Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter is a freelance journalist from the American Midwest. She covers social justice stories, especially pertaining to disability. Her work has appeared in Parents, Mother Untitled, The Omaha World Herald, The Insider and elsewhere. You can follow her on X/Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Iowa is known for being nice. Old-fashioned values seem rooted in the ground, tracing back to 1846. An idyllic landscape, simple and plain, yet beautiful, as depicted in American Gothic. Stop in this fly-over state for a pork tenderloin sandwich, or a Maid Rite, and don’t forget, its state fair is the greatest state fair.
Set against this backdrop of American dreams is a Republican party introducing bill after bill that have altered Iowa in both subtle and blatant ways. The GOP-controlled legislature approved many controversial bills during the 2023 session. One with potentially great consequences for blind Iowans was Senate File 514, the state government realignment sought by Governor Kim Reynolds.
STREAMLINING, OR A “POWER GRAB”?
The state paid nearly one million dollars for Virginia-based Guidehouse to help develop a plan to streamline state government. Although the final Guidehouse report did not make any recommendations related to the Iowa Department for the Blind (IDB), the bill the governor proposed to state lawmakers included one important change.
The reorganization bill (which Reynolds signed into law in early April) shrinks the number of cabinet-level state agencies from 37 to 16. Critics of the realignment say that under the guise of efficiency, the bill increased the governor’s control over state government, while limiting oversight and community feedback. “Striving for efficiency is a good thing [because] we need to make sure we use tax money for the correct purposes,” Democratic State Representative Adam Zabner said. “This bill doesn’t do this; it’s a power grab.”
Zabner worries that several items in this bill expand the power of the executive branch. Most notably, several senior officials who previously served for a fixed term of four or six years will now serve “at the pleasure of the governor,” meaning they could be fired at any time. In addition, the governor gained the power to appoint some leaders who had previously been vetted and hired by a board of commissioners, composed of community members, advocates and colleagues. One such agency is the IDB; for generations, the Iowa Commission for the Blind had hired the agency’s director.
HOW THE AGENCY SERVES IOWANS
The Iowa Department for the Blind is a state agency providing education, vocational rehabilitation services and training to blind, low vision, and deafblind Iowans.
Ross Michael is the youngest of four children in a working-class family and the husband of this article’s author. He remembers growing up in Iowa during the 1980s and 1990s, living on land originally purchased by his grandfather, a Lebanese immigrant. “Spending time in town with friends was a treat,” Michael recalls. “Most days, I played out in the country where I lived.”
Michael had a genetic eye condition, Retinitis Pigmentosa, which was discovered at age 11. Rp, as many in the blind community call it, is a degenerative condition affecting the retina. Despite the diagnosis, he didn’t notice significant vision changes until college.
“It was overwhelming,” said Michael. “I was trying to do computer science, and reading screens and textbooks gave me awful headaches. Traveling around campus wasn’t safe anymore. It was scary. I stopped being social and just stayed in my dorm all the time.” He remembers thinking he should learn blind skills, but he had no idea where a person went for that kind of training.
During his sophomore year, Michael was connected with IDB and the world opened up for him. He did a short three-month stint at IDB’s adult residential training center, where he learned Braille, white cane and adaptive technology for the first time. The following summer, he worked for IDB’s adolescent transition program. Even though he quickly learned these skills, he struggled with the idea of being blind out in the world.
The Iowa Department for the Blind not only taught him nonvisual skills, like Braille, white cane orientation and mobility and assistive technology, it empowered him to embrace his disability. “A big difference I’ve noticed between IDB and other agencies is that staff treat you like an adult, regardless what level your blindness is,” said Michael. “Blindness isn’t viewed as the worst situation. Ever. Honestly, if it weren’t for IDB, I don’t know where I would be; I don’t know if I would have the life I do.”
BLIND IOWANS OPPOSED CHANGES TO AGENCY GOVERNANCE
Almost since its inception, IDB, as it’s known, has operated as an independent agency within state government. The Iowa Commission for the Blind (whose three members are appointed by the governor) oversees policy and updates, and it also hires and fires the director for the agency. Traditionally, this board is comprised of blind and low vision Iowans with personal knowledge of blindness and deep connections to the blind community.
“Since 1958, when Kenneth Jernigan took over, the agency has functioned with a board,” said Mary McGee, retired attorney and member of The National Federation of the Blind of Iowa. “Jernigan gave us a gift in how the agency operates. It was written in Iowa code that the agency would operate under a board. This gives control to blind consumers.”
