by Gary Wunder
In the early 1960s, when the National Federation of the Blind was torn apart by what many call “the Civil War,” the American Council of the Blind was born. The organizations have coexisted with various degrees of harmony and discord and with differing levels of contact and involvement in the Oklahoma agency for the blind. Passions about the organizational split have continued to run high in the state, and our affiliate has had to struggle to have meaningful contact with Oklahoma’s Department of Rehabilitation Services and specifically the division under it called Visual Services, a somewhat odd name for an agency that exists to serve those who are blind. Although having had to struggle in the past, the affiliate’s efforts have begun to show significant change in the perception of the Federation, which has grown in numbers of members, chapters, and those receiving appropriate services in the skills of blindness.
The last few years have witnessed a positive change in Oklahoma. In 2009 Dr. Michael O’Brien was hired to head Oklahoma’s Department of Rehabilitation Services by the Rehabilitation Services Commission. In 2011 he hired Dr. Michael Jones to head Visual Services. The appointments of both O’Brien and Jones were announced by the Oklahoma Division of Rehabilitation Services in press releases circulated throughout the state. Here, in part, is what was said about O’Brien:
Dr. Michael O’Brien is currently the executive director for the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services and has more than thirty-five years of experience in vocational rehabilitation. He is adjunct faculty at Langston University. He has an Ed.D. from Oklahoma State University in occupational and adult education and an MA in education from Chadron State College in career/vocational guidance. He is a certified rehabilitation counselor (CRC) and certified vocational evaluation specialist (CVE). He is a former Council on Rehabilitation Counselor Commission (CRCC) commissioner (where he chaired the Standards Committee and served on the Exam and Research Committee) and currently serves as a Council on Rehabilitation Education (CORE) board member, executive board member of the Consortia of Administrators of Native American Rehabilitation (CANAR), and a member of the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR) executive committee (currently president-elect). He is a published author and has more than 130 international, national, regional, and state presentations/publications to his credit. He is a four-time Institute for Rehabilitation Issues (IRI) national scholar and served as the chair of the Thirtieth IRI, A New Paradigm in Vocational Evaluation, and the thirty-seventh IRI, Understanding the Impact of Health Care Reform on the Employment and Independence of Individuals with Disabilities. The National Rehabilitation Counseling Association has recognized him with the Presidential Citation, and CSAVR has awarded him the national President’s Award.
Prior to coming to DRS, Dr. O’Brien was an associate professor of rehabilitation and special education and acting department chair for counseling, special education and rehabilitation at New Mexico Highlands University. He previously served as clinical affiliate professor at the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He has been married to his bride Jan for more than thirty-five years. They have four grown children and eight grandchildren.
The arrival of Jones was hailed soon after he assumed his position. Here, in significant part, is the way the agency introduced Oklahoma to its new director of Visual Services:
OKLAHOMA CITY — Dr. J. Michael Jones was recently selected as administrator for Visual Services, a division of the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services (DRS). Visual Services’ programs offer employment development, independent living training, library services, business ownership, educational materials, and technology for Oklahomans with low vision or blindness. Jones’ career in services to people with disabilities has spanned more than twenty-five years on four continents.
“What attracted me to Oklahoma is the broad scope of DRS’ responsibilities,” Jones said. “I have the operational freedom in Visual Services to use my skills and experience to help our customers become masters of their own destiny….When our customers are educated, have some wealth and political clout or personal influence, then they are controlling their own destinies and have achieved social justice for themselves,” he explained.
He served seven years as a rehabilitation program administrator, ten years as a rehabilitation counselor, seven years as a university instructor, and three years working in international rehabilitation programs for people with disabilities. He was previously employed as senior professor of special education in Lushoto, Tanzania, in Africa and administered two federal programs as executive director for the Division of Rehabilitation in Hawaii. While supervising rehabilitation programs in Hawaii, Jones launched new employment programs for youth with disabilities, created cutting-edge technology programs for children with disabilities living on rural islands, and mentored professionals in rehabilitation techniques.
