Dialog with State Services for the Blind

Dialog with State Services for the Blind

By Richard Strong, Director, Minnesota State Services for the Blind.

(Editor’s Note:  This presentation was given at the Annual Convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota on October 8, 2011.)

Madame President, thank you for this opportunity to update you and the membership of the largest consumer organization of the blind in Minnesota about your state agency.

When it comes to SSB it’s safe to say these are the best of times and in the worst of times.

We survived the state shutdown.  SSB, like the vast majority of the rest of state government was shut down from Friday, July 1 thru Wednesday, July 20.  Thousands of customers — vocational rehabilitation, older persons who are blind, and Communication Center customers were without services.  Audio, braille and equipment distribution were all suspended.  Minnesota RTB users and the dozens of other radio reading services that use our programming in North America were without service.  And our staff statewide was all idled. 

George Bernard Shaw wrote:  “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’"  To me those lines capture the essence of a memorable set of events that began that Friday, July 1.


It was that day that the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota and BLIND, Inc. presented a petition to the Special Court master calling for the Court to rule center-based blindness training as an essential function of the state.  On July 7 the court, following the recommendation of the special master who heard the petition brought by BLIND, Inc. and the National Federation, ordered blindness training be resumed.  She ruled the service is a core function of government.  She heard the voice of blind Minnesotans and she responded.

Because of the NFB speaking out, services resumed.  Because of the NFB speaking out there is case precedent for future shut-down situations.  Thank you NFB of MN for speaking out.  Please keep speaking out.

Settlement of the shutdown was reached Wednesday, July 20; staff were contacted and the vast majority was back Thursday.  All were on duty by Monday. 

We are now pretty much dug out of the shutdown backlog and are moving forward.


The budget resolution, from SSB’s perspective, was most positive.

SSB’s budget from the end of session, which was vetoed by Governor Dayton, contained a $150,000 increase for only the first year of the biennium with level funding for the second year.  It would allow SSB to match and draw down available federal dollars for both the VR program and the OIB only for the first year.

The governor also vetoed the State Government Operations budget bill (SF1047).  It had a variety of provisions including a reduction in general fund appropriations for agency operation of $94,875,000.

A context for this reduction is what happened in 2002 where there was a state operations cut in the neighborhood of $30 million, resulting in the loss of 18 positions to SSB.

The budgets coming from Special Session contained an increase for SSB to draw down federal match funding for each year of the biennium — $150,000 each year.

And the State Government Operations reduction was a relatively small reduction of $1.76 million that will have no impact on SSB.

So that’s the good news on the funding side for the near term.  We’ll have to hope for continued economic recovery and stable state (and federal) funding for services to blind Minnesotans.

The federal fiscal year ended last Friday, September 30, and preliminary results are still coming in.  We have until the 15th to make all data entries.  Note this time around the year was basically an eleven month period what with the shutdown.  In spite of that missing month it appears, as of yesterday:

  • The WDU surpassed last year’s employment outcomes by 1, realizing 81 employment outcomes.
  • Senior Service closed almost 200 more cases while serving just over 100 fewer persons.
  • Numbers for other units are being finalized over the next few weeks.

While somewhat positive, we need to do better.  And we will.

Last month key SSB staff had a conference call with the Kentucky Blind agency.  Focus of our discussion was why their rehabilitation rate is so much better — on paper — than ours.  Interesting to hear about their:

  • team approach to services,
  • financial incentive (bonus) for helping customer off Social Security benefits,
  • significant number employed at application, and
  • large portion referred by medical service providers.

They are going into a consolidation into one-stops and we will be sharing with them our one-stop experiences.

Since I met with you last there have been a number of staff changes at SSB.

In the Communication Center, Chris Schmeisser retired June 30 as the equipment distribution staff member and voice of the Center.  In late September we brought on her replacement, Michelle Thomas.

In Workforce Development Carol Pankow, in late June, returned to her former position in state government.  She did so due to pending layoffs in DEED and in light of her position being the least senior in her job classification.

Jon Benson, currently director of our Administrative Services section will be assuming the Workforce Development Director position later this month.

Nancy Madich resigned her Metro counselor position in August and we’re working to fill that vacancy as well as the lead counselor vacancy created when Nicole Schultz left us in July. 

The ARRA-funded placement specialist position held by David Smith is being converted to a permanent slot, with an emphasis on corporate job development.

