The Braille Monitor                                                                              August/September, 2003

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Promoting Harmony in the Field of Work with the Blind:
Federal Policies That Enhance Opportunity

by Joanne Wilson

Joanne Wilson prepares to deliver her convention remarks.
Joanne Wilson prepares to deliver her convention remarks.

From the Editor: Tuesday afternoon, July 1, Dr. Joanne Wilson, commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, addressed the Convention of the National Federation of the Blind. Here is an abbreviated version of her remarks:

After playing in a club one night, Count Basie, the famous jazz musician, went to the manager rather distraught and said, "This piano sounds terrible. I will not come back until it's fixed." A few weeks later the manager of the club called Basie, assured him that the piano was fixed, and invited him to come back and play in the club. Once again, Count Basie sat down at the piano to play. Within a few minutes he got up and went angrily to the manager. "This piano still sounds terrible. I thought you said you got it fixed."

"I did," said the manager. "I painted it."

In the public rehabilitation system we are always looking for better ways to help blind people and other people with disabilities get more independence and real, high-quality employment. But often we spend time painting the piano. The challenge in the public rehabilitation system is to look at why we do what we do.

Twenty years ago a group of researchers at Harvard University wanted to see how the environment affects perception. They took two groups of kittens and raised one group in an environment that only had horizontal lines. They raised the other group in an environment that had only vertical lines. When the kittens grew up, they could not function in the dimension in which they had not been raised. They had not had the sensory stimulation they needed to see in the other dimension.

In the rehabilitation system we must look beyond traditional dimensions. One way we can do this is to look at the business world and see what has worked. In a difficult environment businesses have to cope with a struggling economy, reduced budgets, consolidations, and competing priorities. Yet some businesses struggle merely to survive while others thrive and expand. The difference is the way an organization defines and uses its assets. Some businesses--not the very successful ones--see their assets as only the traditional resources: staff, budget, technology, buildings, and so on. They do not notice other under-utilized assets that can be power resources for their business. Yet other businesses, those that are innovative and successful, can identify and use their hidden assets. They can set aside the traditional lens and see things in a different dimension.

Two examples of these are MTV and ESPN X-Games. These two businesses are successful even in an environment in which businesses just like them have not been successful. They have realized that they need to really know and understand their consumers. Only by direct interaction with their consumers can they really know what they like and dislike. That's why at MTV the vice presidents actually go and live in the homes of teenagers and view over an extended period what they really like and don't like. ESPN has set up in malls and skating rinks, where teenagers flock. They use these skating rinks as a lab in which to study and see what folks really like and what they don't like.

Successful organizations get feedback and innovative ideas from their consumers rather than only their internal hierarchy. They realize that they can bring new ideas through consumers from the outside in. The consumer connection can give them a continual source of feedback that will help them improve their programs.

Consumer groups are the hidden asset in the rehabilitation system. They are very under-utilized. My boss, President Bush, really believes in involving consumer-based organizations in local, state, and federal government. He values it and says, "We need to look at consumer-based organizations if we are to improve government." In the rehabilitation system we have a vast network of individuals, ideas, and experiences that can serve significantly to improve our rehabilitation system. We need to infuse our already strained system with thousands of experts, individuals who are dedicated and motivated and have knowledge to help us work and improve our system.

One of the primary roles of the rehabilitation system is to empower people with disabilities by giving them the confidence, the elevated expectations, the skills, the training, the knowledge, and the equipment and services they need truly to become independent people and get meaningful employment. Who do you know that can do this any better than you here in this room? Consumer groups like you provide core services that can really make a difference in the rehabilitation system. CORE: C, commitment; O, opportunity; R, role models and mentoring; and E, expertise.

Commitment. Let's look at what commitment the National Federation of the Blind can offer to the rehabilitation system, the commitment that since 1940 has helped shape the rehabilitation system and has supplemented it with valuable services. Look at the commitment each of you showed in order to come to this convention. You spent time and money, took your Fourth of July vacation, and sacrificed to be here. Every day you go out and do things that are going to help the rehabilitation process. You are in schools talking with children to educate them about blindness. You're working to educate policy makers. You're working on IEP's in the rehabilitation system, helping other blind people to figure out what they want to do. You're educating employers. You're sitting on advisory boards and our state rehabilitation councils and doing thousands of other things that are going to make a difference in our rehabilitation system.

