by Everette Bacon
From the Editor: The National Federation of the Blind was created because a few blind people believed that only if they spoke for themselves could they create and shape the programs that would best serve them. We believe this as much today as we did in 1940. Unfortunately too many people still take literally the parable that says when the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the ditch. In 1940 our hope said that a literal interpretation was wrong, and our experience now confirms it day after day, year after year, decade after decade.
But parables, stereotypes, and legal beliefs do not easily give way even in the face of evidence refuting them. Many professionals once built their identity not only on helping the blind but in speaking for us, making all important decisions for us, and being the interpreters through which America would hear from its blind unfortunates. Thanks to innate ability and a country that encourages us to reach for our day in the sun as we pursue the American dream, the blind now speak for ourselves, direct the programs that serve us, and tell our communities what we need and which service providers are delivering it. We still need professionals who learn to teach the alternative skills we need and to develop ever-more-helpful equipment, but we do not need these men and women to speak for us but with us, sharing in the collaboration that creates, maintains, and evaluates quality services.
In the article that follows, Everette describes the ongoing struggle between blind people who will speak through their elected leaders and a group of professionals who believe that because of their education and experience they are entitled to speak for us and to set the standards that will be used in evaluating the programs created to serve us. Here is what he says:
Some organizations are associated with honor, credibility, and trust. Others are not. Sometimes an organization’s reputation is so tarnished or even toxic that it is better to let it pass into history and have another organization do the work the previous one was unable or unwilling to do. This article is to update and continue the narrative begun in the January 2018 Braille Monitor by our President, Mark Riccobono. That article can be found at https://archive.nfb.org/images/nfb/
In President Riccobono’s call to action, members were asked to blanket the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER) with social media and emails calling for AER to hear the widely accepted message “nothing about us without us” and to once and for all end the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC) program. President Riccobono had also invited the outgoing AER executive director, Louis Tutt, to come to our national headquarters for a meeting to further the discussion that had started back in October 2017. AER had promised to follow up in January 2018 to schedule the in-person meeting. In March our President called Lou Tutt to inquire about the status, and he was told that the AER Accreditation Council (AER’s new designation for what was previously the National Accreditation Council) would be meeting in late March to discuss the National Federation of the Blind. March came in like a lamb and went out the same way. So too did April with no word from AER. On May 14, 2018, President Riccobono received a phone call from Lou Tutt asking if a letter had been received on April 4, 2018. Our President informed Mr. Tutt that no letter had been received, and this was verified after another check of the Federation’s email server. Keep in mind that by this time it is the middle of May, and AER promised a follow-up meeting in January. If a letter was sent on April 4, why was there no follow-up until May 14? As you will find below, there was an expectation by AER that the Federation would participate in a meeting on April 26, so why did it take better than two weeks to follow-up from that meeting to inquire about the Federation’s response to a letter supposedly sent on April 4?
AER went forward with its plans to revamp the NAC program, and in a letter dated either April 4 or May 14 (we are unsure because the letter was not received by the office of the President until May 14), Dr. Tutt notified President Riccobono that an accreditation council was being formed by AER and that President Riccobono could assign a member of the NFB to it. Dr. Tutt’s letter read as follows:
Dear President Riccobono:
Thanks for taking my call this morning, Monday, May 14, 2018; I am forwarding you the email I sent to the Office Of The President ([email protected]) on April 4, 2018 (reprinted below), along with the attached letter (which has the same content as the email below). Since I had not heard from you, I called to ascertain if you had received the email and letter to which you said you had not. Therefore, I am resending the email to you and Ms. Beth Braun at the email addresses you gave me this morning.
