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Dec 1, 2023

In the studio today is Kendra Farrow, Project Director with the Older Individuals Who Are Blind – Technical Assistance Center at the National Research & Training Center on Blindness & Low Vision Mississippi State University.


Kendra and Carol discuss the question, “Why not ask the Older Individuals who are Blind right up front if they want to work?" Are we missing the boat with these talented individuals who are commonly not given the option for VR services that can benefit them? Whether it’s training, job development and placement, or job retention, VR services in conjunction with IL services, can lead to successful employment outcomes for Older Individuals who are Blind and contribute to their sense of purpose and meaning.


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Full Transcript:



Kendra: When somebody who is 55 or older loses vision and they call about services and they say, well, how old are you? And if they're over 55, they're just pushing them into the older individuals who are blind program. They aren't necessarily then offered the services that they could benefit from. We're cutting ourselves short, and it's a very easy closure once the person has regained their confidence with the older blind program and learning some skills, once they start seeing I can do these things, maybe I want to go back to work now that I have some confidence again.


Intro Voice: 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 Kendra Farrell, Project Director with the Older Individuals who are Blind. Technical Assistance Center that is housed at the National Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision at Mississippi State University. Holy moly. That's a mouthful. So, Kendra, how are things going in Mississippi?


Kendra: Oh they're good.


Carol: Awesome. Thanks for joining me today. So for our listeners, I want to give a little background. The Technical Assistance Centers that are funded by RSA, we hold a regular TAC collaborative meeting so we can leverage resources and keep each other informed so we can serve all of you better. And in a recent collaborative meeting, I asked the group for any possible ideas where we could collaborate on a podcast. And sure enough, Kendra brought up an interesting conversation that she had with a group of experts that was talking about eligibility for the OIB program, and that led to a deeper discussion about a place where VR might be missing the boat on serving a very important group of people. So, of course, my background as a former director of a blind agency, it really resonated with me, and I wanted to let our listeners in on the conversation. So let's dig in. So, Kendra, can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and how you came to be the director of the OIB TAC?


Kendra: Yeah, I started out my career working in direct services, providing vision rehab therapy services to individuals of all ages at a nonprofit agency. And after doing that for 14 years, I saw a job posting with the National Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision. We call it the NRTC for short, and they gave me a job. I was hired on a research grant related to employment for people who are blind or have low vision. And once we got started with that a little bit, there was the opportunity to apply for the grant to have the Technical Assistance Center for Older Blind services. And my colleague and I said that we kind of felt like maybe we were doing a disservice to the field if we didn't apply because we have a long history at the NRTC of doing like some external program evaluations for older blind programs. I think we had conducted program evaluations for, I think it's over 25 of the states over the years. Since I've been here, we've only worked with maybe 5 or 6, so not as many. But, you know, we have that background and we've had publications and done different things related to the older blind services back when it was a discretionary grant in the 90s. Before it was a formula grant, only a couple of states had it.

So we were kind of like the place where the information was stored, like collected. What is currently collected on the annual 7OB report that is provided to RSA by all of the programs we collected that data. I don't know if it went to RSA too, but we collected that data and then published on it to establish the importance of the services that were being provided. So we do have a long history, long before I came here in 2015, when the opportunity to apply to be the Technical Assistance Center, my colleague and I decided that we should try to get the grant. So it's completely changed my job with the NRTC, I was working my colleague was the project director for a number of years until she retired, and then we had some other directors in between. And so, because I have the historical knowledge, and when the most recent director left, I decided that it was time to just step up and direct the project, because it's the hard thing to have a national perspective on the older blind services. It's not something that's easy to find. You know, we tried to post and hire somebody, and there's just not a lot of people that can come and hit the ground running with having that national perspective.


Carol: Yeah, you nailed that for sure, because I know when I was at Minnesota Blind, we always relied on the NRTC and the resources. You guys had such amazing curriculum. We would have staff go through and take your courses. You were the go to people. So you're definitely the right people. And you're right, there isn't a lot of folks that have that nationwide perspective that you all had. So why don't you tell us a little bit about the mission of the OIB TAC? What is your focus?


Kendra: According to RSA and the grant and the cooperative agreement that we work under, we provide technical assistance and training, and we provide that on four different topic areas, which include community outreach, promising practices in service delivery, financial and management practices, and data collection and analysis, including program performance kinds of things.


