Make this Election Count With Emily Ladau

emilyladau_headshot2016-002This guest post is a link to a video created by Emily Ladau, on the importance of candidates discussing disability in a meaningful, substantive way. Emily is a recipient of the New York State Independent Living Council’s Patricio “Pat” Figueroa, Jr. sponsorship. The sponsorship was created to help dedicated young adults with disabilities who have demonstrated leadership skills. Ms. Ladau was recently elected the first ever youth member-at-large to the National Council on Independent Living in Washington, D.C., and the sponsorship will help make her participation possible.

Emily Ladau is a passionate disability rights activist and digital communications consultant whose career began at the age of 10, when she appeared on several episodes of Sesame Street to educate children about her life with a physical disability. A native of Long Island, New York, Emily graduated with a B.A. in English from Adelphi University in 2013. She is dedicated to harnessing the powers of communication and social media as tools for people of all abilities to become informed and engaged about disability and social justice issues.

All of Emily’s activism is driven by her firm belief that if we want the world to be accessible to people with all types of disabilities, we must make ideas and concepts surrounding disability accessible to the world.

New Bill Introduces Hope for Community Based Living to Become a Civil Right

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Disability rights group ADAPT has long been advocating for the needs of people with disabilities in institutional care to have access to home and community-based services.  These services are much more desirable for people so they can have their independence and lead satisfying lives right among their own family and friends.  A big step in a positive direction has been taken with the introduction of a new Bill in the Senate this January that would guarantee equal access to this much more desirable type of care.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced a Bill that would make it easier for people with disabilities to receive care at home and keep them out of more costly nursing homes and institutions.  This bill is called the Disability Integration Act, and under it health insurance companies would be required to cover the cost of caring for people with disabilities in the comfort of their own homes.

The law currently provides financial care for people with daily living needs such as washing, dressing, eating, and other necessary activities.   This care is insured only if they are in institutions or nursing facilities.   However, the more desirable and less expensive option of home-based care is very difficult to achieve.  There are often very long waiting lists, caps on services and other circumstances that would hinder a person’s access to home-based care.  Under the new Bill, these blocks would be removed for people so they would be able to live and thrive in their own homes.

Senator Schumer was a co-sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which celebrated its 25th anniversary just last year.  It seems in keeping with that anniversary that this bill should now come forward.  Schumer called the current situation of rampant institutionalization a “crisis.”  He also stated that, “We cannot go back to the days of warehousing people in institutional care models, nor can we expect that everyone will live with their parents forever.”   The bill would apply to both Medicaid and private long-term insurance care.  It stipulates that states would be eligible for an increase in the federal funding for their Medicaid programs if they comply within a certain time period.

At this time, there are still thousands of people trapped in institutions and movement on this Bill could serve as a beacon of light for their futures.  Advocates at ADAPT said the Bill would be a huge step forward for all of us by finally making home and community based living what is should be – a civil right!

 

 

Governor Cuomo and the New York State Medicaid Waiver Law By Ralph Giordano

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The following brief essay from former NYSILC Council Member Ralph Giordano is a response to Peter Karhrmann’s recent blog post rebuking Governor Cuomo and the Department of Health on their TBI Proposal.

Governor Cuomo and the Department of Health (DOH) have put forth a managed care program for persons with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) under the NYS Medicaid Waiver Law.

In today’s world there is no longer a need for blanket managed care.  We now have the human, technological, public and private financial options to allow all but the most dependent persons with TBI’s to live in the community.  The DOH and the Governor seem to be seeking to roll back the clock to a time before the 1970’s before deinstitutionalization occurred.  Now, It could be reasonably argued that too many homeless disabled persons languish on the streets, but this is due to their being denied treatment services, housing opportunities and care giving options.  It is perplexing to hear that New York State wishes to employ managed care which is quite dated, close minded and restrictive.  Much more viable options can be created at a lower cost by carefully matching the client to his/her community, cognitive and physical abilities and medical and prescription requirements.  In addition, the client should also have opportunities for enhancing their daily activity.

This new program being proposed that denies freedom of choice must be altered to ensure that in 2016 and beyond that services for those with TBI continue to provide mandated opportunities that allow this population to live and thrive in their own communities.