Louis M. Tutt
Here was the letter Dr. Tutt said had been sent earlier:
Dear Mark Riccobono,
On behalf of the AER Accreditation Council, I am extending a formal invitation to NFB to appoint an individual to represent NFB on the AER Accreditation Council. Since our inception, we have been dedicated to giving voice to our members and those who are served by our members by having our work reflect a representation of the field and the needs of the field. To this end, we hope that you will accept this opportunity. The new AER Accreditation Program is outcomes-based; and seeks to ensure continuous improvements and optimal gains. We believe that accreditation is instrumental in helping entities to deliver quality services, under the best conditions that lead to consumers gaining what is needed to live more independently. Our approach is progressive, embodies the collection of qualitative and quantitative data; and culminates with a strict evaluation. Only entities that meet or exceed the standards will be granted accreditation. The Council will convene April 26, 2018 via conference call. Let me know prior to that date the name of the individual that you would like to have seated on the Council. Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me. This new Accreditation Program has tremendous merit; it offers a systemic and consistent approach to ensuring quality, safety, and sound outcomes. We hope that you will join our efforts.
Louis M. Tutt, AER Accreditation Council Chair
It is impossible to convey just how underwhelming was Dr. Tutt’s letter. He tells us nothing about the Council. We have had no opportunity to participate in evaluating the need it would meet or to be a part of its conception and planning. Nothing is clear about its criteria for accreditation, what standards if any it has, how those standards will be administered, or on what kind of board we are being invited to participate. All of this together makes the letter of invitation insulting and condescending. The fundamental concept of nothing about us without us is clearly lacking in all that has been done, and no offer of one seat on an undefined board with an undefined purpose and an undefined set of standards will change this irrevocable fact. AER cannot make the rules, make the game, and only after all of this invite us to be a player; the blind will not settle for such an insubstantial role.
After consulting with the National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors, President Riccobono responded to Dr. Tutt with the following letter:
May 17, 2018
Dear Mr. Tutt:
I am in receipt of your letter dated April 4, 2018, which first arrived in my office after a phone call from you on May 14, 2018. When we began this dialogue six months ago, a dialogue that I initiated, I was optimistic that history really could not repeat itself and that particularly you—a professional with many decades in the field—would not be interested in tearing down the gains that have been made in the collaborative work between blind consumers and blindness professionals. I regret that I was wrong. Of the many sayings about the lessons of history, the one that best applies to your letter of April 4 (or May 14) is from Karl Marx: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Your letter is offensive to the blind of this nation, and it is not an accurate reflection of the tremendous professionals I know in the blindness field who honor, through their words and actions, the value of consumer-driven services. This letter makes a final attempt to create understanding with you and invites you to bring your perspective to the convention of the National Federation of the Blind.
As we discussed on November 9, 2017, this conversation is not about the relative value of accreditation, and we will not accept your efforts to ignore our concerns about real consumer-driven approaches by hiding behind the generic value of accreditation. This conversation is about the desire of blind people to be the authentic authority for determining quality services for the blind. Under your leadership and direction, the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired has made a conscious decision to revive a failed accreditation system that had the token inclusion of blind consumers as a core value. We are told that among AER’s values is integrity, described as “AER adheres to the highest ethical standards and promotes an environment complete with honesty and transparency.” Yet the transparency has not existed for blind consumers. We were told—four months after you publicly announced the plans to revive a controversial and divisive accreditation body—that it was your intention to reach out to the National Federation of the Blind. Then it took an additional five months—with a sixth thrown in because of a follow-up phone call that took six weeks to arrange and conduct—to make a formal invitation to have one seat on this mysterious accreditation body without any other details. We are expected to believe that this is “progressive,” but the most successful professionals in the field know that transparency means including consumers from the beginning, not as an afterthought. As I think about it, your intention is fairly transparent, but I do not think it is an accurate reflection of the average committed professional in the field. Fortunately, many blindness professionals, even members of AER, have found the value of associating with the National Federation of the Blind and actively participating in the organized blind movement. If only you would follow their example.
