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Dialogue with State Services For The Blind

By: Lisa Larges,
Outreach Coordinator, Minnesota State Services for the Blind

Good afternoon everyone, and thank you for the opportunity to speak. I bring greetings from Carol Pankow. As you know, she not only tries to be here, but she loves being here. She has it on her calendar every year, but this year she is on a family vacation. I can tell you that she is sad not to be here. I, however, am honored to be here to speak about State Services for the Blind. I will be glad to answer any questions to which I know the answers, and I will be more than happy to bring any other questions or concerns that you have to Carol. I guarantee that she will get back to you. Our partnership with the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota is incredibly important to Carol, and among other things it is an important feedback system. She relies on hearing from people about how we're doing, about what is working and what isn't working. If you let me know your concerns, I'll be glad to pass them on, and you can certainly call Carol directly as well. Even though she is not here, she is listening.

Among other things, Carol wanted to pass along some of the great things our customers are doing. Some of you know Rakeb Max, who is one of the folks that went to the NFB of Minnesota's Saturday school starting when she was about four, and she is sixteen now. She was just appointed to the Governor's Young Women's Initiative Cabinet, which is a governor-appointed group of about twelve young women, all under the age of twenty, I believe, who are working on addressing the equity gap in the state of Minnesota from the perspective of young women who are most directly affected by it. Rakeb is very impressive, and we just did a podcast about her. I happened to interview her about a year ago for a project I was working on, and here is how it went down: I said, "So what kinds of things are you interested in?" She responded with something like, "I'm reading a lot about macroeconomics and the market system." It was one of those moments when you're talking to someone who is about a third of your age but three times smarter than you—just a tiny bit intimidating! 

On the federal level, there has been a shift in emphasis to begin really working with students between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one, so that the transition from high school into college, then into careers and jobs, is smoother than it has been in the past. We are very proud of the fact that under Carol's leadership, we at SSB have embraced that emphasis wholeheartedly, and we have a great team in place. Tou Yang is fairly new to our staff, and he has been working on connecting students with work opportunities and internships—exploring the kinds of things that they like to do. He has a real knack for it. He has connected kids with hack-a-thons, promoting using technology to make positive changes in society. He has a kid who is working with Computers for People. We've done a lot of programming, such as a College 101 class. We have a series of evening events focusing on various career fields, connecting kids up with not only blind people working in those industries, but also with employers—it is a very hands-on opportunity. 

Another thing we did last year (I like to say "we" although I had no hand in it) is a program called Blind and Socially Savvy. As a blind and not so savvy person, it is the sort of thing I so wish that I had had access to as a kid growing up. It teaches kids (and adults, too) the "soft skills" that can sometimes ultimately mean the difference between getting a job and not getting a job. These soft skills include how to present yourself with confidence, how to network, how to navigate tricky social situations, how to feel comfortable in any environment (having a bowl of soup with a potential employer, being in a busy noisy cocktail party)—to be able to walk into any situation and feel at ease and able to present your best self. 

I want not so much to shine the spotlight on what we at SSB are doing, but especially on the young adults who are involved in our transition program—many of whom are here today. Perhaps this is just a mark of being an older person, but I can't tell you how impressed I am with these young adults. I look back at the kinds of skills I didn't have when I was their age, and it makes me incredibly hopeful about the future and fills me with pride just to watch the changes that are happening. I've been thinking some along the same lines as Jennifer in her presidential report earlier this morning, about when these young adults grow up, head off into careers and have kids of their own, what will life be like for those kids. I imagine maybe there will be video game chips implanted directly in their heads. Maybe one day the chips will malfunction, and they will get so bored that maybe they will start talking to their parents, asking what it was like when the parents were growing up. Perhaps State Services for the Blind will come up in those conversations, and the kids will say "What was State Services for the Blind, and why was it needed?" At our best, we at SSB are working ourselves out of a job. I hope so anyway. I hope that we are working for the kind of world in which agencies, including the one that I work for, are no longer necessary. When I talk to some of these kids, I can see that day coming—I really can. Partly society is changing, but also the caliber of the young people we have coming along is a giant part of what is making that change possible. 

Along with that, now, I am going to pile some numbers on you. We finished our fiscal year at the beginning of October, so I am filled with numbers. The transition program is part of our employment section, and we had between 112 and 150 transition students. The key function of our employment section is to empower people to find work that meets their particular life goals. This last year we had 94 successful closures—that means 94 people got jobs and were in those jobs for 90 days or more, so we could close them out of our system. That sounds like a nice number, but in the previous two years, the successful closures were at about 140. Just a few years before that, they were usually around 80 or so. You may be wondering why the drastic change last year, and we are working on sifting through all of the factors as to why the most recent year's number is so much lower, but we do know some of the reason. First, now we have more people in our system who are doing things like going to school, getting training, etc., so there is a smaller pool of potential people ready to get jobs. Second, the way we measure closures has changed somewhat because of government regulations. If someone is new in a job and needs something from SSB during the 90 day period, that 90 day period starts over again. To me that is a good thing, because the closure number is not as important as whether people are getting jobs. We are working to figure out how our numbers really compare from previous years. We are also still under Order of Selection, which means that for budgetary reasons we cannot serve everyone who applies. The Order of Selection requires us to have criteria for who gets services from our employment section, and this has also affected our numbers somewhat. 

