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Friday, August 29, 2014

Transition - An Example of Colorado’s Special Failure to Serve Blind Youth


Transition - An Example of Colorado’s Special Failure to Serve Blind Youth

As soon as Stacy Reemer's son Derek got into middle school, she began asking educators at his annual Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings "What comes next?  What comes after high school?"

Stacy's son is blind and was bound for college to study computer science.  She simply wanted to ensure that plans were laid in a timely way - that there would be no last-minute scrambles.  But it wasn't until his IEP meeting in his junior year that she learned about the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) - and that by happenstance.  A DVR counselor was in the building that day, and the counselor was invited to join the meeting.  Stacy learned all about DVR and how it could help her son post-graduation.  Among other things they were told her son should apply for DVR in the second semester of his senior year.  She found this a bit frustrating, but in early 2013, that's what they did.

Emily Romero applied for DVR services during her sophomore year.  She wanted to attend the Colorado Center for the Blind's summer Youth Program in order to gain intensive training in assistive technology and travel with the white cane.  Her sights were set on college and she felt this would be an opportunity for her to  get her skills up to the standards she would need in higher education.  She wanted to be as independent and proficient as possible in that more demanding learning environment which assumes proficiency in technology and every other area.  Initially her relatively new DVR counselor was positive, says her father Everett, but after her counselor spoke with another, more experienced counselor serving blind clients, he denied her request. 

"He said he was told such training wasn't done, that it wasn't necessary," says Everett.

And then the waiting list slammed the door on Emily, whose case had not progressed when her request for transition services were denied.

Quinita Thomas also wanted to attend Colorado Center for the Blind’s (CCB's) summer program in 2013, but she didn't even get as far as Emily.  She was discouraged from applying for DVR services, told that the agency would not send her to CCB for the summer program.  Then a 16-year-old mostly advocating for herself, she didn't understand that she had the right to apply no matter what under the federal rules for Vocational Rehabilitation.

Transitioning students have been denied critical DVR services at a crucial moment as they move from the relative safe educational environment out into the competitive adult world.  Because of DVR’s long-standing practice (not a written policy), transitioning students, their parents and K-12 educators have been told they need not apply for services until their final semester of their senior year of high school.  If that weren't bad enough, the better part of two graduating classes of Coloradoans with disabilities have been caught on DVR's catastrophe of a waiting list.  DVR moved to "Order of Selection" in early 2013.  Known as a "waiting list," it meant that all new applicants would be in limbo until funds became available to serve them.  And for ten months, from April 2013 till February 2014, no one was taken off the waiting list.

Left to fend on their own, the families of blind students have been faced with the prospect of finding funding for their blind children and purchasing costly assistive computer technology for those children intending to go on to higher education.  Other students in transition find no DVR services to help bridge the gap to gainful employment.

To date, 3700 names have been removed from the waiting list, while 3500 remain.  DVR Director Joelle Brouner states that DVR is taking 400 to 450 new applications per month.  With no new names slated to come off the waiting list until perhaps next June, it is almost a certainty that the 2015 graduating class will be victims of the waiting list too.

Transition is not something new.  It had been in place for decades when with the 1990 passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Congress put new emphasis on schools to provide effective transition services to youth with disabilities.  In part IDEA provided for transition planning to begin as early as age 14.  In its Amendments to the Rehabilitation Act in 1992, Congress also gave greater emphasis to transition, including essentially the same language to define transition services.  In subsequent reauthorizations of both laws, transition language has been maintained and strengthened.

In May of 2014, the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), the federal agency that oversees all state Vocational Rehabilitation programs, defined transition as:
a coordinated set of activities for a student, designed within an outcome-oriented process, that promotes movement from school to post-school activities, including post-secondary education, vocational training, integrated employment (including supported employment), continuing and adult education, adult services, independent living, or community participation. The coordinated set of activities shall be based upon the individual student’s needs, taking into account the student’s preferences and interests, and shall include instruction, community experiences, the development of employment and other post-school adult living objectives, and when appropriate, acquisition of daily living skills and functional vocational evaluation.

In its Policy Manual Colorado DVR discusses transition as follows:

15.6 APPLICATION/POINT OF REFERRAL
There is no specified point at which referral to DVR and the DVR application must occur for a student. The law does not specify either a minimum or maximum age for referral to DVR. Exact timing of the referral may vary based on individualized need. DVR staff will consider the following guidance as discussions with education staff and others occur around point of referral and submission of an application for DVR services. Referral of a student should occur when:
                  - the youth’s focus has shifted (or is in the process of shifting) from education to employment;…

Derek, Emily and Quinita were all thinking about what would come after high school for them - college. Still, their individual needs and concerns were ignored in the face of an unwritten practice treated as policy.  Throughout federal regs and DVR's Policy Manual, the phrase "as early as possible" frequently appears, and yet all three of these blind Coloradoans were put off, postponed until a fixed point in DVR's unwritten rules.

