The Braille Monitor _July 1997
The Price of Cowardice:
Missouri State Agency Denies Services to the Blind
by Barbara Pierce
Several years ago Gary Wunder, President
of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri and a member of the NFB
Board of Directors, was the National Representative at the Ohio affiliate's
annual convention. During the weekend he had occasion to mention the constructive
working relationship the NFB of Missouri had with the state's vocational rehabilitation
agency serving the blind, Rehabilitation Services for the Blind (RSB). Together
the two groups conducted seminars for students, job-seekers, and the like. RSB
contributed funds and expertise, and the NFB did most of the preparation and
organization and supplied speakers, discussion leaders, and resource materials.
Feedback indicated that participants found these programs useful and inspiring.
At the time my reaction was: what a wonderful example of consumer group and
state agency cooperation to help blind people. This healthy working relationship
gave me hope for what could be done by professionals and consumers of good will
and commitment to enable blind people to achieve all that they can.
Then, according to Wunder, the Missouri Council of the Blind, the state affiliate of the American Council of the Blind, apparently decided that it didn't like what was happening. Specifically they objected to the joint seminars and to RSB counselors' giving NFB brochures, pamphlets, and publications to consumers of state services. They also objected to the fact that the Colorado Center for the Blind, the adult rehabilitation facility in Denver conducted according to Federation philosophy, was under contract with the state of Missouri to train blind Missourians interested in effective rehabilitation. It wasn't that they had materials or services that they wanted substituted for those offered by the NFB; they merely complained that consumers were likely to be interested in joining the Federation after reading NFB literature; and they didn't like it.
Wunder says that in 1993 and 1994 members of the Council began writing letters to RSB complaining about counselors' handing out NFB literature. (Ken Emmons, MCB President, did not return phone calls requesting comment.) The strategy worked. According to Wunder, in 1994 the agency announced that counselors could no longer provide any literature that had not been approved for circulation by the agency. Then they neglected to establish any guidelines for approving such literature. The result was that counselors were no longer able to pass out NFB material to clients. The agency also said that it would only co-sponsor seminars planned by both consumer organizations. If one group subsequently pulled out, agency sponsorship could continue, but agency participation could no longer take place in activities conceived by one group only.
The NFB of Missouri filed a lawsuit in August of 1996 seeking to allow counselors who wanted to circulate NFB literature to do so. The case is scheduled to be heard in January of 1998, so agency personnel declined to comment on any matter associated with the case.
Meanwhile the Missouri Council of the Blind filed suit in the summer of 1996 arguing that the Colorado Center for the Blind did not train people to accommodate to their blindness. But they failed to cite the specific laws that they alleged were being broken, and several months later they withdrew their case. Representatives of the Council have reported to the governor and members of the legislature that RSB urged them to withdraw the case, assuring them that, if the investigation then scheduled demonstrated irregularities or improprieties, the agency would terminate its contract with the CCB, thereby resolving the situation without going to court.
In February of 1997 the agency's advisory council received and discussed an investigation of the CCB program, which cost $28,000 to produce. The council voted to continue the contract with CCB and to make any necessary adjustments within RSB that the report suggested might be called for.
The matter might have ended there except that the Missouri Council had learned its lesson well. Agency bureaucrats did not have much courage and could be intimidated by self-serving complainers into watering down services. Returning graduates from all state-financed rehabilitation programs record their views in a survey which in 1995 and 1996 demonstrated emphatically that CCB students found their experience positive, that CCB training was effective, and that they were ready to resume their place in their communities. (The 1995 survey showed that CCB training was the second most highly regarded program among Missouri consumers, and the 1996 survey showed CCB at the top.) According to Wunder, counselors thought the program was impressive. The director even admitted that, as such programs go, this one was fairly inexpensive. But agency officials were not prepared to withstand the pressure being brought by the MCB.
Gary Wunder comments sadly that senior RSB officials have no real commitment to providing quality services to blind Missourians. In support of this contention he reports that in the midst of the 1995 fight to preserve federal rehabilitation funding by opposing H.R. 1617 in Congress, Sally Howard, RSB Director, told the RSB Advisory Council that they should do whatever they could to conduct the fight because this was their program. She added that she had come to RSB from the Division of Family Services, and there would be a job for her there, whatever happened to RSB.
