by Gary Wunder
In the June 2013 issue of the Braille Monitor, the lead article was “The Rehabilitation System in Oklahoma: Progress, Setbacks, and the Hope for Greater Opportunities.” It revealed that two leading rehabilitation officials were fired or resigned three days apart, and the article discussed the reasons for their severance. More importantly, it discussed the progress that had been made in providing rehabilitation services to the blind of Oklahoma and expressed the hope that it would not be derailed by the inappropriate behavior of its previous rehabilitation officials.
The fear that elected officials in Oklahoma would retreat from the task of improving their rehabilitation system by promoting low-profile bureaucrats and ordering them to keep rehabilitation services below the radar was unfounded. Oklahoma moved boldly to hire Joe Cordova as the executive director of the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services (ODRS) in December of 2013. His work in the field is well known to members of the National Federation of the Blind and professionals in the field of rehabilitation, having distinguished himself throughout the country as an innovative and hard-working leader in getting services leading to employment. He has been the assistant commissioner for services for the blind in New Mexico, headed the Division for the Blind in the Rehabilitation Services Administration, became a regional commissioner in that agency, and then moved to Hawaii to head their general rehabilitation agency. “We want people to have good jobs at good wages, and we want to avoid providing the kind of minimalist service that leads to them coming back to the department again and again because they don’t make enough money or the employment doesn’t represent something they really want to do.” Cordova is emphatic in his conviction that the bar for his agency is not met or exceeded by helping clients secure entry-level employment and then walking away with the agency feeling satisfied that it has a case closure. The agency should feel that it has been successful only when it has helped one of its consumers to find employment where they make a good, sustainable living wage. Cordova believes that achieving this goal can often require several years of hard work to produce these results, but he notes with pride that the wages of disabled customers in Oklahoma went up by 5 percent this year. This is happening in a state that is currently suffering significant financial difficulty as a result of lower oil prices and the need to dramatically cut government expenditures.
Many of the changes brought by Cordova have been warmly welcomed, and as we detail those that deal specifically with rehabilitation for the blind later in this article, it is easy to see why blind residents of Oklahoma are embracing the changes. One change, however, that has generated some controversy is the replacement of the superintendent of the Oklahoma School for the Blind, a department which falls under Cordova’s jurisdiction. Cordova says that the decision to dismiss Dr. James Adams was difficult and that he made it after it became clear that he and Adams did not share the same vision for student success. Cordova says that Adams did a good job in coordinating the day-to-day activities of the school, but his expectations of students and the careers that might be theirs were not consistent with Cordova’s. “We need a long-term vision for people at the school. Our data for a six-year period clearly demonstrated that graduates of the school performed below blind students who attended public school. I believe that the expectation for students should be that they will get an education beyond their post-secondary experience.” But Cordova said this was not what Dr. Adams envisioned. Cordova says that Adams believed that the superintendent should not be encouraging students to go to college and that their demonstrated failure to thrive in this environment was an indication that they could not. Cordova believes that the more appropriate view for the school and the rehabilitation agency to take is that the failure of the students is more likely the result of deficiencies in training that the school should identify and address. He believes that the school needs to assess how it’s doing in providing academics, independent living skills, and extracurricular activities and to use these assessments to improve the ability of the school’s students to face the challenges they must meet to succeed in the world today. “If we aren’t producing successful students, either something in the curriculum needs to be changed or maybe we need to give them some remedial courses, tutoring, and other support services that will help them get to that place.”
The charge has been made that changes at the school for the blind have occurred in an attempt to eliminate the residential school. Cordova says this couldn’t be further from the truth. “As a former blind student who has attended a school for the blind from age five until graduation in my home state of New Mexico, I believe I can speak from personal experience as to the many benefits of attending a specialized residential school for the blind, benefits which are not always readily available in regular public schools. I attribute much of my success over the years directly to the programs and services offered in a special residential school for the blind, and I want future blind students to have the same opportunity to benefit from those types of programs and services here at the Oklahoma School for the Blind.”
Cordova removed Adams in June of 2015, having made the decision earlier but not wanting to disrupt the school year. He was replaced by Christine Boone, the wife of Douglas Boone, who is the director of Visual Services. This sparked charges of nepotism, but, in fact, these have no legal legs. Neither of the Boones supervises the other, both reporting directly to Cordova. Cordova says, “I have worked with Christine for more than thirty years, and I trust her to implement the policies that I believe will lead to better outcomes for students. I appointed her to serve as the interim director while we do a nationwide search. Finding a qualified superintendent is a difficult task, and I cannot think of one blind person who currently serves in that capacity in the United States.” As this article is being finalized, interviews are currently being conducted to find a full-time superintendent.
