Jan 6, 2023
In the studio, today is David D'Arcangelo, Commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind. David has focused on making MCB the best it can be. Learn about the concept of disability as a qualification, the Accessibility Technology Survey, the entrepreneurial program developed with NIB, and dig into the 32 reallotment projects MCB has done over the past few years.
David is the Idea Guy and shares a lot of information in this brief 30-minute conversation.
Find out more about what is happening at MCB:
Speaker1: Manager Minute brought to you by the VRTAC for Quality Management, Conversations powered by VR, one manager at a time, one minute at a time. Here is your host Carol Pankow.
Carol: Well welcome to the Manager Minute. Joining me in the studio today is David D'Arcangelo, Commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind. Thanks for joining me today, David. How are things going in Massachusetts?
David: Going very well. Looking forward to a great 2023. And thanks for having me again.
Carol: You bet. Me too. I love this 2023. I have my little resolutions for this year. You know, I really want to be intentional. That's one of my things. So I know I had you on the show over a year ago and we were talking about some of your great employment strategies during National Disability Employment Awareness Month. And you have had so many cool initiatives going on in your state that I think of you as the Idea Guy. I put you and Joe Xavier from California up there as two bold leaders in VR that we can all learn something from. Now, I know you've been keeping your head down and really looking forward focused on making your agency the very best it can be. And it also seemed like you were having some just really amazing employment successes for customers during COVID. So now more than ever, we need to take some serious steps to address the problem of spending VR dollars and improving outcomes. And you started looking at the problem when you first started at MCB and you hit the ground running. So let's dig in. I know we have lots to talk about. So David, can you remind our listeners about yourself? Where did you come from and how long have you been at MCB?
David: Sure. Well, I'm a consumer of MCB also, and being legally blind from a young age. I remember getting VR services back when I was in junior high school and high school. So that's really my first impression with MCB was as a consumer, as a young man. But since joining MCB in 2018, I came over from the Office on Disability, where I was the director of the Massachusetts Office on Disability. So when the MCB position opened up and got an opportunity to serve. And, making great strides for these past five years and looking forward to hopefully more time to be able to get our people employed and help lead our people to more independence and self determination.
Carol: That's awesome. So can you tell us a little bit about MCB? Like, how many staff do you guys have and how many customers are you serving currently?
David: Sure. So we're one of the first blindness agencies in the country. We often argue with Connecticut, if they were first, we were first, but we were established in 1906 with one of our first commissioners being Helen Keller. So we have a long history and track record of providing services for people with blindness throughout Massachusetts. We currently serve approximately 24,000 people in Massachusetts with all types of services. Massachusetts is a little bit different than many of the other states. We don't provide just for VR services, and that's not to diminish VR services, but we also provide what we call our services or social rehabilitation services and deafblind extended support services. So we serve people who are blind and deafblind and people with blindness and then additional significant disabilities. So that adds up. Our 24,000 people and our range of blindness really is the whole spectrum. So everybody from hi partial and legally blind like me all the way to somebody who has no light perception at all. And we know from the data that we've collected that actually there's probably more people at MCB as consumers who have visions closer to me than vision, closer to somebody who has no light perception at all. So we've got some data that's going to be coming out that I would encourage everybody to look at. We did an assistive technology survey recently with all of our consumers that really reveals information that I think people will take notice of because many times people were thinking that, oh, well, your consumers, they can't see, so they're not on the Internet or they're not taking part with this technology. And our survey really sheds new light on that. So stay tuned for that. You can check that out on our website, Mass.gov/MCB. It's really going to be an important survey when we reveal these results. It's going to be eye opening for people.
Carol: Well, cool. Yeah. Shoot me a note when that comes out. I'm really interested in seeing that. Do you also serve individuals like starting as babies? Like because some programs I know do that. We did not in Minnesota but I know some start very young with kids.
David: Yeah in Massachusetts we serve people from birth to death. So cradle to grave with all of our services and the social rehabilitation services that we provide are really geared around independence and self determination. So we will start providing services as soon as somebody gets that mandatory report of legal blindness and they're declared, which we are the keeper of, that we register somebody as legally blind after their doctor, their eye care provider, has provided us with that record. And then we get the services flowing, whether it's teaching Braille or providing assistive technology, orientation and mobility, training, all of these core services, we really believe getting those in place first.