The average wage of those newly employed last year was a little higher—$21.62 per hour for full-time work and $20.10 for part-time. Metro area people earned about $23.60 per hour. Of the 94 successful closures, 54 are blind, 7 are DeafBlind, and the rest identify as visually-impaired/low vision. People got work in a wide range of jobs: for example, counselor/social workers (4), training and library science (5), computer occupations (5), food prep and serving (7), information and recording clerks (8). 

In addition, our employment section covers our business enterprise program. We are working hard to update what we do so that it will be more in line with the 21st century, such as getting all of our forms online so that the business owners can access those more readily. 

In our senior section, those of you who were at the breakfast this morning heard that this year we served more seniors than we ever have before—4,167, to be exact. 717 of those met with one of our community partners through the Aging Eyes initiative. As some of you know, this is the initiative in which we have trained some entities who work with seniors in their daily lives, and given them a low vision kit with things like magnifiers and bump dots and check writing guides, so that they can serve people immediately. This helps make it so that people needing more extensive services can work with our counselors, so that the counselors are not needing to drive three counties away just to distribute a 3× magnifier. The 717 number does not include the number of referrals that we got through those community partners in the Aging Eyes Initiative. The Aging Eyes Initiative is reaching people that we at SSB would not otherwise reach. Our senior Services Unit has been able to really give people more extensive, thorough services, so that people can achieve a real level of independence and live the kind of life they want to be living. 48 of our seniors this last year went through group adjustment-to-blindness training —many of those at BLIND, Inc. 

In our Communication Center, as Catherine Durivage mentioned this morning, we have finally created a catalog, so everything that has been brailled or recorded—about 8,000 titles—is now searchable online. Our consumers never had the ability to just browse around and see what we have or did not have; you had to call us to find out things like that. We have re-tooled the Web site in general; we had been under the Department of Employment and Economic Development, but now we have our own free-standing web site, so it is not so cluttered. If you are a senior, you aren't faced with an employment site that could cause you to think it was not relevant to you and click away from it. We are still tinkering with it and welcome your feedback. 

We had about 110,000 pages converted into audio and sent out to customers. We are re-evaluating how we look at braille production. We say we get out about a million pages a year to customers, which is right, but about 500,000 of those pages are produced in-house. In our braille section, we have many tactile graphics that have been created over the years, and if anything ever happens to our building, like a flood, or a fire, those tactiles are gone. We have been thinking about how to preserve them and have been working with a group of students at St. Thomas, through the initiative of one of our council members, to get all of the tactile graphics digitized and saved in a way that they can be reproduced. 

We have a new supervisor of the radio talking book, Scott McKinney. Stuart Holland, who retired in September, was the longest-serving supervisor of the radio talking book. Scott is also the editor of the Braham News, from a little town in Kanabec County. As our staff members do, Scott went off to adjustment-to-blindness training as he began his new job. He wrote a piece about his in adjustment-to-blindness training at BLIND, Inc. I will close by reading a few parts of that. It is worth reading the whole piece—it's a fun read, and I am so glad that the readers of the Kanabec County Times are getting a feel for what adjustment-to-blindness training is like:

"I’m in a narrow winding stairwell, and I can’t see a thing.

The stairs are steep, and make 90-degree turns. Sometimes it seems like there are two steps to a landing, sometimes eight and sometimes a dozen. There’s no way to tell. I can’t see anything, and the sounds I hear echo in the empty stairwell so I can’t rely on them for direction. I edge cautiously toward what I think is a stair—but instead, I step into thin air and tumble, landing flat on my butt. No one is near so I pick myself up, say a few choice words and start edging cautiously forward again."

He goes on to talk a bit about why he is attending the training, about nonvisual ways of learning, and about BLIND, Inc. 

"[BLIND, Inc. students] not only participate, but thrive in almost every imaginable vocational field. Surprisingly, their biggest challenge is overcoming the perception of blindness held by the sighted community."

He then goes on to talk about why adjustment-to-blindness training is so important, and about how Dan Wenzel said to him one day "It's tough for all the newbies, but you do get used to it." Scott talks about how, in fact, during the course of those six weeks, the way he adapted did change, and his comfort with doing things nonvisually increased exponentially. He ends by talking about "Minnesota Nice", and how his thoughts about that have changed some. He ends with another anecdote:

"I learned my own lasting lesson one afternoon. Mark and I embarked from the center to practice outdoor cane use. The day was rainy, windy and chilly, and I stumbled back and forth to find the elusive door, and return inside to comfort. Finally I’d had enough. ‘That’s it,’ I say. ‘I give up.’

Mark whirls around. ‘Never say that,’ he replies. ‘Never give up. That’s not an option. I can’t give up, and neither can you. Never give up. No fear.’

I’ve stricken ‘I give up’ from my vocabulary. I don’t say it anymore. I’m not blind, but I’m less afraid of blindness than I was before. Blindness changes how we do things, but doesn’t stop us from doing them."

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