The Blind Leading the Blind

Loretta O’Connor’s eyesight faded excruciatingly slowly, a result of diabetes. She lost her vision in her left eye in 1982. The things she could see through her right eye became darker and more blurry until she went legally blind in 1997. She says it’s like having seven layers of Saran Wrap over her eyeballs.

O’Connor has learned to navigate the world without being able to see clearly the colors or the forms of it — she can chop an onion, take her insulin, walk with the help of a slim white cane. The one task that has been her biggest challenge: finding a job.

She hoped computer skills would flesh out her resume, so she bought a computer in April. A former employee of Missouri’s Rehabilitation Services for the Blind (RSB), O’Connor looked to that same agency for training on how to operate it. Since leaving her job there, she had been working with an RSB counselor named John Harris — but she knew Harris was on a forced leave of absence due to his problems with management, and she needed another counselor to take over her case.

O’Connor called District Supervisor Rachel Hurtado repeatedly, leaving several messages. She got no answer. Knowing that Hurtado’s office was severely understaffed, O’Connor called Hurtado’s boss, RSB Deputy Director Sally Howard, in Jefferson City. Within 10 minutes, O’Connor got a call from Hurtado.

“I’m a pretty pushy gal,” O’Connor says. “And, of course, I know how things operate since I used to work there…. But imagine the people who don’t know. I think sometimes about the little people who are out there just waiting and waiting and they never hear anything. They get put on the back burner.”

Similar complaints about RSB have been building for almost a year. At an August 1999 meeting of the Missouri State Rehabilitation Council for the Blind, a group that advises the RSB, one client said she had not been notified by RSB when her rehabilitation teacher was ill for a month and a half. “She said consumers are told that staff are in training, and once they complete their training, appointments are made to see the consumer, but no one shows up,” the meeting minutes state. “The chairman explained that the Kansas City office had been having a hard time keeping positions filled, but since Rachel (Hurtado) has been there it seems there have been fewer complaints.”

Hurtado started as district supervisor in 1998. But in the months following the advisory group meeting, the North Kansas City office, which Hurtado runs, experienced massive turnover. Of two rehabilitation-counselor positions at the North Kansas City office, one is vacant and one employee started on May 14 of this year. The office has positions for three rehabilitation teachers, all of whom were hired in the past four months, and two of the four rehabilitation assistants started in the past three months (the other has been there since January 1999). The office has 13 staff positions and is still struggling to recover from the turnover.

Having witnessed the RSB from an employee’s perspective as well as that of a client, O’Connor says the office’s management sometimes alienates both groups.

“Overall, RSB is there for a good cause, to give and to help people. But I think the operational procedures could be handled much, much better, both for the sake of the consumers and the people who work there.”

Former counselor Harris and former office rehabilitation teacher Pamela Davis (now Harris’ wife) agree. The two complained loudly to anyone who would listen about what they said was mismanagement at RSB. They called government officials. On June 30, they received a copy of a letter from Senators Christopher Bond and John Ashcroft to Robert W. Barnes, chief of the Branch of Hearings and Review for the federal Department of Labor. The letter called for a review of Davis’ and Harris’ allegations of mismanagement that contributed to her resignation and his firing.

Their complaints center on Hurtado, a sighted bureaucrat who came to the agency from a position with Futures, Missouri’s welfare-to-work program, where she had been a caseworker and then held a supervisory position for one year.

Harris, who also came to RSB from Futures and says he had a cordial working relationship with Hurtado there, says she mentioned to him how surprised she was by the difficulties blind people encounter in daily life, such as, he says, “cooking food without burning yourself or chopping vegetables without whacking your finger off.”

O’Connor, who at the time was working for the Kansas City south office (which was housed in the same quarters as the north office) remembers Hurtado telling some of the more experienced rehab teachers and counselors, “I can learn from you. You can guide me.”

But O’Connor and other former RSB employees say things quickly turned sour. O’Connor and Davis, who is also legally blind, say supervisors did not even know how to accommodate their visually impaired employees. Before long, RSB north had lost two of its most experienced employees — Davis and counselor Katherine Fausett-Brock, who took a job at Kansas City’s Alpha Point Center for Blindness and Low Vision. (Brock declined to comment for this story.) Both had five years of experience at the office.