David: That's really going to help in terms of VR. It's setting the bedrock so people are already independent and self determined and then can focus on their career goals.
Carol: Yes. So smart. You've got the foundational pieces in place and early, you know, you're getting at the students early, which is incredible. That is great. That is great. So I really liked your getting grounded in that three part framework. You talk about it and I was reading it again on your website about the Path to Prosperity is Paved with Perseverance. Can you tell me more about that?
David: Sure. Carol, thanks. Really. I first said that publicly during the commencement address that I gave for Lesley University's Threshold Program. Lesley University has a great program for people with intellectual disabilities where they provide a college like experience. And back in 2017, when I was director of the state's Office on Disability, I had the great opportunity to be able to provide the commencement address there. And that's really where I first laid out that I believe the path to prosperity is paved by perseverance. Or what does that mean? I think that becoming employed is not a one step thing. There are many steps on that path on your career journey. So we really try to instill in to our consumers here at MCB that there is no get rich quick scheme. This is not a one click approach like so many of us are conditioned today through these devices and through technology. Just one click in your in. Getting a career, getting employed, getting your job, getting on that path to prosperity takes many steps. You got to hang in there because it's not easy. If it was easy, it would be done easily and everybody would do it. Everybody would be a multimillionaire. It takes many steps and depending upon your disability or in mass commission for the blind on your blindness, there's such a spectrum. And really we have to work with everybody individually because everybody is in a different stage in life. And some people are aging into blindness. Some people, it comes upon them quickly. Some people have it from a young age, some people come to it at mid age. It's so different for everybody. And we really just want to make sure that people are clear what the expectations that we're going to be with them through their journey along this path and that it does take time. All good things come in time. So that's really what the path to prosperity is paved with. Perseverance is about that you've got to persevere. These are challenging things. The very essence of being a person with a disability. Disability comes with challenge, It does. And so we try to get people to accept their disability, accept that challenge and then help them work through it. And so I believe in people and I believe anybody can become employed. I think work matters. I think it goes to the identity of a person. If I were to see you in the grocery store and we would have strike up a conversation, invariably one of the first questions that you or I would ask each other is, Well, so what do you do? And if you're employed, you're going to tell me about your job because it goes to the identity, it goes to who you are and what you're accomplishing. So work matters. Our consumers matter, and that's why we want to try to get them employed, because there's so many contributions in our community that we're trying to bring out for the benefit of our consumers, but also for the benefit of society. I really believe that our people have a lot to give and you've got to hang in there. That's part of being on the path to prosperity.
Carol: I think that is one of the cool things with blind services. It's very foundational. All the things that you have to learn. And I remember being at Minnesota blind and just seeing that, especially with people that came in that were new to their vision loss and it happened abruptly. Something happened, an illness or something overnight almost, and you wake up and you can't see and everything changes. How you read, how you get around in the world, how you get around in your home and your clothes and like how you do everything and having to learn all those foundational pieces first and getting that acceptance and then working on work skills because you can't just launch right into that when somebody goes, I don't even know if I'm wearing the orange socks with the black suit. I don't know what I have on.
David: One of the initiatives we've been working on and we keep advancing is something that I came up with about ten years ago that I've been trying to encourage people in VR to embrace, and that is the concept of disability as a qualification. I really believe that the lived experience that our people have to learn to problem solve around is a qualification in and of itself. Let me give you an example. If I were to take somebody with good vision and ask them to cross a busy intersection, they probably wouldn't think twice of it. Right?
David: But to take one of our consumers who can't see and ask them to cross an intersection, the skills involved and the intestinal fortitude involved with crossing that intersection. You know what? I want that person on my team, if they're going to be able to go out and have the intestinal fortitude to be able to do that and then the demonstrated skill to be able to do it, because that takes sophistication, if that life experience does not qualify you for some type of role that deals with problem solving. How many employment opportunities are there out there for people who are good problem solvers, for people that have a solid backbone and won't just roll over? Right?
Carol: Right. I love that you say that.
David: Those are qualifications, those matter.
