The Patriot News, Pennsylvania USA.
Sunday, August 06, 2006.
A Philadelphia lawmaker suggests Pennsylvania's blind residents would be better served by having a free-standing commission oversee the services that the state provides them.
Rep. Curtis Thomas, a Democrat, introduced House Bill 2791 that would abolish the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services in the state Department of Labor and Industry. It would transfer the bureau's records and responsibilities to the Employment and Rehabilitation Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
"We need a 21st-century approach to providing services, and what better approach than one that allows the blind to take part in the decision-making on delivery of services to its community," Thomas said. "An independent commission would do that." The idea has received mixed reactions from advocates for the blind. Supporters see it as a way to improve services, while critics voice concerns that it would just create another administrative layer.
Thomas' interest in developing a new governance structure for blind services stems from his concern about high unemployment rates and inadequate job-support services for the blind population.
"It's a question of the bureaucracy," he said. "It's not an issue of resources or the availability of services."
The proposed commission would be governed by a gubernatorial-appointed board comprising seven members, four of whom must be legally blind.
That was important to at least one of the nearly three dozen advocacy groups for the blind in Pennsylvania because it puts the responsibility for services on blind people.
"They will be the ultimate decision-makers, and if the services are good or if the services are bad, it won't be anybody's fault but blind people," said Jim Antonacci of Montgomery County, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania.
Antonacci supports Thomas' legislation. He is optimistic it could improve the quality of services that he describes as "dismal."
But the Pennsylvania Association for the Blind's 30-member board opposes the legislation. Tri-County Association for the Blind's Executive Director, Danette Blank, referred a call seeking comment about the legislation to the statewide association office.
Stephen Barrett, president of Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh, offered this explanation for his opposition to the proposal: "My concern is that I would not like to see another bureaucracy created. What it would take to create something like that, the attention and funding, I'd much rather see that go into direct services."
Supporters of the bill maintain that the cost of the commission would be the same as the cost of running the bureau.
Thomas said he knows there are different views within the blind community about his idea for improving services, but, generally, "they all agree that it can be better than what it is."
Iowa is a state that has a free-standing department that provides services to blind people ages 14 and older, and its director heartily endorses Pennsylvania's adopting the same model.
When the services for the blind are tucked into a large department, "the ability to be independent or have enough autonomy to develop appropriate policies really is pretty tenuous ... and less effective," said Allen Harris, director of Iowa's Department of the Blind.
Harris, who also serves as president of the National Counsel of State Agencies for the Blind, said the failure to maintain continuity in the director's position at Pennsylvania's Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services doesn't help.
"What you find in Pennsylvania is instability," Harris said. "That system isn't stable enough to allow somebody to hunker down and set a course and go with it."
JAN MURPHY: 232-0668 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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