It is clear to the NFB of Colorado that cooperation between the K-12 system and DVR is inadequate.  Furthermore, DVR's practice of advising referral in the second semester of the senior year violates its own written policy in several key areas:
1.  It defines a specific point in time.
2.  It is clearly not "as early as possible."
3.  When blind applicants with a clear sense of preparing for post-secondary options have presented  themselves to DVR, the agency has turned them away in favor of an arbitrary timeline.

In April, DVR held its first public hearings on its required State Plan in seven years.  That in itself says a great deal about where DVR is coming from, and it is a positive development that the NFB of Colorado applauds.

DVR put forth several discussion items.  Number 4 asked "Who could DVR be helping that we are not reaching?"  At the hearing held in the Metro area at the Colorado Center for the Blind, NFB of Colorado brought up the issue of transition.  Below is part of the written summary of the public comment which was submitted to DVR:

**             The State Plan should provide for working with blind youth beginning at age 16, including provision of pre-vocational services designed to aid in developing understanding of personal abilities and capacity of blind people in general through work, challenge recreational, and other extra-educational activities.  The State Plan should acknowledge and develop shared responsibilities, including costs, with Local Educational Agencies where appropriate for blind youth beginning at age 16.

The four public hearings held across the state in April resulted in a number of recommendations from the State Rehabilitation Council (SRC), a body required for each state's rehabilitation program.  We won a battle as the SRC took our comments and included age 16 as part of its recommendations.   However, DVR’s written response is difficult to understand.  Are they acknowledging that there isn’t supposed to be a specific time for transition, and they’ll work to ensure that the second-semester practice is ended?  Or are they stubbornly rejecting the recommendation of the SRC?   What it clearly doesn’t do is acknowledge that its field staff have been in violation of the federal regulations and its own policy for years.  That is the only thing clear in DVR’s response to Recommendation 3. <a href=”http:// www.dvrcolorado.com/PDFs/StatePlan2015.pdf”>(Download the State Plan 2015 PDF with this link.)</a>

Despite her efforts to avoid a scramble to get services in place for her son Derek, that's what they got.  Apparently aware that the waiting list would shut her young client out of services, Derek's DVR counselor contacted the Reemers and within a couple of weeks got everything in place for him.  Derek is now entering his second year at UC-Boulder with the support of DVR funding.

During her August 18 orientation week at Regis University, Emily received a voice message from her counselor informing her that her name was one of 1503 removed from the waiting list.  She returned his call but was unable to connect.  When we spoke to her on August 24, the eve of her first day of classes, she was without services.  She was equipped for school with a laptop and a 40-minute demo version of JAWS and the free screen reader NVDA - a relatively strong substitute for JAWS, but not the screen reader with which she is most familiar and proficient.  She still lacks a Braille display, which she uses to read from her laptop and is her best learning and comprehension approach - especially in Spanish classes.  She also needs a Victor Reader Stream so that she can listen to those books she receives in the alternate DAISY format from Learning Ally and Bookshare.

Quinita also started classes on August 25 without DVR support.  She began contacting DVR on February 14 this year, and is now on the waiting list.  She has an old laptop loaned her by a member of the NFB of Colorado, equipped with JAWS, and feels she has patched things together as best she could under the circumstances.

Because all DVR cost services must be pre-approved in writing, there is no chance that Emily or Quinita will receive support for their first semester's tuition and books.  Belatedly, their counselors could step up and get their assistive technology ASAP.
  
Certainly, both the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) and DVR as a whole need to step up and provide timely transition services to Colorado youth who are blind or have other disabilities.  The best place to start is to follow their own policies and stop hiding behind their own mumbo jumbo.  The futures of our Colorado kids with disabilities that is at stake.

The Current State of DVR: Emily Romero's Story

The National Federation of the Blind of Colorado has been investigating the practices of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) in Colorado and the toll that past mismanagement has and continues to take on blind people.  Although DVR just released 1,500 people (including Emily who waited for more than two years for service) from their wait list, they still have a list of over 3,000 individuals who are not receiving the services that would enable them to become gainfully employed. In addition, DVR receives approximately 400 new applications per month.  At this rate it will be years before all of the people with disabilities on the wait list will receive the much needed services that they are currently being denied.