He was elected six times to serve as president of the National Federation of the Blind of Alabama and led Alabama’s Braille literacy movement, culminating with administrative rule changes requiring that Braille be taught and emphasized in Alabama’s school system. He was the creator of the Braillewriters for Blind Children Program, which gave a free Braillewriter to every blind student in Alabama. Braillewriters are Braille typewriters that enable people who are blind to take notes or communicate by typing keys that correspond to the six dots used in Braille code.
Jones spearheaded local transit programs to connect isolated communities, he established a network for parents of blind children, as well as established a diabetes action network throughout Alabama. Additionally he served as the chair and principal lobbyist for the legislative action committee representing all disability groups from across Alabama and was appointed by the governor to represent all citizens with disabilities on Alabama’s Help America Vote Act committee.
Dr. Jones’s international work has included building university teacher training programs in special education in East Africa, staff training in rehabilitation techniques to assist persons who are blind in both Northern and Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia. Additionally Dr. Jones built a community rehabilitation program in Bangladesh that today because of his leadership and continued guidance has grown to serve more than three-hundred people with rights-based education and work skills programs.
Jones was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and raised on a farm in Butts County, Georgia. Blinded at age eleven, he continued to work the farm until his family moved to Alabama. His public school education included five years in a residential school for the blind and seven years at a local public school. Upon graduation from Pell City High School, he entered Auburn University and in 1985 earned a degree in rehabilitation. He earned a doctoral degree also from Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, in 2008. Dr. Jones is the father of sixteen-year-old Laura. “I am most proud of training individual blind people to use the tools that free them from the disabling aspects of blindness,” Jones said.
This is how Oklahomans received word of their new directors of rehabilitation from the Department of Rehabilitation Services. Two national searches had resulted in two highly motivated and credentialed men to oversee and direct rehabilitation in Oklahoma.
Among those familiar with the blindness field in the United States, Dr. Michael Jones is known as an intelligent man who is deeply committed to and knowledgeable about rehabilitation and the good it can bring to the lives of blind people. He is also known as a man with a volatile temper that sometimes causes problems in his making maximum use of his ambition and talent.
Some who know Jones and O’Brien say they have much in common: energy, intelligence, and a clear sense of where they wanted to take their agencies. They are also said to share the less flattering qualities of arrogance, impatience, and a dismissive attitude toward those they consider inferior either in intelligence, technical competence, or life experience. Those who admire both men describe the tension they sometimes felt while watching them function in their professional capacities: amazement at the changes and the good they could accomplish, but wondering when some indiscreet action or remark would derail the good they were trying hard to do.
Visual Services in Oklahoma is known by some blind Oklahomans for its willingness to provide services. However, others would say that this is arguable, maintaining that allocation of resources and services varies extensively and arbitrarily by region and on personal perspectives of the rehabilitation counselor working with each individual. Services often require strenuous advocacy by many. Jones and others say that the problem has never been in a reluctance to spend money to help blind people but in the narrow range of services offered to most of the agency’s consumers. Traditionally Visual Services has had a large number of closures, but most were for homemakers and helping blind people with daily living skills. The Division has fallen short in teaching the attitudes and skills that lead to an education and employment.
Jones is credited with changing the agency’s focus. He says he was pleasantly surprised to find that, not only did the blind people who were served get excited about this change, but many within the agency also embraced the ideas he brought. Admittedly some staff could not or would not embrace the change, and during his tenure Jones reports that sixteen counselors, about 60 percent of the rehabilitation counseling staff, either left or were dismissed for lack of performance.
After a negative review of the Business Enterprise Program (BEP) in Oklahoma by the federal Rehabilitation Services Administration, blind vendors operating under the state’s Business Enterprise Program say that Jones was quite helpful in bringing operating rules to the program and in seeing that those rules and the ones that predated him were known and followed. Selection to be in the program and awarding of facilities had too often been perceived as arbitrary decisions made by the agency, but Jones impressed the blind merchants with his commitment to creating and overseeing an orderly and understandable process. On the issue of the Business Enterprise Program, we are told that some distance existed between Jones and O’Brien, with the latter suggesting that a program in which several blind managers made more than he, a high-level administrator supervising more than a thousand employees, might need to be changed. Whatever their differences, Jones credits O’Brien with generally supporting him and letting him do his job as the head of programs for the blind.