On the subject of rehabilitation services for blind people, there are many positive accomplishments to report. Cordova hired Doug Boone in January of 2014 to head the blindness agency, a unit that is strangely named Visual Services. Boone says that when he was looking for a house and told people where he would be working, they wanted to know how many different kinds of glasses the agency provided and what a person had to do to get services. He says they never once assumed that the agency was set up to serve blind people, and both he and Cordova are proposing a name change for the blindness unit. There seems to be good support for changing the name to Vocational Rehabilitation for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and the name change is expected to be finalized at the end of 2016.
Boone said that when he came to Visual Services, the definition of blindness being used by the agency often resulted in ambiguity in who would be served and the services the agency could provide to them. The agency has now updated its definition of blindness so that it is less confusing and unambiguously complies with federal regulations. It clarifies that the agency serves the legally blind, the visually impaired, those who have a progressive condition which is certain to lead to blindness, and those who are functionally blind—people who are photophobic and cannot see during the day although at certain times and under certain lighting conditions may have 20/20 vision. He says the agency has also addressed training for its counselors in the area of low vision. “Sometimes there is this perception that our state services for the blind discourages the use of vision. If one’s vision is dependable and makes one competitive, that is good, and we try to make the most of it. But, if it works now, but it won’t work at 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon, that’s a problem.”
One of Boone’s concerns has long been that people who are newly blinded have their first meeting with the agency and after two hours are left with a mountain of paperwork that they have no idea how to process. “For many of these people print is no longer an option, but we were leaving them all of this paperwork and actually contributing to their sense of defeat about what it means to be blind. Signing up for services to address blindness is an emotional time, and, when I was a counselor, I often felt frustrated at that first meeting, knowing that a client could only retain about 20 percent of what I told him. We have created a much better system, and it is one that is long overdue.”
The agency has developed an information cartridge that is readable using a National Library Service (NLS) book player. The cartridge includes a document detailing the rights and responsibilities of applicants, information about how to contact the Office of Disability Concerns (known in many states as the Client Assistance Program), a pamphlet on library services and how to use them, information pamphlets about and from both consumer organizations, and a list of out-of-state training centers with whom the state agency contracts. The cartridge also includes information about the Oklahoma Rehabilitation Council, and this is critical because agency consumers need to know how to contact those who are responsible for overseeing the program that gives them service.
“By the time we leave their house, we have delivered them an NLS machine, and they are signed up for library services and shown how to use the machine. Not only do we leave them with critical information, but by signing them up for library services, we once again open to them the wide world of information and the stories and adventures that literature can bring.”
Boone believes that there must be stronger relationships built between the staff of his agency and the consumers they serve. To this end his division is encouraging staff members to attend state conventions of the National Federation of the Blind and the Oklahoma Council of the Blind. “We can’t serve people well if we don’t know them.” So that staff are aware of the broader issues faced by blind people, they are invited to attend national conventions of the two major organizations in the country. The agency will pay their expense to attend the convention of the American Council of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind. “If you attend the convention of the National Federation of the Blind one year, you are obligated to attend the convention of the American Council of the Blind the next. Likewise, if your first convention that the agency pays for is the American Council of the Blind, you are obligated to go to the convention of the National Federation of the Blind the next year. We will pay for our staff to attend two conventions, and if they choose to continue going to one or both, we will grant them leave time to do so. Our division’s impartiality has to be above reproach.”
Under Boone’s leadership the agency has placed increased emphasis on immersion training in blindness. This can only be received at a residential rehabilitation center, and no such center for the blind exists in Oklahoma. The division therefore maintains contracts with six agencies around the country from which its consumers can choose. Boone feels that residential training is so important that he has created a contest funded from his pocket to encourage the division’s staff to send clients for training. If a staff member gets three students to attend intensive rehabilitation training, Boone will give that staff member a hundred-dollar bill. “I have put my money into this because I think people need to know that this is where my heart is and that I am committed to quality training. Money is a great motivator. I think the effectiveness of the contest can be seen in the figures. In 2014 we sent twelve people for center training. In 2015 there have been twenty-six people participating in intensive training.”
With the passage of the most recent amendments to the vocational rehabilitation act, known as the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act, tremendous emphasis is being placed on providing transition services for people ages sixteen to twenty-one. For the first time the division sponsored the Transition Independence Program. This two-week course gave blind students an experience in which they lived in a dormitory, learned to travel from the dormitory to the cafeteria, learned to do some light cooking, received additional training in orientation and mobility services, went on community trips, received daily instruction in Braille and assistive technology, and got some technology they could take home as their own. The program purchased an iPod Touch, and with the assistance of the National Federation of the Blind of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Council of the Blind, iTunes cards were provided so that each student could purchase a copy of the KNFB Reader and thereby have access to the printed page. The program concluded with a cookout, giving many of the students their first opportunity to grill their own hamburger and hot dogs. “Several of our students had never worked around a fire, and one was deathly afraid of it. This meant that we had to do lots of preparation with a cold grill so students could see the layout of everything in a cool, touchable environment. It was so exciting to see a seventeen-year-old in the program lighting her first match and starting our fire. I have never seen anyone as excited as she was, and this is what we are all about.”
Visual Services has recently advertised a transition facilitator position. The person hired will help young people ages fourteen to sixteen to acquire the skills of blindness and will work with their parents to make sure that other soft skills are acquired. The person filling this position will also work with students from ages sixteen to twenty-one, the focus being on transitioning from high school to college or some other program oriented to training one for employment. Since parents are key, the agency is developing a video that shows successful blind people working and participating in their communities. The agency will also set up periodic meetings across the state so that parents can meet blind people and have their questions addressed.
The agency has added an assistive technology coordinator to improve services to clients and to do outreach to potential employers. The coordinator doesn’t do placement but does try to plow new ground in getting employers to see that the jobs they have to offer are ones that can be done by blind people. “Our hope is that when they have job openings, they will think about blind people to fill them. What we are trying to create is a no-pressure environment where an employer has a license to ask questions in an honest way.”
Expanding assistive technology services to make sure that the agency is providing quality instruction and follow-up is important to Boone. The agency is adding a toll-free number its customers can use when having problems with technology, be it hardware or software. Division staff can either talk them through their problem or can connect to their computer to provide direct assistance. “Training will continue to be in-person, but the phone can be used to refresh what you already know but have kind of forgotten,” says Boone. The division has always had an assistive technology lab, but nothing has existed for people in the eastern part of the state. The agency now has a building in Tulsa and is waiting for furniture. The building will house a technology lab, but, more importantly, it will allow all of the staff in Oklahoma City to function under one roof, increasing the coordination of services that the division provides. In addition to the training provided by agency staff, the division has contracted with Langston University to teach keyboarding, JAWS for Windows, and mainstream applications. “Our intent in working with the university is to increase the computer literacy of our clients and to get people job-ready,” says Boone. As an added benefit, the university can work with staff members to enhance their training on the technology that is so important in the workplace. There is a lot of it out there, and it is no small task to stay current.
In addition to the consolidation taking place in Tulsa, the agency is working on bringing staff together in Oklahoma City. Library services will be moving from a mall into a state-owned building. All services provided by staff in the Oklahoma City area will also be under one roof. This building will house an access technology lab, a kitchen for training, a washer and dryer, and administrative offices. “Our goal is to get people in Oklahoma City to see the library as a central place to go to get services,” says Boone. Given the downturn in Oklahoma’s economy as a result of low oil prices, one significant benefit is that this move will eliminate some rental fees and will also bring federal dollars to the library because vocational rehabilitation programs have to pay rent somewhere.
Changes in the business enterprise program are ones Boone sees as particularly exciting. The agency is upgrading requirements to enter the program and offering those who think they are interested in food service the opportunity to have extended visits at business enterprise facilities. “This business is not for the faint of heart,” said Boone. “There is a lot of standing, a lot of dealing with growly customers, but the business opportunities represent a significant shot at advancing, and we strongly support the program.” People who decide they want to go into food service will attend a training center and, while learning or refreshing one’s skills of blindness, the business enterprise program trainee will be taking a training course offered by the Hadley School for the Blind to learn about food preparation, running a small business, and other job functions required to be a successful business person. “Our expectation is that when they get back to Oklahoma, they will be very close to bidding for and getting a facility.”
With all of the emphasis on employment that is required by the Rehabilitation Act, some have speculated that it is the intent of the agency to do away with homemaker services. Boone says this couldn’t be further from the truth and that, when asked to provide comments on the latest revisions resulting in the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act, he wrote unequivocally supporting the retention of the homemaker status. What he does object to is the practice previously followed in Oklahoma of automatically placing people fifty-five and over into homemaker status, noting that the consumer should always be asked what he or she would like to do, regardless of their age. He notes that a woman who was seventy-nine years old resumed her work as a tax preparer after she received services from the agency. Boone believes this is how it should work and that informed choice doesn’t mean that only young people have the right to exercise control over their lives.
Overall Boone is happy about the progress made so far. He says that standards and indicators are up, wages are up for people who have received training and are being placed, and good things are being done as the agency works diligently to better serve its consumers.While the controversy surrounding the Oklahoma School for the Blind is regrettable, it should not overshadow the significant work being done to help the blind of the state. Neither should it obscure the commitment of elected officials in Oklahoma to take the high road, offering to the blind of Oklahoma a chance for the education and training that leads to gainful employment and a major step toward the full integration of the blind and the sighted. While the innovators in Oklahoma should be given due credit for their forward-thinking attitudes and programs, I unashamedly express my hope that other agencies will follow suit and that what seems spectacular today will become commonplace throughout the nation. Of course, the chances that this transformation will occur are directly proportional to how much we in the National Federation of the Blind press for it, and I hope that the pages of this magazine can chronicle such changes until they no longer are newsworthy but are so commonplace that they are simply expected.