On Recent Events… By Brad Williams December 2014/January 2015

Williams The African American community has been joined by many citizens in expressing concern at two unrelated, but similar instances resulting in the deaths of unarmed citizens, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, at the hands of police. The outpouring of concern was followed by prayer at churches across the country. Broad support is turning out to draw attention to this issue. The effort exposes the seemingly near impossibility of indicting a member of law enforcement for their actions. In the calls for justice, there has been recognition for mandatory training and increased diversity on police forces.

Recently, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman outlined steps to restore public confidence in the criminal justice system. He sent a letter to Governor Cuomo requesting an interim executive order to direct the Office of the Attorney General to investigate and, if necessary, prosecute cases involving unarmed civilians killed by police officers.

As this issue gets addressed, it will be important for the Attorney General to consider other protected classes in these matters, such as people with disabilities. In Maryland, a recent headline ended in a death by law enforcement of an unarmed man, Ethan Saylor, a young man with Down syndrome. He wanted to see a movie for a second time when police were called to remove him. Because of his size, three handcuffs were used and he was subdued face down on the ground and left unattended. He was not able to breathe and died of asphyxia. A Grand Jury did not indict the officers. Link to article: http://alternativemediasyndicate.com/2014/12/08/grand-jury-robert-ethan-saylor-no-cop-indictment/.

In California, Jonathan Meister stopped by a friend’s house to pick up snowboarding equipment. He waited outside. A neighbor called 911 believing it to be suspicious. The police approached Jonathan but he couldn’t hear or respond because he was deaf. He dropped boxes to use his hands to sign. They restrained him, but he broke free, jumped a nearby fence to use it as a barrier, so he could use his hands to signal that he was deaf. The officers promptly pummeled and tased Mr. Meister unconscious. Link to article:http: //rt.com/usa/california-police-taser-deaf-man-097/.

In both instances, knowledge about their particular disabilities could have helped to avert the situations. As mentioned earlier, part of the answer is to increase diversity on police forces. Even as this continues to be improved, training efforts will have to be increased and prioritized. In our state, the First Responders Training Program based at Niagara University is making progress to help promote disability awareness on this subject. Link to website: http://www.fr-dat.com/. Dave Whalen is a council member and has been busy training a wide variety of police and fire departments, counties, and other stakeholders. In 2014, Dave facilitated four train-the-trainer sessions with law enforcement in Erie, Essex, and Monroe Counties as well as a state conference. Seventy trainers from thirty-seven departments participated. Below is a recent testimonial related to his trainings:

“I just wanted to take the time to thank you for the training over the past couple
of days. Dave clearly has a passion for the work that he is doing and it is evident
in the way he presented the material. I have attended quite a few trainings in the
11 years I have been doing this job and this one ranks right at the top. This is a
topic that I didn’t realize covered so much and is so important to our jobs every
day. So on behalf of the Geneva Police Department I would like to thank you for the
opportunity to pass along this important training to the officers of the Geneva
Police Department.” – Sgt. Michael Passalacqua, Geneva (NY) PD

In early August of this year, I met my civic obligation and served on a jury for a week-long trial in county court. The jury selection process was like organized chaos. When we were seated as a jury, the judge was very clear in his directions about the case and the limitations that shaped the parameters related to the charges. As we listened to witnesses and were presented with evidence, it raised several questions. Such as, “Why was the inmate going through detoxification in a cell? Shouldn’t he have been under medical care first, then returned to a cell once stabilized? Was his “behavior” really in reaction to their “authority,” or was it more the “side effects of his withdrawal?” Apparently, this thought process was off track and not within the scope of our specific instructions. In the end, given the instructions we were given, our jury found the inmate guilty of the charges.

I met my civic obligation, but my service on the jury gave me a glimpse of how exact, restricted, and narrow our court system is structured. Does it provide justice? Perhaps more so than other countries; but how do we address injustices and recognized trends or issues such as the one before us? Here are some truths:

• The demographics in our country are changing. Non-whites will become the majority by 2043. We need to embrace this change and understand that there is strength in diversity. I hope I live long enough to witness this transformation.

• Despite recent events, people should not look negatively at police officers. They provide a vital service for our communities. There are many positive, dedicated people in law enforcement. I personally know and am friends with several. Some have been my friends since junior high; others live in my neighborhood. Their effort will be needed to help make this change.

