What's Going Around and What's Coming Around at State Services for the Blind?

What's Going Around and What's Coming Around at State Services for the Blind?

By Chuk Hamilton, Director, State Services for the Blind

(Editor’s Note:  This presentation was given at the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota annual convention on September 30, 2006.)

Greetings, Federationists!  What a pleasure to be with you all again.  It seems only yesterday many of us were in Dallas at the national convention; and only the day before that we were in St. Cloud!

A special greeting to the Riverbend Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota (NFBM) and Charlene and Shannon Childrey.

I come before you today to share information regarding what we have been doing at State Services for the Blind (SSB) over the last year.  However, I will not repeat, unnecessarily, items presented this past spring.

A significant amount of time and preparation since this spring has centered on our federal partner, the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA).  Some may say too much time was spent!

You may recall that RSA came under new department leadership some time ago and Joanne Wilson resigned.  Since that time, the new team has made a number of changes including closing their ten regional offices and laying off half their staff.  They have also been reviewing their activities and making a number of changes.

One of those areas of change has been in what is called “the state plan.”  The state plan lays out what SSB has done and will do in order to meet federal requirements in delivering the vocational rehabilitation program to blind and visually impaired persons in Minnesota.  In the past this has been a rather routine endeavor and our state plan was always approved.

This year that was different, for both SSB and every other agency in the country.  The new leadership has taken a different view of the statutory requirements, including those related to a “needs assessment” that must be done every three years.

I must say this has been a trying experience with our new federal partner. But, because of great SSB staff and the leadership by the Chair of the State Rehabilitation Council for the Blind (SRC-B), Jennifer Dunnam, an experience we have completed successfully.  The fruit of the effort is that I have just received word that our state plan for vocational rehabilitation services has been approved for 2007.  I understand many states may only receive conditional approval.

As some of you know, RSA representatives, Erica Shephard and David Esquith, visited Minnesota in late August.  They met with a variety of folks, including staff, the SRC-B, the Client Assistance Project, and consumers, including the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota.

At the spring convention of this body in St. Cloud, I received a question about the federal budget and its impact on SSB.  I also commented on SSB’s finances, generally, for the future.  Currently, the Congress has made no progress on the federal appropriations bill that sends dollars to the states for rehabilitation.  Just this week I was informed that Congress had to do a Continuing Resolution to continue funding the programs for a while longer until the Congress agrees to and passes a regular funding bill.  It is hoped that process will commence during the lame duck session after the fall elections.

Looking generally to the future, I still see rough weather ahead financially for SSB.  This is not a new message I bring to you—rather, an update and acknowledgement of a problem that is not going away without intervention.  Simply put, I still foresee a problem with financing our vocational rehabilitation program beginning October 1, 2008.  We need more money put into that program from other parts of SSB, or we need to make cuts, or both.  I have spoken with SSB staff, the SRC-B, and consumers including the NFBM about this anticipated problem for the last 18 months.  Along the way, we have made some staffing cuts to reduce costs.  I have developed a proposal that I hope makes it to the Legislature that will alleviate this problem and maintain existing services in all parts of SSB.  I will keep you informed as best I can.

Also having to do with finances, I want to give you an update on our fundraising efforts.  As of this past Thursday, September 28, SSB had received $269,869 in gifts since October 1, 2005.  A total of 2,533 gifts were received, three-quarters coming from Communication Center customers.   Of the total, $97,663 was earmarked for the Senior Outreach Program and received primarily from granting organizations.

It is coming to that time of the year when we start to consider the SSB Annual Report, which is distributed widely.  You will recall that last year we changed the format for the report, focusing our efforts on what customers had to say about SSB services.  The format proved to be a success and we will continue on that path this year.  I expect that another project we participated in, partnering with the Secretary of State in the outreach to inform and train the public in use of the AutoMARK, will also be prominent.  The NFB-M has been a key player in the development and implementation of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA).  The federal act and the Minnesota equivalent developed and funded the opportunity for blind and visually impaired persons to vote privately and independently for the first times in their lives during Minnesota’s primary elections in September.  We were pleased to be part of the roll-out.

Also in that Annual Report will be the final numbers of whom we served during the year.  You should expect to see an all-time high of seniors being served, well over 3,000.  At the same time, we anticipate meeting our goal of 101 individuals being successfully employed.

There have been several recent major developments concerning NFB-NEWSLINE® and Dial-in-News.  Earlier this year the Communication Center Committee of the SRC-B formed a task force focused on these two services.  Members included Steve Jacobson and Catherine Durivage, both of whom are present here today.

As a result of the research, efforts and input from the Task Force we decided to plan to add an additional newspaper (either St. Cloud or Rochester) to NFB-NEWSLINE® and then add a newspaper from Brainerd, Bemidji, or Faribault to Dial-in-News.  We also agreed to add Minnesota Monthly to the local channel of NFB-NEWSLINE®.  We secured sufficient funding to carry out these efforts from the Department of Commerce's Telecommunication Access Minnesota fund, a funding source that became available to us last year from the efforts of many of your members.

David Andrews is working hard developing contacts at both the St. Cloud and the Rochester papers to determine which is the best paper to put on NFB-NEWSLINE®.  We hope to make that decision in the very, very near future.

Catherine Durivage, an active member of the Task Force, was instrumental in linking David to a contact at the Minnesota Monthly.  As a result of their combined efforts, that publication went up on NFB-NEWSLINE® in August and is now available on a monthly basis to all Minnesota NFB-NEWSLINE® subscribers.

An additional activity undertaken in recent months is the NFB-NEWSLINE® mentoring project.  SSB's Ellie Sevdy, working in cooperation with several persons present here today, has trained about a half dozen peer mentors.  These mentors are working with new users of NFB-NEWSLINE® to increase their comfort with and ability to use the service.  We hope this effort will help new users become long-term heavy users of the service.  If successful in increasing usage, we plan to expand the mentoring project later this year to include users of Dial-in-News.

As many of you know, the staff of the Communication Center has been working on finding an improved radio receiver for the Radio Talking Book.   Since one was not and is not available commercially, we have been working with manufacturers for several years now to develop what we need.

I am pleased to be able to tell you that we recently tested a unit that gives us most of the improvements we sought.  We still need to do some additional testing, and will then have to negotiate an acceptable contract.  However, if things go as we hope, we should be able to offer an improved Radio Talking Book Network receiver in the relatively near future.

I cannot conclude my remarks without first commenting on my experiences at the NFB Convention this past July.  I had an inspiring, educational and energizing experience in Dallas.

Further, I had the opportunity to do a presentation regarding our own Tech Trainer Certification project before a national audience.  I explained how we started working with our community to make this happen, what steps we took, what testing we did, and our adult learning course requirement of all trainers.  By the way, we will be doing another set of sessions on adult learning for our trainers, who haven’t attended before, in November.

There were so many different breakout sessions on such a wide variety of subjects related to blindness. I couldn’t attend all those I wanted.  I was warned before I left that I couldn’t!  I met a number of new people, and renewed my relationship with yet others.  I saw the latest that technology had to offer, in a truly “hands on” environment.  I saw an organization doing its business in a logical, thoughtful and experienced fashion.  I saw an organization taking blindness issues head-on, and allowing differences of opinion.  This was particularly evident regarding how to address the issues caused by the new hybrid vehicles.

I know there is much that can be learned from attending national conventions, whether as a blind or visually impaired individual, family member, professional person, or agency director.  I would like more staff to attend in the future.  Some 92 Minnesotans attended, and I was proud to be one of them.

Thank you for inviting me to speak today.