Carol: They do matter. So I'm just going to say a little thing about me. When we were in Minnesota at the blind agency, all of the leadership team and the VR counselors, the staff, you had to go through six weeks of sleep shade training, so you were under sleep shades for six weeks. And so doing that as a new director myself, having that experience, it's just a taste, but we did go to one of our Adjustment to Blindness Training Centers. We had the experience of the classes all day under sleep shades. I still remember at the end of the day, walking out. I had my cane. I was still had my sleep shades on. I'd taken them off and I got in my car. I scared a lady that was across the street. She's like, That blind lady is driving now, but getting that very firsthand experience about that problem solving that goes into everything you do during the day that is so interesting and very applicable to the world of work, for sure.
David: Yeah. So that's why we're pushing disability as a qualification. We believe that those lived experiences are going to help employers and a really good qualifications for employees.
Carol: Yeah, that's very cool. Very interesting thought. So I want to take you back to 2020. You asked for reallotment dollars, but you had some very specific initiatives you wanted to accomplish and in fact, you were dealing with the pandemic and you wanted to figure out your role in pioneering a path forward in a post-COVID recovery. So talk to me about what went into that 2020 that ask for reallotment dollars and kind of how you framed up all of those initiatives.
David: Sure. Well, we wanted to make the best use of our time knowing that we were not going to have the community interactions and be able to travel freely like we had been doing. So we said, let's study this and let's come up with some things now, some of the things we had put in motion, some of the plans that we had put in motion were prior to COVID. So it seemed that we were prescient on some of them, like our ad campaign we did, What's Your Vision? So now we've been on Massachusetts television with our announcements, not just public service announcements, but paid ads to be able to get the message out to employers, Hey, we've got candidates for you and get the message out to our consumers that, hey, we'll work with you to get on this path to employment. So there's campaigns like that. But then we followed it up. Once we knew COVID was in there and we did our Quest for Independence, which is a graphic novel which is aimed at not only the consumer, but people in the consumer's sphere of influence, their brothers, their sisters, their fathers and mothers and guidance counselors and people there so that those people can understand the path to employment that we lay out in the process that we do.
So it starts at pre training and goes through all of the steps along the way and we make it like a questing journey. We made it like kind of cool and try to put it in a format that people of Pre-ETS age would be more apt to buy into. So many of the VR documents are black and white text only small print, like who's reading that? Who's consuming that? Certainly not a 15 or 18 year old person that we're trying to get interested in the workforce. So whether it's things like that or whether it's studying Disability as a Qualification that we just talked about or trying to do some of the other surveys that we put together, we really tried to make the best use of our time. I think in all total now we're up to 32 or 34 reallotment projects that we've done over the past three or four years.
Carol: Oh my gosh!
David: Yeah. We've really tried to make good use of our time and build the catalog of information. And all of this is available to VR people if they want to visit our website again, Mass.gov/MCB. All of the re allotment projects are out there. We have studies on the Built Environment in the Workplace. We have studies on Disability as a Qualification on Assistive Technology. So many different topics we have data on as well as these ad campaigns. We did one with Sleep Machine recently. We worked up 16 different types of consumers and interactions that it's not a one size fits all approach. We really got it into 16 different approaches, so it tries to suit all of the different demographic areas, and that's a VR approach that we took so many different projects that we encourage people to find out more on our website.
Carol: I know you did a lot of data analysis. There were a lot of projects around different data analysis, so maybe talk about one or two of those and how you used that data to now kind of inform your programming or whatever you're doing now at the agency.
David: Well, the assistive technology one is a perfect example like. When I came to MCB and I said, I want to do a survey, they kind of like chuckled and I'm like, Why do you want to do? And I said, Well, how many of our people have email or how many of them use the Internet? I remember distinctly without naming names, but some really veteran VR people saying, none of our people use the Internet Commissioner or they don't do this. Well, come to find out that 70% use it daily. That right there was like informing our programming because no longer was I going to allow this myth to be put forward that our people don't use the Internet. That's just not so. Now we've got to make sure that we're making these sites accessible. So a recent proposal that I've been working on is a registered apprenticeship program for our consumers who are blind. Who better to make these websites accessible than people who are already using screen reader technology? So we're trying to get two registered apprenticeships, one in making web pages accessible, and then the other for making other online things accessible apps and forms and documents online and things like in the electronic space. So we're working right now with the Department of Labor, but we're also seeking other states. You need five states to be able to make a cohort to do it. So if people are interested in joining our cohort, please contact us and let us know if you want to join in this registered apprenticeship program that we're going to be launching soon.
