History of the Department of Services for the Blind

Services for the Blind: 25 Years, still going strong

By Carl Jarvis
May 11, 2002 marked the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Commission for the Blind Bill by Governor Dixie Lee Ray. With the stroke of a pen, actually a hand full of pens, Governor Ray proclaimed the establishment of the Washington State Commission for the Blind, bringing an end to seven years of tireless labor by blind Washingtonians.
The call for a separate agency first went out in 1970. In part, it was a response to the establishment of the Department of Social and Health Services(DSHS), the previous year. According to Sid Smith, first Secretary of DSHS, the new agency would be a “One Stop Shopping Center.” There would be no more running from agency to agency, no more confusion, no question as to who provided what to whom. Simply come in, sit down, and be served.
However, as DSHS began to take shape, the Office of Services for the Blind was buried deep within layers of bureaucracy.
If blind consumers felt they had been under served or ignored in the past, they soon found this new Office of Services for the Blind was even more removed and better insulated from public influence than it had been when under Public Assistance. The head administrator, called Chief of the Office of Services for the Blind, had limited authority over Office programs, and even less influence within DSHS.
The Washington State Association of the Blind(WSAB), at that time the only state-wide consumer organization of blind people, began to voice concerns. Services already considered to be inadequate could deteriorate or even be eliminated with no recourse for blind consumers using those services.
Even as WSAB protested, DSHS was formulating a plan that would completely disband the Office of Services for the Blind. With the exception of the Orientation and Training Center, and the Business Enterprises Program, blind consumers would receive services from integrated programs serving all disabilities.
At the 1970 WSAB State Convention held in Hoquiam, we met with three members of the Office of Services for the Blind: Dr. Dunham, chief, Ike Meyers, and Lloyd Smart. They proposed that we join together in recommending to the state legislature that the Office be preserved within DSHS.
While we were in agreement that we must do all within our power to keep services for the blind intact, we did not believe that consumers would have a voice in determining programs and services as long as the Office continued under DSHS. After a long debate the members voted for a resolution calling for a separate agency, a Commission for the Blind.
Not all blind people in Washington agreed with the resolution. The establishment of the Washington Council of the Blind (WCB) in 1971, provided a strong voice for those in support of maintaining Services for the Blind within DSHS.
For nearly six years WSAB and WCB held firmly to their positions. As a result, neither the House nor the Senate voted the Commission Bill out of committee.
By the 1977 legislative session, the two organizations had worked through their differences and presented a united front in support of a Commission for the Blind. At long last the years of experience in the political arena coupled with the new found solidarity, paid off. The bill passed out of committee, through both House and Senate and on to the Governor.
Under the newly formed Commission, the Governor appointed a five-member Board of Commissioners. In turn, these Commissioners hired the Director of the Commission. Ed Foscue, Irving Smith, Frank Cuta, Laurie Shwager, and Luddie Martinson were the original Commissioners. Ed served as the Board’s first Chair. Ken Hopkins, at the time Chief of the Office of Services for the Blind, was employed as the Commission’s first Director.
The Commission Board had broad powers, including setting policies and regulations, and establishing programs. The public Commission meetings were lively and well attended. They became a forum where consumers brought concerns, discussed recommendations, and debated issues–at times into the wee hours of the night.
For the next five years the Commission oversaw Programs for the Blind. In a later article we will discuss what brought about the transformation from Commission to Department, and how the Rehabilitation Council serves the agency and the public today.