Wunder says that it was clear to him that RSB was looking for a way to end the relationship with the Colorado Center. Agency officials had known for three years that CCB students were sometimes evaluated for job readiness at the Denver chapter's bingo fund raiser. This was done only when the students had no objection to the location or the activity, and the students never did much work since the evaluation was completed fairly quickly. But suddenly Missouri took exception to the notion that its students were participating in a Denver Chapter fund raiser.
At the May, 1997, meeting of the RSB Advisory Council the bingo matter was raised, and the Council voted to suspend the contract with the CCB. It then voted to urge the staff to try to renegotiate the contract with the Center.
This second vote clearly dismayed senior RSB officials, who grumbled audibly about it at the time, according to NFB members of the Council. Regardless of what clients and counselors think of the CCB program, senior RSB officials show no enthusiasm for renegotiating the contract. They have little to worry about, however. The Colorado Center for the Blind currently has a waiting list months long and expresses no interest in jumping through hoops any longer to satisfy Missouri.
That is a brief overview of the sad situation currently in Missouri. The following is a portion of Gary Wunder's presidential report to the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri on April 12, 1997. It lays out the situation as Gary saw it in mid-April. Here it is:
One of the strategies of opposing counsel
in our struggle with RSB has been to assert that I am the
mastermind of all this discontent and that the rank and file NFB members know nothing about the issues under discussion. A legal argument like that could only arise from the minds of theorists who have never attended one of our conventions.
To cut through most of the verbiage and speak clearly and simply to our struggle, let me quote from a letter I am sending to an assistant in Governor Carnihan's office, Ms. Andrea Ruth:
Dear Ms. Ruth:
Thank you very much for helping us get a meeting with Governor Carnihan. He seemed very interested and attentive as we discussed our concerns, and all of us in the National Federation of the Blind appreciate his time.
Near the end of our meeting the Governor asked that we communicate further with you in an effort to address the concerns we brought. I hope we can get support for our joint resolution urging the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to adopt competency standards for teachers of the blind and that the Governor will encourage them to comply with both the spirit and the letter of the law. Some kind of recognition by your office might be helpful in getting the public to see the crucial role Braille plays in the education and employment of people who are blind. The funny thing is that the public already understands the fact that Braille is to the blind what print is to the sighted. It is only the teachers and school administrators who work so hard to find alternatives to teaching this most necessary skill.
We touched on two other issues in which actions we would like you to take are less clear. One is the lawsuit we find ourselves in with Rehabilitation Services for the Blind. The issues seem, at least to us, to be simple. We have free literature which blind people find helpful. RSB comes in contact with people when they could most benefit from what we have to share. We have asked that the agency use our literature when their professional staff believe it could benefit a client they serve. What we are asking is consistent with past practices of RSB, and the only reason for a policy change forbidding the use of our literature came about as a result of objections by the Missouri Council of the Blind.
Employees of RSB are prohibited from using our literature for clients because we are classified as a
consumer organization. We have suggested that RSB use literature from any organization, consumer or otherwise, if Rehabilitation Services for the Blind believes the literature has a message of value to the blind the agency serves. The Missouri Council of the Blind has responded by saying that they will object to RSB's use of any material which might positively influence an RSB consumer toward the National Federation of the Blind.
We believe our message is quite consistent with the goals of rehabilitation and that what we bring is a much needed supplement to what the agency can provide. If those who provide services disagree about the importance or relevance of our message, nothing we propose would obligate them in any way to provide it to blind persons they serve. Our only request is that the policy singling out our literature as inappropriate for use by RSB be lifted.
In the same vein you know that Rehabilitation Services for the Blind sends some of its clients to the Colorado Center for the Blind, a program started by the NFB. Surveys conducted by RSB of students that attend such facilities consistently rate the Colorado Center very highly, and we are told that the cost RSB is asked to pay is among the lowest charged by centers with which RSB contracts. These positive factors notwithstanding, members of the Missouri Council of the Blind object to the State of Missouri's dealing with the Colorado Center for the Blind because it is affiliated with the National Federation of the Blind.