Emily's story is the first in a series of stories that the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado plans to release.  These stories highlight the holding pattern in which blind people needing VR services are forced to live. We want to call attention to and end the waiting game that is leaving thousands of disabled Coloradans without the tools, training, and support necessary to gain employment or in some cases even retain their current jobs.  Check out Emily's story and keep reading our blog to learn ore about the current state of DVR.



Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Celebrating labor, including the labor of people who are blind and otherwise disabled.


Celebrating labor, including the labor of people who are blind and otherwise disabled.
Taking the battle to the streets of our Nation’s capitol.
By: Kevan Worley

A year ago, before our Blind Coloradan became available as a blog, the Labor Day issue focused on the challenges workers with disabilities face under 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. One article, Standing up for Workers, received wide attention and a great deal of comment. Another Labor Day weekend is upon us. On Thursday, August 28th I will fly to Washington, DC to participate in a demonstration in front of the palatial headquarters of SourceAmerica. SourceAmerica (formerly NISH, National Industries for the Severely Handicapped), is a national nonprofit entity which is authorized by the AbilityOne commission within the Federal Government. They do their work through a nationwide network of more than 550 community nonprofit agency partners, including Goodwill, to fulfill contracting needs for the Federal Government, commercial businesses and government contractors. We all know how Goodwill of Denver and Goodwill of Southern Colorado subjugates workers with disabilities while enriching their executives. This behavior is supported, sanctioned, and aggressively promoted to government procurement officials and private industry by SourceAmerica.
National Federation of the Blind along with ADAPT, Association of People Supporting Employment First (APSE), Little People of America (LPA), National Council on Independent Living (NCIL), and other organizations will conduct a protest in front of SourceAmerica from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. in Vienna, Virginia. I have been to the opulent operations center of SourceAmerica over the years. I have gone to meet with them in their sumptuous suites of excess about how to increase opportunities under their programs for entrepreneurship. I have met them in their richly appointed offices, at their request, to consider how they might partner with the Randolph-Sheppard program. I have visited their lavish digs to advocate payment of fair wages to people who are disabled. Every time I have visited their plush offices, decked out with the most modern furniture and ostentatious show of executive wealth, I cannot help thinking about the workers who receive little training and little money from a system which was designed to employ and empower the worker. On Thursday I will not be entering their swanky suites. I will be on the streets with hundreds. These highly paid executives must be called to account for their unfair, unjust, immoral enterprise. We know that Goodwill of Denver and Goodwill of Southern Colorado are two significant abusers of an outdated system sanctioned by a section of a law passed 75 years ago. The National Federation of the Blind of Colorado and dozens of National Organizations representing the quest for labor security and equality of opportunity will continue our fight another year. This coming weekend we celebrate all workers, including those who happen to have disabilities. This Thursday, we will stand in front of the most wealthy power broker in the area of employment for the disabled and proclaim their guilt to the public, the media, and congress. It may be worth remembering what we said at Labor Day 2013, here is it in part: …Labor Day is more than a day of sales, the end of summer, or picnics in the park.  Labor Day was the brainchild of Matthew Maguire, a labor leader and machinist from the state of New York in the 1880’s.  It became a national holiday when signed into law by President Grover Cleveland in 1894.  At the time of this year’s celebration of those who labor, we call upon the public to think of the contributions made by blind workers and the contributions that many blind workers would make if included into the workforce on terms of equality.  Many blind individuals are part of the 70% unemployed statistic.  Many workers with disabilities, including blind laborers, work for pay below the federal minimum wage.  President Barack Obama, in a speech given on Labor Day 2010, said, “It was the labor movement that helped secure so much of what we take for granted today. The 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, family leave, health insurance, Social Security, Medicare, retirement plans. The cornerstones of the middle-class security all bear the union label”.  

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Current State of Colorado DVR's Waiting List

The Current State of Colorado DVR's Waiting List

The Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation's (DVR) waiting
list slowly, oh so slowly shrinks, and blind Coloradoans and others
with disabilities  continue to be hurt by the state's inability to
provide this necessary rehabilitation service, it appears that it
could take years to eliminate the waiting list at the rate things are
going.

A federal worker who has recently experienced significant loss of
vision struggles with basic mobility, her use of everyday technology
and daily living activities, yet can receive no services - even though
her job hangs in the balance.  A skilled and successful professional
recently became blind, but is told he must wait indefinitely.  At
least five Business Enterprise Program locations with priority for
blind vendors are unfilled for lack of qualified candidates to enter
training.  And for the second year in a row, blind high school
graduates have been caught in DVR's wait-list disaster, unable to
receive  services to assist their transition into post-high school
training and employment.

