On May 26, some 60 ACB members and staff joined hundreds of representatives from disability organizations at a rally in front of the U.S. Department of Education. The purpose of the rally was to voice opposition to the department's proposals for restructuring the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) and funding for the vocational rehabilitation program itself. Participants came from across the country and represented a total of 48 local and national disability organizations. The message was clearly and concisely stated: just as no child should be "left behind," neither should any person with a disability be left behind.
ACB leaders are very concerned that if the measures being proposed by education officials are implemented, their cumulative impact could seriously erode, rather than enhance, the ability of people who are blind to obtain adequate rehabilitative services.
Department actions that are of particular concern include:
- Promoting a vocational rehabilitation (VR) super waiver that would allow governors to raid VR funding in order to prop up a system of one-stop centers, which are largely inaccessible to people with disabilities, especially those who are blind, and do not even provide the specialized training needed by people who are blind in order to achieve a positive vocational outcome;
- Closing regional offices of the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) that provide assistance and oversight to VR agencies and grantees;
- Reorganizing RSA to eliminate the Division of Blind Services, the office which currently administers specialized training and employment programs that are vital to the ability of people who are blind and deaf- blind to live independently and become gainfully employed, fully participating members of their communities;
- Cutting RSA staff in half by eliminating 65 jobs, nearly half of which are held by people with disabilities; and
- Downgrading the position of the commissioner of RSA (a presidential appointee confirmed by the Senate) to a director appointed by the assistant secretary of education, in spite of widespread protests from the disability community.
Vocational rehabilitation services for people who are blind involve much more than job placement. People with disabilities, particularly those with sensory disabilities, must develop a number of skills before they can live independently and function competently in a workplace. Vocational rehabilitation programs give individuals access to personnel who are qualified to teach these skills. One-stop centers were never meant to provide this type of training.
Rehabilitation personnel with expertise in employment of people with visual impairments work with both employers and prospective employees to overcome obstacles to employment. One-stop centers do not have the expertise to meet these needs. ACB shares the department's interest in efficient delivery of quality rehabilitation services. However, our concern is that the measures contemplated here place efficiency ahead of quality service delivery. Their cumulative effect could be the destruction of opportunities for future generations of people with disabilities.
Some of the proposals described above were included in legislation to reauthorize the Rehabilitation Act that have now passed both houses of Congress. For instance, provisions that would downgrade the RSA commissioner's position to a directorship were in both bills. Others are being undertaken by the Department of Education independent of Congressional action. For instance, they are planning to implement much of their restructuring program for RSA by the end of the current fiscal year. Debate on all of these, and many other proposals that could impact the integrity of vocational rehabilitation services for people who are blind, has been highly charged and is expected to continue for some time. As I write, we are awaiting the appointment of a conference committee to iron out differences between the House and Senate bills and bring a bill to the president. At this time, neither chamber is considering inclusion of harmful provisions such as the super waiver described above. However, since this proposal is supported by department officials, it is not dead. Until we know that this and other proposals that we believe could destroy the integrity of our rehabilitation system are beyond resurrection, we will closely monitor the workings of both the Department of Education and appropriate Congressional committees.
We expect to give an update on the latest developments during the ACB convention. We will also use these pages and the Washington Connection, which can be accessed through the ACB telephone system, to provide the latest information on this very critical issue. Finally, and perhaps most important, we will give you suggested actions you can take to help us spread the word regarding the value of rehabilitation services that can meet the needs of real people across this country. Please contact the ACB national office for further information and help us carry on ACB's tradition of commitment to quality rehabilitation services for all Americans who are blind or visually impaired.
Melanie Brunson addresses the crowd of ACB members in the courtyard before heading off to the rally. Among the members in attendance were Bessie Reece (left), Sue Ammeter, Allen Casey and Betty Soderholm.
Board member Naomi Soule holds a sign reading "Pencils 5 cents, Rehab Priceless" as she marches around the loop in front of the Department of Education.
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