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The Braille Monitor,  July 2001 EditionThis is a line.

Here We Go Again

by Jim Marks



Jim Marks
Jim Marks

           From the Editor: Jim Marks serves as an officer of the Montana affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind. He is also the Director of Disability Services for Students at the University of Montana-Missoula. Every day he walks the line between rehabilitation-agency responsibility and university responsibility in meeting the access needs of disabled students. Recently the vocational rehabilitation agency in Minnesota suddenly announced that it had decided to shift yet another one of its responsibilities to colleges and universities. We asked Jim to comment on the policy change and its implications. This is what he said:


            "Here they go again," remarked one Federationist. "Vocational rehabilitation is dumping yet another responsibility."

            The comment refers to the recent decision by Minnesota State Services for the Blind (SSB) to require colleges and universities as well as other organizations to pay for the production of Braille and tape-cassette books. Hardest hit by the policy change will be those whom rehabilitation is intended to serve: the blind, especially blind college students.

            SSB provides alternate-format materials to its blind vocational rehabilitation clients who are college students through the Communication Center, a transcription service and library of alternate-format materials for citizens of Minnesota who can't read print. It isn't necessary to have a rehabilitation plan in place to use the Communication Center. People of all ages use it. Originally the Communication Center served only the blind, but the center expanded its services (with no specific mandate) about twenty-five years ago to include learning-disabled people and others with print handicaps.

            SSB publications and officials report that the many achievements of the Communication Center, which began as a nonprofit agency in 1954 and merged with SSB in 1979, include being the birthplace of the first radio reading service. Patrons of the Communication Center access information in the form of Braille and tape-cassette books, radio broadcasts of newspapers, telephone access to talking newspapers, and many other services.

            According to Chuck Hamilton, the administrator of the Communication Center, the policy change is all about money. In a telephone interview Hamilton said the Communication Center plans to charge colleges for alternate-format production because operational costs for the Center are on the rise, and appropriations from state government haven't been forthcoming. Besides that he said that SSB believes that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) places the financial burden for accommodation on colleges rather than state rehabilitation agencies.

            Bonnie Elsey, Assistant Commissioner for the SSB, said that the decision to ask colleges and other programs to pay for producing alternate-format materials stems from her agency's not having enough money for its priority for employment. She said funding was so scarce last year that SSB implemented an order of selection, a rehabilitation term for portioning out services when there isn't enough money to go around. Elsey said funding for the Communication Center comes from state and private funds as well as from vocational rehabilitation services-to-groups money. She said SSB needs to shift the services-to-groups funding back into employment services. She said that SSB hopes to work with colleges and others in the future to see what the Legislature might do to help.

            SSB published its rationalization for the policy change on its Web site. Paraphrased, it says that the ADA requires colleges and universities to make their programs accessible by the blind and others with disabilities. SSB never received funding to carry out this function for colleges, so higher education should pay for providing the alternate formats that make colleges accessible, and vocational rehabilitation should not.

            What nonsense! In shifting the financial burden from its back, SSB will hurt the very people it was intended to serve. While SSB fusses over the question of who pays, the vital question of what's in the best interests of blind Minnesotans goes unanswered.

            Contrary to what rehabilitation officials in Minnesota seem to believe, the ADA did not repeal part or all of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act. However, SSB, like so many vocational rehabilitation agencies in other states, is seeking to use the ADA as a convenient reason for ducking its responsibilities. A short history lesson reveals what's really at stake.

            In 1973 Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was passed requiring colleges receiving federal funding to make their programs accessible by the blind and others with disabilities. Program access to higher education included auxiliary aids and services such as alternate-format educational materials and readers for blind students. When Section 504 was passed, everybody expected that vocational rehabilitation agencies would continue their traditional role of paying for the auxiliary aids and services or what might be termed blindness-specific services. In this way blind students could exercise the right to access higher education without enduring the backlash caused by a college's reluctance to pay for accommodations.

            From the day Section 504 was passed, some vocational rehabilitation agencies balked at paying for auxiliary aids and services, and lawsuits were filed to decide who pays--rehab or colleges. The most famous of these cases was Jones vs. Illinois (1982), which required rehab to pay. This decision has never been reversed.

