Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Blind Abused in the Name of Employment Training
by Bill Meinecke and Cheree Heppe

Blind Abused in the Name of Employment Training

by Bill Meinecke and Cheree Heppe

Note: The authors have never met, but felt compelled to relate their experiences as a warning to others. Many blind people do not speak out publicly due to subtle threats that the weight of IRS, Social Security and rehab agencies will be used in a retaliatory manner.

Bill Meinecke

I am currently employed. However, about three years ago a friend suggested I investigate the IRS Program at Lions World Services for the Blind, Little Rock, Arkansas. I heard extremely disturbing reports about LWSB over the years but chalked it up to people’s negative opinions. I looked LWSB up on the Internet, found them and contacted the organization to inquire about the program. I spoke with Sherrill Wilson who ran the IRS program. She mentioned that one work site I could relocate to would be in Brookhaven, New York. I grew up on Long Island and hoped to return to my home.

The Virginia Services for the Blind insisted I not go in to IRS collections because they claimed I did not have the right personality. They told me that I would be happier in the Taxpayer Service Representative Program. I could not argue as they paid my way and it would be their way or no way. Blind Rehab claimed a track record of thirty years' experience rehabilitating blind consumers through this Little Rock program.

Blind participants must stay in Little Rock for five months to complete training. I planned to get an apartment but LWSB staff told me I must live on site in its dorm, eating its food, with no explanation given.

Although I enrolled in the IRS program in August, 2004, I first had to take a month of precursory courses in areas I had long experience with, including Braille and orientation and mobility. Part of the months' evaluation required training in LWSB's Tec Lab where I experienced some difficulty with the computer. I read their home grown manual, worked hard learning what they wanted us to know and got through it, however, the month's training failed to adequately prepare me for practical computer use during class. To my complaints about on going computer and equipment trouble, staff said I was not taking care of the computer properly and did not have good computer skills.

I use a Braille note taker very fluently. Staff refused to permit my use of my Braille Note in the IRS class. This denied me a means of note taking in classes packed with essential detail. Four months later, in the last week I attended class, LWSB policy flip- flopped to permit note takers. But, for me, the damage had already been done.

In November, 2004, two blind students undergoing IRS training died within four days of each other. The first blind student died of sleep apnea, staff said. The second blind student committed suicide, but staff called it a heart attack when casually informing assembled trainees during a meeting in LWSB's auditorium. I learned the actual cause of death from friends in the lions club who contacted the District Governor in Arkansas.

I found LWSB's facility to be dirty with poor quality food. Because my dog guide would sometimes lie on my bed to get some sunlight, this made staff crazy and housing staff summoned me from class about it one day. Another time I wanted to go out by myself to do some shopping and get a bite to eat. Staff pitched a fit and I got to go only after arranging to take someone else with me. Another time I stayed in a hotel because of flying out early the next morning, but staff railed that this was against LWSB rules. Once I left and got my Seeing Eye dog groomed, the groomer told me she found rodent feces on my Seeing Eye Dog's coat.

Although I maintained an 85 average throughout the course, Bruce assured me my scores did not place me high enough. Bruce, the designated IRS Instructor, talked down to blind classmates repeatedly throughout, saying things like: if you don’t want to be in the program, you can leave now and kept talking about people who failed the program. I think Bruce knew there were not enough Schedule A jobs to go around and he needed to weed out class members.

The class computer I used always exhibited problems. It would lock up and I would lose my work. Other students who used The Braille Star found their unit positioned under the PC keyboard within fast, easy reach. I found my Braille Star positioned off to the side of my desk. Trainees could not re-position equipment at all, leaving this simple duty to staff. I mentioned the awkward placement of my equipment to the IRS class instructor numerous times. Bruce always responded that he would take care of it, but the position of my Braille display never shifted. When one of my blind classmates asked the Accounts Instructor, Fern, how he could help me, Fern chilled this student from offering me help.

The last month's accounts section proved overwhelming for me. Denied a means of note taking, staff told me that I was not learning the material fast enough for them. Things culminated with a conference call to Lee Gurlanda, the blind person at IRS in charge of the Blind Program, LWSB staff and my Virginia State Rehabilitation Counselor. LWSB staff told me that at the rate things were going I would be fired anyway working for IRS and that I was not where I should be in the course. Faced with the projected threat of being fired once hired by IRS, I felt under extreme pressure and decided to withdraw from the program.

The blind have a huge struggle finding work without the added obstacle of an institutional sink hole such as Lions World Services for the Blind. How do funders and cognoscente parties justify the poor outcomes, sufferings, abuse, deaths and failures of blind trainees enough to keep such an institution open?

Cheree Heppe

Blind and looking for work? Any experienced blind job holder knows not all employment opportunities are created equal. The blind face an extremely uneven playing field, discrimination and major impediments, most surprisingly exacerbated by agencies set up specifically to empower and equip blind consumers for competitive employment.

Since college graduation with a B.S. in zoology, my employment history represents rich and varied professional experience. I currently hold a position as a grant writer with a local firm. I secured this position myself, but in June, 2006, I was unemployed. I sought funding from Nevada Services for the Blind and travelled to Little Rock, Arkansas to undertake training at Lions World Services for the Blind. All indicators pointed toward my success. LWSB began training blind candidates for IRS employment in 1967 and holds out competitive Federal employment as the attractive outcome to completion of IRS training.

