Update from State Services for the Blind

Update from State Services for the Blind

By Carol Pankow, Director, Minnesota State Services for the Blind

(Editor’s Note:  Ms. Pankow presented this item at our Annual Convention on November 1, 2014.)

Thank you.  Good morning.  I really appreciate the invitation for coming to your annual convention.  I feel like the partnership between SSB and NFB is critically important as we work together to promote access equality and empowerment so that Minnesotans who are blind can have the opportunity to succeed in employment and in their communities.  So this morning, I'd like to share some successes that SSB has had since I last spoke with you and a little bit about our plans for the future.

First off, our federal fiscal year ended on September 30.  We have some very good results from this last year that I'm happy to report.  In our workforce development unit, we had 116 successful employment closures.  What this means is that a customer of SSB found a job and has been in that job for 90 days.  This number is up 15 per cent from the year before and 43 per cent over 3 years, so I feel like we're traveling in the right direction.  The types of positions that people have attained are once again really diverse and I love that.  I'd like to read a little sampling of the types of jobs people had gotten in the last year: operation specialist, cashiers, bookkeepers, animal breeders, computer system operators, dietetic technician, fitness instructor, child care workers, financial analyst, registered nurses, (in fact I think we had 4 registered nurses this year) health care technicians, management analyst, graphic designer, physical therapist, and fund raisers, to name a few.  So I think that's just incredible.

The other thing is the average wage for closures for those folks that successfully were employed has gone up quite significantly from the year before.  This year, ending September 30, the average wage was $17.37 per hour that compared to last year, which was 15.48.  And 3 years ago, we had $14.30.  So we again are going up in the right direction.

I had a gentleman stop in this last week, and he was a reminder that we sometimes forget the work we do, maybe at an early age or what we've done for someone a long time ago, can have an impact on lives beyond what we know.  He happened to stop by because he was bringing his child to the clinic just down the road from us.  He said, "You know, I got services from you when I was young," and his parents had basically been told that he was never going to amount to anything.  He got services from us early on.  He got connected, learned Braille, went through school and he handed me his business card.  He said to me, "I want you to know I'm an attorney today and it really was from that support at a really young age.  People thought I couldn't do anything.  And I am doing this.  So I just wanted to say Thanks.”  It was really good to hear.  We’ve been hearing a lot from customers lately.

In our senior services area, we had staff provide services to 3,223 Minnesotans last year, which is up 22 per cent from the year before.  Some of those folks were just looking for some magnification, but a number of people were really looking for services that are more intensive and had multiple visits from our staff.

We've also been making some changes in the Communications Center to serve our customers better.  Stuart and team are looking for ways to make the Radio Talking Book more relevant to a broader group of customers and to fit with the customers that are used to on-demand types of programming while they're still meeting the needs of existing folks.  So, they started a little venture in May and they have produced 25 podcasts on job searching and career planning that are available on our website and also on Audio Boom.  With this change starting in May, we noticed a big uptake in people actually looking at SSB's archives.  We actually archive the books and the different radio programs that we have.  We used to get two or three hits a week on our different archived information.  We consistently since May have been getting between 85 and a 100 hits a week on our different information, so we realize we're touching a different group of folks and that they're coming in and looking at what we have and it is something of benefit to them.  So we're feeling good about that and working with Stuart and team to continue some of these efforts.

Our audio group transcribed nearly 140 thousand pages into audio this year, and then they built capacity to provide materials in e-text.  We're finding that the e-text is becoming a preferred method for many of our college students and so last year we did transcribe 99 titles or more than 3500 pages into accessible user-friendly e-text.  And then, finally, Braille.  Braille remains the mainstay for many and once again, our Braille section turned out close to 1 million pages of Braille — even as they prepare to switch to UEB in 2016.  Our Braille team is also researching and experimenting with some new technologies for producing 3-d modeling and other tactile graphics.  We're somewhat excited about what that may hold.

This has been just a quick review of what we've accomplished and now I want to focus on some structural changes we're making to improve how we do business and serve our customers.  I don't think it's any secret that there are issues with our customer service.  Sometimes we can be slow and bureaucratic and I really want to make sure that those who need our services know how to find us, and that we can get the services to them in a timely fashion.  We've developed actually six different work groups.  I spent a lot of time last year listening to people — including the Federal Rehab Services Administration that governs us, customers who would call or drop me a note, staff, and just other folks out and about, with suggestions as to what we needed to do.  It was really interesting as I took a lot of notes, things kind of fell into six different buckets.  So I created six cross-agency work groups that are charged over the next 18 months to come up with plans and to implement those plans and evaluate them.  So I don't want it to take 18 months to come up with an idea.  I want us to figure that out, implement some of the things and then see how that's working.

Our first group's our outreach group.  We realized that we weren't always maybe sending a consistent message about what SSB could do.  And so we've a group of folks looking at our messaging and also looking to make sure we're getting at the right constituent groups, and building some stronger connections — especially in our minority communities, with our eye care professionals, other state and local agencies, the vision professionals in schools, and potentially even our RTB listeners.  We want folks who need our services to know about them and we want to make sure we're messaging in the correct way.