            Then in 1990 along came the ADA, which renewed the pressure from some vocational rehabilitation agencies to pass along the cost of auxiliary aids and services to colleges. The ADA did not bring any clarification to the question, nor did it add any new obligations to nearly all colleges beyond those already covered by Section 504. But rehab seized on the same notion used in the early days of 504--that these civil rights laws require access and that colleges should pay. While the courts remained silent and the federal government assumed an ambivalent position by advising states to forge cost-sharing partnerships, each state worked out its own agreements. Some vocational rehabilitation agencies don't pay for auxiliary aids; some formed partnerships with colleges to cover the cost; and some continue to foot the bill themselves.

            A few years later Congress reauthorised the Rehabilitation Act, wrapping it into the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. When that legislation was being debated in Congress, the Senate version included language that made vocational rehabilitation agencies merely the payer of last resort for auxiliary aids and services. This would have meant that colleges had to pay. Had Congress adopted this language, the federal government would finally have addressed the issue. But the language wasn't adopted. The American Council on Education, a representative body for higher education, fought the language and got it removed.

            The argument of the American Council on Education was simple: society has a responsibility to provide equal access to higher education for everyone, including the blind and others with disabilities. Access has a cost. That cost is best distributed across the largest group possible so that individual programs, like a college, for example, need not bear the full brunt of expensive accommodations. In other words, vocational rehabilitation was established in large part to pay the disability-related costs involved in training a person for employment. To change this purpose is to alter the essence of the way vocational rehabilitation is funded and serves its clients.

            Higher education wields tremendous political clout. In the event that vocational rehabilitation successfully shifts the financial burden for auxiliary aids and services to colleges--it's my understanding that it's pretty much a done deal in Minnesota--higher education almost certainly will lobby for federal and state funds to cover the cost of accommodations. It doesn't take a genius to realize that money for accommodations is likely to come from funds currently allocated to vocational rehabilitation. If rehab won't meet its traditional obligations, some other organization will have to. And it is obvious what the next step could be. In these days of challenge to the value of specialized services for the blind and challenges to the value of vocational rehabilitation as distinct from other Workforce programs, one can reasonably ask: why on earth would a rehab agency voluntarily give up one of its specific responsibilities and shift it to another entity? Rehab should be carefully tending its own garden, not giving away real estate.

            If the logic used to justify dumping book production is followed to its conclusion, rehab can shift all its responsibilities to other entities and live on, an empty shell, blissfully receiving federal and state money for doing nothing whatever. Anyone can see the flaw in this logic. If rehab isn't needed to perform this or that or some other service, why don't we just get rid of rehab and give the cash to the entities that are performing the services?

            Apparently Minnesota's rehab officials can neither perceive the logical consequences of their arguments nor the essential and fundamental value of rehab to blind clients. Federationists have been justly critical of rehab in many places and for many reasons, we have never advocated getting rid of it, only fixing it. But Minnesota's logic leads to abolition, a fact they apparently haven't yet figured out. We issue the warning and hope that others will heed it even if Minnesota does not.

            Colleges are already required to spend a good deal of money to provide accommodations for disabled students. They must pay to acquire alternate-format materials and other accommodations when a blind student is not a vocational rehabilitation client. Moreover, colleges cannot legally require blind students to sign up for rehab services from the state agency in order to receive accommodations. So the only issue in question is who should pay when the blind student is already a client of vocational rehabilitation.

            Bobbi Cordano, Director of Disability Services at the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis, said she isn't sure how her university will respond to the change in policy by the Communication Center. She said her office already produces alternative-format materials for about half the students with print disabilities. It's a matter of trying to figure out how to assure access while finding the best way to manage costs, she said.

            The mission of SSB, according to its own description of itself, is "to foster the achievement of vocational and personal independence of persons who are blind or visually impaired." Try as I may, I cannot imagine how charging colleges for a service rightfully borne by SSB fits within this mission. In very real terms those whose professional responsibility is to understand what it means to be blind are expected to and very often do foster achievement in the people they serve. While it may be a leap in faith to say that SSB possesses and acts on this understanding, it is for dead certain that most colleges have no reason to and, in fact, do not.

            The National Federation of the Blind is committed to the development of quality rehabilitation services for the blind. After all, we enthusiastically embrace effective training and can-do attitudes about blindness and the establishment of high-quality rehabilitation programs. We know that, if done properly, rehab delivers on the promise of creating more opportunities for blind people. The NFB would like to form sound partnerships with SSB and rehabilitation agencies in other states. At the same time we remain highly skeptical that colleges can or will serve us well as suppliers of rehabilitation services. Blindness is a low-incidence disability, and many complain about the lack of expertise and the one-size-fits-all approach used by colleges in accommodating blind students. We believe, based on past experience, that this shift of responsibility from rehab to colleges will put more blind students in harm's way.