The Price of Victory

By Carl Jarvis
To a large degree it was we, the blind, who brought an end to the Washington State Commission for the Blind, and nearly lost the hard-won separate status for Services for the Blind.
In 1977, when Governor Ray signed the Commission Bill, and we raised our champagne glasses in victory, Al Fisher reminded us that “the price of victory is eternal vigilance.” Yet, with the ink barely dry, and Al’s words still ringing in our ears, the state affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) became embroiled in a philosophical disagreement with its National Office. Soon the disagreement exploded into open hostilities accompanied by lawyers and court appearances, concluding with the expulsion of the state affiliate from the national organization.
While the Washington Council of the Blind (WCB) stayed out of the fight, the Commission was dragged into the fracas by the feuding factions. Within the Commission for the Blind, personnel issues, normally dealt with internally, were taken public by self-serving opportunists. Soon TV and newspapers were having a field day. Subsequently, in 1980, Ken Hopkins resigned as Commission Director.
Following a nation-wide search, the Commission Board hired Bill James from Pennsylvania. It didn’t take long to discover that James was in over his head. Proclaiming to be politically neutral, he succeeded in losing the confidence of both blind organizations and the Commission Board, in less than one year.
The Commissioners gathered one more time and hired their third, and final director, Paul DzieDzic. DzieDzic headed the Governor’s Committee on Disability Issues and Employment, and had the reputation of being politically well connected. DzieDzic came on board in what most certainly was the Commission’s darkest hour. Staff morale was at an all time low and client referrals were far below normal.
Worse yet, the 1982 Legislature was about to convene, and while the media had moved on to new topics of public interest, the damage had been done. A proposal to move the Commission back under the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) was gaining favor among legislators. The Commission was up for its five-year review. DzieDzic was convinced that the legislature would not allow it to continue in its current form.
He advocated for a Department of Services for the Blind (DSB), thus preserving the separate status, but allowing the Governor to appoint the director. The organizations of the blind, in no position to mount a campaign to save the Commission, joined DzieDzic and, in 1982 DSB was established.
The Governor appointed Paul DzieDzic as the Department’s first director, and the Commission Board was replaced by an Advisory Council. To the general public, and even within the blind community, these changes appeared to be of little consequence. In fact, they were most significant. Under the Commission, the five-member Board, appointed by the Governor, had wide-ranging powers. They hired and fired the director and had final approval of all programs, policies and procedures. As a Board, the Commissioners had far more latitude than an agency director appointed by, and answerable directly to the Governor. As a result the Commission could be more responsive to the needs of the consumers.
The new Advisory Council to the Department of Services for the Blind, consisted of nine members, all Governor appointees. The majority were blind. Both of the consumer organizations had two of their members placed on the Council. Primarily the Council reviewed such things as budget and program requests, changes in the Washington Administrative Code (WACC), new policies, etc., it could also bring forward issues and concerns from the community.
In practice, Director DzieDzic(1982-1988), and his successor, Shirley Smith (1988-1999), used the Council to endorse issues that had been carefully prepared for presentation. The consumer organizations never really learned to use the Council to bring their concerns and issues before the Department.
With a few notable exceptions, the public Council meetings, held quarterly, drew little public interest.
The retirement of Shirley Smith brought an extended nation-wide search for a new Director. Gary Haug, recently retired Director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind was selected. Highly regarded, Haug arrived amid great expectations. Within months his personal affairs forced him to return to New Mexico.
Someone said, “He left so fast I never learned how to spell his last name.” Another voice said, “What was his last name?”
Bill Palmer, who had filled in as acting Director prior to the Haug appointment, and now acting Director of the Art Commission, was quickly selected to fill the vacant post.
Beginning during Smith’s administration and carrying on into Palmer’s, the Advisory Council was undergoing a face lift. The name was changed to the Rehabilitation Council for the Department of Services for the Blind. Federal guidelines greatly expanded the Council’s duties, responsibilities, and membership.
In our final article we will look at the Rehabilitation Council as it has evolved, and its potential as a major player in developing services for the blind.

The Rehabilitation Council: Whose Information Highway will it be?

By Carl Jarvis
In theory Mass Transit is the ultimate solution to our traffic woes. But it is only effective if the masses choose to use it. Otherwise it remains just another pretty theory. The same may be true for the Rehabilitation Council for the Department of Services for the Blind.
The Rehabilitation Council exists for the purpose of insuring that persons who are blind in the state of Washington receive the most efficient and effective services possible. It is also the purpose of the Council to provide direct public and consumer guidance to the Director of Services for the Blind. Also, where appropriate, to advise or report directly to the Governor, and to make recommendations to the state Legislature to promote efficient and effective services. And finally, to enhance services, and opportunities and rights of Washingtonians who are blind by working closely with other state councils, state agencies and state organizations…
Although the Rehabilitation Council is advisory in nature it has broad duties and responsibilities to assist in achieving its purpose. Meeting on a quarterly basis with the Department Director and, in partnership with the Department, the Council reviews, analyzes, develops, makes recommendations, and agrees to the Department’s state plan, goals and activities, budget requests, permanent rules concerning services for the blind, and major policies.
We will not outline the entire list here, but we do want to underscore one additional responsibility. The Rehabilitation Council shall prepare and submit an annual report to the Governor and the Commissioner of Rehabilitation Services Administration on the status of vocational rehabilitation programs. The report should be made available to the public.
Like mass transit, the Rehabilitation Council is in the moving business, carrying information, recommendations and concerns back and forth between the public and consumers, Department Director, the Governor, the Legislature, and the RSA Commissioner.
In theory the Rehabilitation Council should be a free-flowing exchange of information, assisting the Director and Department in improving the quality of programs and services. Toward this end, the Federal Government has established requirements ensuring broad public representation on the Council.
The number of members has expanded from 10 to a minimum of 16, plus the Department Director serving as an ex officio, non-voting member. As the Rehabilitation Council changed and expanded over recent years there has been a growing concern within the blind community, that this expansion, rather than increasing the flow of information, is having quite the opposite effect. As new members are sought, representing areas such as labor, business and industry, it becomes increasingly more difficult to find individuals who are themselves blind, or have knowledge of blind affairs.
Instead of free-flowing information, the Rehabilitation Council must spend a greater portion of its time in educating its members. In this area the Department does a good job. Program managers and staff present at each Council meeting providing in-depth looks into their programs and activities, walking members through the complexities of the state budget and state plan, and exploring innovative/creative plans for future services.
What is missing is a most critical element. Without it the Rehabilitation Council has no ability to fulfill its purpose. What the Council members are missing is the on-going education about blindness; its culture; its history; its struggle for equality. Without this backdrop how can the Council possibly determine which services and programs are most efficient and effective for blind Washingtonians?
Who better to provide this education and training to the Council members than us, the organized blind? It is we who are living it day by day. It is our history, sharing setbacks and victories. We are the ones who will be affected by the Department’s future policies and programs. And we are the ones who must plan how to provide this education to the Council members. Through the Council we have direct access to the Director and the Department.
If there is to be a bright tomorrow for blind people, they need our collective wisdom.