Let us cut right to the point. Great services for the blind have thrived without an accreditation process driven solely by the professionals. This has happened, in part, because they have had substantive, consistent, and respectful engagement from blind consumers and individuals elected by the organized blind movement. On the flip side, agencies for the blind that have done real harm to blind people were permitted to parade under a banner of accreditation because that accreditation did not have significant influence by the elected leaders of the blind. You have made a choice to return to the past, and we have urged you not to do so. Your five-month silence, as much as your choice to repeat history, demonstrates your intentions. I am deeply disappointed that you wish to create disruption in the field of blindness where so much collaboration has been built.
Your letter of April 4 states, “On behalf of the AER Accreditation Council, I am extending a formal invitation to NFB to appoint an individual to represent NFB on the AER Accreditation Council. Since our inception, we have been dedicated to giving voice to our members and those who are served by our members by having our work reflect a representation of the field and the needs of the field.” Let the record show that the National Federation of the Blind declines your token offer because it represents neither the field of blindness nor the needs of the field. Your offer represents a return to a time when consumers and professionals stand on opposite sides of a line, when authenticity is argued to be about how much a person can see rather than their effectiveness in teaching, and when the measure of quality is deemed to be a professional duty rather than a collaborative process with equal participation from consumers. We refuse to go back in time because blind people have worked too hard to achieve our status in society, and so many great professionals have committed themselves to the value of partnership with us.
The time has come for a new approach in the blindness field, and I invite you to come be part of that conversation. In your letter you end with, “We hope that you will join our efforts.” We say that your efforts are the wrong ones to be taken. Thus, we, the blind, invite you to join us in moving real collaboration between consumers and professionals forward. Come to the convention of the National Federation of the Blind. Although the agenda is nearly finalized, I will make time for you on July 7 to talk with the blind of America about AER’s direction and future. We will want to hear about AER’s commitment to an equal voice from the organized blind movement. This will also be an opportunity for you to present a new forward-looking proposal—one that does not include a previously contentious battleground. I will offer an opportunity for members of the Federation to ask you questions about the future direction of AER and the role of blind people in that future. If you truly want the National Federation of the Blind to be a significant part of the “new” efforts you are undertaking, then come tell us about it and address the questions that the blind have about AER’s direction. Our invitation is open, and it is up to you to accept or reject it. I hope to hear from you within a week regarding this offer.
I regret that you continue to choose the past over the future and that you wish to pit professional against consumer. That is not the future we seek, and my experience in the field tells me it is not the future that our best professionals want. The commitment of the blind of this nation to raising expectations in service delivery is unwavering. Our work to build understanding with professionals will not be undermined. Continued attacks on the blind of America and our priorities veiled in the generic language of accreditation and professional standards will not alter the course of the field. We will not return to a time when the leaders of professional organizations force us to fight for equality in the field. We, the blind and those professionals committed to equality, will continue to set the standards. The only question that remains is whether you will lead AER into that future with us or against us.
Our convention’s agenda is going to press shortly. The delays in your letter mean that we must have your response within a week, or we will conclude that you have declined the invitation.
Mark A. Riccobono, President
National Federation of the Blind
Dr. Tutt rejected the invitation and offered no alternative meeting or time for collaboration. Here is what he said:
May 23, 2018
Dear President Riccobono:
Thank you for letting me know that the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) is unable to be a part of AER’s accreditation program. Hopefully, we will have an opportunity to work together in the future. On another note, I want to let you know that I am unable to attend your upcoming July 2018 NFB Convention. I have plans that were confirmed over a year ago, and I am unable to reschedule.
Louis M. Tutt, Executive Director
It is worth noting that the correspondence between President Riccobono and Dr. Tutt was copied to members of the Board of Directors of AER, including the current and incoming presidents, but none of them accepted the Federation’s invitation to the convention.