Based on what I saw and experienced, I cannot recommend that Lions World Services for the Blind gain access to vulnerable blind populations. LWSB exists in one of the most impoverished, down trodden areas in the United States and may be using the blind as cash cows to draw funding. Lions World services for the Blind manipulates blind trainees and offers a destructive, institutionalizing setting with very chancy likelihood of getting actual work, all the while claiming a superior record of employment placement for the blind based on the few who get through. Further, LWSB may introduce false, damaging, professional seeming material into blind consumer's blindness rehab files which may have a prejudicial impact on willingness of state blindness services to go forward with assisting the affected blind consumer.

LWSB insists that it alone must conduct month long, in house, evaluations of potential blind candidates for IRS training. While LWSB "evaluation" drags on, state blindness services, Lions clubs and private donors receive pleas, solicitations and bills for LWSB's unique brand of blindness training. Under Federal Schedule A, disabled must accept a two year probation before being offered permanent employment while non-disabled undergo six months probation before being offered permanent Federal employment. The IRS pays LWSB to conduct initial evaluation and training as IRS's gateway through which blind people may enter full time employment under Schedule A.

The first few weeks' meandering class time at LWSB consisted of folding money and dialing a phone, rudimentary basics which could have been evaluated in a day.

Assistive technology forms the bulwark of tools now used by blind people to do many jobs, including IRS work. LWSB assistive technology review process is structured to exclusively support the JAWS screen reader through MS Windows. I use the Window-Eyes screen reader but needed to learn the JAWS screen reader for IRS work, even though Window-eyes seems to function with IRS interfaces. Initially, I was told tech tests would be open book, then, the afternoon prior to my IRS interview, Tech Lab personnel unexpectedly administered my final test -- from memory. Tech lab staff accelerated my tech training when they realized their languorous pace would fail to meet the completion deadline prior to the IRS employment interview. However, I had not completed the manual Jan Lynch, the lab manager authored and had zero exposure to Braille Star. I would not have enough time to finish LWSB's confusing tech training manual and successfully solidify my JAWS and Braille Star knowledge, as IRS class work began in three days.

Trainees told me that Jaws in combination with Braille Star barely allows a totally blind person to do the IRS job and that no one is hastening to explore other technologies or ways to improve access. The barriers are used, I was told, to safely eliminate blind candidates because there aren't enough Schedule A positions available for the number of blind undertaking IRS training at LWSB.

Most blind consumers who do not finish at LWSB appear to be minorities, dog guide owners or those with no usable vision. During my month's stay at LWSB, five or six blind people left. Days prior to class completion and IRS training, one totally blind African-American man and North Little Rock resident, got dismissed because LWSB staff claimed this long time musician spoke indistinctly and would be poorly understood by customers during IRS telephone consultations.

LWSB staff seem to keep lists of everything trainees do and to classify All sorts of seemingly ordinary doings as infractions with deep psychological overtones. I needed to run essential errands on a Saturday on what I imagined to be my own time following a recreation outing. I found out, ex post facto, in an impromptu, unfriendly meeting with staff members Ms. Jeannie Bates, Director of Vocational Services and Jerry Leach, an LWSB Counselor that the LWSB recreation program is actually a means for LWSB staff to observe and document trainees' social interactions, not simply a means of having an outing and good time. One LWSB recreation outing took the blind to Pinnacle Mountain near Little Rock on what we understood to be a day hike requiring no special equipment or training. In fact, this hike was an intermediate to advanced hike for which almost none of us were prepared. One terrified, totally blind cane using woman was guided up this mountain by one of the partially sighted male trainees at the insistence of LWSB's sighted recreation director. A retarded blind teenager on crutches could not participate at all and had to sit at the staging area the entire day. My dog guide very sensibly turned around once the climb became all boulders and loose rocks. Coming down, I fell and injured myself and my dog. The makeshift hiking staff I used, a rough branch, injured my hand which could be seen in the FBI fingerprints taken for the IRS.

I left LWSB the day my IRS interview was to take place due to inside staff information that LWSB staff circulated unfavorable commentary to IRS interviewers to sabotage my prospects of getting an IRS placement.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am so grateful to both of you for having posted this information. I have been considering the MCSE training program at LWSB for some time, and was planning to go through the thirty-day evaluation this January. Having read this post as well as an article on an NFB-related web site, I am alarmed, frightened and entertaining serious reservations about moving forward with the LWSB process.
I would very much appreciate it if one or both of you could contact me to discuss your experiences in greater depth, or recommend others I may contact for similar information as to LWSB's practices.
What I have read here has served to reinforce my growing sense of concern about LWSB's credibility: I emailed the director of training, Christine Dow, a week and a half ago with a request for information about daily routine and materials I could study to prepare for what appeared to be an intensive year of technical training. I have received nothing, other than a "read-receipt" which I requested upon sending my query. Please, please contact me so I can continue to investigate this agency and its programs and practices. I am at a crossroads in my life and do not want to make the path ahead of me any more difficult than it needs to be for anyone, blind or sighted.