• This issue is not new. Recent events are raising it to a level where something needs to be done to make it a priority! Activists, members of all communities, and the media need to continue to increase awareness so that political leaders work with law enforcement and the criminal justice system to identify and make change occur to have a lasting impact on this issue for the African American and other communities.

Searching the Portal Through the Second Floor By Brad Williams

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I watched the Ken Burns documentary on the Roosevelt’s and was taken by their leadership and commitment to social issues impacting people on the domestic front, despite the advantages of their upbringing and individual differences.

Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican and former Governor of New York, pursued a “Square Deal” domestic program when he was President. It led to the conservation of natural resources, control of corporations and consumer protection pushing the agenda to more progressive issues.

Franklin Roosevelt, also a former Governor of New York, got “New Deal” legislation advanced through Congress during his first two Presidential terms establishing programs that would provide relief to millions of unemployed Americans. Unemployment decreased from 25% to 2% over his time in office. Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) still exist to this day. FDR was a Democrat who led our country through a depression and a world war.

Eleanor Roosevelt, Teddy’s favorite niece and FDR’s wife, was the moral compass for Franklin. She was an active volunteer and supported a wide range of organizations during and beyond her time as First Lady that were not limited to the Red Cross, League of Women Voters, National Youth Administration and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  After FDR died in office, she was appointed as the US delegate to the United Nations and continued to work on humanitarian issues.

I found it interesting that the amazing success and impact of the Roosevelt’s were initially funneled through the portal of New York’s Capital. There must be something about Albany politics and the “second floor” where the office of the Governor is located that provides an opportunity to do great things for constituents and people in need.

In the fall of 2013, the New York State Independent Living Council (NYSILC) sent a letter to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that urged him to prioritize an initiative in his upcoming State of the State address to improve the employability of people with disabilities similar to the National Governor Association’s (NGA) “Better Bottom Line.” The letter identified the 31% employment rate, near 30% poverty rate and $12,600 income gap faced by New Yorkers with disabilities and called for an overarching goal with specific targets and strategies to implement the plan.  A change.org petition gained the support of 1,500 signatures. Stakeholder support came from the New York Association on Independent Living (NYAIL), New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services (NYPARS) and the New York State Self-Advocacy Association (NYSSAA).

During the State of the State, the Governor did identify support for veterans with disabilities but nothing related to the “Better Bottom Line” or the overall need. However, the “second floor” reached out to NYSILC and made a commitment to meet with advocates on the issue in 2014. The first item established and confirmed was the need. Concepts and potential strategies were discussed in detail over a series of meetings.

In late August, the Cuomo Administration announced the launch of an interactive online portal for state job seekers who are veterans or people with disabilities. This action bridged both groups and was one strategy out of many, to address the issues. The online portal put a process in place to identify the positions currently available for individuals classified as 55-b (people with disabilities) and 55-c (veterans with disabilities) by making it interactive and allowing candidates to indicate interest in employment by providing contact information; academic background; occupational, employment and geographic preferences; and employment history and upload a resume.

Any State agency can then be more responsive in getting back to candidates. These entry-level positions provide access to multiple ladders including management. For more information on disability certification eligibility requirements and available positions, go to the site at www.cs.ny.gov.

On September 17, 2014, Governor Cuomo issued an Employment First Executive Order #136. It prioritized the employment of New Yorkers with disabilities and committed to increasing the employment rate and decreasing the poverty rate by 5%. The order empowers a commission to start working on solutions to facilitate peers to meet the overall goals by March 2015. Click here to read the official press release and executive order.

The portal through the “second floor” helped to launch the national aspirations of the Roosevelt’s. Many Americans benefitted as a result of their actions. Who knows what this “second floor” portal could do for Andrew Cuomo. What would he accomplish on the national scene? New Yorkers with disabilities are grateful for the Governor taking the lead on this priority issue. Early estimates of the 5% targeted in the Executive Order suggest a potential transformation for up to 60,000 New Yorkers with disabilities. What will this mean to these peers to move out of poverty and be employed – to the quality of their lives and the overall economic impact? Will they use the online portal? How will it change their futures and that of our State and Nation?