At the last meeting of the Rehabilitation Advisory Council, a member from the Missouri Council of the Blind moved that RSB no longer contract with the Colorado facilitybecause, in his opinion, given its NFB affiliation, it could never meet Missouri's requirements. The vote on that motion found all members of the Missouri Council of the Blind voting in favor of it, members of the National Federation of the Blind voting against it, and members not affiliated with any group voting to defeat the motion.
When the Governor asks whether we ever meet to try resolving our differences, I am hard-pressed to know how to respond. The answer to the question do we meet is yes, but those meetings seem not to move us toward resolution. It isn't that we don't understand each other, a context in which meetings might help in sharing perspectives. I think the problem is that we understand each other perfectly and that we simply don't like what we understand.
Our experience indicates that it doesn't matter very much that we offer a quality service which blind people and RSB staff like. If we are the sponsors, the Missouri Council of the Blind is opposed. If the Missouri Council of the Blind is opposed, the Agency goes to great pains to distance itself from us. Even when they don't fundamentally alter the program, they at least make sure they are seen to be tough and demanding in their dealings with us.
If our perception is correct and our very sponsorship of programs or information is enough to cause opposition which in turn creates reluctance on the part of the state agency, where then is there room for compromise? To Sally Howard's credit, she has asked this same question, and again I think the answer has been that nothing short of our programs' completely divorcing themselves from the National Federation of the Blind is acceptable to the Missouri Council of the Blind. This is not at all acceptable to us.
The question the State of Missouri must answer is whether we will turn down quality services which are cost-effective and unquestionably in demand, simply because someone objects to the fact that they are provided by what they consider a rival organization. Not surprisingly I believe that to cave in to these demands is unworthy of an agency dedicated to the rehabilitation of the blind. As difficult as it is for public servants and employees of the state to do, I think you need to go beyond understanding that there is a controversy and determine for yourselves the merit of the programs and the merit of the criticism leveled against them. I propose that you look at the programs of the NFB and the Colorado Center for the Blind, and, if you find them poor, you need to act on what you see by discontinuing contractual relations with us. If, on the other hand, that review finds the programs we conduct effective and economical, I believe you have an equal obligation to act based on your findings and to encourage us in the work we do.
You might consider saying to all organizations, consumer or otherwise, that public policy in Missouri will be influenced by positive offerings and not by sniping and bickering. You should say that the State of Missouri is glad that both organizations exist, that it has no preference for one or the other, and that it is perfectly willing to deal with both as their individual programs merit. You should say that we in the organizations are free to argue among ourselves about personalities, philosophies, and attitudes but that Missouri has little interest in framing public policy around our competing views. You should say that all organizations, consumer or otherwise, are welcome to come up with programs to meet the needs of the blind, and, if those programs find favor with Rehabilitation Services for the Blind and the blind people they serve, the resource will be used regardless of the name of the sponsor.
That was my letter to the governor's
assistant. Turning to our own suit to lift the ban against the use of our literature
by RSB staff in their work with clients, we participated in a hearing in October
in which we asked that the court issue an injunction temporarily to suspend
RSB'S policy. That injunction was denied, and it is clear that we have a long
road ahead of us. We were not able to show, to the satisfaction of the judge,
that we have suffered any real damage as a result of the RSB policy. She asked
us to show that we have been damaged monetarily or that our membership rolls
have been diminished.
Of course, you and I know that our objection is not that we are financially harmed or that RSB should be a vehicle through which we gain members. Our argument is that blind people have the right to the information we freely provide, that the agency has an obligation to use our material if it believes it may help a blind client, and that state policy should not be determined based on objections from those who consider themselves our rivals. There should be no rivalry when it comes to giving blind people
information about Braille, careers, daily living, diabetes, discrimination, education, employment opportunities, Social Security, and technology; but this is in effect what is happening today.
When observers say, in their detached and sometimes disdainful way, that this is just a battle between the two consumer organizations, I want to ask them what posture they would have us take. Given that we did not initiate the battle or try to pressure RSB into changing its relationship with another organization, it seems to me we are left with only two choices: One is passively to accept that public
policy will be determined by whoever objects and by whoever makes noise, to accept the stigma that somehow our literature, by virtue of the fact that we produce it, is suspect and substandard, and to concede that our message isinconsistent with the message of rehabilitation and services to the blind. All of these concepts we can passively accept while continuing to persuade the Congress, the President, and our fellow taxpayers that rehabilitation is worthy of continued and even expanded funding. This is one choice.