Carol: That's super cool and very smart and needed. I mean, there's a lot of sites, a lot of websites in a lot of trouble because they are not accessible. I love that you did the Assistive Technology survey. I've thought for years, like the invention of Apple and the iPhone and all of that single handedly changed just information for people who are blind, visually impaired because that device is accessible and it was built-in. There's so many cool apps now and things out there that our folks are using now. I know you also contracted out for your comprehensive Statewide Needs Assessment and that that isn't necessarily new. A lot of states do that because it's much easier to contract with someone than do it yourself. But what was different about that particular assessment and how do you use the information that you got from that?
David: Yeah, again, I think that was the one where we put it out there and the awarded bidder I think was the public consulting group. So they're a pretty big firm. They had worked in other states before. I think one of the things that they had worked in was like Indiana. And so we work with them. Obviously our sister agency, MRC, we wanted to make sure that we were kind of on the same page as well. So I think that helped and really it helped strengthen the things that we already knew we were doing well. They really came in and were able to look at that and say, Yeah, you know what, you should probably keep doing that. Did identify some areas and we've made some adjustments as well. And I think now in this post COVID world, we were prescient that we were trying to already get our people to be able to work remotely, whether it be our staff, who a significant amount of our staff are actually our consumers also, which were very prideful in that they'd been remote prior to COVID. And so now the trends in employment with less and less people in an office environment, we really were again, a little bit ahead of the curve in trying to predict that We think that's where the workforce is going. There's going to be more and more opportunities that are away from an office environment. So if you can work online effectively, that's just going to increase opportunities for our consumers.
Carol: Oh, I agree 100%. So how has all of this helped your numbers? Like where are you at today? Do you feel like have things moved up or are you getting customers back? How about people getting into employment, all these different initiatives? Has it led to some success and outcomes?
David: Yes, it has led to success and outcomes. Our numbers are up generally across the board. There's a couple of exceptions, but things we really like to talk about is the nature of the jobs that we're able to help our people navigate into. And just to be clear, we are very up front with our people. People like, get me a job, get me a job. We're very upfront with them and say, we can't get you a job. We can help you get you a job. We don't get anybody jobs. Our consumers get themselves jobs. We're there to help and build value and work within whether it be any of the networks that we develop with stakeholders or using the existing public systems or education, whatever the case may be. It's consumer driven, it's consumer informed, and it's consumer driven. We make that clear that really we're just a partner in this, and it's up to the consumer to be able to make the final decision. One of the things that I think is very successful is that there's more choice than ever before. I think our consumers were faced with maybe one opportunity, and if they didn't take it, it was like, all right, let's start all over again. Or, you know, now let's go on another six month search. Now our consumers are being presented with multiple offers, multiple opportunities. That's a really good sign. Another really good sign is the nature of the jobs that they're getting. We're now going past just the entry level job or the base job, and we're into more management. Some of our placements are six figure placements. These are consumers that many of them have been with us for a while, but some are fairly new. So like before, this is where I think our ad campaign is really helped us because consumers who maybe hadn't approach MCB before are now approaching MCB.
So we're doing our best to reduce the stigma of what it means to join MCB. So many people before who were low vision, high, partial, legally blind...
David: ...didn't really feel that they were. Well, I can see I'm not really blind. Well, if you're legally blind, then you're entitled to the services. And so people with existing track records of employment that they've been in the workforce for 20 years and now they've lost their vision. Before, many of them were just leaving. And then we would find out five years later, well, I left because I was depressed or I left because I couldn't do the job. Now we get to them more quickly and actually work with them and the employer to let them know, Hey, we're there for you. We're there to provide these reasonable accommodations. We're there to emphasize the great skills that you have. So many of these things can be remediated now with technology. So we're seeing six figure placements. We're seeing management level placements. These are all very encouraging signs. But again, they didn't just happen overnight. It's the culmination of all of these programs working together. And most importantly, let me just give a great shout out to our counselors, our VR counselors develop these relationships and work with these consumers. And really, they're part of the secret sauce here, sitting at their kitchen table with them and their families and letting them know that we're going to be there with them. I think that's irreplaceable. And you can create whatever program you want and fund it however you want. At the end of the day, that needs to happen. Without that, I don't think we'd be having the success that we're having.