Life for the Disability Community: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow By Ralph Giordano, NYSILC Council Member

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Over my lifetime (1943 to the present), I have witnessed many wonderful changes for the better regarding positive events that have improved the lives of persons with disabilities (PWDs). Medical breakthroughs like the Polio Vaccine and Penicillin have eliminated some infectious diseases that can cause permanent disabilities and the effects of some diseases like Tuberculosis.

I grew up with a number of friends from 1949 – 1957 at the Branch Brook School in Newark, New Jersey for children with orthopedic and physical disabilities that did not result in serious cognitive loss. Except for not including any non-disabled students, this school was far ahead of its time due to New Jersey mandating special education services in the state. Branch Brook employed generous programs in OT/PT and speech therapy to augment our special education program. We also had a wonderful Assistant Superintendent for Special Schools, Dr. Elizabeth M. Kelly, who administered Newark’s entire special education program which included at least 6 special schools and a number of additional services in regular K-8 as well as the high school buildings. Despite Dr. Kelly’s many duties, she knew the name of every child in her program. Branch Brook had students with Post Polio Paralysis, Cerebral Palsy (my condition), visual impairments, legg calve perthes, amputations and conditions manifested through accidents or criminal attacks.

Due to President John F. Kennedy’s concerns for his developmentally disabled sister Rosemary, the major national movement for federal legislation removing discrimination against PWDs began in earnest in the early 1960’s. This resulted in the passing of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Education For all Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (now renamed The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA) and The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Amendments to these and new laws continue to this day.

Another big factor that is aiding PWDs are everyday advances in technology derived from space exploration, computer technology and other initiatives. I remember using the prototype IBM electric typewriter in the 1950’s. Assistive Technology ranges from simple tool alterations to complex new inventions along with ongoing barrier removal. One future innovation spoken about lately are cars that can be programmed to drive themselves. This will be a boon to the elderly and PWDs who do not drive.

We have made admirable gains in improving the lives of PWDs since the 1940’s. This has not been a perfect line of progress. Laws have predictable or unintended consequences such as creating legal traps that pour money into the court and law firm systems taking resources from PWDs. A glaring example is the not yet completely settled Jose P. v Mills Special Education case in NYC, commenced in 1978 due to many children not receiving special education services. One thought is to attempt to eliminate a community’s sense of being overwhelmed by a legal mandate despite being given a grace period to comply with it.

I have some thoughts on what we must we do to sustain our gains over the past seventy years to further improve the lives of PWDs. Empirically, we need world-wide and national stability without catastrophic natural disasters, economic crashes, and civic stability with a minimum of strife and unrest from war and other international disagreements. Advocates among us need to remain continually diligent in formulating legislation or seeking redress in court for actual, not perceived policies that harm PWDs. These efforts need to be augmented with ample research and visibly persuasive documentation.

As I am a pre-baby boomer who grew-up in tough talking Newark’s Industrial East Side with the nickname “Down Neck,” I am not a huge supporter of trendy “Politically Correct” language changes that seek to eliminate perfectly good words from the dictionary as being offensive. This can lead to distracting political whining that deters the real work of building more ramps and other forms of barrier removal. These concrete actions will lead to more satisfactory percentages in employment, education, civic participation, financial independence, freedom to worship and recreation for PWDs.

Those of us living with disabilities know that life is not Sesame Street, with its quick glossing over difficulties to mercifully and temporarily shield young children from reality. Let’s continue our advances and pass them on to future advocates so that PWDs may enjoy an increased degree of life’s enjoyments and join the fun with the jovial “Big Bird” within all of us!

Multiple Pathways to Graduation By Zach Garafalo, Assistant Director, YOUTH POWER!

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The New York State Independent Living Council (NYSILC) recently released its 2014 Public Policy Agenda. The framework for the agenda is guided by feedback received from the Statewide Needs Assessment conducted in 2012.

Of particular concern for all young people – and specifically students with disabilities, young English Language Learners (ELL) and other vulnerable school-aged populations – are the unnecessary obstacles to obtaining a high school diploma.

The allure of the American public education system is its guarantee of a free and appropriate public education that prepares students to be college and career ready. An American education should position students to be informed participants in civil society and active contributors to the globalized economy.