On Friday, April 5, 2013, the National Federation of the Blind of Oklahoma was beginning its annual convention. Jones had been invited to address the convention in his capacity as the head of Visual Services. He encouraged our affiliate president, Jeannie Massay, also to invite O’Brien, and she did. However, late in the afternoon on Friday, during the annual Rehabilitation Professionals Conference, President Massay was informed that Dr. Jones had resigned. Before the reception that evening, President Massay informally met with O’Brien and asked him to speak the next day during convention in place of Jones. O’Brien agreed and said he would make the presentation for Visual Services that Jones had been scheduled to make.
There is no question that the resignation of Dr. Jones was forced: resign or you will be fired by the end of the day. Though no one from the Department of Rehabilitation Services will talk about personnel matters, it is widely believed that Jones was dismissed as a result of comments made to a staff member in the agency who uses a wheelchair. Our best information is that Jones repeatedly asked this staff member how his chair performed on stairs. One version of the story says that, when Jones came to his job, the staffer wanted to go to lunch with him so they could get to know one another. Jones reportedly said that all the lunch places he liked had stairs and asked how his coworker would deal with that. The clear impression was that Jones had no interest in going to lunch, and, though the coworker was perplexed at the rebuff, he continued to try to get to know and work with Jones. A more sinister account alleges that recently Jones missed a meeting and that the coworker, who uses a wheelchair, told him he had missed it and offered to review what had happened. Jones was reportedly angry about the mention of the meeting and allegedly said in a menacing voice that he would take the coworker’s chair to the stairwell, push it down a couple of flights of stairs, and see how well the coworker and his chair would handle them. Jones says that he made indiscreet remarks but that they were perceived humorously by all who heard them. But people within and outside the agency say that the coworker, whose complaint may have forced Jones to resign, is not the kind of man who would be quick to complain, overreact, or resort to official action in haste. Only if he felt threatened or concluded that this humiliation could not continue would he have brought this behavior to his superiors.
The Braille Monitor sought to interview the target of these remarks, but our calls were not returned. While it might have been comforting to know from the source whether Jones was threatening or simply obnoxious, the behavior still falls far short of what one expects of public officials and especially officials who work in the field of rehabilitation. Whether threat or jest makes little difference. By way of an analogy, a blind person in an office environment who says he would like a meeting with the boss and is told that the boss will put corks in the employee’s ears, put tape on his fingertips, and take away his cane and then see how well he can get to the boss’s office would have every right to be offended. This is so whether the boss was physically intimidating and could carry out his threats or a frail or petite colleague who had no chance of making good on them.
On Friday evening the newly formed Oklahoma Association of Blind Merchants, a part of the National Federation of the Blind of Oklahoma and the National Association of Blind Merchants, held a reception to kick off the Oklahoma convention officially. O’Brien was asked to speak briefly at the reception. Instead of the expected “Thank you for having me, and now let’s enjoy the evening,” O’Brien gave an extended speech, saying that Jones had resigned, that a new director for Visual Services would be hired, and that some changes in the state Business Enterprise Program might have to be made. Some assumed that this unclear reference was to the aforementioned concern about several lucrative facilities in the Business Enterprise Program. O’Brien had sometimes been perceived and characterized as arrogant and insensitive, and his decision to deliver these remarks to this audience during what was to have been a festive and informal occasion, sponsored by people he had several times said were making too much money, only reinforced this perception.
His remarks complete, O’Brien decided to enjoy the liquid refreshment and mingle. One drink followed another, and with each drink his behavior became more unacceptable. Those who liked O’Brien but thought he had a problem with the bottle tried to suggest he go home given that the party was winding down. He replied that he was waiting for a ride from his daughter and that she would be along soon. He continued to drink, and people began to complain that he was taking liberties by inappropriately touching women. Eventually this escalated to kissing on the lips, placing his tongue in one woman’s ear, and pulling at least one woman onto his lap. Some of his victims were blind vendors; some were the wives of blind vendors. Whether O’Brien thought himself so irresistible that the women would not object, considered that the blind people who depended on him for their business opportunities would timidly watch as their wives were manhandled in this way, or assumed that, because they were blind, they wouldn’t know what he was doing is anybody’s guess. What we do know is that people did notice, did object, and did have the presence of mind to make several videos capturing his inappropriate behavior.