Upon receiving the letter on May 14, President Riccobono continued to talk with the NFB National Board of Directors in a dialogue about how the organized blind wished to respond and which of the options available would help advance the conversation on behalf of blind consumers. As a result, an AER Strike committee was formed, and I was assigned by our President to chair it. Members were appointed from diverse backgrounds. Some came from members of the national board, some were professionals in the field, some came from within AER, and some were rank and file members whose knowledge of service has come from their authentic experience as recipients of good and bad services. We were also helped by members of our exceptional staff. Together the committee and our leaders arrived at a plan to visit AER’s international conference held in Reno, Nevada, from July 25 to 28, 2018. Unlike the meetings we came to have with the previous National Accreditation Council, we did not come with picket signs and chants as I am sure members of AER expected. Instead we approached the AER conference demonstrating our willingness to engage in collaboration, our goal being to say to members of AER that authentic accreditation must begin on an equal playing field shared by the professionals and the consumers represented by the elected members of the blind.
Much planning went into attending the AER International Conference. It has been almost twenty years since the NFB last held a protest against the practices of NAC. Many professionals from that time have moved on to other careers or have retired. The Federation’s leadership realizes that there are many new faces in the teaching and rehabilitation field and that many of them have not had an opportunity to be exposed to the NFB and the organized blind’s perspective on accreditation. We decided to pay AER’s fee and become an exhibitor during the conference. Members of the NFB would manage the table in AER’s exhibit hall, reach out to AER members, and try to establish relationships. It was exciting to see NFB members like Carla McQuillan, Terri Rupp, Jennifer Kennedy, and so many more cover the tables, greeting and then meeting with many educators of the blind. Our NFB contingent commented on how well we were being received by conference participants.
The AER Strike Committee and the national board of directors also thought it would be a demonstration of Federation spirit and pride to host a reception and invite as many attendees and members of AER as possible. We planned this reception in the evening, and we were promised by AER that our reception would not conflict with other conference activities. This turned out not to be true—whether on purpose or by poor management we do not know. The NFB reception overlapped with a reception hosted by the American Printing House for the Blind (APH). Holding a meeting at the same time as APH was certainly not our preference; we have a strong and friendly relationship with the leadership of APH and would not have chosen to interfere with its outreach to AER. Despite the conflict, we had over 150 people attend our reception, including the president of the American Printing House for the Blind, Craig Meador, who enjoyed our reception once his had concluded. There were about thirty leaders of the NFB who came from all over to participate in the reception. These included national board members like Denise Avant, some of the directors of our NFB training centers like Julie Deden and Dan Wenzel, and our members who are also active in AER like Eric Guillory and Brent Batron who were able to mingle with the many AER attendees and talk about what accreditation should really look like and why it is imperative that the consumers and the professionals collaborate together.
During the reception, a short program was held. President Riccobono set the tone by sharing his lifelong experience with blind educators: first as a client, then as a professional, and now as a father of two blind children. He spoke about the imperative for AER members to reach out to the leadership and implore them to collaborate with blind consumers. Brent Batron, immediate past president of the Colorado chapter of AER, spoke about the positive outcomes for students when consumers and professionals are working together. He emphasized that accreditation needs to involve all players in the blindness field. Dr. Schroeder spoke about his own history with the NFB, AER, and NAC. He reiterated the fundamental principle “nothing about us without us,” and the way accreditation can have value, but only if consumers are included.
Dr. Edward Bell closed with more personal experiences in working closely with AER members, but he cautioned that the organized blind’s opposition to an accreditation process that does not include us would continue with a loud voice and collective action.
During the AER conference President Riccobono and Eric Guillory (AER member and director of youth services at the Louisiana Center for the Blind) met with AER’s outgoing president, Joseph Catavero, and AER’s incoming president, Janie Blome, to discuss the issues surrounding authentic accreditation. The meeting was cordial and honest. It was clear that the AER leadership was somewhat disconnected from the concerns being brought forward by the Federation. In our organization the elected leaders—not the paid staff—run the organization and control the policy discussions. Apparently in AER that is not the case. At the meeting we expressed real concerns about the hostility being directed at the NFB for raising the issue of continuing to perpetuate an outdated accreditation process. Of the meeting, President Riccobono says, “We conveyed the message that accreditation is not the most pressing issue in the blindness field and that building accreditation without substantive involvement by the blind from the beginning will never be a priority in the field.”