Unfortunately, the allure is superficial. New York is failing its most vulnerable students. In New York State, one in four students will not graduate within four years. For at-risk students, the outlook is considerably more desolate. Traditionally disadvantaged populations such as Black (58.1%), Hispanic (57.8%), students with disabilities (44.7%), English Language Learners (34.3%) and economically disadvantaged students complete high school within four years at significantly lower rates than their non-identified peers .

Let me be clear. In no way are we advocating lower standards. We want our schools and teachers to be among the most effective in the country, our students well equipped to take on college, work and life, and a meaningful diploma that embodies the ideals of the Empire State. We can fulfill the promise of all that is New York while creating opportunities for many more young New Yorkers to thrive. To do this, we need to move our educational system toward a new New York. A philosophy of learning that is premised on the fundamental belief in the potential of every student. An education that embraces individuality over conformity. And multiple high quality pathways out of high school that are measurable, performance based and aligned with the Common Core.

Under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, states are required to assess high school students in reading, math and science. However, states are not mandated to impose testing as a pathway to graduation . Standardized testing offers only a limited glimpse into a student’s mastery of a subject. Standardized tests were designed to rank us. Today, they are used as barriers to independence rather than bridges to the American dream.

There are replicable models in NYS that allow students to “learn by doing” outside of the traditionally academic environment. However, students must still pass exit exams to receive a high school diploma. Career and technical education that gives students the skills to pay the bills must be promoted as a valid and equally prestigious alternative to the traditional academic model.

The Board of Regents must embrace initiatives that enhance deeper learning and promote the development of performance based assessments. Deeper learning prepares students to be college and career ready. Deeper learning teaches students to think critically and solve complex problems, work collaboratively, communicate effectively and be self-directed and able to incorporate feedback . These alternatives, such as portfolios, will allow students to demonstrate the skills they have mastered without the high pressure of the Regents exams.

The Independent Living, disability, immigrant and youth rights movements need to unite to pressure the Board of Regents to create pathways to prosperity rather than pipelines to poverty.

Are you or someone you know a young person who wants to change the system? YOUTH POWER!’s Action Working Group is launching a campaign to raise awareness around the lack of meaningful graduation options for students with disabilities. Join us. Speak up and speak out. Your voice matters: http://www.youthpowerny.org
You can also get involved with NYSILC’s Youth Leadership Subcommittee: http://nysilc.org/youth_leadership.htm

If you are a concerned advocate or ally who wants to make sure all young people have the opportunity to demonstrate their true potential, join the Coalition for Multiple Pathways to a Diploma here: http://www.facebook.com/CoalitionforMultiplePathwaystoaDiploma
http://www.advocatesforchildren.org/policy_and_initiatives/pathways_to_a_diploma

“To Autism Speaks” By Marc Rosen

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Marc Rosen is the co-editor of the Perspectives series of poetry anthologies focused on the subjects of autistic, disabled, and neurodivergent culture. “To Autism Speaks” is one of the flagship poems of the first volume in the series, written in 2009 as a summation of most of the major grievances held by the majority of autistic people against the named organization, including, but not limited to, their blatant refusal to include autistic people on their board of directors and other decision-making entities (with one prior tokenistic exception whom they mostly ignored and/or mocked), their insistence upon starting from the base assumption that autism and autistic people are a burden/disease/problem which is best solved through utter eradication, their refusal to acknowledge that autistic adults exist despite the fact that autism itself has existed as a label in one form or another since the 1920’s, and their viral transmission of fear, paranoia, and discrimination in the name of “awareness.” Marc himself is autistic, and “suffers” with an incurable nausea every April 1st, ever since Autism Speaks decided to usurp it as “Autism Awareness Day” without consulting a single autistic person.

You say “We have to find a cure!”

A cure? for what?
Is it a cure for who I am?
My personality?
My hopes?
My dreams?
My Passions?

Is it a cure for what I am?
My intelligence?
My wit?
My charm?
My sarcasm?

Is it a cure for what I can be?
My ambitions?
My interests?
My perseverance?
My goals?

If not any of those, then what do you hate?
Is it because you hate my differences?
My beliefs?
My morals?
My ethics?
My strength?

Is it because you hate that I’m not you?
Is my difference such a crime that it must be destroyed?

Better yet, can you tell me WHY?
Why do you hate me?
Why can’t I exist as I am?
Why do you have to “cure” my healthy mind?
Why do you have to treat me as inhuman?