During Iowa Senate and House subcommittee hearings on the reorganization bill, many Iowans spoke out against Division XIII, the part impacting IDB. Zabner said that when Republicans were asked if the blind community were consulted when the governor’s staff drafted this part of the bill, the room was silent. This seems to be the loss of control blind people across Iowa fear.
Current IDB director Emily Wharton appeared to share this concern. During a February 13 hearing of an Iowa Senate subcommittee, Wharton told lawmakers that she “cannot say [the restructuring] is good for blind Iowans,” adding that the bill opens the door for a non-blind director without lived experience of blindness, which has the potential to see policies about blind Iowans be created by non-blind people.
At the same hearing, Mike Jones, a current student in IDB’s residential training center, asked if those writing this part of the bill “were blind or had familiarity with the needs of blind people.” The committee sat quiet, except for Republican State Senator Jason Schultz, who said no.
Cindy Ray, former IDB client and the first Vice President of the NFB of Iowa, said the IDB differs from many other state agencies for the blind, which are “ruined” by sighted people. In those situations, “people did for you what they thought was best for you, and it didn’t really matter what you felt,” she said, pointing out that the IDB was different, because it’s mostly been run by blind and low vision people.
McGee also spoke up, saying one of the IDB’s most important contributions is “the confidence it gives blind people.” She warned, “We’re going to lose that if friends of the governor, or […] political supporters or optometrists get on that board, and the consumers have no input like they do now.”
In its century of existence, the IDB has leveraged its community-led model to help many blind and low vision people live fulfilling lives, but the agency’s unique model could drastically change. On mostly party-line votes, the Iowa Senate approved the governor’s bill with no significant amendments on March 7, and the Iowa House followed suit on March 15. In both chambers, the GOP majority voted down Democratic amendments that would have removed the section of the bill affecting the agency serving blind Iowans.
IMPACT OF CHANGE NOT YET CLEAR
The governor’s office insists the realignment made government more efficient and effective. Kollin Crompton, the governor’s deputy communications director, said that after merging the departments of public health and human services, and also administrative law judges who had worked in the departments of Workforce Development and Inspections and Appeals, it became clear the entire state needed tidying up.
Crompton gave assurances that departments and agency heads were consulted and aware of the reorganization. But Zabner noted, “Iowans that rely on services didn’t have a voice in this process, so, it’s difficult to trust this restructuring.”
When vocational rehabilitation services were established in 1920, voc rehab counselors mostly had experience working with people who had mobility or physical disabilities. Most counselors working in the field at the time were not knowledgeable of the specific services blind and low vision people required.
According to Stacy Cervenka, vocational rehabilitation and public policy consultant, blind activists demanded independent agencies to serve the blind community during the 1950s. Cervenka says 22 states were successful in encouraging state government to create independent agencies separate from general departments of voc rehab, serving people with other disabilities. The IDB was one of the first such agencies.
Advocates across Iowa are concerned with what will happen to services and the current curriculum IDB uses, known as Structured Discovery, to provide training to blind Iowans. During an interview on Iowa Public Radio, Scott Van Gorp, the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa, said control should be with the consumer, whom the director serves.
Van Gorp and the NFB of Iowa, a national blindness advocacy organization, are concerned with the potential impact to the policy and direction of the state agency, should a director be appointed who does not understand disability policy. “Picking up the technical skills of blindness is easier than picking up the concept of being blind,” said Michael. “Certain points of view are difficult to change.”
Michael insists the current structure of IDB works and needs to be retained. After graduating college, he dove headfirst into a full nine months of training at the residential center. During that time, Michael believes, he gained the confidence needed to live a full life, and he embraced his blindness as a part of his entire being.
Now, Michael is married with two kids. He worked for the agency as a voc rehab teacher, paying it forward, before moving on to a nonprofit in a management role. He’s spent time at other state agencies and believes IDB is one of the few to offer not just skills training, but a belief that blind people are just as capable as sighted people.
Reynolds reappointed Wharton as IDB director shortly before the realignment bill went into effect on July 1. So for now, the agency is not facing a leadership change or slated to be absorbed into another department. But blind and low vision Iowans continue to keep updated and advocate to be heard. In a state that recently enacted a $30 million budget cut for disability education in the school system, many disabled people worry their voices are lost.
It’s not yet clear how the state government reorganization will affect the Iowa Department for the Blind, or what future governors will choose to do with the agency. But blind Iowans will advocate for retaining policies that work for the blind community, ensuring consumer input. Speak to any blind and low vision resident in Iowa, and they will tell you that IDB has been one of the leading voc rehab agencies in the country for blind people. They intend for the agency to remain on top.