Opportunity. The National Federation of the Blind offers opportunities for other blind people out there in this country. You heard a lot of that in the presidential report this afternoon: America's Jobline; a scholarship program that we have seen at this convention; NEWSLINE services; Slate Pals; involvement in local and state affiliates, where people develop leadership and learn how to work at community services.

Role models. What more can you ask if you look here at this convention. How many of you have been asked to mentor someone else? When you look around at this convention and you see people who are reading Braille at 300 words a minute, you think, "Maybe I can do that too." You see people traveling independently, and you think, "Wow, there is a better way to get around." Consider the jobs you can learn about around here--all the different kinds of jobs that blind people are doing, and people who are willing to serve as role models and mentors for you. Advocacy--we learn advocacy and pass that on to other blind people.

Expertise. Well, the collective knowledge and experience gathered here from the minds and hearts and beliefs of blind people can be used in our rehabilitation system through our NFB centers, through the Braille Monitor, Future Reflections, and the Kernel Books and other publications. We can look at lots and lots of things that we do every day to make a difference. Our new national research and training institute will provide expertise. The International Braille and Technology Center serves this purpose. The new national blindness professional certification board is making changes in the field of orientation and mobility.

Each of you working every day on state and national legislation is truly shaping the rehabilitation system and making things different for blind people. These are some of the hidden assets that need to be used in our rehabilitation system, and when that happens, there will be more involvement and more jobs and independence for blind people. But any successful organization knows that it's not just enough to associate with or intellectually understand consumers. They need to have a dedicated and experiential understanding of the people that they serve.

A hospital recently wanted to improve its services. It asked a cross section of its employees to think of the best service experiences they had ever had. They thought of the service at Disney World and flying first-class on airlines. Then they were asked to remember these experiences as they became patients in their own hospital. They wore those gowns that flap open in the back. They lay in bed for twenty-four hours. They tried to walk around with an IV attached, and they ate hospital food. They found out that the hospital experience did not measure up to the first-class services they had been thinking about. They decided that they needed to make changes in their hospital, not because of an analytical study or statistics. They were prepared to act because of their experience, their knowledge, their personal belief about what was important and true.

In the traditional rehabilitation system we think that, if you are a professional in the rehabilitation world, you should not associate with and certainly not go to conferences, conventions, and local chapter meetings of people with disabilities, of people who are blind. We need to change this kind of thinking. We need to have immersion experiences within the rehabilitation system. Through immersion experience we learn a philosophy about disability. We learn techniques that work for blind people and those that don't. We learn about the needs and the wants of blind people and understand them better so that we can be better professionals.

The rehabilitation system has a whole network of volunteers who are willing and ready to work in an innovative way to help improve our system and make it even better. As commissioner of the rehabilitation services, I hope that our system actually recognizes and respects the involvement, the hidden assets of consumers. We need to infuse into our system the values and expertise of consumers even though this may cause a lot of hostility and fear in some parts of our system.

What are some specific ways we can do this? I hope that we can get to the point where blind people who walk into our system are referred by their counselors to the National Federation of the Blind and other disability groups so that they can have the kind of mentoring, role modeling, commitment, and opportunity that I have been describing. I have been successful in trying to get some extra funding that will be available for state agencies to apply for to contract with consumer-controlled membership organizations of folks with disabilities to provide mentoring experiences to transition-age youth, kids who are in high school.

That means that the National Federation of the Blind can work directly with young people, serving as mentors and role models and helping change the system for them. We in the rehabilitation system believe that we too need to do immersion experiences. That's why seven of my staff from RSA are here at this conference with me, including our two new regional commissioners, Joe Cordova and Noel Nightingale.

We are trying in little ways and big ways in our central office to include consumers in our processes--a simple thing like putting the National Federation of the Blind and other consumer groups on our mailing list for notices of what's happening in RSA; involving the National Federation of the Blind and other consumer groups in our leadership training; having consumers be on our committees and work groups and task forces; and being invited to speak at and help plan our conferences. You could see this last November in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when RSA put on the first conference for residential training centers in the country. We have ninety residential training centers in this country, and for the first time folks got together and the consumer voice was heard because consumers were on the committee and consumers helped put on the program. It was a different kind of conference.

What else are we doing in RSA? Well, our publication, the American Rehabilitation Journal, is going to have articles from consumers about consumers, and the voice of consumers is going to be heard. Our grantees are putting out publications such as Jim Omvig's book, Freedom for the Blind. We are putting out other training publications on empowerment and nontraditional ways of teaching orientation and mobility.