On July 24 DVR held a public hearing on new policies regarding time
limits for DVR services (More on those changes in a later post).  DVR
Director Joelle Brouner conducted the meeting which was open to all
interested parties, or "stakeholders."  At the end of the discussion,
Director Brouner opened the hearing up for general questions.  Below
is a quick recap of the DVR waiting list, incorporating the answers
Director Brouner gave to questions that NFB of Colorado participants
asked:

*    Colorado's DVR waiting list was closed in all categories as of April 2013.
*    DVR's waiting list peaked at over 6100 Coloradoans with disabilities
in late February 2014, when it moved the first 500 names off the list.
*    Just over 2200 names have been moved from the waiting list since
February 2014.
*    The waiting list still had 5151 names on it on  July 24.  This is
because DVR receives about 400 new applications each month.
*    DVR planned to move another 1503 names from the waiting list this
month.  It projects another 452 for the start of June, 2015, unless it
receives a supplemental appropriation from the Colorado Assembly in
2015.
*    All of those moved off the waiting list have been in the Most
Significant category, as that is the federally-mandated highest
priority category.
*    of the 5151 names still on the waiting list on July 24, 63 percent
were categorized in the Most Significant category, or highest
priority.  Another 23 percent were in the the Significant category,
second highest in priority.

It doesn't take a math genius to calculate that no one who is not in
the highest priority - Most Significant - will be moved off the
waiting list in the next couple of years if something doesn't change.
It is likely that it could take 2 to 5 years to pare the waiting list
down to nothing.  It is possible that the waiting list, in some
reduced form or another, could be with us for even longer than that.

It is also quite apparent that the waiting list is doing the most harm
to those who, under federal law, are supposed to be protected by the
waiting list - those with the Most significant and Significant
disabilities.

For the foreseeable future, DVR will still  require new applicaants to
its services to go onto a waiting list. Known as "Order of Selection"
or OOS under federal law, services to Coloradoans with disabilities
making application to DVR have been under strict limitations since
March of 2013.  That's when the first partial shutdown of new services
began.  Less than a month later, all new applicants were shuttled onto
the waiting list, with no timeline to begin to open the valves again.

Under Order of Selection, DVR clients who were already working on a
rehab plan were able to continue with those services.  Order of
Selection is included in the law to ensure that states have a
mechanism to keep providing services to the highest priorities of
their clients with disabilities if the agency decides it doesn't have
enough resources to serve those folks who are expected to apply for
services.

The categories establishing priority for DVR services are the same as
in every other state.  They are provided for in the Rehabilitation
Act, which is now part of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity
Act.  Here they are:

1.    Most Significant Disability
2.    Significant Disability
3.    Disability.

DVR Counselors follow agency policies and procedures in determining
which priority a client receives.  However, it's safe to say that most
blind applicants fall into one of the top two categories.

Even as DVR has begun its painstakingly slow process of shrinking the
waiting list in the last six months, the damage done to the lives of
Coloradoans with disabilities continues to mount.  The NFB of Colorado
is determined to do all it can to speed this process and and ensure
that our blind brothers and sisters can get vocational rehabilitation
services when they most need them.  That is simply good rehabilitation
practice.  Our hopes and dreams, even our ability to manage our
day-to-day lives are at stake.  With timely, appropriate training and
opportunities, we will live the lives we want!

Stay tuned to the Blind Coloradoan for updates on the DVR wait list
and stories of those denied timely DVR services.

***

Friday, August 15, 2014

Picnic Time!


With hot sunshine on our shoulder and cool watermelon growing on the vine it is Picnic time!  Many of our chapters have had picnics across the state this summer including our Pueblo chapter who invited new and old friends to play bingo and enjoy some delicious fix ins, the colorado Springs chapter who hosted over 60 people for barbecue and tug of war, and the Denver chapter who served up some delicious wraps and had way too much fun with the bounce house.  

The Mile High Chapter is putting a little non traditional twist on our usual summer picnic.  They are including CHOCOLATE!  WOW!  A picnic and chocolate tasting all rolled into one great, delicious, fun event! The Picnic/chocolate tasting is a fundraiser for the chapter and will take place on Sunday, August 24 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Brooks Towers, located at 1020 Fifteenth Street, 3rd floor, Denver, CO.  

Individual tickets are $15 each.  There will be sample chocolate tastings, hot dogs and burgers, chips, soda and maybe even a few door prizes.