Who are you trying to help?
Is it the fetus you screen out and abort for having the wrong genes?
Is it the child you yell at for being “wrong” in ways he’ll never understand?
Is it the adult you allow to die though your silence?
Is it the hole in your heart which you stain with your cruelty?

Do you blame a vaccine for my existence?
Am I some freak of science who has no right to exist?
Am I nothing more than the shadow of your own twisted heart?
Do I only exist to remind you that you can’t live your life through mine?
Do I hold any value to you other than as a symbol of all you hate?

Or is it just that you fear that you are one of my brethren?
That the very things you have spoken of as filth and disease,
Could actually hold purpose, value, and worth?
Would I then be nothing more than your horrifying fun-house mirror?

These questions I pose to you, oh all-knowing “normal” people
You say you speak for me, so why not give me some answers?

Previously published in Perspectives: Poetry Concerning Autism and Other Disabilities (anthology, published by Local Gems Poetry Press, 2010) http://www.lulu.com/shop/james-p-wagner-and-marc-rosen/perspectives/paperback/product-12430935.html and Monster of Fifty-Nine Moons and Other Poems ( (Marc Rosen, published by Local Gems Poetry Press, 2012) http://www.lulu.com/us/en/shop/marc-rosen/monster-of-fifty-nine-moons-and-other-poems/paperback/product-18901015.html

The Illusion of Inclusion By Robert Gumson (Reprinted from Zeh Lezeh By Jay Ruderman, The Ruderman Family Foundation at http://rudermanfoundation.org)

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In my 40th year working in the field of advocacy and services by and for people with disabilities, I am compelled to speak my mind about inclusion. Inclusion shouldn’t be a buzzword; it needs to be a synonym for humanity and community. It isn’t a gift or reward; it is borne out of a hard won struggle—achieved in the same way the Jews of Egypt won freedom over slavery and passed the memory of that struggle down from generation to generation so others may learn. People with disabilities represent the largest and poorest minority group in America today, with 68% out of the workforce and three times the poverty rate of others. And we remain feared by the business world and enslaved by antiquated sub-minimum wage laws that hold us prisoners to charity rather than empower us with inclusion.

In the daytime I’m the administrator for the largest independent living program of advocacy and services controlled and guided by people with disabilities in the nation. At all times of the day, I am a husband, a father and the Board President of Jewish Family Services of Northeastern New York (JFS) in Albany. Since losing my vision as a child while growing up in Brooklyn in the 60’s, I have dedicated my life to living the American Dream, alongside and as part of the fabric of my community. However, as people with disabilities, no matter how typical the world around them and participatory in the world among them, we question if we are truly accepted as just another community member rather than someone special. Too many people I’ve known throughout my life believe I possess some unique strength, skill set, determination or spirituality just because I find ways of doing everything they take for granted. I know inside my own mind that I’d be just as determined and bold if I were blind or not. Sure, I probably gained some grit from rising up in adversity, but I probably learned more strategies because my parents let me grow up on the streets of Brooklyn.

My greatest realization that I have indeed achieved what I have strived for all my life, of being nothing more than an ordinary contributing community member, came to me over a year ago when JFS chose me as their Board President. Nobody second guessed if I could fill the role. Nobody worried about accommodating me or questioned if I could step up. If I had a need, it was left up to me to make it known. I couldn’t ask for a more fully inclusive and enlightened community to work amongst than the folks I have come to know and count on in the Capital Region of New York. Oddly enough, they do not know how I feel about all this because it is a very personal sense of fulfillment that I’m not sure translates well for anyone who hasn’t lived with a disability. Nevertheless, I want to shout it from a mountain because it is a rare moment to be accepted and included and it calls for celebration. I pray for a time in our chapter of human history when all people with disabilities are naturally integrated into society, because we have passed on the memories of how enriched our lives have become as a result.

Aside being ineligible to get a driver’s license, Bob Gumson lives a full and fascinating life since losing vision from an eye disease as a child. He has hitchhiked across America, earned a graduate degree, raised a family, been involved in disability rights, attended nearly a thousand live concerts and serves the community in a variety of volunteer positions. He writes poetry, personal essay, memoir and “fracoir” (fractured memoir).

“InSight,” By Julie Cardone, NYS Commission for the Blind, Guest Blogger for February 2014

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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.