Nearly a hundred blind Utahns turned out Friday to protest legislation that combined vocational rehabilitation services for the blind with services for all other disabilities under one state plan.
They also accused state education officials of betraying them by not notifying them in advance of the changes the law would make.The heated, 90-minute public hearing - which began with a prayer for "reason and calmness" - centered around SB218, passed by the Legislature during the last session. A three-member task committee listened to the testimony and will make recommendations.
Later Friday, the State School Board, meeting as a whole, delayed a decision on the issue to allow further study.
The new law created a Utah State Office of Rehabilitation under the supervision and control of the State Board for Vocational Education. The Division of Services for the Visually Handicapped is one of four sections drawn together under one state plan. The law reversed action taken in 1976 that separated programs for the blind from other rehabilitation services and allowed the blind their own state plan.
Judy Buffmire, executive director of the Utah State Office of Rehabilitation, said combining under one state plan would "enhance services and status of rehabilitation for the blind. I see no changes currently in division status, in program status or in the money status. We'll just have one instead of two compliance documents."
Blind speakers disagreed.
"I believe it is important to distinguish between the rehabilitation programs," said Karl Smith, Utah Federation of the Blind. "Our needs are fundamentally different; we need special equipment and more expensive job training." He said that the average cost to close a vocational rehabilitation case for a blind client is $15,000, while other disabilities average $4,000.
John Crandall, a professor at Brigham Young University, said the real issue is one of honesty. "When we (the blind) asked, we were told things wouldn't change; it was a `housekeeping' bill. Things have changed, and we have a credibility gap now."
"We were reassured repeatedly about this," said Leslie Gertsch, Utah Council of the Blind. "I believe the blind have been duped. There were no public hearings before the changes, as though we are not intelligent enough to make decisions ourselves."
Not everyone agreed with the blind speakers.
Helen Roth, chairwoman of the Rehabilitation Services Advisory Council and executive director of the Independent Living Center in Logan, said she believed the fears, while real, are unfounded. "I believe that combining the plans is a step forward. It may eliminate some extra administrative hours in plan preparation. It will require a perspective that dovetails all the vocational rehabilitation services and programs without losing their individuality. And most importantly, it will enhance the recognition of the community and commonality of the experiences and problems inherent to people with all types of disabilities."
Blaine Peterson, director of the Division of Rehabilitation Services, said the blind will have "greater visibility with the Office of Education and with the public. There will be a consistency between the programs and how they're administered. It's been a positive thing."