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State Services for the Blind Update

by Carol Pankow, Director
Minnesota State Services for the Blind

(Editor's Note: This presentation was given at the 2017 Semiannual Convention.)

Greetings once again from SSB. It's always great to be here.

As you can imagine, these are complicated times for government agencies. The threat of a government shutdown on the federal level has been pushed off until September, so we anticipate a rocky road come the fall. Our state legislators and the governor are in the middle of hammering out a state budget, and, with the Monday night deadline fast approaching, once again there is some talk of a shutdown. Our main focus, in the event of any disruption is to lessen the impact on our customers, and that's something we're always thinking about and preparing for.

Last year in a non-budget year, the NFB of Minnesota lobbied successfully for an increase in funding for training seniors who are losing vision. Those dollars have made an incredible difference in the depth of service that we're able to offer to seniors and helped to stabilize our senior services program. 

For instance, we've been able to send seniors to more indepth training at BLIND, Inc., and that too has made a world of difference. Seniors leave here feeling empowered and confident and comfortable in their abilities to manage their own lives and stay active in their own communities. A few weeks ago, we learned that the continuance of that funding for training might be in jeopardy. That's when you all again went to work – calling legislators, monitoring the process, and making it known what a difference the funds make in keeping seniors in their own homes. You once again did a full-court press to let the governor and the legislature know that this funding matters. As for now, it looks like that funding is secured going forward. So, on behalf of those seniors, our senior services staff, and for myself personally, I want to thank you for advocating on behalf of independence and quality of life for Minnesota seniors who are experiencing vision loss. 

In the midst of complicated times like these are, what keeps me going is the successes of our customers. I want to share with you a couple of those stories, along with sharing the numbers and the program updates from across SSB.

As I mentioned, we've been able to send seniors to BLIND, Inc. so that they can receive solid training over several weeks in cooking, using technology, managing a household, and getting around. We hear over and over again about seniors who began classes feeling reluctant and fearful, and came out feeling excited and confident. In 2016, seniors had an 8-week, forty-hour program here. In our 2017 fiscal year, seniors are taking an expanded 12 week class at 120 hours. We were also able to send 4 additional seniors free of charges due to grant dollars BLIND, Inc. had received.

With the extra money we have seen that more resources and training have made for better outcomes. For example, compared to 2016 on average we have seen an 18% increase in seniors ability to master skills of blindness (O and M, AT, Communication, Daily Living). This is a self report they give us at the end of training.

Here's just one example of what that actually looks like. One of our senior Services Counselors, Katie Viaene met with a gentleman who was living in a group home and desperately wanted to be able to live on his own. Here's how Katie tells the story:

"Clyde explained that it seemed that this goal of living on his own had been put on a temporary hold until he could learn the skills to safely manage by himself. So, we didn't waste any time, and discussed options to make his goals possible. Clyde lit up when he heard about the opportunity to attend classes at BLIND, Incorporated. Attending BLIND, Incorporated quickly became the plan, and he couldn't wait to go learn and work towards making his goals a reality, which is exactly what he did." 


Katie goes on to say that the next hurdle was transportation. She put in time and effort and talked with several providers trying to work out rides to and from BLIND, Inc. She writes, "I communicated with Jennifer and Dan Wenzel at BLIND, Incorporated, and was extremely impressed with their overall kindness, and willingness to work with both Clyde and myself on this. Jennifer went out of her way to work with me, and get Clyde to and from classes. Jennifer let me know that if there were issues with rides going forward, she would try and arrange for an Uber to come and get him, or even have someone from BLIND, Incorporated transport him if need be. I was amazed! Having another person be such a strong advocate for Clyde was so wonderful. When Clyde graduated from BLIND, Incorporated, I could tell that he had learned a great deal, and felt more confident all around. He was so proud of his efforts and accomplishments. I had a lot of fun watching Clyde learn and grow, and couldn't be more pleased with his accomplishments." The group of men that went through that class now take the bus and meet regularly for lunch.

That's a little bit of what's happening on the senior side. At the other end of the age spectrum, we've had a lot going on for young people too. As I've mentioned before, because of changes in federal funding, we've scaled up the services that we can offer to students between the ages of 14 and 21. One of the programs we were able to offer this year is called Blind and Socially Savvy, which is put on by the International School of Protocol. It teaches those so-called soft skills, like knowing how to introduce yourself, hold the door for someone, or navigate a formal dinner. If you're sighted, and you sit down at a dinner table and there are three forks in front of you, you can look around and see what other people are doing, and bluff your way through. If you don't have those visual cues it's not so easy to fake it. So the folks who put together Blind and Socially Savvy designed a curriculum to teach those skills to young adults as they head off to college or internships or jobs. BLIND, Inc. partnered with us to hold one training, and another was held at the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind. We'll hold a third training up in Duluth later this summer.

One person here who took the training and then talked with our State Council about it is Alycia. Alycia is heading off to MCTC this fall, and one of her growing interests is in public speaking. When she spoke to the council, we were impressed by her energy and poise and confidence.

Later this summer, she will be part of a panel to speak to college professors about accessibility.

In addition to talking about all the technical and practical things she learned at Blind and Socially Savvy – like using a nifty method called the "continental style" of using a knife and fork, or knowing how to pull out and hold a chair for someone to be seated, or how to start a conversation, or mingle at a networking event, Alycia says that a lot of it comes down to being respectful. I think that's exactly the kind of thing that will give Alycia that extra edge. She's already been putting what she's learned to use, having conducted an informational interview, and finding opportunities to open a door for someone and introduce herself. She, and the other graduates of the program are building a capacity for self-advocacy and initiative that they can draw on in every aspect of their lives.

