by Kim Charlson
From its beginnings, ACB has been all about working together with other organizations to improve the social, educational and employment opportunities for those who are blind or visually impaired. That has frequently meant advocating for laws that either protected our civil rights, or required the creation and funding of agencies that provide services such as special education, health care, and vocational rehabilitation.
Laws, however, are only the starting point for this part of advocacy. The regulatory process can, and often does, take more time and effort than passing the original law, but is incredibly important in the final outcome. Governmental agencies must go through a multi-step process that includes research, drafting, checking and double-checking the legality of the proposed regulations before seeking public comments from the impacted constituencies.
In July of 2014, Congress passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). This legislation requires the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor to coordinate their services that relate to assisting citizens in qualifying for and achieving employment as a successful outcome of the vocational rehabilitation process. Not a small task!
On April 16, 2015, the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor announced in the “Federal Register” the publication of five notices of proposed rule-making (NPRMs) related to WIOA, and called on the public to comment on these regulations. ACB, through its national office staff and the rehabilitation issues task force, have submitted comments regarding several aspects of the proposed regulations. I hope that you, our members and friends, will do likewise to make your opinions known.
One of the many changes proposed in these new regulations is the elimination of “homemaker” as a recognized, successful closure. While the “homemaker” category has been abused at times in the past, I believe that the arbitrary classification of the “homemaker” placement as an invalid outcome devalues the institution of the primary caregiver in a family. If someone who is blind is the primary person caring for the children, other family members, and the household, that unpaid vocational outcome should be recognized and respected as worthwhile by the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA). When you think of who played the most important role in your life, wasn’t it the person who kept you fed, safe, warm and loved? Isn’t that the person who made sure you got to school on time, who heard you out when you found the world around you to be more than you could handle? Wasn’t that your “homemaker”? Why should we as people who are blind accept the elimination of this important role that is traditionally unpaid and therefore not a valid rehabilitation outcome? I believe that we in ACB reject the wholesale elimination of this category and will be telling RSA just that.
The second area of concern is providing funding to support the pre-vocational training of youth who are blind between the ages of 14 to graduation from high school. Many youth who are blind do not realistically understand what jobs are out there in the real world, and what training is needed to qualify to do those jobs. Unfortunately, setting aside 15% of the total funds provided to state rehabilitation agencies to pay for programs to instruct youth with visual impairments is very disproportionate, in that fewer than 15% of the eligible vocational rehabilitation clients of these agencies are between the ages of 14 to 22 respectively. This means that significantly fewer dollars will be available for rehabilitation services for adults. In addition, the proposed regulations include a list of the services that can be covered for these young people, and that list is entirely too restrictive to allow agencies to effectively meet the 15% spending requirement. It seems to me that there should be some room for “innovation” in service delivery for youth – after all, isn’t that what the letter “I” in WIOA means?
Finally, I want to close by addressing an aspect of the proposed regulations that greatly concerns me. In the U.S., the single largest employer of blind and visually impaired people is National Industries for the Blind-affiliated agencies. These blind workers do everything from bookkeeping to running drill presses and computer-assisted design equipment; from pulling products from warehouse shelves to running printing presses. These workers earn a competitive wage with appropriate benefits. In these agencies, someone can be the CEO or director of human resources, and their placement within these NIB-affiliated agencies will not be considered as a successful employment outcome by RSA. Again, doesn’t this devalue the role that a blindness agency can play, and the leadership role that employees who are blind can have in such an agency? We in the ACB believe that the wide variety of positions within NIB-affiliated agencies available to qualified people who are blind should not be categorized as a non-integrated setting. Having WIOA implementing regulations that make such jobs less valued is a further disincentive to employment in a world where unemployment hovers around 70% for people who are blind. We should be looking at every job as a valuable opportunity that pays a meaningful wage and provides workers with good benefits.
These three areas I have focused on are components of the proposed WIOA regulations that are of concern to me. I do believe that there are positive elements and improvements to the current rehabilitation system to be found in these new regulations. However, we need to make sure that the rehabilitation system doesn’t take any major steps backward as we are trying to move forward. We cannot afford to lose any of the ground we have gained through the years, and all of you are an important part of that effort.
Please talk to your affiliate leaders and ask how you can help send a message to the policy-makers who are crafting regulations that will impact the future of people who are blind or visually impaired seeking employment. Take some time to familiarize yourself with the proposed regulations, and think about how they might have altered your path to independence and tell your story to the decision-makers as well. We need your support!