Carol: I love it because I had the opportunity you brought me in. We were able to collaborate on a state and that was super fun to watch you and your team, and to see how we could do a little collaboration between the and you. And I really appreciated that. I know you also have had some personal experience with VR. Can you tell us a little bit about that?


Kendra: Yeah, I have always been legally blind. I was a high partial when I was young and grew up just doing the best I could with what I had, and had a few services as a child in three school, large print books. You know, I wasn't really considered in my mind to be blind. But then when I got to college, you know, the reading is harder and everything, and I started working with VR. They provided some assistive technology that I needed to be successful in college, and my vision did start to go downhill. And so I needed more services. And I have kind of been in and out just through my various jobs and different challenges with technology through the years, trying to keep myself up to date and able to do the things that I do to be employed.


Carol: Thanks for sharing that, because I think it's always interesting when you come from working in the system, you can see some things maybe differently. You have a different viewpoint about VR and some of the things that what was working and what doesn't work.


Kendra: One of the unique things is that I have received VR services in three different states, and so just the differences between the states is very interesting to observe. And, you know, the separate versus a combined agency, you know, how that feels different and that kind of thing is very interesting to think about.


Carol: That I did not know that about you. So that is very interesting because people always say there are 78 VR programs and there are 78 ways of doing everything.


Kendra: I've only seen three.


Carol: Let's talk about this conversation you had with a group of experts around disabilities that is going to lead to our conversation today. What is the opportunity that VR is missing?


Kendra: Well, individuals who lose vision later in life. Often people think, what would I do in those circumstances? And so we go on some of our preconceived ideas about blindness or vision impairment. That is going to be hard to work. And the truth is that many of those people, when they're in the situation of losing their vision, they're in their 40s, 50s, 60s, a lot of times they are planning to work until they're maybe like 69 or 70, because you get higher rates on your Social Security retirement account, your payments, if you work until you're older and they usually are planning to do that. And so to take an early retirement is putting them in a financial disadvantage that they weren't planning on. And also people want to be busy. They want to contribute. It makes you feel good to work and to contribute. And so when somebody who is 55 or older loses vision and they call about services and they say, well, how old are you? And if they're over 55, they're just pushing them into the older individuals who are blind program, which eligibility begins at age 55. So they aren't necessarily then offered VR services that they could benefit from. And these are people with decades of experience that have job skills. And we have such a need right now for people to fill positions that are open. You know, we've had this mass wave of retirement and we don't want to see more people retire if possible. You know, I think employers really want people to stay in their jobs, especially those that are experienced and have lots to give yet to their fields. And even if they can't stay within the job that they were in, it's not outside the scope of imagination to think that they could still go back to school and learn a different profession and apply some of their job skills in a different field.


Carol: I know you have hit the nail on the head with this. It really made me think back to my time at SSB in Minnesota, because I thought about our folks coming into the older blind program and how we, you know, you just funnel them in. Oh, you're not going to still want to work. And anywhere you go today, you go to the grocery store, any place you are, you're shopping, you're out and about. You see a lot of older individuals that are back at work. People may have retired and they're like, you know, I want to do a little something or they're working still full time because you are right. I just got my Social Security statement the other day, and there is a significant difference between collecting at 62 and collecting at 70, like substantially different. And so you want to prolong that as long as you can. So your end days you aren't just living in complete poverty. I think that is super smart. I know when you and I were chatting about this, we were thinking, some of this comes down to just that. Overall, in our society, some of the ageism, I know I have felt that turning 60 this last year and. People going, oh, you're 60 now. When are you going to retire Retire? Because I retired from the state of Minnesota when I was 57, because I'd started working during high school, and I knew I was going to go into this TA world and was really excited about that. I had never intended on retiring- retiring. I was going into this other work, but now people are like, you turn 60 and it's like, when are you going to retire? And I'm thinking, well, not yet. I don't want to yet. And even going to my doctor's office, I was there to get a shot. And they're like, well, you know, you're of a certain age now. You need the RSV shot, too. And I feel like, wow, stuff has changed. And I know you felt like you've had that. I believe you turned 50 recently.


Kendra: I did, and even before that, like, I don't know, maybe nine months or a year ago, somebody said to me, just out of the blue, when are you going to retire? And I'm like, hello, I'm not even 50 yet. What are you talking about?


Carol: I know it's kind of hilarious. You go, what's up? And why are we putting that, you know, on our customers that are coming in the door because they're 55 years old. It's like all of a sudden you have no value to work.