Davis says she had requested that interoffice memos and other written information be provided for her in large print, which she can read. She says Hurtado refused because Davis already had a magnifying machine in her office. Davis says that did not help at meetings, and she wondered why RSB would not comply with such a simple request. “There was a double standard there, where they would provide things for the consumers that they would not provide for the staff.”

O’Connor says books for employees often were not provided on tape and that supervisors would leave her messages on “those little pink notes — I couldn’t read that stuff.”

RSB Deputy Director Howard says it is “absolutely” the agency’s policy to accommodate the 40 percent of its employees who have visual impairments. But she acknowledges there have been some “miscommunications” over such accommodations.

Davis, who has a master’s degree in rehabilitation for the blind from the University of Arkansas, was known throughout Missouri’s blind community and had written a cookbook for the blind and received commendations from her supervisors for successfully training her clients to live independently. O’Connor says Davis was respected professionally as “the best rehab teacher in the state.”

Davis says stress and repeated conflicts with Hurtado — on top of a diagnosis of multiple personality disorder — caused her to quit. She says she has 20 personalities who live inside her head, and stress at work was making her condition hard to handle.

Davis and her therapist met with Hurtado several times to discuss ways RSB could lessen the stress and enable Davis to stay on. The therapist asked that Hurtado address problems in writing rather than in face-to-face confrontations, but Davis says Hurtado refused. Harris and Davis drove to Jefferson City to discuss the matter with Howard, but conflicts persisted and Davis quit her job in April of this year. She says she has had fewer problems with her mental illness since she quit.

Harris remained, but he says that as more people left and he continued to have conflicts with Hurtado, he became “insubordinate” and “fully expected to be fired.” He was put on forced leave of absence and terminated effective June 30. Though he had won awards from state and independent agencies, he received a letter from the Missouri Department of Social Services stating that he was fired for being “guilty of scandalous and disgraceful conduct,” as well as for insubordination and being “abusive or physically violent toward other employees.”

The centerpiece of the state’s complaint against Harris was an admittedly “stupid” comment he made to a co-worker in April.

“What if someone went postal and came in here and shot everyone, would that get their attention?” Harris snapped. He says he was frustrated by upper management’s lack of action regarding staff turnover and his grievances against Hurtado. The co-worker also said Harris said that he had been in the Vietnam War and had been shot and “bled all over the country” and was not afraid to die. She said she watched him kick a chair across the room.

Among other things, the state’s letter to Harris mentions a military-style “jacket” (actually, Harris says, a shirt he kept in his office to wear when he was cold), a Latin phrase hanging on the wall of his office (“Nemo Me Impune Lacessit,” translated to mean “No one attacks me with impunity”), a drawing Harris brought to work of himself holding a large gun “pointing toward the viewer,” and the books True Crime, Serial Killers, and Handgunner, which Harris kept in his office. Harris contends he has no memory of making statements about Vietnam and says the state exaggerated (the gun in the picture was actually pointing off to the side) and used “irrelevant” complaints, such as his choice of reading material and the Latin phrase, to fire him.

Now Harris and Davis hope to find new positions before their unemployment payments run out, but their options are limited. Harris worked for the State of Missouri for 18 years. Davis doesn’t know of anywhere else in the area where her skills are in demand. “Two careers down the drain,” Harris says bitterly.

Howard refuses to comment on any specifics about Harris, Davis, or Hurtado and had not heard of the investigation Bond and Ashcroft initiated.

Harris and Davis, though, say the RSB is losing qualified, experienced employees and they wish upper management would pay closer attention to operations at the district offices.

O’Connor, who lost her job on a technicality, wishes she could go back to working at the RSB.

She says her supervisor told her she failed a required test in Braille with a score of 72 and that the required score was 80. When she discovered that the minimum score was actually 70 she notified her supervisor, who then told her that the person scoring her test had made a mistake and that she had received only a 62. O’Connor proceeded to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She says she has a hard time with Braille using a slate and stylus, the way the state requires — even though more and more Braille is computerized — because of neurological problems caused by her diabetes.

“It’s a good idea,” she says of RSB. “But it’s not being used as ethically and effectively as possible. It just has problems galore.”

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