            Moreover, the harm involves more than money. Yes, the cost will certainly cause problems. The Communication Center plans to charge $5.40 per Braille page and $56.45 per tape cassette. Big colleges won't have much trouble paying for quality, but even they will sacrifice quality to keep costs down. In fact, the easiest way to keep costs down is to use the old tried and true system: hand each blind student the phone number of Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. That is in fact providing access to auxiliary aids as many blind students in other states can attest. Good luck, Minnesotans. While RFB&D has a long and proud record, it simply can't do everything blind students need, as any of us who has attended college can also attest.

            The other completely unsatisfactory solution, which seems to be under discussion on Minnesota's college campuses as a result of this decision, is to hand a tape recorder and textbook to the first Work Study student to walk through the door and pay him or her to record the text. That way multiple versions of the same book will be produced around the state, all of them almost unusable because of having been recorded by people who do not know the vocabulary of the discipline.

            But the greatest danger lies in the overall issue of shifting responsibility from rehab to colleges. Today most colleges have an in-house service for students with disabilities. These services are rarely geared for the blind because blindness is a low-incidence disability. The vast majority of college disability service officers don't have the expertise and experience necessary to serve blind students well. They resort to doing for the blind only and exactly what they do for the learning-disabled. Disaster for the blind student is usually the consequence.

            Take my university for instance. Out of a student body of about 12,000 students, 611 use disability services. Of these, six are blind. Over 300 have learning disabilities and/or attention deficit disorders. It's easy to fall into the trap of concentrating resources on the greatest numbers. The blind students at the margins can and do receive treatment designed for disabilities that have nothing to do with blindness.

            Minnesota's current turmoil is a case in point. About twenty-five years ago the communication center began to serve citizens with learning disabilities. The legislature appropriated state money for this purpose as it already had and continued to do for providing materials in alternate format for the blind. Now the communication center says it can no longer afford to provide the service it is funded to provide. But vital information is hard to come by. For example, how much is appropriated for the blind and how much for the learning-disabled? How much is spent on each category? Is the proportion the same as at my school--blind people are one per cent of the citizens served? How do we know that money appropriated for the blind is being spent for the blind?

            And, while we're on that subject, the communication center uses no federal client case-service money. This seems incredible to anyone familiar with the federal-state rehabilitation partnership program, which provides almost four out of every five dollars spent on clients. The communication center uses some federal money from the services-to-groups category, which is not client-specific money and exists to support general services, leading to the interesting question whether any federal services-to-groups money is spent in serving or supporting services to  the learning-disabled, probably an inquiry for another article or for federal auditors, yet nonetheless interesting. But, as I say, no case money--no individualized plans for employment with provision of books specified as a duty of the agency triggering those four-out-of-five-federal dollars for the expenditure. If the communication center can no longer afford to pay for its services through its current system of state and federal cash, why not split apart the blind and the learning-disabled so that everyone knows how much state money is being spent for each and the record of expenditure is clear? Why not restrict the services of the blindness portion to those who are rehabilitation clients of the agency? Why not write provision-of-books into the plans for employment for students who are clients? That way four of every five dollars spent could be federal dollars drawn down by a single state dollar.

            One reason why these changes are not being made seems to be SSB's inability to understand that books in alternative formats are part of training for employment for the kind of good jobs that pay more than the minimum wage and demand skills beyond the unskilled-worker level. Elsey said that the services-to-groups federal money which has supported the communication center thus far would serve the blind better if withdrawn and applied to employment. Apparently in her mind employment means anything without books like dishwashing and assembly line work. Whether it's done through services-to-groups or through case-service money, Elsey thinks use of federal money to produce books for blind people in training for employment is the wrong use of the money. It's too bad that Minnesota's services to blind people seem to be going back two centuries to the point where only entry-level jobs, low-paying jobs, or nonprofessional jobs are appropriate for the blind. But that's the effect of saying that no federal dollars can be used to produce books because the funds are needed for employment services.

