Rehabilitation and the Birth of BLIND, Inc.


by Peggy Chong

Rehabilitation was not a term used in the minutes of the organization until the second world war. The idea of the government providing money to agencies for the blind for training in skills to become employed did not become a reality until 1941. At that time our organization convinced the state legislature to designate funds for rehabilitation in the biannual budget for the Department for the Blind. This would not have happened if it had not been for the pioneering spirit of the leaders in the organized blind movement. From the beginning, our organization worked with its blind members to insure success in their employment. Opportunities for learning trades in businesses owned by blind people were promoted by the leaders of the organization regularly. But the leadership also knew that opportunities needed to be opened up in mainstream society in order for blind persons to be true first-class citizens in our state. This meant training.

For decades the organization worked within the system to create laws that mandated rehabilitation training for blind adults and a quality system for those services to be provided. Many service providers in Minnesota have been and still are private agencies that contract with State Services for the Blind. This type of system can give a blind person many choices but also makes it difficult to insure that informed choices are made and quality services are provided for the blind persons they are supposed to serve.

In 1945 discussions with the state agency were held on the subject of home teachers. The organization wanted the State Department for the Blind to hire at least one home teacher for every 500 blind persons in the state. For years the State Department for the Blind had only one home teacher and that person also had other duties as well.

Attention to the problem of quality rehabilitation services in the state became urgent by the 1970's. Inconsistent rules and requirements were the norm throughout the blindness system.

Decisions were made for rehabilitation services based on one's affiliation, or lack thereof, with a consumer group. Little to no information was given to clients of State Services for the Blind as to their rights or about what they could expect from the agency and the rehabilitation system.

In 1973 the NFB of Minnesota decided to fill the gap by hiring its own home teacher. At the annual convention, resolution 73-06 was passed urging the Board of Directors to look into hiring a home teacher for our organization. A home teacher/coordinating secretary, was hired on August 10, 1973. She was Sharon Grostephans. After a few months, Joyce Hoffa (Scanlan) worked with Stan Potter, the director of State Services for the Blind (SSB), to negotiate a contract with the state agency to pay for our home teacher working with clients of the state agency. The Home Teaching program moved into office space at 1725 Nicollet Ave. S. in the summer of 1974.

Ms. Grostephans taught braille, home management and travel to many blind persons who were unable to get the training through the Minneapolis Society for the Blind (MSB) or SSB. She shared with them a positive, can do, attitude about their blindness, which is the cornerstone of a successful future for any blind person. In their lessons, students were exposed to all kinds of issues that affected blind persons lives.

In the spring of 1974, the home teacher, some of her travel students and Ms. Hoffa traveled to Rochester where the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was holding hearings on rules for blind air travelers. They heard testimony from all sides of the issue. The group was impressed by the comments made by Jim Omvig who testified for the National Federation of the Blind. The suggestions from FAA were that blind persons must travel with a sighted person at all times. The Federation showed how blind persons had been traveling safely for years on airplanes without incident and that this requirement was not necessary.

In the spring of 1974, our home teacher worked with Larry Kettner to secure a job in Winsted. He came to the organization after going to MSB for help. MSB gave him a job in the workshop but first he had to sign a minimum wage waiver. The waiver said that he would work for $1.35 an hour. This was less than the minimum wage at that time. But after working with Sharon Grostephans, our home teacher, he got a job starting at well over $2.00 an hour.

For two years board members of the NFB of Minnesota met with counselors and administrators of SSB to show the importance of the type of training provided by our home teacher. They showed the many successes blind students had accomplished under her training. Even though there was a contract with State Services for the Blind, counselors of the state agency would not refer their clients to our home teacher. On March 1, 1975, the home teaching project was discontinued due to lack of support from State Services for the Blind.

During these meetings with SSB over our home teacher, plans were discussed for a rehabilitation agency operated by the Federation. Ralph Hilgendorf, a supervisor at SSB, said to the committee that the agency had to be up and running before SSB would even consider sending clients there. Due to the lack of support from SSB, it was decided not to pursue starting an agency for the blind then.

In 1982 discussions resumed in the affiliate about starting our own orientation-to-blindness center. On December 31, 1986, Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND) Inc. was incorporated with a board of directors that came from the rank and file of the NFB of Minnesota.

In January of 1988 BLIND took in its first students. Since then many blind persons have graduated from the program and have launched successful careers and lives in their home communities. Within three years, BLIND had become the major supplier of rehabilitation services to State Services for the Blind, a position that continues to grow and strengthen today.

Finally the blind of the state have an agency that is run by blind persons who understand the necessity of quality rehabilitation. The Board of Directors is comprised of blind persons who feel a responsibility to the blind of the state and actively seek input from the organized blind. This can only lead to more and more blind persons going out into the community, to be accepted as equals. The graduates of BLIND are active participants in their home communities at all levels and are truly leading first class lives.

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