The meeting did not provide any clarity on what AER’s goals are with respect to taking over the National Accreditation Council or how they intend to engage elected leaders of the organized blind movement going forward. All participants left the meeting with a hope that follow-up meetings between the leadership of the respective organizations would, however, create opportunities for the Federation’s perspective to be understood.
An important priority that came out of the AER Strike Committee was to have a resolution passed at the NFB annual convention and a companion resolution introduced by an NFB/AER member at the AER conference. The NFB resolution was passed unanimously, and here is what it says:
WHEREAS, beginning in 1967 and for approximately thirty-five years thereafter, an organization known as the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC) sought to control education and rehabilitation services provided to the blind by means of so-called standards leading to so-called accreditation; and
WHEREAS, NAC was the offspring of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), created by AFB in direct response to the growing effectiveness of the organized blind movement; and
WHEREAS, as opposition to NAC by the National Federation of the Blind and others gained strength, the federal government, state agencies, schools for the blind, and even the AFB itself withdrew their former support, financial and otherwise, leading the AFB executive director to exclaim in speaking to the NAC board in 2002 “What part of no more NAC don’t you understand?”; and
WHEREAS, although the dreams of NAC to hold dominance over the blind have lived on into the present decade, the independent voice of the blind has been heard and respected and has prevailed; and
WHEREAS, NAC died, and on June 30, 2017, transferred all of its remaining assets—$85,554—to AER; and
WHEREAS, AER has recently offered NFB a single seat on its National Accreditation Council, only after repeated attempts by NFB to communicate with AER about NAC; and
WHEREAS, this half-hearted offer of a single seat is the kind of tokenism that doomed the original NAC to utter and complete failure and which, unless altered, will eventually threaten the viability and very existence of AER itself: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this seventh day of July, 2018, in the City of Orlando, Florida, that this organization condemn and deplore AER’S insulting gesture of tokenism toward the blind in the formation of its National Accreditation Council; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that, as stated in our convention resolution 71-03 and repeated on many occasions since, it be made clear that: we do not oppose proper accreditation properly done; we will be happy to participate in and cooperate with any appropriately organized and democratically constituted accrediting activity; and if the time should come that a genuine accreditation system is created along democratic lines and blind people have more than token representation in the governance of the accreditation system and throughout the accreditation process, the National Federation of the Blind pledges its willingness to work with AER and other organizations truly to make services for the blind more relevant and responsive to the needs of the blind than ever before.
The resolution submitted to AER was authored by Brent Batron of Colorado and Michelle Chacon of New Mexico. The resolution was submitted to the AER resolutions committee on time and in proper form. Here is what it says:
Whereas, the AER board of directors adopted the accreditation program of the National Accreditation Council for Blind and Low Vision Services (NAC), now under the executive management of AER, effective July 1, 2017;
Whereas, an announcement of this action was distributed to AER members and others by AERBVI Member Services on August 31, 2017, noting AER’S new mission statement: “The mission of AER is to serve and empower professionals to deliver standards-based practices that lead to improved educational and rehabilitative outcomes for individuals with visual impairment and blindness;
Whereas, during its entire history as a free-standing organization devoted to standards and accreditation of blind and low vision services, NAC was unable to achieve widespread acceptance by agencies and schools in the field of blindness and visual impairment, due largely to organized and persistent opposition of blind consumers, especially opposition of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB);
Whereas, for many years, as the battle between NFB and NAC intensified, the conflict between these organizations came to symbolize a broader struggle for control between agencies and professionals on the one hand and organized blind consumers on the other;
Whereas, according to its official statements, NFB’s opposition to NAC is based on disagreements over the founding and structure of NAC as an organization and does not reflect opposition by NFB to accreditation, provided the accreditation is conducted in a fair and open manner with equal opportunity for consumers and providers to engage with one another and collaborate in meaningful ways throughout the accreditation process;
Whereas, in adopting executive management of the NAC accreditation program it is the policy of AER to respect the independent voice of blind consumers, the right of the blind to organize for self-expression, collective action, and the right of the blind to meaningful participation in design and implementation of accreditation of programs affecting their lives; now, therefore, be it
Resolved, by the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER), on this twenty-eighth day of July, 2018, in the city of Reno, Nevada, that:
this organization, through its President and Executive Director, shall invite the NFB to establish and carry out a joint project to be known as “Vision 2020: A New Accreditation Program for Blind and Low Vision Services”; that this project so created shall consist of a joint consumer/provider Committee on Accreditation of Blind and Low Vision Services, with the goal of balanced (equal) opportunities for consumer and provider representation on the Committee; and the charge of the Committee so created shall be:
Nothing in this resolution shall affect current implementation plans of the AER Accreditation Program as announced on August 31, 2017, unless otherwise determined by further action of the AER Board of Directors.
