by Barbara Pierce
The director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped since late March of 2012 has been Karen Keninger, formerly the director of the Iowa Department for the Blind. In an April 22, 2013, article in the Des Moines Register, a reporter, Jason Clayworth, disclosed that Iowa’s auditor has taken issue with expenditures made on behalf of Keninger while she directed the agency. While still an employee, Keninger had a case worker open a rehabilitation case for her, and, using the standard combination of state and federal funds, the Department bought $21,000 worth of equipment and clothing for her. State auditor David Vaudt noted, “It’s never a good practice to have subordinates approving the requests of the director of their department.”
Although retention of and advancement in employment are legitimate uses of rehabilitation funds, it is all but certain that Keninger could have gotten any computer equipment required for her Iowa job through routine purchases for state agency employees. By the same token her employment by the Library of Congress to head the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped would have included the purchase of any required assistive technology to do her job as a part of reasonable accommodation. Sometimes as post-employment services a rehabilitation agency buys assistive equipment for a customer who needs it and who is working for a small employer who would have no use for it if the job does not work out. But this was clearly not the situation in Keninger’s case.
However reasonable the argument for requesting blindness-related equipment using vocational rehabilitation funds might have been in this case, one wonders about the ethics of asking the agency to pay $2,000 for clothing for an official who is already drawing a salary of $94,500 annually from the Iowa Department for the Blind. This revelation of agency expenditures is particularly difficult for Iowans to take at a time when the agency reports significant financial problems that have recently resulted in the dismissal of four fulltime staff members and two who worked part-time. The purchase of clothing for a person with what many would consider a generous salary also undercuts one of the major arguments used to justify vocational rehabilitation, namely that, by going to work, one moves from government support to economic independence and eventually repays many times over the amount spent for rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is billed by its advocates as a one-time boost up, making it possible for a disabled job-seeker to acquire formidably expensive equipment that an employer cannot or will not purchase.
The Des Moines Register says that the state auditor has reported these expenditures to state and federal authorities since the vocational rehabilitation program is jointly funded through federal and state grants. He speculates that a refund may be requested.
Michael Barber, president of the NFB of Iowa, provided the Braille Monitor with the following statement when asked for a comment: We believe that Keninger’s actions were ill-advised, leading to unnecessary and unwanted scrutiny of the Iowa Department for the Blind at a critical time, when members of the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa and others in the blindness community have been working vigorously to achieve the necessary funding for the Department in order to preserve programs for the blind in Iowa. She has always maintained that you should not do anything you wouldn’t want printed in the Des Moines Register. We only wish that in this case she had followed her own advice.