Braille Monitor                                             January 2016

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People, Power, and Pelf

by Ed Vaughan

Ed VaughanFrom the Editor: Ed Vaughan is professor emeritus in sociology at the University of Missouri Columbia. He has been a Federationist for more than thirty years and has written extensively about blindness in academic publications and in books he has authored and co-authored. He is also a frequent contributor to the Braille Monitor, and here is his most recent offering:

Throughout my academic career and personal life, I have been concerned when individuals are exploited. Concerning blindness, I was always angered when I encountered educators and rehab workers with low expectations for blind people. This becomes worse when low expectations are embodied in the culture of agencies and organizations. Pelf is the Middle English word for wealth ill begotten. Does this idea apply to people who make their money and careers while diminishing the life prospects of the people they are supposed to be serving?

In the January 1985 Braille Monitor in the article “Bringing Conflict into Focus” I described some of the sources of conflict between consumers and the providers of rehabilitation services. I observe that there is no necessary unity of interest between consumers and providers. Many of the sources of conflict are rooted in the organizational work settings of rehab and education professionals.

From the organization’s point of view, regulations, budget matters, and procedures are both necessary and important. Throughout the resulting procedures, the blind person is a case to be processed by the various workers involved. The client may spend many hours doing nothing while awaiting events scheduled for the convenience of the organization. The person seeking rehabilitation may be anxious, uncertain as to how he or she is being perceived, and aware that the process is the “only game in town.” Quite normal and ordinary procedures from the point of view of the organization may appear to the client as himself or herself continually being considered as a category of a problem rather than as a whole person. The notion of “red tape” is used universally to describe the frustrations ordinary citizens feel in dealing with bureaucratic requirements, and there is a full measure of it here.

Over the past thirty years some conditions are definitely improving. However, a great many blind people still experience unnecessary frustration and difficulty in using rehabilitation and educational services. The persistence of needless barriers to progress is rooted in the organizational and bureaucratic inertia of many government and private agencies.

Since the Middle Ages the most common form of large scale social organizations is rational bureaucracies. More than any other social scientist, Max Weber described their characteristics. Such organizations concentrate power and economic resources to achieve goals. Power is from the top down—everyone has a boss. People are employed for their specialized competence—you only do your carefully defined job. Typically employment leads to careers, and loyalty to the organization is presumed. Information comes from the top down, and you are extremely disloyal if you are a whistleblower.

Organizational goals are important but not crucial. For example, when the March of Dimes helped defeat polio, it dramatically reached its goal. However, the organization continues adopting more general goals such as fighting birth defects. If you have an effective fundraising organization with good salaries, who wants to quit?

Such organizations are thought to be more efficient, thus linking the most effective means to reach goals. These organizations are the most dominant forms of employment in modern societies. However, they are value neutral—they can be efficient in organizing mass murder or raising money for the Red Cross.

Blind people of necessity interact with large organizations when they seek education or rehabilitation services. This circumstance is more complicated than simply dealing with a bureaucracy. We must deal with workers who claim to be professionals. What does it mean to be a professional? These are workers who claim specialized knowledge to deal with specific problems. In terms of our concerns the first professions dealing with blindness were medical. Early in the twentieth century physicians got legal control of the medicine/drug prescription process, and they also became gatekeepers for determining blindness. If you claimed blindness or visual impairment, you had to have a physician document your condition. Subsequent medical groups evolved under this medical umbrella, including nursing, physical therapy, occupational therapy, social work, and several want-to-be professions relating to blindness. Each profession claims specialized knowledge about a problem they have defined. They control entry and claim legitimacy by being licensed by the government or seeking certification from standards created by their own organization. No longer are professionals solo practitioners. Overwhelmingly they work within rational bureaucracies such as state governments, hospitals, and Lighthouses. They are now legitimated by socially powerful organizations, and they work within bureaucracies with all the characteristics mentioned above.

When we encounter a problem with education or rehabilitation services, we are not merely dealing with a specialized geek in a bureaucracy; we are dealing with workers who think they possess scientifically-based knowledge on any problem we present. They know what is wrong with us and what we need. Many of them insulate themselves from consumers. Professionals working in the field of blindness frequently give as reasons for not participating that they must keep a professional orientation, that they cannot be advocates for groups, that conflict situations are harmful to agencies.

Why are these professional groups and their organizations so resistant to consumer input? Why are some sheltered workshops so resistant to paying the minimum wage when it is almost certainly not an economic issue? Why did professional organizations so long resist the idea of blind mobility teachers? Why in the 1930s and 40s did the developing profession of workers for the blind eliminate itinerant blind teachers? 

All of us continue to be concerned about the needless dependency creating aspects of many rehabilitation programs. Increasingly the NFB has confronted the inertia of private and state agencies as well as corporations whose products are not accessible to blind people. Why the inertia and resistance to change? Administrators obtain social prestige, economic power, good salaries, and long-term career security. The field of work for the blind is not a large profession, and these professionals often have limited mobility opportunities. In many cases these administrators and professionals have no interest in seeing their boat rocked.

“There is a crack in everything—that’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen frequently discusses freedom and social change in his music. Max Weber was also concerned about freedom and individual responsibility. In the modern world these are experienced in social organizations. As Weber observed, charismatic leaders emerge as they challenge present arrangements, and their followers sometimes become involved in social movements. This is how we got the National Federation of the Blind—charismatic leaders and a strong social movement.

However, the NFB is also a rational bureaucracy. How has it avoided bureaucratic inertia and stagnation? First, it has kept a constant and clear focus on the organization’s goals. Through this focus it has avoided being co-opted by other social movements. Second, through its constitution it is a tightly knit organization from the top down. This permits prompt correction when things go awry at local and affiliate levels. Third, there is circulation within the elites. Individuals with talent can move up through the organization, becoming board members, national staff leaders, and holding leadership positions in the numerous special interest groups. Fourth, four decades ago when I first encountered this social movement, I was impressed by the ethnic and gender diversity. This again brings new leadership, talent, and energy. Finally, through careful selection there has been remarkable continuity at the presidential position, providing organizational stability and continuity.

As an example, I was at first skeptical when the NFB created three residential agencies in Minneapolis, Denver, and Ruston, Louisiana. Did this social movement need three agencies that might become similar to the numerous existing centers? After twenty years these centers have continued to embody the values that characterize their founding. They continue to change attitudes and lives by expanding opportunities and horizons. There are no low expectations here.

Why the title—“People, Power, and Pelf”? Pelf is ill-begotten money or wealth. What kind of people would be characterized as earning ill-begotten gains? If a rehab organization is not rehabilitating, is this not pelf? If organizations are not changing with new human developments—not providing more options for clients—is this not pelf? If an organization does not welcome consumers as partners, is this not pelf? Such organizations should not be controlling, but liberating. “Oppression, however well intended, is evil.”

Through its continual development of national leaders the NFB has liberated or at least greatly improved many state and private agencies. In the many decades ahead we can hope that pelf will be largely eliminated in agencies and institutions that provide rehabilitation services.

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