This was the resolution submitted to AER under its rules. Brent Batron and Eric Guillory attended the business meeting at the AER International Conference; only AER members were allowed in the room. This was because the AER leadership feared, without cause, that the NFB was planning on a hostile takeover of its meeting. Of course this was never the case. The NFB members who attended the AER Conference conducted themselves as the professionals they are.
When the Batron/Chacon resolution was introduced, Kathryn Botsford called for the floor to offer a substitute resolution. The substitute resolution took most of what was offered in the original except it inserted the term visually impaired in a number of places and it changed the intent of the resolution, watering down the specific olive branch from AER to NFB which was the call to action of the original resolution. Even though this was a resolution that specifically involved AER, NFB, and the accreditation process, some mysterious faction wanted other organizations to be the focus not the National Federation of the Blind. The opposition to NAC and its fraudulent practices were led by members of the NFB. Other groups may have agreed with us, but none stepped up to speak or rally their forces against NAC. When the substitute resolution was offered, it was done as a so-called “friendly amendment” to the original resolution. Brent Batron explained that the friendly amendment was not accepted because it changed the intent of the resolution in building a bridge between AER and the powerful consumer voice represented through the National Federation of the Blind.
Chaos ensued as the meeting became a discussion about the proper procedure for dealing with the situation. During the period of uncertainty it became clear that the Batron/Chacon resolution and the spirit with which it was offered was favored by a number of long-time AER members in the room. Rather than taking a straight up or down vote on the Batron/Chacon resolution, the AER membership had no direction until out of nowhere came Mark Richert, director, public policy for the American Foundation for the Blind and former executive director of AER, who moved adoption of the substitute resolution and, in effect proposed to burn the bridge that was being offered between the organizations. It is my understanding that AER has specific policies regarding when a resolution must be submitted, and nowhere is there any provision for inserting a substitute resolution or denying a straight up-and-down vote on one that has been submitted according to AER rules. Bypassing protocol, fairness, and openness in favor of control, the AER leadership presented and voted on a substitute resolution without addressing the real concerns of its members as offered in the original Batron/Chacon resolution. While the substitute resolution passed, it had the lowest support of any of the resolutions considered during the meeting. Thus, AER has once again made a positive decision not to strengthen the relationship with the organized blind movement. Here is the resolution that was placed on the floor in violation of AER policy and considered instead of the Batron/Chacon resolution:
Amendment in the Nature of a Substitute
Whereas the AER board of directors adopted the accreditation program of the National Accreditation Council for Blind and Low Vision Services (NAC), now under the executive management of AER, effective July 1, 2017;
Whereas an announcement of this action was distributed to AER members and others by AERBVI Member Services on August 31, 2017, noting AER’S new mission statement: “The mission of AER is to serve and empower professionals to deliver standards-based practices that lead to improved educational and rehabilitative outcomes for individuals with visual impairment and blindness;
Whereas during its entire history as a free-standing organization devoted to standards and accreditation of services for people with blindness and low vision, NAC was unable to achieve widespread acceptance by agencies and schools in the field of blindness and visual impairment, due largely to organized and persistent opposition of consumers with visual impairments, especially opposition of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB);
Whereas according to its official statements, NFB’s opposition to NAC is based on disagreements over the founding and structure of NAC as an organization and does not reflect opposition by NFB to accreditation, provided the accreditation is conducted in a fair and open manner with equal opportunity for consumers and providers to engage with one another and collaborate in meaningful ways throughout the accreditation process; and