Carol: I love that. I know your PSA campaign was really clever because I had looked at the ads. Very cool. Are you still continuing to do that? Is that still going on?
David: Yeah. So we're looking at another reallotment project to fund another ad buy. We're going to have a dialogue with RSA about it. I think we can show that we got results from it and if we can, I'm hoping that they'll say that that's a good use of the money. You know, right now we've gone through some change. We've had a significant aging of our MCB workforce. We've had retirements of people that have been at the agency for 40 years, 38 years, 39 years. So I think COVID really helped in a way where it gave people a pause to be able to adjust. And that's not only our consumers and our counselors, but really like the whole workforce. And as a result, many people are saying, you know what, it's now time I've put my time in and it's time to give it up to the next generation, which is good. But it's a challenge because now we spent a significant amount of time trying to backfill these positions and like something with orientation and mobility. I think one of our O & M people we got from California, another one from Michigan. So hunting around trying to find talent can be challenging and we're certainly not trying to raid other agencies or muscle other competition out because Massachusetts is the state where the cost of living is quite high. We want to make sure if we're getting people here, that they're positioned for long term success. So we've definitely been trying to navigate some of that, as I think many of my colleagues can probably resonate with on at their state level.
Carol: Oh yeah, that is the hot topic of the day. The mass retirement and kind of exodus of people out of VR. I know when I was at Minnesota, this is, you know, ten years ago I walked in the door in HR hands me a list saying I think it was over 50% of the staff were eligible to retire in the next three years. I just went, what? And they did, you know, people did because people have been with the agency. They all started together. They'd been there 30, 40 years together. And they all went. And then that just got exacerbated by the pandemic. People going out the door for sure. If people are wanting to find your PSA information, is that also on your website still?
David: It sure is. And it's on our YouTube channel as well. When I came to MCB, we had no social media. Now we've got Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and our own YouTube channel and all of these avenues that we've gotten such great input from our consumers and their families because, yeah, it's about serving the consumer, but it's also about serving their families because that's oftentimes the people that are working with the consumers just as much, if not more than our counselors. So it's about empowering the whole consumer. And what I mean, the whole consumer, I mean, it's their extended family. It's their spouse or their son or their daughter or their niece or their nephew. They're aunt, their uncle or their friend or neighbor. It takes a village. And we've had good success with that approach.
Carol: Great. It absolutely does take a village. Can you give that website address one more time?
David: Yeah, sure. It's. Mass.gov/MCB. So, its Mass dot gov. Forward slash m c b.
Carol: Excellent! Yeah. Because I know you have a lot of really good stuff out on the website, so I know you are always thinking you don't ever stop. You're on to the next thing. So what's up on deck next for MCB?
David: Yeah, I think we just need to continue to now emerge from the pandemic and continue to assimilate so many new staff that we've got. I mean, I think of our 130 staff, about 40 of them are new within the past couple of years. So there's a big assimilation going on, number one, but really making sure that our community feels safe to get back out there and independent and self determined, ready to go. That's job one. Is getting that adjustment to blindness, that acceptance of blindness, continuing to find new consumers to be able to provide the services to. Then once we do that, then at the tried and true, it's wash, rinse, repeat on what our counselors and what VR has established so well. It's mentoring and then interning and then interviewing and then getting a job and then staying upwardly mobile in that job and trying to move up into management or entrepreneurial. And one of the new things we're working on that we piloted last year successfully with National Industries for the Blind is this entrepreneurial program. We really believe that that is the future for many of our consumers that are interested in a small business opportunity, and that is establishing an e-commerce presence online where you own your own thing and you're really an entrepreneur at that point, selling products and services online through their accessible platform.
