The Braille Monitor                                                                              August/ September 1997

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Mae Nelson

Mae Nelson
Director, Louisiana Rehabilitation Services


Partnership: Working in Cooperation with Consumers

by Mae Nelson

Joanne Wilson: I've been asked to introduce our next speaker, Miss Mae Nelson. When I was asked to introduce her, I thought of this saying, "It takes knowledge to build bridges, but it takes wisdom to know where to put them." As the director of the Department of Social Services under Governor Roemer for four years and then for the past ten years the director of Louisiana Rehabilitation Services, Mae Nelson has worked tirelessly to get rid of the dead wood and to build a strong agency with strong and just policy procedures and a wonderful staff, many of whom are here at this convention. Mae has learned and has had the wisdom to know that, if she was going to build a strong agency, she needed to bridge the gap of suspicion, distrust, and frustration that had been held by blind people for many years in this state. She developed a relationship with the National Federation of the Blind that has built a strong agency. We in Louisiana have learned that, if we're going to have a strong agency, we need a strong National Federation of the Blind. If we're going to have a strong National Federation of the Blind of Louisiana, we need a strong agency. I would like now to present the Director of the Louisiana Rehabilitation Services, Miss Mae Nelson. [applause]

First I want to add my welcome to the National Federation of the Blind and thank you for selecting Louisiana as the site for your 1997 convention. I'm very pleased to have this opportunity to be introduced to you as the director of Louisiana Rehabilitation Services (LRS) and as the public official responsible for blind services in Louisiana. More important, I'm an individual who believes in the ability of blind people. [applause]

One has only to review participating organizations at this convention to have one's commitment to the abilities of blind people renewed. What abilities do blind people have? The ability to be students, secretaries, merchants, lawyers, doctors, and many other professions when preparation and opportunity present themselves.

The theme of my comments this afternoon is "Partnership: Working in Cooperation with Consumers." I realize that, in order for blind people to achieve certain goals, individuals may need temporary assistance from Louisiana Rehabilitation Services. I believe that we at Louisiana Rehabilitation Services have demonstrated that we are willing to work with the National Federation of the Blind to change what it means to be blind. Louisiana's shining example of cooperation and partnership toward providing blind people with preparation to take advantage of opportunities is the Louisiana Center for the Blind at Ruston. We are very proud of the Center, their accomplishments, and the alumni who are well represented at this conference and throughout the nation. They provide excellent opportunities to blind people so that they may be prepared for independence and employment.

Since we believe in the Louisiana Center for the Blind and, more important, the Director Joanne Wilson, we have consistently provided resources for the expansion of services at the Center. Louisiana Rehabilitation Services' most recent cooperative project with the Center has been a total of one million dollars in grant funds to expand the Center's programs at Ruston [applause]--not to fund the projects and services that I as director felt were needed by the blind, but to carry out the values and ideas that were presented to me by the Director Joanne Wilson.

LRS has provided funding for the Center's STEP Program, which is a summer training and employment program. This is a new pilot this year that we are implementing with the Center. This pilot is a transition program for students. Joanne and I have been talking for years about the inability of vocational rehabilitation--because we are an employment program--to begin early enough in the process with students to help them with their self-esteem and to lift their expectations about what they can do as blind persons. This year we will start a pilot program where we will take students in the lower grades and track them through graduation and through their training and college programs to demonstrate in Louisiana and to provide additional funding and projects to show that, if students are received early enough in the Center for the Blind program and provided with opportunities, those students can achieve whatever goals they set. [applause]

We have utilized the Center as a site for Louisiana Rehabilitation Services staff training. We feel that our staff, if they are to believe in the services that can be and should be provided to people who are blind, need to be exposed to the philosophy and programs at the Center.

Our cooperation and a cooperative endeavor with the Center enabled Louisiana to be the first state to come online with the Newsline(TM) service, pioneered by the National Federation of the Blind. LRS funded this project with federal grants for the older blind secured through the grant-writing skills of Suzanne Mitchell, who is a Federationist. I had the forethought and common sense to hire Suzanne Mitchell as my assistant and executive director of Blind Services almost three years ago. LRS has also provided additional financial support to add a pilot job information line to the news service.

Last year Suzanne came to my office to discuss with me the shortage of orientation and mobility instructors in the state and wanted to know from me if I would commit to and if we could write a grant to try to bring this training to Louisiana. I don't think Suzanne is quite used yet to coming to my office, proposing an idea, and sitting down together and coming up with strategies to make it happen. Suzanne wrote the grant, and, through this cooperative project with Louisiana Tech University for O & M specialist training, it is now coming online, and the project has come to fruition. Also last year Suzanne came into my office to say that the need was overwhelming. We needed additional resources; could she write another grant? I said, "Sure." So we wrote another grant, and we have secured additional funding to provide an additional instructor so that we may enroll additional students in that program through the Center for the Blind and Louisiana Tech.

In terms of partnership, we must thank our grant partners for those grant funds. If this sounds like bragging, it is not. I wish to convey to you that Louisiana Rehabilitation Services has made an investment in changing what it means to be blind in Louisiana. [applause]

We are also a participant in the National Federation of the Blind's Comprehensive Braille Training Project. Counselors have received their first in a series of Braille-training activities sponsored by this project. Three counselors and Louisiana Rehabilitation Services Assistive Technologies Program specialists have attended Braille technology training at the National Center for the Blind.

Louisiana Rehabilitation Services regards the National Federation of the Blind as an excellent resource for consumers and staff and encourages the distribution of information and publications routinely to benefit consumers. The Braille Monitor is included in our library in a prominent place. Our counselors and staff participate in local and statewide meetings of the National Federation of the Blind. All of our counselors and others of our staff have been in attendance at this conference, not by mandate, but by choice. They are true partners in changing what it means to be blind.

I have a lot of other issues here that I could go on and on with that would demonstrate our commitment in philosophy and resources, but due to time I will leave some of it out. However, I do want to say that at our first meeting Joanne and I had a very tenuous kind of meeting, and not understanding the relationship between the Federation and some commissioners, I did not understand why it took almost eight years for me to receive from NFB the Administrator of the Year Award, but it is one of my most prized possessions. It is because I know through the Federation that, if I received the Administrator of the Year Award, I got it the old fashioned way--I earned it. [applause]