The other choice involves testing our beliefs about the land in which we live and the concepts of fairness and justice we hold dear. In a perfect world truth, fairness, and justice might emerge without struggle or sacrifice, but we live in the real world, and we do the best we can with our frail institutions and our own imperfections. One part of me is offended at the effort required to defend a good program and give away our quality literature, but another part of me is grateful that we live in a country where at least there can be a contest between programs and pettiness, quality, and senseless quibbling.
Are we certain to win in the end? The answer is that there are no guarantees. If we continue with this action, in the end we may have to content ourselves with the knowledge that we have done what is right; that service to blind people is our number one priority; and that, win or lose, we will retire each night knowing we have conducted ourselves with honor, honesty, integrity, and civility. Our reward must come not in the knowledge that our position will be upheld but in the knowledge that any other choice is to abandon our concepts of fairness, justice, and quality programs for Missourians who are blind.
At the time of Gary Wunder's presidential report, he was still hopeful that somehow the unpleasantness might be resolved. But as the weeks went by, he discovered that members of the Missouri Council had been writing letters to legislators and the governor in an effort to undermine the Federation's good name in the state and to ensure that NFB philosophy would have no influence in the thinking of newly blind Missourians. Gary wrote to the Governor in an effort to set the record straight. This is what he said:
May 23, 1997
The Honorable Governor Mel Carnahan
Missouri State Capitol Building
Jefferson City, Missouri
Dear Governor Carnahan:
I am writing to you in my capacity as President of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri (Federation). I want to thank you again for meeting with me last month, and I want to thank you and those members of the Legislature who recently took steps to distribute scholarship forms to blind students here in Missouri. You will be pleased to know that, out of a pool of 500 applicants nationally and with twenty-six scholarships to award, two young Missourians have been chosen to receive Federation scholarships.
It saddens me that I must now write to you concerning a very unfortunate dispute which exists between the Federation and another organization which represents the interests of the blind in Missouri, the Missouri Council of the Blind (Missouri Council). Recently you received copies of letters from the Missouri Council which contain critical and untrue comments about our organization and its relationship with Missouri's Rehabilitation Services for the Blind (RSB), a part of the Missouri Division of Family Services. We were not afforded the courtesy of being sent copies of those letters, and only a passing remark by a Missouri Council member alerted us to the information you were receiving. This is our first opportunity to send a reply to you and to those to whom copies of these letters were sent.
For the sake of clarity the letters we
are referring to are dated and addressed as follows:
1. February 26, 1997, letter to Ms. Sally Howard, Director of the RSB, by Mr. Newburger, counsel for the Missouri Council. You are carbon copied on this letter by name. We understand that this was also sent to members of the Missouri Legislature.
2. March 3, 1997, letter to Ms. Sally Howard by Ken Emmons, President of the Missouri Council. While it does not indicate so on its face, we understand that a copy of this letter was also sent to you and members of the Legislature.
3. April 27, 1997, letter to Ms. Howard by Ken Emmons. Again, while it does not indicate so on its face, we understand that a copy of this letter was also sent to you and members of the Legislature.
In an effort to be aboveboard in the
expression of our views and in the belief that they can stand the light of day,
we are providing a copy of this letter to the Missouri Council and are asking
that they extend the same courtesy to us when discussing programs with which
we are involved. We are also sending a copy to Ms. Sally Howard since the agency
she heads has been the target of criticism by both the Federation and the Missouri
Council and since we are asking that you rectify the injustices we believe have
been done by this agency.
The Colorado Center for the Blind (Colorado Center), the subject of a substantial portion of the letters sent to you, is loosely affiliated with the Federation. The Federation does not have any direct role in the day-to-day operation of the Colorado Center, and accordingly we cannot directly answer for the Colorado Center. However, the Colorado Center and the Federation do share a similar philosophy regarding blindness, and we respect and endorse the teaching methods employed by the Colorado Center. Because the charges made by the Missouri Council concerning the Colorado Center fundamentally challenge both that philosophy and those methods and because those charges in our view imperil the rights of the blind, we feel compelled to take issue with the charges leveled against both the Colorado Center and the Federation in the letters you have received.