            The explanation of this mess apparently lies in the state agency in Minnesota, whose top officials have abandoned any pretense of commitment to categorical services for the blind in favor of the new fad in employment programs: work force development. With this new mantra on their lips, Minnesota's rehab officials have contrived to commit a colossal failure of management, refusing to see the simple solution to their problem and choosing instead a complicated one which will result in poorer service and less federal money. In these days of constant attacks on rehab, the rehabilitation agency in each state would do well to tend its garden quietly and carefully. Instead, Minnesota's officials have chosen to give away agency services to other entities, cutting off part of the reason for the agency's existence and creating poorer service that officials will probably somehow attribute to those bad old categorical services--in reality the only model that could offer rescue from the monetary hot water in which Minnesota finds itself today.

            While it's reasonable to expect rehabilitation services for the blind to possess the kind of specialized expertise it takes to serve blind people, it's unreasonable to expect colleges to fill the void created by the state rehabilitation agency's refusal to do its duty. Colleges depend on vocational rehabilitation agencies to provide the kinds of supports and resources it takes to foster the achievement of independence by blind students. And blind people look to the NFB to set that standard of achievement.

            One final sidebar merits attention. About a year ago Minnesota's general vocational rehabilitation program, a sister agency to SSB, stopped paying for sign language interpreters and real-time captionists for the deaf in higher education. Interpreters and captionists are the most expensive auxiliary aids and services of all. For example, Cordano's disability budget at the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis includes over $1 million for deaf communication services--half of her entire budget. When rehab and higher education duke it out over who pays for auxiliary aids and services, they usually do it over interpreters and captionists. In fact, the lawsuits mentioned earlier were over access for the deaf, not the blind.

            Minnesota's general rehabilitation program successfully shifted the financial burden for interpreters and captionists to higher education because, to a large extent, that's what the deaf said they wanted. The National Association of the Deaf maintains that vocational rehabilitation provides an outdated medical-modeled approach for the deaf. They have argued that colleges should bear the cost of accommodation since access to higher education is a civil right rather than a medical issue.

            All this means that the powers that be in the general rehabilitation agency have heard the deaf, but their colleagues in SSB are not listening to the blind. It's tragic to lump everyone into the category of the disabled without regard to the particular requirements of distinct groups like the blind.

            Lest anyone still be confused on the subject, let me say it one more time: Vocational rehabilitation is funded and charged with the responsibility of providing blindness-specific services for people seeking training toward employment. Colleges and universities exist to educate. When either takes on the duties of the other, poor service results. We blind people do not find rehab obsolete; we often find it backward, recalcitrant, and poorly managed. But we endorse categorical services specifically because they work for the blind. We oppose poor management wherever we find it, and we oppose rehab's giving away core duties because its managers find it inconvenient to think of better ways to do the task.

            Of course the NFB won't tolerate being kept from the table when decisions affecting us and our fellow blind people are being made. We are the blind speaking for the blind. We oppose the erosion of services for the blind in Minnesota and elsewhere. Whether rehabilitators and college officials are listening or not, we will be heard. To my brothers and sisters in the NFB of Minnesota, I can only say, "Go get 'em!"


            [Sidebar] One of the dangers to services for the blind is always that state vocational rehabilitation agencies or universities can decide to modify or restrict those services without warning. Here are two examples of problems that have arisen during the past year or so. The University of Missouri at Columbia began circulating a statement announcing that readers provided by the university were no longer permitted to read any material more than once even if the student was asking for repetition in order to write down notes for later, independent study. Only one reader per course could be used because otherwise more than one person might read the same passage, which would constitute studying, not making the material accessible. In addition school readers were permitted to read only on campus. The state agency was in fact helpful in quashing this plan by pointing out that it was paying the bills and would therefore set the rules even if the readers in question were university students.

            Recently, on the other hand, an Ohio rehab counselor refused to allocate funds for reader service to an incoming college student at all. Her reasoning was that all students today have scanners and therefore no longer need human readers. In fairness it must be said that, when the NFB advocate working on the case insisted that other counselors were still paying for readers, she agreed to allow the practice for this student. These incidents are disturbing because those of us who do research, studying, or rapid assimilation of masses of material know that directing a live reader is often the best way to accomplish quick and efficient work. University and agency personnel who presume that technology can replace readers or that readers should be programmed like machines have missed the whole point that the purpose of accommodations is to enable blind people to assimilate print information effectively and efficiently.

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