, 2002. Dr. Campisi reported good progress in the implementation process. Many other BARC people are also members of this advisory committee. This committee, which was made a statutory committee by SB 105, will probably, along with BARC, oversee the implementation efforts.

I believe the BARC concept worked for us in California in passing this historic legislation. California is a very large state. We needed the talent and people-power provided by the many organizations and individuals in BARC. The impact of a fragmented community coming together for a single purpose helped greatly in the legislature, in state government offices, and among possible foes in the broader disability community. I also believe that the NFB of California gained as an organization from our BARC membership. We made contacts and friends through BARC. I believe our organization gained in respect from all of the blindness community in California. I also believe we gained new respect in the state legislature and in state offices. Could we have done this without BARC? Yes, but at a much slower pace. Would the BARC concept work for other Federation affiliates? Only you, the officers and members of these affiliates, can answer this question. I will be happy to help if any of you choose to ask this question.

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