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Summer 2000 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

Terry Murphy, Executive Director, Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (formerly known as Texas Commision for the Blind)

I've watched with interest over the years how words come in and out of vogue in the human services field. Some changes are easy to applaud, especially when the people most affected by the words seek and win the changes themselves. Because of the hard work by individuals and groups of Americans with varying disabilities, the term "handicapped" has given way to "disabled," and finally to "people with disabilities" in the Rehabilitation Act and other legislation during the last decade.

The latest target for change in this arena, however, does not have my support because the dissenting opinions of the individuals most affected by the proposal—people who are blind—have been ignored. The target I'm talking about is the goal by a few people and organizations to eliminate the word blind from the vocabulary of state legislatures and the U. S. Congress by calling for an end to its separate identity in laws and programs. Advocates for its elimination proffer their opinion that "people with disabilities" sufficiently says it all during human service funding and service debates. Recognition of the special needs of people who are blind is superfluous to the process.

Organizations of and for the blind have worked hard to educate legislators over the years to the unique barriers to employment and independent living posed by blindness because "existing services for people with disabilities" were not being made accessible to people who were blind. One important result of these education efforts is reflected in Title VII of the Rehabilitation Act. Entitled "Independent Living Services for Older Individuals Who are Blind," Chapter 2 provides funds to states to provide independent living skills to older individuals who are blind for whom significant visual impairment makes competitive employment extremely difficult to attain but for whom independent living goals are feasible. These funds, meager as they are, were celebrated across the nation and are used in Texas to prevent individuals from prematurely being relegated to nursing homes or caretakers when advancing age results in a loss of vision. With specialized training in adjusting to blindness, the majority of these individuals can remain in their homes and continue to be self-sufficient.

The Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (formerly known as Texas Commision for the Blind) hosted a meeting a few months ago to talk about the future of vocational rehabilitation and independent living services, not only in Texas, but also across the country. In the room, the combined experience in the field of blindness numbered well into the hundreds of years. My colleagues and I shared our experiences, reflecting on the latest Texas legislative session when the specialized services provided by the Commission were being reviewed by the Sunset staff. The Commission entered the Sunset process confident in its record and proud that Texas chose the right path long ago when it created an agency with the sole purpose of building an effective system of services for individuals who were blind, including children and teenagers, which is rare in other states.

It was inconceivable to most of us that anyone would want to dismantle one of the best agencies for the blind in the country. Other states had gone that path only to be met with diminishing returns on their investment in services. Unfortunately we were wrong. It soon became evident during the legislative session that individuals and groups calling for an end to separately funded programs for people who are blind in Washington are also active in Texas. Their supporters were primarily advocating for serving people with all types of disabilities out of one Texas agency without having a separate budget for serving people who are blind. One advocate for change said that it is not necessarily accurate that individuals who are blind need that exact allocation of money, adding that agencies will always find a way to spend what they are given. The alternative of combining all human services programs into one elephantine agency with one budget also received some support.

Those of us who have chosen to work in the field of blindness as long as I have are so convinced that the elimination of distinct, separate services and funding would be detrimental that we have renewed our commitment to stay active in the coming months and years in educating the public, legislators, and congressmen about blindness and its unique effects on a person's ability to live and work. I simply do not believe that specialized services for persons who are blind of the same or better quality will be available in any service system where they are the small minority voice among persons with disabilities. It takes someone specially trained in the effects of blindness to be an effective service provider, and my 28 years in the field have only solidified my resolve to fight for the right of Texans struggling for equal acceptance into the world of employment to have dedicated resources for appropriate training and qualified state personnel with which to partner. The old saying, "United, we stand; divided, we fall" has taken on a very personal meaning to me on this particular issue, because cooperation between consumers and organizations of and for people who are blind over these next few years is extremely important.

I'm often asked by parents of children who are blind, "How can I keep up with what's happening? How can I make sure that people trained in the complications of blindness continue to be available for my child now and when he's trying to go into the workforce?" As an individual, you can be extremely effective by sharing what you know to be facts about blindness with your community and state leaders. You can join one of the consumer groups or parent groups that brings together people with the same needs and quest for knowledge about state and national activities that may have an effect—good or bad—on services for people who are blind. Stay involved even when things appear to be going well. Apathy can kill an endangered program just as effectively as the lobbyists already at work.

Congressional activities are already in motion in preparation for the reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act in 2003. At this time, the Act is still a separate entity within the broader Workforce Investment Act. Vocational rehabilitation programs are only "linked" to local workforce programs—a "cooperative" arrangement. This federal change in 1997 is somewhat similar to state changes in 1999 when the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (formerly known as Texas Commision for the Blind) kept its separate identity but now operates under the broad authority of the Health and Human Services Commissioner.

Two forces are alive and well at the national level: A force that continues to want work done by rehabilitation agencies merged or transferred into local workforce programs, and a force that wants to eliminate the states' authority to have separate rehabilitation programs for people who are blind. Either action will potentially eliminate the word "blind" from employment and independent living programs.

Programs for people who are blind were born in an era when leaders recognized that blindness was taking a toll on independence and employment that only specialized services could alleviate. Blindness still takes its toll. However, we have risen from that small beginning where the vast majority of blind people were expected to work in sheltered environments to today's multifaceted program of services where people can choose to pursue a broad range of careers that fits their interests and capabilities.

The people who know best the struggles of finding their rightful place in society are those who are themselves blind. Organizations composed of blind people have fought a valiant fight to have specialized services and will continue to do so as long as service providers listen to them and adjust to identified needs. Organizations composed of parents of blind children, including parents whose children have other disabilities in combination with blindness, have fought a valiant fight to have brighter futures for their children. Many years ago, the Commission was sometimes the object of these fights, but we began to better listen and respond. My personal goal for the past ten years has been to create an atmosphere wherein we stand together rather than stand separately.

If you are blind, if you have a loved one who is blind, or if you merely believe that blindness should not keep someone from participating in society to the highest extent possible, then I invite you to stand with us as we continue our efforts to educate others about the need for specialized services.