I can't emphasize enough that this kind of self-confidence and initiative are absolutely fundamental for the success of our customers. You can know everything there is to know about assistive technology, and have good grades in school, and a well-written resume, but, when you're sitting across from a hiring manager in a job interview, you've got to make the case that you are a better fit for the job than all the other applicants. Fostering that kind of confidence represents the best of what the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota stands for, and it comes through here at BLIND, Inc. too.

Here's another example of what I mean. Abdi Osman, who many of you may know, came to this country 3 and a half years ago and was scared of almost everything. He heard about SSB, and even though he was scared, he agreed to come to the PREP program at BLIND, Inc. He was scared to use a cane, scared to walk down stairs, and scared to venture out on his own. But he was willing to try, and willing to face his fears, and that's what made the difference. Abdi will be graduating from high school in two weeks, and if there is anything that scares him now, you definitely wouldn't know it from talking to him. Because he benefited so much from the PREP program, Abdi is enrolling in the adult program here at BLIND, Inc. He wants to learn everything he can. He has a goal of working in technology – maybe for Apple – and, like Alycia and the other young adults in our transition program, he's building both his hard skills and his soft skills, so that he'll have the best shot at living the life he wants.

Clyde and Abdi and Alycia are three of the reasons why I get out of bed and come to work every morning. And, I said at the beginning that I would also share with you our updates and those numbers that measure our progress in a given year, so here's where we are:

In our workforce development section, our numbers are slightly down overall. We have a case load of 685 customers, which is down about 100 people from previous years. Since 2015, we've been under Order of Selection which forces us to put some consumers on a waiting list because of fiscal constraints. Currently there are 19 people on that waiting list. Since the beginning of our federal fiscal year, 84 of our customers have found work. 48 of those have been in their jobs for longer than 90 days, so they are successful closures; the other 36 are within that 90 day window, so they will be successful closures when they reach that marker.

The state of Minnesota has made a commitment to increasing the number of state employees with disabilities and, as part of reaching that goal has launched a program called Connect 700. The thinking behind it is that if people can get a foot in the door and prove their ability to do a job well, we can get around some of that initial resistance to hiring people with disabilities. To date we have a small handful of customers who have jobs in state government through the Connect 700 program. We see it as one more tool in our toolkit. So far this year, while our number of successful closures is slightly off-pace for the year, , the average wage, especially for parttime work is higher than it has been. The average wage, for full and parttime work is $19.16. Last year's average was $16.75.

We continue to move forward on the Communication Center side as well. 2019 will mark fifty years of the Radio Talking Book, and we have a committee working on some really interesting plans to mark that anniversary. We're also close to launching an online searchable catalog of all the books we've produced. It's been a huge undertaking to get that ready to go, and Lisan, who some of you know, was part of making that happen.

We're in the process of replacing the software that manages our Communication Center services. As you can imagine, there are a lot of specialized requirements that we need in that software, so it's a big job. We'll soon be hiring a radio engineer to fill the position held by Hal Shardin, to bring us back up to full strength. Since the beginning of the federal fiscal year, the NFB-NEWSLINE® has been accessed 250 thousand times and we are on pace to hit 400,000.

While I'm talking about the Communication Center, I'll mention one example of how we're working to break down the silos within our agency, so that we can collaborate better in serving our customers. Recently, one of our workforce customers got a great job as a music therapist at a senior living center in St. Louis Park. It's one of those places that offers options for independent living, assisted living, memory care, and skilled nursing. In other words, it's a big place. When Rachel started, she soon realized that there wasn't a good way to find individual rooms. There wasn't any braille, or raised numbers, and there were too many to memorize easily. Rachel knew her way around, but often, to find a specific room, she had to ask someone. So our Business Relations folks got together with Jay, our Braille Supervisor, and arranged a brailling party. Jay worked with his staff in creating braille labels for every room, and he, along with Pam, Dave and Dacia put braille signage on every room. It was an easy fix that we had the resources to make happen, and it allowed Rachel to be able to focus on doing her job.

Finally, in Senior Services, we're on track to serve around 5,000 seniors this year. Last month, we partnered with BLIND, Inc. and the NFB of Minnesota to host a Possibilities Fair in Mankato, highlighting all the opportunities for maintaining independence and a good life for seniors who are losing their vision. As I mentioned, the real story in senior services is the expansion of the quality and depth of service that we've been able to offer. We're looking to expand the successes we've found here at BLIND, Inc. in other parts of the state. Recently, a team from the Lighthouse in Duluth came down to observe the programming for seniors at BLIND Inc. They left here feeling energized and excited, but mostly impressed. I know, because I heard about it.

Betsy from the Lighthouse talked about how impressive Briley was and how impressive the curriculum was. She said that one of the seniors was anxious to try to do everything faster and better than the others in the class. Briley gently reminded him that this isn't a race, it's a journey.

As always, I know perfectly well that SSB and NFB of Minnesota will not always agree on everything, but, I'm glad that we can talk – that I have a chance to meet regularly with Jennifer and the leadership here, and to talk things through as they come up. This is, in fact, a journey, and I'm glad to be on it with you.

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