President's Message: Advocacy Through Employment

by Mitch Pomerantz

This month's column is partly the result of my hearing a presentation made by a staff member of the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) while attending the Sagebrush vendors' conference held the week of Feb. 7 in Las Vegas. (I'll explain the second motivation for this piece shortly.) Our outstanding special-interest affiliate, the Randolph-Sheppard Vendors of America (RSVA), sponsors this annual event which draws blind and visually impaired businessmen and women from throughout the country. As usual, it was an excellent and most interesting gathering, one at which I always learn something new about the vending program.

Three officials from RSA spoke on Tuesday and Wednesday, including Commissioner Lynnae Ruttledge. The presentation which served as the catalyst for this article was given by another RSA staffer with significant responsibility for the Randolph-Sheppard program who also happens to be an active member of the National Federation of the Blind.

Now for the second trigger for this article. Perhaps 10 years ago at a presidents' meeting, Oral Miller made the point that more of us need to apply for and become involved in positions of local, state and national influence. He was referring specifically to the importance of having ACB members participate on boards and commissions in order to positively affect decisions about blind and visually impaired people. He went on to argue that we should be lending our talents not just to those boards and commissions related to blindness and/or disability-specific issues, but to those entities which affect the communities in which we live (e.g. neighborhood associations, planning commissions and the like). However, I'd like to focus this discussion on how employment - when handled properly - can offer an excellent venue for influencing policy; call it advocacy ACB style.

I know firsthand that it can be done because I did it during my nearly 34-year career with the city of Los Angeles. For those who don't know, the last 13 1/2 of those years were spent as the city's Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Compliance Officer, a position which gave me the opportunity I needed and took advantage of to advocate for those issues which ACB supports. In my job I was able to advocate for such things as W3C-compliant city web sites, accessible pedestrian signals and materials in alternate formats. While I wasn't always successful in my advocacy efforts on behalf of those issues, I had more than my share of victories.

And sometimes advocacy success is years in the making. You may recall that in 2009, a letter was written by the head of the Los Angeles Public Library to Adobe Systems stating the library would no longer purchase Adobe's e-books so long as they were incompatible with screen-reading software. I was more than six months retired when that letter was written. But advocacy works in strange ways. The city librarian's executive secretary had worked in my former department for several years prior to going to the library and was well aware of the accessibility concerns of blind and visually impaired people. While I'll never know for sure what influence my ACB/ADA advocacy efforts had, it isn't too much of a stretch to think that my former co-worker may have had just a bit to do with that letter to Adobe.

Everyone acknowledges that we have an unacceptably high rate of unemployment among blind and visually impaired people, whatever the correct percentage may be. Despite this, ACB hasn't been sufficiently proactive in terms of mitigating this problem. In my view, we must do far more to encourage our students, other younger members and those seeking a career change to consider employment options which offer both meaningful work and, perhaps, the chance to influence and advocate for our philosophy of blindness.

I'm thinking particularly of two fields which, to my mind, fit this description: education and rehabilitation. And before cynics among us who have worked or are presently working in those fields write back with your horror stories, let me hasten to say that in the real world there are no perfect careers. I should know since I spent almost all of my working life toiling for a typical municipal government bureaucracy. So let's very briefly look at why I am touting these two careers particularly.

Regarding education, we know that there is a serious and ever-increasing shortage of teachers of the visually impaired as literally hundreds of them are nearing or at retirement age. Without an adequate number of qualified teachers of the visually impaired, we can almost guarantee that the percentage of blind persons who are fluent in braille reading and writing will decrease even further, perhaps to a point where braille literacy will disappear like so many forgotten Native American languages over the past century. Regardless of where succeeding generations of blind children go to school, who will be teaching them braille and the other critical life skills they will need in order to function competitively alongside their sighted peers? I believe that it should be our members.

Regarding rehabilitation, I've gone on record as stating that ACB must do more to advocate for our philosophy of rehabilitation and to challenge the current trend of one-size-fits-all structured discovery training pervasive within the rehab establishment. Along with placing more members on state rehabilitation councils (something we're already seeing around the country), I'd like more of our folks - particularly those with some work experience - to become rehab professionals. It would be wonderful to see the day when a significant number of state directors of services for the blind and top RSA officials are proud members of this organization.

With time and support, we can have many more ACBers moving into those positions of responsibility, exercising their influence and advocacy skills in both the education and rehabilitation arenas. One of the great things about the American Council of the Blind is that our members are free to choose their own paths, to make decisions apart from what the leadership says and thinks. However, it seems to me that we can and must do more to mentor and encourage our members seeking careers to pursue fields which can provide them with meaningful employment while at the same time being of benefit to the blindness community as a whole.