The National Federation of the Blind is an organization made up of blind and sighted people who believe that with proper training and opportunity blind people can lead normal and fulfilling lives alongside their sighted neighbors. Equally true is that, without good training and real opportunity, blindness can be one of the most devastating disabilities known to man. A recent poll shows it is feared more than any other disability, save AIDS and cancer.
We know that creating opportunity means providing good information about what it means to be blind, so the Federation publishes brochures, pamphlets, and books on subjects ranging from how one can match his clothing to how one can be certain she takes the proper medicine though she cannot see the printed label. Most of our information is provided free of charge in print, in Braille, and on cassette tape.
For many years the Federation provided its literature at no charge to the RSB. Until 1994 the RSB freely provided Federation literature to its blind clients. Likewise they also used the literature available from the Missouri Council. For reasons we do not understand, the Missouri Council elected to threaten the RSB with legal action if it continued to give Federation pamphlets to clients. RSB's response was to implement a policy forbidding their staff from giving clients materials the Federation publishes and ordering that they not discuss any of the programs run by the Federation. One such program is Job Opportunities for the Blind, which we run in conjunction with the United States Department of Labor.
At RSB's request the RSB, Federation, and Missouri Council met to discuss this issue; and the Federation voiced its view that RSB should continue to use any information, regardless of its source, which could help people who are blind. We made it clear that we had no objection to RSB's using literature from the Missouri Council or any other organization, as long as the professional staff working for RSB thought the publications might help the blind they serve. The Missouri Council took the position that the Federation literature spoke positively about our organization, that it might influence blind people positively toward us, and that the RSB therefore had no business providing it to blind clients, regardless of the need or its value to the newly blind.
After more than a year of unsuccessful negotiations with RSB to lift their ban against our literature and the discussion of our programs by RSB staff, we were forced to respond to RSB's direct challenge to our First-Amendment rights by initiating litigation, which is still pending in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. We deeply regret the failure of negotiations and the necessity for legal action, but we cannot simply stand by and permit our Constitutional rights to be taken from us, while at the same time watching the needs of blind people for information take second place to political considerations.
Our experience is that training is essential if blindness is to be a nuisance rather than a devastating
tragedy. When we speak of training, we mean teaching blind people to do those things which most people can do with sight. Special techniques enable us to cook, clean, read, write, travel, go to school, learn a trade, and eventually take jobs and assume our place in the community. The Colorado Center has, for some time, taken blind people from Missouri into its program under the sponsorship of Missouri's RSB.
As detailed in the letters sent to you
and the Legislature by the Missouri Council, it is alleged that the
Colorado Center discourages the use of guide dogs and will not allow them in its facility. If this were true, it would be against the law, and, of course, there is no truth to the allegation. The former Director of the Colorado Center is herself a guide dog user, and many people come to the program who use these fine animals. The Federation urged and worked with Senator Wiggins for eight years to have
introduced (and finally passed) the first Missouri statute guaranteeing the right of blind Missourians to be accompanied by their guide dogs. This, in addition to numerous cases in which the Federation has used the law to help blind people with guide dogs, should make it clear this charge is totally false.
The Missouri Council alleges that the Colorado Center does not teach students to use their remaining vision and that it mandates they wear sleep shades. No student is forced to do anything--the Colorado Center program is for adults, and blind people are treated accordingly. Since people who go to the Colorado Center do so because of low or failing vision, the Colorado Center first seeks to teach skills which are not dependent on vision. When a student has learned that performing essential life activities can be done without vision, the Colorado Center then works with that student to maximize the use of his remaining sight. Sleep shades are indeed used in training, since the temptation to rely on one's remaining vision is second nature for anyone who has it. If the Colorado Center were to teach visual enhancement first, its emphasis would be on what the student lacks or is losing. By first teaching techniques which are not dependent upon vision, the Colorado Center seeks to convey to the student that any usable vision he or she has is a supplement and not an essential ingredient to living in a sighted world.
Every reasonable human being would certainly agree that any vision a person has is a blessing that should be used. The only issue for consideration is whether one teaches visual techniques first and then adds blindness techniques later, or whether blindness techniques are the foundation on which one builds other skills.