Following the events of Friday evening, a DRS official was warned that O’Brien’s behavior had been noticed; that it had been captured on video; and that, if he failed to resign, the videos would be given to the governor. Dr. O’Brien resigned on Sunday evening, April 7. Since the agenda for the open meeting of the Rehabilitation Services Commission on Monday, April 8, had been compiled before O’Brien’s misbehavior, officials decided that it was not appropriate to raise it for discussion or action at the regularly scheduled meeting. Although his resignation and rumors of his behavior on the previous Friday were known to members of the Commission, to some in the agency, and to many in the audience attending the meeting, the open meetings law in Oklahoma required that a separate meeting with a published agenda be called, and that meeting was scheduled for Friday, one week after the actions that made his resignation necessary.
Several sources tell us that Dr. O’Brien has entered a rehabilitation facility and is being treated for his problems with alcohol. Compassion and an appreciation of his drive, creativity, and dedication to rehabilitation all lead us to hope he is successful in conquering his addiction.
Turning once again to Dr. Jones, he says he is not disappointed to leave Oklahoma, because he believes he was able to do good work and feels pride in the job he did. His goal is to travel to a country where progress in building a rehabilitation system is easier to see and where he will be less encumbered by paperwork and the constraints of an already-in-place system. One cannot help wishing him well and hoping that the light within may someday shine without the encumbrance of temper, arrogance, and impatience for change.
Oklahomans interviewed for this article seem to be of one mind about the events recounted here. They have no interest in seeing O’Brien or Jones reinstated, but they hope that the misconduct of two leading officials in Oklahoma’s rehabilitation system will not cause the gains made since 2009 to be reversed. Neither do they want visionaries with energy and commitment to avoid coming to Oklahoma, for much work still remains to be done to improve the lives of blind residents of the state. Blind people need services that lead to an education and employment. Consumers must continue to play an active role in deciding their futures, and the staff who have embraced a more enlightened vision of what blind people can do must be encouraged to bring all of the energy and creativity they can to this noble task.
The Oklahoma Affiliate has grown significantly over the past three years. In 2012 the Oklahoma Association of Blind Students and the Oklahoma Association of Blind Merchants were formed. To date in 2013 two new chapters have been formed with a third identified. Oklahoma Federationists are coming together not only to demand better opportunity but to be a part of building the foundation for this to occur. The members of the affiliate are committed to empowering all blind Oklahomans to pursue vigorously the skills of blindness that will ensure educational and vocational success and independence. They are also committed to supporting those working within the agency to shift the paradigm of rehabilitative services to one that encourages equality, education, and employment.
In researching and interviewing for this article, we have seriously considered whether it should be written at all and what purpose it might serve. The argument that the blind of the nation have a right to know about programs operated on their behalf is compelling, but so too is our desire not to add to the problems blind consumers and agency staff face in continuing their progress to secure greater opportunities through improved rehabilitation. A major reason to publish involves the way public agencies have decided to respond to information requests and references for all former employees. Standard policy for most public agencies is to confirm only the dates when a staff member became employed and left the agency. The reason for this practice of providing limited information is the conviction that disclosing more could subject the agency to a lawsuit from those who have been terminated or resigned. The result is that potential employers are never given a clue about the performance of those they are considering for employment or the reasons why they no longer work for the former employer. Whatever legal arguments one can muster for this approach, it fails the public and the agencies who serve us. The Braille Monitor has a responsibility to tell the truth even when the truth is complicated, controversial, and difficult to attach to sources willing to be identified by name. For decades the Monitor has tried hard to determine the truth, report it accurately, and then let the pieces fall where they may. That is what we have done with the Oklahoma story, and we trust that the truth will help blind Oklahomans set themselves free.