Stephen Larson will be our new Administrative Services Director.  Stephen is a long-time department employee, having been with Rehabilitation Services for many years and a Regional Administrator in the Workforce Development Division of DEED for the last six years.  He’s wrapping up his Adjustment to Blindness training at BLIND, Inc. and will be on board at SSB later this month.

Chuk Hamilton will be continuing with us at least through next August, handling a variety of important technical, policy and administrative tasks.

Very pleased to note that Natasha Lemler, Rehabilitation Counselor in WDU, has been accepted into the state’s Emerging Leaders Institute; an exclusive group of 30 rising stars selected in a very competitive process from throughout state government.

Ms. Lemler is the fourth SSB employee selected for the Institute in the last three years.  Note that all four SSB participants are females, with one of them a blind person.

As folks may recall, RSA conducted a review of SSB last year.  Their final report indicated a need to change SSB’s status and level in DEED.

That change, announced August 3 by Commissioner Phillips, has SSB reporting to the Office of the Commissioner with a status equal to that of other major units of the department.  It means SSB has status comparable to other major units of the department and is a full participant in all leadership activities of the department.


The long process of updating and revising the administrative rules covering services to Minnesotans who are blind, deafblind and visually impaired is complete.  The updated rules became effective Monday, August 8.  The resulting updated rules:


  • conform with current federal law and regulations,
  • consolidate the former self-care and independent living programs,
  • clarify and streamline numerous sections including those related to the purchase, maintenance and ownership of technology aids and devices,
  • strengthen requirements related to adjustment-to-blindness training, and
  • repeal those rule parts related to direct rehabilitation services to children.

Making the needed improvements in the rules was possible only because of the hard work and active involvement over the last 18 months of many, including members of the State Rehabilitation Council for the Blind and advocacy groups. 

The NFB played an important role in the effort.  Members involved include your president, Jennifer Dunnam, Judy Sanders, and Steve Jacobson, representing the SRC-B, Shawn Mayo from BLIND, Inc. and Kathleen Hagen, Client Assistance Project.

Their input, along with that from other community members, was valuable, seriously considered and helped shape the product as it developed.

We are now aligning policy manuals for both programs (VR and SSU) with the new Rule, updating forms and WF1 — our management information system — and myriad procedures as we train staff on their use.

We are working with the other users of the WF1 to ensure future system viability.  WF1 is written in Visual Basic 6, for which Microsoft will no longer provide mainstream support after 2013.  DEED is moving to rewrite WF1 in Visual Basic dot net.  The 18 plus programs using the system, including other DEED and DHS units, are looking at cost estimates for the rewrite and how to fund the effort.  We are watching this effort very closely, needing to be certain the value we receive is proportionate to what we pay and that the system is accessible to blind users.


SWIFT (Statewide Integrated Financial Tool) continues to be very problematic for all state government and for SSB in particular.  We will be bringing on several temporary positions to help lessen the increased work load resulting from SWIFT.  Our VR techs are spending nearly all their time on the SWIFT activity which historically has taken no more than 10-15% of their time.

By now it's tough to find anyone who does not expect bad news from the December revenue forecast two months from now.  But any fresh holes in revenue projections revealed then won't be actionable by the Legislature until the figures get revised in March.  From that point onward, the 2012 session is likely to be overtaken by a reprise of the budget standoff that ultimately ate up seven months of the 2011 session.

SSB has had very positive preliminary discussions with Ms. Oien of the Department of Education regarding our interagency agreement that supports braille provision to K-12 students.  We look forward to those discussions being ongoing as we together look for ways to optimize our capacity for and funding of braille. 

SSB will be continuing with ensuring Assistive Technology instructors have the skills needed to provide quality instruction to blind Minnesotans.  Updated performance evaluations have been developed and we’ll be working with providers to bring certifications up-to-date. 

Finally, SSB needs your help.  We have a standard expectation that all new SSB employees shadow a competent blind person who uses the skills of blindness in their work environment.  We need additional volunteers who are willing to have new SSB staff shadow them for a day and experience first-hand the importance of the skills of blindness in everyday life.  Staff feedback on their shadowing experience has been excellent and it makes a significant difference in how new staff, often not at all familiar with blindness, start their experience at SSB.  Please contact me directly if you would like to be considered for this important role.

Thank you for this opportunity to meet with you today!