In the letters sent to you, the Missouri Council accuses the Colorado Center of forcing blind people to use a slate and stylus when there are other devices with which to write Braille. The issue of how one writes Braille is not an either/or matter. Just as with print, there are different writing methods for different situations. A slate and stylus is to Braille what a pencil or pen is to print. A Braille 'n Speak device is to Braille users what a computer, keyboard, and screen are to the sighted. A computer costs $1,000 for the sighted, and a pencil costs a quarter. The Braille 'n Speak for the blind costs $1500, and a slate and stylus costs $3.50.
The Colorado Center teaches reading and writing skills at all technological levels, believing that, to the greatest extent possible, blind people need as many options as do folks who can see. Consider how cumbersome your life would be if you had to turn on a computer every time you wanted to take or retrieve a phone number or had to carry a computer to the grocery store in order to read your grocery list. To deny blind people a low-tech alternative in reading and writing would be to eliminate a life skill widely employed by both the sighted and the blind in dealing with many day-to-day activities.
The Missouri Council tells you the Colorado Center requires its students to use canes produced by the Federation. This is not so. The Colorado Center recommends the long white cane, which the Federation contracts to be produced, because it is the lightest and most durable cane on the market. Cane breakage is most likely to occur when a student is just learning to travel, and providing him or her with the most durable cane available in this training activity is obviously appropriate. While the Colorado Center certainly recommends the rigid fiber glass or carbon fiber canes we have produced, it also makes available canes from other sources and gives them out freely. Current students and alumni can attest to this and have stated as much to interviewers from the RSB.
In another Missouri Council allegation contained in the letters sent to you, they contend students are forced to do rock climbing and water skiing. As noted earlier, Colorado Center students are adults, and the word "forced" has no place in this environment. One of the Colorado Center's challenges is to get their students to rethink attitudes about the limited capabilities of the blind, and it is precisely by getting these students to engage in activities generally thought off limits for the blind that the Colorado Center starts to change attitudes at the gut level. The Missouri Council says that alternatives to these activities include reading, bowling, and playing games. While such exercises are unquestionably enjoyable and beneficial, they do not help to reshape one's attitudes about blindness, a critical element in rehabilitation.
A complaint made to you is that students at the Colorado Center are offered the opportunity to attend the National Convention of the Federation as part of their training. The RSB has known about and endorsed this practice precisely because the convention experience contains so many of the elements of training for which we send blind Missourians to the Colorado Center in the first place.
The convention puts our trainees in contact with many blind people who can independently travel, give speeches using Braille, and use technology on a daily basis to do their work. Our convention features over fifty special-interest groups which center on occupations ranging from preachers to lawyers, child care workers to nursing home administrators, body shop workers to college professors, and sheltered shop workers to computer scientists.
The Colorado Center and the RSB have
endorsed Missouri students attending the Federation National Convention as a
part of their training because it is the largest meeting of blind people in
the world and the most diverse group which annually assembles to address the
concerns of the blind. The investigation you commissioned suggested this activity
might be a contractual violation. The Missouri Council is pressuring, and RSB
is considering seeking a refund for time spent at Federation National Conventions.
A request for a refund is being considered despite the RSB Director's assertion in February that she knew about students attending Federation conventions, that she had thought it had training value, and that it would be unfair now to hold the Colorado Center liable for participating in an activity which had been considered proper by RSB.
The most recent charge to be leveled against the Colorado Center by RSB is that Missouri students have been used by the Colorado Center to do fund raising while in training paid for by the RSB. This charge we unequivocally deny. Under the contract with RSB, the Colorado Center is obligated to provide evaluation services aimed at determining the employability of those it serves. This is generally done by finding an employer who will allow a student to work in his or her place of business and who will then help the Colorado Center in evaluating the student's abilities and work performance.
The Denver chapter of the Federation raises money by running a bingo game. As early as 1994 the RSB agreed that the Colorado Center could, with the agreement of the Denver Chapter, use the bingo operation to perform such work evaluations. A student in 1994 was given a two-week internship at the Denver chapter's operation, and reports of his progress in learning work activities generalizable to other employment were filed with and approved by the RSB.