Kendra: Well, let me just say this, that after we had our initial conversation about making this a podcast topic, I said to myself, is there a way I can kind of test this theory about people wanting to work? So we get technical assistance calls, you know, sometimes from consumers. And so I've had three individuals call me since we had that conversation, and I determined that I would not ask them their age, that I would simply ask them as the first question out of my mouth was, would you like to work? And out of all three of those technical assistance calls, all three said yes. And after the conversation, none of them actually told me their age. But one did tell me that he was 70 and another lady, that she was like, well, can I work? I said, sure you can. Do you want to work? She said, yes. I said, okay, here's the number, call them and make sure you tell them when you're asking about services that you want to work. I said, that's the key. You need to tell them that right up front. That's my little story.


Carol: Yeah. You've got your research going. I think that's cool. I think you and I chatted about just those misconceptions, you know, what are some of those misconceptions about blindness being the most difficult disability to get individuals into employment? Because I sure didn't think that coming to SSB, I had worked in some other agencies with different sort of disability groups, and I'm going, gosh, I felt like this group would be like the easiest group to get into employment, but I know people have a lot of misconceptions. What are some of those?


Kendra: Well, they think that there's higher liability to the employer if you're thinking about something more industrial moving around, that there's safety concerns. And I think there's a huge thing about safety concerns that the rest of the team is going to feel like that employee is a burden, like they have to help them, like you're going to have to help the person use their computer or use the photocopier. And yeah, you might have to help with little things, but the Blind employee can totally contribute in just the same way as any other employee, and is going to have strengths and weaknesses like any other employee. You know, not all sighted employees are good with their computer, and co-workers help each other with their computers all the time. Just getting ready to do the podcast. Today, my coworker had to come in here and help me set up the microphone, and that's okay. I mean, that's a normal thing that coworkers do for each other. You know, it's just the way the workplace goes. So it's not that we don't help each other, but everybody helps each other.


Carol: That is such a great way to put it, because I'm thinking this boomer generation, it's hysterical. You know, you're working with some of the younger folks and they're doing cool new things and you're like, oh, how do I do? How do I do that on the on the computer? We do all help each other all the time. But why is it that if a person is blind or visually impaired somehow that that help seems like, oh, like that's extra. You know, it's an extra thing when it isn't if it's anybody else.


Kendra: Right. I don't understand why that is. And maybe they, I don't know, I'm just guessing, but they just think that the productivity might be less too. And it's true that we do things differently. But I can tell you that there are certain things I can do faster than my sighted colleagues because I use keystrokes. And, you know, I could show them how to use the keystrokes to their Windows, keystrokes, anybody can use them. And so a Blind employee can actually be helping their coworkers become more efficient because they do things in a different way. And it also makes the world better because the things that are sometimes inaccessible to me, the sighted employees are telling me, we hate that too. It doesn't work well, and I think if they would update that system, if they would make it so that it would be accessible for me, it would probably be nicer for the sighted employees too. So having those diverse members of an employment team is really good, because what's good for the blind employee, or helps them to be more effective in their role, is going to help the entire team. I was just having a conversation yesterday with a couple of my coworkers. We have some virtual employees and we have in-person employees, and the hybrid team is, you know, we were talking about when we have a meeting that it would be good if we went around and had like a little introduction slash icebreaker, even though we all know each other, but to know who's in the room to make sure how the microphone are picking up somebody's voice, if they're virtual to the meeting, you know, because then they'll know, oh, the person who sounds really far away, that's Jennifer over there in the corner, you know, because she's introduced herself. You heard and she says, oh, yeah, for Thanksgiving, I had my daughter and my husband with me, you know, or whatever, you know, just a little sentence icebreaker conversation to hear the voice and to remind yourself, because we don't meet every week and or even every day. And we have a big team. There's like, I don't know, like 16 of us and some are always virtual and some are here in person and some are on different teams so they don't interact, except that one meeting every month. So anyway. But that would be good for everybody. It's not just, it's not just the blind employees, but it's something that would be really helpful for those of us who depend on listening to identify who people are as they're talking during the meeting.


Carol: That makes perfect sense. I love that you talked about keystrokes. Dave Andrews back at SSB, he was teaching me keystrokes. I still use him today because it's much quicker when I'm doing different things. Yeah, that resonated with me. So what do you think OIB staff should say to those customers periodically?


