by Jennifer Dunnam
We have just completed our 95th annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota — that exciting time when we all put on our thinking caps and work together to set our direction, to teach and learn from one another, and strengthen the cohesiveness of our organization to make it an ever-stronger force to get things done. I look forward to working with everyone, and having fun while we are at it.
It seems not so long ago that we completed our enormously successful and wonderful 75th anniversary national convention. Since Minnesota was one of the seven founding states in our national organization, this affiliate assisted with the hospitality suite, with the convention opening ceremonies, with various aspects of the celebratory Diamond Ball, and more. Of course, many Minnesotans were among the 2,480 people who, at the dawn of July 8, simultaneously raised high our blue and white umbrellas to set the Guinness World Record for the largest umbrella mosaic (which showed our logo and spelled "Live the Life You Want.” I urge everyone to read the August-September edition of the Braille Monitor to get the full roundup of convention details.
Speaking of reading recommendations, the book commemorating the 75th anniversary of our national organization, announced at the national convention, was released in early September! Building The Lives We Want, edited by Deborah Kent Stein, is filled with interesting tellings of various aspects of our history, written with input from some 29 authors, with quotes and comments from many more Federationists. It includes links to further reading, audio, photos, videos, and more. I cannot recommend the book highly enough; every Federationist can benefit from reading it to learn about the past, present and future of this organization. As someone who has been steeped in the breadth of history and activity of the NFB for almost thirty years, having read just about everything I could get my hands on, I still learned a great deal from reading the new book. Its presentation is accessible, lively, and informative. The book can be downloaded free of charge and read using all sorts of methods (desktop computer, portable reader, iPhone, Kindle, and more in various digital formats, from nfb.org/pubs/building-the-lives-we-want.
In far less joyous news, as of October 1, Minnesota State Services for the Blind (SSB) has been required to implement an "order of selection" for its vocational rehabilitation unit. Order of Selection is a system or method for prioritizing the customers a vocational rehabilitation agency intends to serve if it anticipates that it has insufficient resources to serve everyone who is eligible for service. Increased federal requirements for spending on services to transition-age youth, among other factors, have created a shortfall in SSB's VR budget going forward. This means that most people who apply for services from SSB after October 1 will go on a waiting list. At this point VR services will only be available to people who are assessed as being in the category of people having five or more barriers in the areas of "mobility, communication, self-care, self-direction, interpersonal skills, work tolerance, and work skills) AND require multiple services over an extended period of time. The Federation will be offering opportunities for people to learn more about the effects of the order of selection. We will also be assisting SSB with advice and ideas for what can be done to get the agency off the order of selection.
Several weeks ago, SSB held a public hearing regarding the order of selection. Here are comments that I made at the hearing on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota:
“The National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota, with hundreds of members and with chapters in every large community around the state, has worked very hard, for many decades, to protect and to improve rehabilitation services for blind people of all ages here in Minnesota. We therefore have a great deal of concern, not only about the pending lack of access to rehabilitation services for people who need them to be able to get on with their lives, but also about the long-term ability of this agency to provide the full spectrum of services that have been put into place over time and are needed by people of all ages.
“As you look toward solutions to open up categories of service and to put in place a sustainable plan for the future, here are a few important things to consider:
“First, look inside the agency for ways to make cuts that will have less of a direct impact on blind people. Don't jump immediately to cutting back on direct services to blind people. Those front-line services should be the last place to look to find money savings, not the first.
“Second, one thing that blind people throughout this state have long agreed on is the importance of the separateness of this agency from general VR, statutorily and otherwise. We've seen all too painfully what happens when administrators have tried to "find efficiencies" by somehow linking SSB more closely with the general VR agency. When that happens, blind people are the ones who lose out. The costs and the types of services needed to deal with blindness are very different. To try to make them fit together with general vocational rehabilitation does not work well for anyone.
“Thirdly and closely related, please keep this agency particularly focused on the unique services related to blindness that are not needed by others or available anywhere else. Other segments of society do not need braille, cane travel, screen readers to access technology, and a host of other nonvisual alternative techniques that make it possible for us to live independent lives. Please do not cut down on our ability to be trained in these blindness specific skills and techniques and or on the availability of resources that simply cannot be obtained elsewhere.
“Fourth, before considering redirecting dollars away from other state-funded blindness programs to fill in the shortfall in vocational rehabilitation, look at the spending within the VR program itself to be sure that the dollars there are used to best purpose. Services to blind seniors, for example, are already absolutely scant, and the needs are ever increasing. As mentioned earlier, a lot of work has been done for a long time to build an infrastructure in this state. Although it has certainly not been perfect, it should not be chipped away in the quest for short-term answers.
“Thank you and we look forward to being involved in helping to find solutions.”