Advance payment can be made by check payable to the Mile High Chapter or by PayPal using the following link:


Payment at the door will be $20 each and again can be paid in cash, by check or by PayPal.

So Break out the flip flops and the sunglasses and lets have a picnic!  Oh yeah... we get chocolate too!  Woohoo!!!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Summer Fun at the CCB


Summer time at the Colorado Center for the Blind is alive with an infectious spirit of youthful energy and enthusiasm.   From rambunctious Confidence camp to sassy Seniors in Charge, the CCB is overflowing with blind people of all ages who share a common passion and determination to learn the blindness skills that will lead to a life of confidence and independence.   Working in an environment where people are constantly learning new things and gaining belief in their capacity as blind people reinvigorates my dedication to spread the message of the National Federation of the Blind far and wide.  With love, hope, and determination, we can transform our dreams into realities. 

As an employee of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado, I am often soaking up this excitement and positivity from afar.   This summer was a bit different.  In early summer, the Confidence Camp needed access to a place to swim and I had the magic key (luckily my apartment complex is just next door to the center and it has a pool)!  While swimming with the campers it was cool to hear the kiddos say things like “I jumped in the deep end for the first time,” and “Look, I just learned how to do a flip in the water!”  We also got to have some science-filled fun together where the campers learned about buoyancy.  Witnessing those light bulb moment when ideas were formulated about why some things sink and some things float reminded me of the simple and pure joy that comes from making new discoveries. 

Toward the end of the summer Christian Able who was a student in the Earn and Learn Program was assigned to spend 40 hours working for the NFB of Colorado.  The Earn and Learn program gives high-school students the opportunity to gain blindness skills as well as valuable work experience at a “real” job.  While working with NFBCO, Christian assisted with the procurement of state packages for our national Bid for Equality auction, researched potential sponsors for our 60th nnual NFBCO state convention, and Brailled certificates for participants in our Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning Program, participants. In addition, he researched the differences between Word Press and Droople which are two leading website content management systems.   He used the information he gained to make a recommendation to the NFB of Colorado regarding the system that best fits our needs. 

Christian was absolutely dynamite!  He was bright, engaged, punctual, thorough, and did every bit of his work with a positive attitude.   Along with the truly meaningful tasks that Christian completed for NFBCO, he was also gracious enough to write up a blurb for The Blind Coloradan blog about his summer experience.  Here is what Christian had to say:

Stepping on that plane a month ago I thought everything would be easy and I wouldn’t learn anything this summer. That’s not the case at all. I would say the sleep shades helped me see. At my school I learn a lot about living successfully as a blind individual, but coming here has been a whole other experience.

I think myself to be a good traveler, but traveling with graduates of the Center has shown me I have a lot to learn. The skills the Center Staff teach are those used in everyday life. I really expected work to simple and that my employer wouldn’t know how work with me, because I’m blind. Nevertheless as soon as I stepped through the door the first day she had a day’s work planned out. As soon as I finished something I always had more to do and that’s how I like it. I don’t like sitting around.  I love that I’m never bored.

The most important thing I learned this summer though, would have to be, that the NFB straight canes are the best! Before I came here I hated them because they were too light, but after being able to move around so easily and finding some interesting places to put my cane, I love them. Even though they don’t fold they still are the best choice for a cane user and by cane user I mean everyone. I say if you have some vision loss, even a little, you should always have a cane in hand instead a pole on your face.

The best part about the summer had to wearing sleep shades. Although they were itchy and dark, they were my greatest tool. Wearing sleep shades forced me to use skills I never knew I had and I loved every moment of it. After a while sleep shades were a second life to me. Someday I would forget I had them on and walk from the Center to the bus stop and back to my apartment and not know I still had them on. That’s why I say my sleep shades helped me see, because they did. They helped me to see my skills exceed what I thought were their limits.

After seeing so many people who have graduated from the Center being so confident and successful it has really made me want to attend ITP when I graduate from high school. Just from these eight weeks this summer I have gained confidence that I never knew was there. I know that even if I loose  the rest of my vision at some point, with the confidence I bring back with me from Colorado, I can still be the Best I can. —Christian Able

I am encouraged and inspired by the talent, ambition, and vitality of Christian and his colleagues.  It was a pleasure to work with and learn from Christian during his Earn and Learn experience.  Our future is looking bright!  The culmination of the hard work and newly found confidence of our CCB summer youth was a beautiful graduation and dinner followed by a fun filled talent show.  The summer students prepared a delicious meal and put on a GREAT show!  Check out the group talent and the clip “will the REAL George McDermith please stand up!”