In early April of this year another student volunteered to work in this activity to get some on-the-job experience, was allowed to take a half-day shift, and was evaluated as was the student in 1994. Now, however, given the criticism generated by the Missouri Council of the Colorado Center and the desire of the RSB to avoid further controversy, this activity has incredibly been used as the reason for
canceling RSB's contract with the Colorado Center. All of this has occurred without affording the Colorado Center any meaningful opportunity to defend against an alleged contract violation.
There are, of course, alternatives open to RSB, if it believes this bingo activity has the appearance of a
conflict of interest or promotes the National Federation of the Blind. It could specifically disallow use of the bingo operation for evaluations, requiring instead that the Colorado Center seek out other businesses which would work with it to evaluate the potential of the student. The RSB could specifically forbid Missouri students from volunteering to work in the bingo activity, regardless of the value of the work experience or the evaluations springing from it. No matter how many alternatives were suggested to the RSB, however, the Missouri Council insisted that it would only be satisfied with the termination of the Colorado Center contract, and that is precisely what has occurred.
In May of 1996 many of the charges discussed here were brought before the Advisory Council that oversees and advises Missouri's RSB. That body asked you to conduct an investigation, and this you did by hiring the St. Louis firm of Armstrong, Teasdale, Schlafley, and Davis, which in turn generated a 100-page report. The report, as many have remarked, contains a little something for everyone. The pattern employed is to discuss an accusation, find no violation of the law, but then say that "some consumers, however, contend. . . ." Similarly characteristic of the report are sections which conclude with "While there is no case law on this subject, some groups of the disabled say. . . ." If the nearly $30,000 spent in this investigation were intended to provide you with an overview of what each group
was saying about the other, then our money has been well spent. If, however, the purpose of the report was to investigate supposed violations of the law, we the blind and the taxpayers deserve better than these equivocal statements.
In retrospect, our most grievous error
in dealing with the accusations of the Missouri Council has been to assume that
they would sound as ridiculous to others as they have to us and that we would
be viewed as engaging in petty bickering were we to mount a full-scale assault
on them. We have foolishly assumed that positive programs would, without defense,
be enough to counter the baseless criticisms leveled against them, but this
neglect on our part has left many free to conclude that, in the absence of information
to the contrary, the charges of the Missouri Council must be true.
We would like your help in seeing that Missouri renews its contract with the Colorado Center and that RSB lifts its ban on the mention of Federation programs and the use of Federation public information on blindness. Each year we work hard to see that RSB receives the federal and state appropriations necessary for it to do its work of successfully integrating blind people back into the community.
We deserve better than to be told that Federation literature and Federation programs are incompatible with the rehabilitation process, simply because they bear our name and because a group which considers itself to be a rival organization offers an objection. Please see that Missouri takes advantage of any program or service which can increase the chance that our blind citizens can successfully live and work alongside their sighted friends and neighbors.
Yours Very Truly,
Gary Wunder, President
National Federation of the Blind of Missouri
cc: All Members of the Missouri Legislature
Ms. Sally Howard, Director, RSB
Missouri Council of the Blind
There you have the letter Gary Wunder
wrote to the governor, and so far we have no indication of its impact. As usual
in such cases, if the governor does not put an end to the nonsense or the agency
does not find the courage to do what is best for its consumers of services,
the only people who will lose are those Missourians who will become blind in
the future or who, for whatever reason, have not yet received rehabilitation.
Of course, members of the Missouri affiliate will continue to reach out to those
who need their help, but their efforts would have been much more productive
if they could have continued to work collegially with the state agency.
Ironically, the Braille Revival League, an organization within the ACB, conducts a program in St. Louis, in which volunteers teach Braille to those interested in learning it. Gary Wunder says that RSB takes advantage of this service, and the Federation has never tried to discourage the relationship. The NFB's attitude has always been that there is enough work to go around and that every good program should be encouraged. Wunder says that the NFB's challenge is to find its own ways to serve would-be Braille readers in St. Louis and across the state. It is tragic that the ACB has not shared this attitude and that the state agency in Missouri is afraid to stand up for what is right. As it stands now, neither consumer satisfaction nor effective rehabilitation matters in Missouri. Neither counselor opinion nor consumer-group willingness to assist clients is of importance. Keeping the ACB quiet is apparently all that really matters to the Missouri agency charged with serving the blind. Cowardice has a new name and definition; the name is Missouri Services for the Blind, and the definition is capitulation.