For years, we tried to get our consumers interested in selling on Amazon or eBay or these other e commerce platforms. But the platform itself, the app, the technology itself was not accessible to screen readers working with the national industries of the blind and tremendous credit to them for investing a significant amount of their time and resources into making an e commerce platform that is accessible for screen reader technology. This is a huge opportunity for people with blindness who are interested in being their own business owner online in the e commerce space. Like I said, we piloted last year. We proved the proof of concept. We have another class now going in. I would encourage anybody who thinks they have a consumer interested in this space to contact national industries of the Blind. Mention the pilot with Massachusetts that we've done. They'll know what you're talking about and get your consumers enrolled because this really is the future and it's a great opportunity.
Carol: Yeah, I thought that was a super smart idea when I was reading because that was one of your re allotment projects was to study it and to look at it and to figure that out so that can actually be a viable option for your customers.
David: That's right. We didn't just rush in horns first. We studied it, we spent time, looked around, conferred with NIB, and NIB has done a great job. Like I said, they've really made a major investment here and using their Ability One shops that they've had, they have such a tremendous network of providers and vendors that many of the products, I think it's about half of the products are actually made by blind people also. So it's almost like a double win when you really get down to it. To be able to sell these products online. We're very optimistic about it. Good things start humbly and that's where we started. We started with the first class. I think we started with 12 people. Then it went to 6 because some people didn't have the screen reader skills necessary that you would need. Then from the 6,, 3 of them dropped out because they didn't want to own the lemonade stand. They just wanted to work the lemonade stand right there from the 3. It went to 2 and then 1 ended up actually seeing it all the way through and becoming profitable. So we've proved the proof of concept. We just now need more consumers. So if you've got consumers in your area, let's get them going.
Carol: Well, it always starts with 1. You need one, you know, and then there's 2 and then there's 3 and it keeps moving up. That's great. At least it gives another opportunity. And it really is the gift that keeps on giving. You know, when you look at using those reeallotment dollars, it doesn't just benefit you. In Massachusetts, the work that you're doing can benefit the whole country.
David: Yeah, I really think that, Carol. And if people again go to Mass.gov/MCB, look at the, again now, I think it's either up to 30 or 32 different real allotment projects that we've done. There's quite a bit of information in there from studies to these campaigns to the Quest for Independence guide that we did, all of these different things. they're there for everybody else to be able to use. If we've had success, you can just kind of repurpose it and have success in your area with it.
Carol: Well, and your quest to independence. Guide You've been being very modest about it, but that is hilarious because it's a comic book and you're the superhero. In it. It is the coolest thing. I thought that was the most clever thing I had seen in that Pre-ETS space.
David: Well, thanks, Carol. If it leads to one more employment, then we'll be pleased.
Carol: Yeah, that's cool. So, David, I know there's a lot of new directors across the country like you were a few years ago. What kind of advice would you give them as they're wrestling with ways to effectively spend their funds?
David: Yeah, it would really be, Don't just settle for what has been done previously. I've found the people at RSA to be very supportive, to be willing to listen, and just because it hasn't been done doesn't mean it can't be done. Find out what your consumers need and then figure out how to backtrack that to these federal dollars to be able to get them the resources that they need to be successful, whether it's a small business enterprise or Randolph Shepherd or they want to go to kind of a more traditional route of getting employed, whatever the case may be. There's a program that can be crafted to individualize everybody so that they feel like the job they're getting is the job for them, because that's what we want you to spend so much time getting somebody in the workforce. We want to make sure these people are staying in the workforce, staying gainfully employed, because again, we really believe that independence and self determination, that's the thing that you've got to get through so that people can long term stay viable on their own.
Carol: Well, well said. Thanks so much for being on the show today. I've been a big fan of yours for a long time and I just really wanted to get your message out to our listeners and have folks look at your website and the very cool things you can do. I know there's a synopsis of all of your projects so people can get a really good sense of what you did and what you learned. I think it was brilliant, so I wish you the very best of luck in 2023 and thanks for joining me today.
David: Carol, Thanks so much. You do such a great job. I appreciate you. Thanks for everybody for listening. And please contact us if we could be a support in any way.
Carol: Thank you.
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