Utah organizations for the blind say the State Office of Education has "breached public trust and broken promises to the blind and visually impaired population," but a state official said the allegations stem from a misunderstanding.
At issue is SB218, passed by the Legislature during the last session and slated to become effective in September. Dr. Judy Buffmire, executive director of the Utah State Office of Rehabilitation, said the purpose of the bill is to separate rehabilitation services for school children from those for adults.But Don Perry, a member of the Utah Council of the Blind and the Advisory Council for the Visually Handicapped, called the effects of the bill "devastating."
A public hearing will address the issue Aug. 19 at the State Office of Education, 250 E. Fifth South, at 9 a.m. in conference rooms B and C.
The bill, Perry said, "downgrades the vocational rehabilitation program for the blind . . . to where it no longer has the guarantee of a specific percentage of federal funds allotted to Utah, can no longer have a separate state plan and operational procedures specifically designed to meet the unique needs of blind people, denies the state director of the programs for the blind official membership in the most important national organization, and submerges the vocational rehabilitation program beneath a newly created state office consisting of two members."
In 1976, the Legislature separated programs for the blind from all other rehabilitation services and allowed that office to draw up its own, separate state plan. The bill passed last session creates four separate divisions - the Division of Rehabilitation Services, the Division of Disability Determination Services, the Division of Services to the Hearing Impaired and the Division of Services for the Visually Handicapped - and draws them all together under the one umbrella, with one state plan.
"They're ignoring completely the fact that the blind and visually impaired have totally different rehab needs," said Fred Schmidt, president of the Utah Council of the Blind. "Worse, when we asked about any legislation that would effect us, we were told there would be no program changes."
"I did say there are no program changes," Buffmire said. "There aren't - unless this enhances the programs. Organizationally, we have moved up equal to the Office of Education. There will be no change in services, no change in funding. The bill wasn't even addressing that issue. I think it actually strengthened the division."
One issue of concern to the blind is the fact that the director of the division for the visually handicapped will no longer be a member of the Council of State Directors of Rehabilitation. Buffmire concedes that point but said the director will still serve on important committees and won't lose his input.
Another - and major - concern is money.
"Utah's Vocational Rehabilitation program for the blind has always struggled with the lowest cut of federal funds of any similar agency in the nation," Perry said. "Utah's blind program gets 7.5 percent of Utah's funds, while some state blind programs receive 20 and 21 percent. The average nationally is 15 percent. Utah's blind population fears that the funds will drop even lower if they are combined into a general program serving all disabled people."