Think for a moment about all the steps it takes for you to get ready in the morning. You turn off your alarm, roll out of bed, make a cup of coffee, fix it to your liking. You step in the shower, comb your hair, brush your teeth, and maybe put makeup on. Then you hurry to your bedroom, pick out what to wear for the day, get dressed, and head out the door. Maybe you take the garbage out, walk the dog, or cook breakfast in between. Then, you take on the real challenges of the day when you arrive at work.
Now think for a moment about doing all of that without being able to see.
People all over the world must live with such circumstances. But for 100 years, New Yorkers have been able to turn to the New York State Commission for the Blind (NYSCB), a division of the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS). NYSCB offers vocational rehabilitation services to help people who are blind live as independently as possible, giving all individuals the opportunity to succeed. The Commission offers the tools, counseling, and guidance to assist New Yorkers, many with multiple disabilities, in making decisions that will help them achieve their personal and vocational goals.
Sometimes, the help provided comes in the form of job training, or a liaison to bridge the gap between individuals and their employers; sometimes, it means helping New Yorkers find a new way to do things. NYSCB is focused on equality, giving everyone the chance to be integrated in their communities and to live fulfilling, productive lives.
That opportunity is embodied in a historic name change in 2013, the same year as NYSCB celebrated its centennial with events in major cities across the state. Under legislation signed in July by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, the transition was complete to the “Commission for the Blind.” By removing the term “visually handicapped” from our name, NYSCB signified a step forward in affording blind individuals the same respect as their peers. The word “handicapped” suggests a helplessness that goes beyond a physical or mental limitation created by a health condition. No such word defines any New Yorker who is blind.
An individual can receive assistance from NYSCB early in life. The Commission provides rehabilitation services to children who are blind, and works with parents to arrange services to supplement educational activities, building skills and promoting the future independence of each child. Additionally, NYSCB sponsors a summer camp and recreational opportunities to foster social skills and self-esteem among legally blind youth. Following adolescence, the Commission provides services to assist in the transition of youth from school to occupational opportunities, which encompass how each student will be living, learning, and working in his community.
It is in adulthood when the NYSCB’s Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Program begins to help legally blind New Yorkers to find or retain employment. Vocational counselors work with the individual to develop an Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE), which acts as a road map to guide the consumer toward their employment goals. There are also Assistive Technology Centers (ATC) that offer assessment of the client’s computer skills and training, and evaluate which hardware or software are most appropriate for the client to use depending on the degree of vision loss and the client’s vocational goals. These centers are available for any individual who is blind beginning or returning to employment. Trainers at seven sites teach clients how to use email, the Internet, and other technology-related skills that will help them in the workplace.
The Commission’s Business Enterprise Program (BEP) offers more specific opportunities for individuals who are blind to gain the training and skills necessary to manage one of several vending facilities located in federal and state office buildings. After completing an intensive training program, BEP managers become proficient in all aspects of retail management, including purchasing products, controlling inventory, marketing products, maintaining good customer relations, and keeping accurate records. In addition, continuing education classes are offered to all licensed program members in order to maintain and enhance managerial skills. NYSCB supervises the operation of approximately 100 newsstands, cafeterias, snack bars, and vending machine operations throughout the state.
Our work doesn’t stop at simply helping blind individuals gain or maintain employment. Additionally, in accordance with the results of the Statewide Comprehensive Needs Assessment, the NYSCB has set ambitious goals for the coming year to strive for a six-percent increase in the number of consumers maintaining or finding employment, and to continue to maintain full compliance with federal standards and indicators. OCFS is committed to identifying, addressing and reducing racial and ethnic disproportionality, and to eliminating racial and ethnic disparities in our systems of care and custody. The Commission is doing its part by working to increase the number of minority groups receiving services. NYSCB is also striving to raise awareness in the business community about NYSCB services, and improve services for individuals who are deaf-blind.
Those who are not eligible for vocational rehabilitation services may qualify to participate in Independent Living Services (ILS), which is designed to help individuals with low vision with day-to-day activities, including orientation and mobility services. The Adaptive Living Program (ALP) helps to assist people who need training and services in living at home and in the community, which allows older New Yorkers who are experiencing vision loss to function more independently in daily activities. One client says ILS allowed her to start paying her own bills, managing her own medicine, and most importantly, it helped her stay in her own home. She also was able to get more involved in her community, and she now regularly attends a support group where she can socialize and overcome obstacles with help from trusted acquaintances.
“Just because I am blind, doesn’t mean that I don’t have vision,” a client once told me. “I can do everything that you do; I just do it differently.” That statement has stayed with me for many years, and gave me a sense of purpose in my work with the Commission. All of us face real challenges every day, but it is with the help of others — and the drive to do well for ourselves — that we are propelled beyond labels to be defined only by our success.