You may ask if this system can really work. Could we really have a system in which consumers are truly part of the rehabilitation process, really work with our state agencies and have a different kind of rehabilitation? This was a question we asked in 1958 when Dr. Jernigan, Dr. tenBroek, and our Federation leaders got together and said, "Can we use this concept?" They developed the first model, the Iowa Commission for the Blind.

Many in this room are products of that first model. I saw it first-hand, and this is what I saw: staff people who were different from the norm, believing in blind people. They had a positive attitude about blindness, high expectations, and a defined philosophy about blindness different from anything else around. How did they get that philosophy? They got it because they were immersed in and surrounded by the National Federation of the Blind and blind people. They went to conventions like this one, both state and national. They read material that had been written by blind consumers. They had discussions. They spent time just hanging around with blind people and listening to what they had to say and learning from them.

They passed that philosophy on to us students through day-to-day contacts. They did it by having us go to conventions and local chapter meetings. They did it by having us read the material that had been written by the blind people who had gone before us. They had discussions with us about using sleepshades and accepting free bus tickets just because you're blind. I remember the famous dishwashing tape, in which we talked about the hierarchy of sight. Why do we use the word "blind"? Do we need special gardens for the blind? Should we pay for banquet tickets for state legislators and why? The staff and the students learned a defined philosophy of blindness, and we learned it from the collective experience and knowledge of other blind people. That's what made it different.

We were taught the skills of blindness, skills that went beyond the normal skills taught to other blind students around the country. We were pushed to do far more, and where did they get that notion? Because they had hung around blind people. They had hung around the National Federation of the Blind and realized that blind people could do more than the stereotyped notions that existed before. We were pushed to learn Braille. We were pushed not just to cook ordinary things. I remember one time being told to go buy a number of small appliances for the kitchen. They trusted that I could really do it. I remember going to the state fair and making thousands and thousands of cookies in front of state fair visitors. That was the kind of cooking we did. I remember taking cane travel. We didn't just do the ordinary routes; we did drop-offs. We did the 5.6-mile-long walks in all sorts of situations.

Beyond that, we did woodworking and water skiing. We went to the governor's ball. That was part of the stretching of mobility. We were surrounded by role models. Where do these role models come from? I remember seeing a blind person walking through big snow drifts, catching the bus, and going home. I thought, "Wow!" I remember being invited to blind people's homes for dinner and thinking, "Wow! they cooked this whole meal themselves!" I remember seeing a blind mom taking care of her kids, and I thought, "Wow." I remember seeing blind people knitting and dancing and doing all kinds of things.

But the most important role modeling they did was when I decided I wanted to be a teacher. They didn't say, "We don't think that as a blind person you can be a teacher." Instead they introduced me to members of a consumer group, members of the National Federation of the Blind, who were blind teachers. They had a resource to show me. If they could do it, I could do it too. I got new perspective at this training center. I learned informed choice because I could see what other blind people liked and didn't like. They gave me perspective so I could make good choices about my employment and how independent I was going to be.

I learned advocacy because I saw consumers, other blind people, members of the National Federation of the Blind, going to the state legislature, going on demonstrations, writing letters to the editor and politicians about situations where discrimination was taking place. I saw the power and the strength of an organized voice. So when I needed advocacy and when I was discriminated against in my student teaching (they were not going to allow me to student teach), I knew that I could do something about it. I saw that blind people could make the agency accountable. We knew firsthand the efficiency of the agency. By collectively working together, we could make services accountable to us.

Any philosopher, any great religion tells you that to be a full person you need to learn how to give. In this first model of consumers working with the state agency, they taught us how to give, to be truly whole people. They used the National Federation of the Blind as a mechanism to teach us that. Long after we had stopped being students, the National Federation of the Blind was there to keep giving us the boosts, the shots in the arm, so that we could truly live independent lives. But beyond that, it gave us a chance to mentor others: to do the candy sales, to give the speeches, to do thousands of other things that provided us the opportunity to give back.

These hidden resources help. They helped me and they helped other blind people lead independent lives and get real jobs. The National Federation of the Blind can help the rehabilitation system reach another level of service--not just struggle to survive, but expand and thrive. The National Federation of the Blind can help the rehabilitation system--not just put on another coat of paint, but really offer core services that will help blind people lead independent lives and get real jobs.

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