Whereas, in adopting executive management of the NAC accreditation program it is the policy of AER to respect the independent voice of consumers who are blind or visually impaired, the right of people who are blind or visually impaired to organize for self-expression, collective action, and the right of people who are blind or visually impaired to meaningful participation in design and implementation of accreditation of programs affecting their lives; now, therefore,
Be It Resolved, by the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER), on this twenty-eighth day of July 2018, in the city of Reno, Nevada, that this organization, through its Board of Directors:
There you have the resolution that was submitted, denying an up or down vote on the Batron/Chacon resolution. Throughout sessions held during the conference, Dr. Tutt kept proclaiming that NAC is dead. With this sentiment we most readily agree, but so too is the newly named effort if it fails to deal with the foundational problems that haunted NAC from its very beginnings. Cooperation and collaboration should be the spirit of the day, but nothing to this point suggests that AER wishes to make a clean break with the past and embrace the voice of consumers. Because we have the most to gain, the most to lose, and are the direct recipients of services funded by governmental and private entities, we intend to have a voice in which agencies get the stamp of approval by the blind and which do not. The days of accreditation without meaningful standards are dead; the days of accreditation based on the mere payment of dues are over; the days of accreditation without meaningful representation by elected blind leaders of the blind are over. The only question is whether major players in the field can come together to work out a process or whether this conflict will have a more public face because the public, the state legislatures, the federal regulators, and even the United States Congress will become involved if blind people are not meaningfully included.
Overall, the work of the AER Strike Committee and the NFB members who attended the AER Conference was effective. It truly feels like progress has been made toward bridging what gaps exist between educators of the blind and the consumers they serve. This progress is being made because of the leaders of the National Federation of the Blind and despite the lack of real action by leaders of the Association for the Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired. Let no one be deceived: There is still much work to be done.
On a positive note, AER has a new president and will soon have a new executive director. On the other hand, the AER Accreditation Council goes on, and the word at the AER Conference was that none other than Lou Tutt will manage that work once he leaves his post as executive director of AER. How will this new leadership respond to the call for collaboration by many of its members at the AER Conference? We already know what Lou Tutt will do at the helm of the AER Accreditation Council. According to AER’s website, https://aerbvi.org/the-national-accreditation-council/ “The standards for accreditation are set by a peer Council whose members include professionals who are skilled and experienced with program administration, systems, educational and rehabilitation protocols and service delivery.” Where are consumers and the elected representatives of consumers in this process? They are not reflected in this mission statement. This does not appear to be a collaborative process AER is embarking on, but where there is change, there is hope!
Where once blind people were only the recipients of service, today we are also the providers. We have agency administrators who are blind, and they oversee some of the most well-run programs that provide the best services in the country. To new people in the field, this kind of consumer involvement in the provision of service and staff will seem normal, nothing about us without us being the creed they’ve adopted in their careers. But the history of work with the blind shows that the concept is relatively new and not beyond the traditional powers to test, to question, and to work against. We will meet that test; we will not let NAC or its successor organization run our lives or the agencies that exist to help us make our lives better. We have the most to win or lose, we hold the power, and we intend to exercise it on behalf of blind people!
As President Riccobono says, “The AER Strike revealed that accreditation of programs in the blindness field is not the most pressing concern of the professionals in the trenches. We have successfully guarded the field from takeover by a problematic accreditation system which is now dead, but we must not get so comfortable that we fail to guard against future threats. More importantly, we need to build for the future. We intend to link arms with those highly committed and open-minded professionals that we encountered in Reno, and together we will set the standard of excellence in services for the blind.