The second group is our intake group and this really has to do with how anybody touches our services, whether you're coming in through the Communications Center, or Senior Services or Workforce Development.  We want that to be seamless.  We don't want you to have to wait a long time for a call back.  And we don't want it to be crazy and how do we do the application, that's seven pages long on the Internet.  So we're really looking at that whole process.

We have two work groups focused really around our Workforce Development unit, a little bit about how the jobs happen and how we're structured.  We have a placement working group who've been talking to other states about how can we live up to our model this year for jobs, more jobs and better jobs.  They're looking at other states coming up with some ideas for us on how we can better connect folks and get people working because we know we have a highly educated motivated and skilled workforce that have a lot to offer the state and the economy.  The team model work group is actually looking at how we're structured internally when we're working with a customer.  Right now, the pattern primarily is the individual working with their rehab counselor.  We're looking at whether other staff members could be more part of the team the whole way through, bringing in the placement people early on, the assistive technology people, and keeping them on your team so that it's just not an in-and-out process.  So we're looking at that.

And then we have our data work group.  We've been told that we have so much data, but what do we do with it.  How do you use it to make decisions?  Does the data talk to each other?  Does everybody even know what data we collect?  We're trying to look at that data, what it means, and make sure that we're using it in a meaningful way.

And our final group is the assistive technology group.  They really have three main goals: improving training for staff and customers, providing timely updates on changes and trends, and finally, we want to make sure we transform SSB, DEED, and the State of Minnesota to a recognized leader in accessibility.  They have many big ideas around this area.

SSB is definitely an agency with a lot of moving parts and one thing that can happen in an agency like ours is that we can get really segmented and so if you're working in the Communications Center you're sort of just thinking about that area and Workforce Development is doing their own thing and Senior Services is off in another group.  We really are looking at trying to break out of that silo mentality and so I've made a structural change to the organization and have instituted two deputy directors.  I have one over program services, Jon Benson, he is here with us today; and he's in charge of Senior Services and the Workforce Development unit.  And then I've hired Brianna Holman and she's actually in ATB training now at BLIND, Inc.  She came on board as a deputy director of operations, which will also include the Communications Center.

In closing, I just want to mention a few more initiatives that are going to shape the future of SSB.  Governor Dayton has called for state agencies to increase employment of persons with disabilities in the state workforce 7% by 2018.  We're actually behind Iowa and Wisconsin in this, so we want to take advantage of that order and promote the skills of our customers and needs of accessibility within state government.  We've done a variety of things in this area.  We've met with all of the HR directors in the state for one, to promote that, "Hey, we're here!" because they didn't necessarily know it.  We can work with existing staff that are maybe experiencing some vision problems so that they can continue in their work, as well as helping state agencies as they're really looking to recruit a good workforce.  We've met with the ADA coordinators in the state, again to help tell them about what we can offer regarding accessibility in that we have a whole department of folk that have some really good expertise so they don't have to feel they are alone when they're working with customers or employees with different needs in their particular agencies.

We just sat on a panel of all of the state recruiters; there are 102 state recruiters; so one of our placement staff sat on a panel with some of the other groups like from VRS and Deaf and Hard of Hearing, talking to them about the things that are getting in the way of getting folks in the door like do you really need somebody to drive?  Or is it just that you need somebody to get from point a to point b.  Because some of the things we do limit and keep people out.  So we're really trying to push on that and get agencies to keep thinking.  By going out and talking to these groups we've actually had agencies ask us to come in and talk with their supervisors and managers.  We've had invitations from both the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Department of Revenue to go out and talk to their folks, and we are glad to do that because if we can get those hiring managers and supervisors to open their minds and their eyes to this great workforce, we're hoping to make a dent in getting more people employed in state government.

We also have this new federal law change called the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.  Jon and I are attending a conference in a week through our CSAVR, Council of State Administrators of Voc Rehab programs, and we're going to get a better understanding.  We're meeting with staff from the Rehab Services Administration and we're looking at what the implications of this act will mean to SSB.  We do know that there is a significant effort to focus on students that are transition aged, and so there will be some implications for the agency and I'm really excited about that, so we've been doing some internal work grouping and we're going to get a lot more information in a week on this.

Finally, we also know our baby boom generation is going to bring a significant amount of seniors our way, and it's really coming quickly.  It's almost going to double the amount of people that could potentially access our services by 2020.  We're bringing forward a proposal for some legislation to address these needs.  I don't know if it will make it through the whole process; we have an election next week, but I know we've been working all summer on this and I look forward to at some point being able to discuss this more with you.

As the 25th anniversary of the ADA comes up this next year, my hope is to continue the work of Senator Harkin; (he's the ADA author) to insure we swing open the door of full participation of people who are blind visually impaired and deaf blind in our neighborhoods, our work places and in our economy.

I really appreciate working with you, and for you, I want you to know I have an open door.  I really have appreciated your thoughts, ideas and concerns.  It helps to make for a better SSB.  So I want to keep that good working relationship going and I really thank you for the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind.