Braille Monitor                          May 2019

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Shaking Things Up

by Jim Marks

Jim MarksFrom the Editor: Jim Marks is a stalwart Federationist of many years. He currently serves as the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Montana. Professionally, Jim served as the director of disability services for students at the University of Montana for twenty-one years and as the Montana director of vocational rehabilitation for seven years. He currently owns and operates the firm, The Blind Grizzly/Jim Marks Consulting, and he is writing an historical fiction novel based on his ancestors’ experiences in nineteenth-century Montana.

The State of Montana hired me in January 2010 to serve as its director of vocational rehabilitation in order to shake things up. Here is my story.

Quality vocational rehabilitation changes lives. Most mistakenly believe the services focus on employment, but the deep story is one of civil rights. Civil rights always speak to the self-determination of individuals who face limitations and denials of choice. For people with disabilities, as with other oppressed groups, the barriers come from outside of ourselves as well as within. Vocational rehabilitation services primarily address the internal oppression. When vocational rehabilitation functions as it should, it achieves success when those it serves believe in themselves. Good services guide, and clients decide. All people with disabilities want to live the lives we want, and services grounded in high expectations leverage the change that leads to employment.

When the public vocational rehabilitation program performs as Congress intends, its outcomes are stunningly beautiful. Forged in the letter and spirit of civil rights, vocational rehabilitation empowers people with disabilities to take control over our own lives and our services. The Rehabilitation Act and its amendments assert bedrock American values such as the values of informed choice, competitive integrated employment, and the priority for those with the most significant disabilities. Underlying the entire construct is a very simple premise: Believe in yourself and what you can do.

Here is the thing: such powerful transformative beliefs come from the National Federation of the Blind. For many decades, the fingerprints of Federation leaders show up all over our nation’s public vocational rehabilitation program. No bread is baked without a persuasive philosophy, and the Federation finds the high marks for what blind people can do. Federation leadership goes well beyond blindness as it lifts the aspirations of all people with disabilities. Additionally, the Federation possesses the grit and know-how to bake the bread for ourselves and others. Time and time again, the Federation relentlessly brings down barriers and engages everything necessary to leave our world better off than we found it.

Unfortunately, even the clearest and most compelling of ideas become obscured in day-to-day struggles. The public vocational rehabilitation program sometimes loses its way. One distraction comes from the dense set of written and unwritten rules under which vocational rehabilitation operates. Many policies and practices cause the program to focus on budgets over people or to adopt top-down medical models. One can see the negative results of such follies by examining the employment outcomes. For many decades, vocational rehabilitation failed to budge negative unemployment and under-employment rates of those served.

That is why Montana hired me to shake things up. However, the demand for corrections in the public vocational rehabilitation program erupted everywhere. It was not about me. Rather, it was about us. Together, we need to figure out public policies and practices that deliver positive change and better outcomes.

In 2014 Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act with the passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). As soon as former President Obama signed the bipartisan bill into law, it launched massive changes. In fact, the WIOA amended the Rehabilitation Act 100 times. Most of these amendments were so sweeping, experts declare that the vocational rehabilitation of today bears only passing resemblance to the program that led up to the WIOA.

Just to focus on one of the changes, the WIOA emphasizes services for youth. The law earmarks significant federal funds solely for brand-new services designed to prepare young people for transition to post-secondary education and work. Federationists embrace the concentration on youth because that kind of attention has long been fundamental to our beliefs and practices. After all, it is much better to educate young people about their power of self-determination than to try and repair the ravages of oppression on adults. Remember, if we can get individuals to believe in themselves, there are no limits on what can be accomplished.

Before and after the WIOA became reality, I enjoyed a front-row seat. I served on the Executive Committee of the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR). At the time, many in Congress expressed skepticism about the voice of CSAVR. After all, CSAVR is a membership organization comprised of directors of the state agencies Congress hoped to change. CSAVR tried to find allies, but some disability advocacy groups, particularly independent living center advocates, abandoned vocational rehabilitation in order to break free and to establish their own authority. I personally harbor no ill will toward the independent living folks because they were doing what they felt they had to do to find their own voice. Still, these were dark days for vocational rehabilitation professionals. Fortunately, CSAVR linked arms with the Federation and a few other disability organizations. True to form, the Federation made all the difference.

CSAVR CEO Steve Wooderson told me once that he felt confident that CSAVR knew what it was doing and how to work hard and effectively until he had the pleasure of collaborating with Federation leaders like John Paré and Anil Lewis. John and Anil led the Federation charge to amend the Rehabilitation Act under the direction and encouragement of Marc Maurer and Mark Riccobono as well as the entire Federation membership.

“Those guys,” Wooderson once told me, “set a bar I didn’t think possible.”

Vocational rehabilitation and Federation leaders enjoy much in common. Both believe in positive attitudes and quality training and opportunities. Both are change agents. Together, vocational rehabilitation and the Federation accomplish much. CSAVR pays attention to the big picture ideals while defining and developing what it takes to realize those ideals. That’s exactly what the Federation does.

For example, CSAVR recently sent a letter to Secretary Betsy DeVos of the US Department of Education strongly urging her support for competitive integrated employment services. CSAVR and the Federation speak as one against segregated subminimum wage employment. We believe all workers with disabilities can work in our communities for comparable pay and advancement opportunities. Our opposition harbors low expectations for people with disabilities, and partnerships forged in the spirit of civil rights convince everyone, including those who oppose us, to relegate sheltered workshops and subminimum wages to the history books. The time has come for all workers with disabilities to be guaranteed competitive integrated employment.

Make no mistake about it. We are engaged in a nationwide revolution that shakes things up. Yes, we have miles to go before we sleep, but we are getting there more and more each day.

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