Kendra:  In the conversation we had with the experts back in the original conversation that got me thinking on this topic altogether, they were suggesting that it should be offered right at the beginning, as we're making somebody eligible to ask them if they're interested in employment and then again later once they start building up their confidence and their skills. Because sometimes when people suddenly or even not so suddenly lose vision, it's a real hit to their confidence level. And they're like, I can't even pick out a pair of pants and a top that match each other. How am I going to go to work? I can't even warm up soup on my stove and not burn myself, or feel like I'm going to make a mess all over the place when I pour it into the bowl. How can I go to work if I can't even do basic things to take care of myself? It's so important that they can build up that confidence first, because it's hard to think I can use a computer if you can't even make yourself a bowl of soup. So doing those independent living goals and being able to build up that confidence once they start seeing I can do these things for myself. I don't have to ask my husband to always come in here and pour the soup into the bowl. I can do that myself. I can pick out my own clothes. I have a labeling system that helps me know that I match, and I can put on my makeup, and I can look appropriate to go out of the house. Okay, I have that confidence. Well, now maybe I want to go back to work now that I have some confidence again.


Carol: That is so true. I saw that over and over, just that building of confidence with the young people that came in that had lost their sight are older individuals who are blind, that had been losing their vision and getting that confidence back. It helped throughout everything in your life, you know, and not feeling like I can only stay in my house. I can't go out and travel. I don't know how to use the bus. I can't get anywhere, I don't have cane skills, or I haven't learned to use a guide dog or whatever it may be, and even how I'm using JAWS or whatever mechanism to read and do all of that. You see, as those skills get built, that you just see the person completely change. Like it was the most incredible thing for me in the agency, to watch folks in their journey and go from where they were to where they wanted to be, and it's pretty cool. I think the other thing that might be missing, you know, people think about even later on in life, so you're 70 and you want to go back to work. Everybody doesn't want to necessarily work full time. Like some of the people I would like to work part time. I want to work 20 hours a week or whatever. I think we always think this is an all or nothing type of thing.


Kendra: Yeah, definitely. I see a lot of people that would like to work a little bit, even if they're not going to work full time. And so that's still a successful  VR closure. Those people can contribute, and the employers do want to fill those positions that are open, even if they have to hire a couple of part time people to fill a full time position that's open, I think they'd be willing to consider it. You know, we're cutting ourselves short, and it's a very easy closure once the person has regained their confidence with the older blind program and learning some skills, or if they come in there and they still are working and don't want to give it up, I mean, that's the thing that always killed me when I was working in Direct Services, people would call me up on the phone and they said, yesterday was my last day of work because I lost my vision, I quit my job, and now I need to know how to become a blind person. You need to help me with that now. And I'm like, why did you quit your job? Why didn't you call me yesterday? I could have helped you keep going with what you were. You know, it's in society's mind that it's hard to work. But before people lose vision and before they're connected and know about services, it's a thought in their head, too. So that's why they get funneled into these programs and why they allow it, because we're just reinforcing those misconceptions about blindness.


Carol: So, Kendra, what suggestions do you have for VR and OIB to help make a dent in this?


Kendra: Well, I think just being aware first that it could be happening and then talking with our teams and really encouraging the staff that are working within the OIB programs to make sure that they're asking, do you want to go to work? And then the counselors need to understand when you get a referral for somebody over 55, don't look at that as a hard person to work with. This should be an easy person to work with, you know, compared to like maybe a transition student, that is. And I'm not implying that they're, you know, some people are really good at working with that population. But just in comparison, like this person comes with the soft skills, they know how to have professional conversations. They've had years of working experience. You don't have to teach them the soft skills. They just need to know, how can I adapt the things that I used to do visually to doing them non visually? That's all they need to know. And then they need that, you know, your assistance to make sure that they have the equipment and the training to use that equipment, and they should be able to be successful in employment. It should not be hard to get a successful closure out of that.


Carol: That is so well said. You know, you look across the country and I've seen what's happened during the pandemic and the kind of the drop in numbers of individuals that are in VR and people going, gosh, we're looking for customers. You know, we're looking for people to come in that want to go to work. And here's a group that's there and we're missing the boat on that. So I think your advice is super well-timed and important. It's a really important message for VR to hear. So I know we'll hear from you in the future, because you have a whole host of ideas for some other future podcasts, and I really look forward to talking to you about those. So thanks for joining me today. I really appreciate it.


Kendra: Sure, thank you for the opportunity.



Outro Voice: Conversations powered by VR, one manager at a time, one minute at a time, brought to you by the VR TAC for Quality Management. Catch all of our podcast episodes by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thanks for listening!