by Rich Laine
(Editor's Note: The annual ACB midyear meetings and legislative seminar will be held at the end of this month, Friday, Feb. 25 through Tuesday, March 1. Please make sure to register at www.acb.org so that we have an accurate materials count!)
As a somewhat new member of ACB, in the Westchester chapter of ACBNY, I have no previous experience in advocacy. So I welcomed the opportunity to attend a lobby day rally, sponsored by NYVRA, the New York Vision Rehabilitation Association, held in Albany on April 27, 2010. The purpose of the rally was to garner the support of our legislators for bills that would establish a license credential for vision rehabilitation therapists and orientation and mobility professionals.
Little did I realize how grueling, and satisfying, such an event could be. Awakening to my alarm at 5 a.m., the pounding of heavy rain on my windows made me wonder if I might regret this trip. Seven members of our ACB chapter, together with five guide dogs, had arranged to travel together, one sighted member having volunteered to drive us to the event.
Gathering at the car rental agency, we were on our way at 7:30, heading north on the interstate. As the miles passed, the rain intensifying, the shared camaraderie in anticipation of the day's events reminded me of the free-spirited adventures of the Merry Pranksters in Tom Wolfe's bestselling book of the 1960s, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." We were bleary-eyed for lack of coffee, but we were primed to meet the challenges to come.
In Albany, we arrived at the legislative office building, our driver disappearing in search of a parking spot. Assemblyman Jonathon Bing, sponsor of the bill for licensure, was in the midst of his address to the gathered crowd of dozens of supporters as we appeared in the building's atrium area. A few speakers later, as the rally drew to a close, everyone fanned out to embark on their assigned visitations. The remaining six members of our group marched off to the office of state Sen. Jeffrey Klein, deputy majority leader. The office number given us by NYVRA was easily found - too easily. We were told on our arrival that we had the right room number, but the wrong building. His office was in the capitol building, same room number.
So, off we went, trekking through endless noisy corridors and an underground passageway between the two buildings, in and out of packed elevators, finally locating the correct office - only to be disappointed again. The senator was otherwise engaged. But a legislative assistant received us. He quickly demonstrated his eagerness to learn more about the issues surrounding the bill and had a copy of the bill at hand to consult. His questions showed he followed the points we made, and his encouraging comments illustrated he was convinced of the importance of the legislation. As we left, we hoped his promise to make a strong case on our behalf to his director meant our visit and our arguments on behalf of the bill would reach the senator's ears.
Before our next appointment, we began another long hike, this time to find a place to eat. Back at our starting point, an elementary school teacher representing the state's education department responded to our request for directions by offering to lead us the rest of the way to a fast-food outlet. Walking for what seemed like miles, we eventually reached our destination: McDonald's.
After lunch, our second appointment was with state Sen. Kareem Jeffries of the Bronx. To get to his office, we had to backtrack the entire distance we had just traversed. Another long slog through the crowded, bustling corridors and up packed elevators. This time, we arrived at the correct office on our first attempt, and the senator was there! To our surprise, the senator informed us that he had already signed on in support of the bill. However, his questions about which other legislators were supporting the bill led us to review the reasons why licensure is so important. The most persuasive points seemed to be that licensure will ensure service providers are specifically trained, under rigid standards of high quality, to meet the unique needs of the blind, and that licensure will not, in a time of fiscal crisis for the state, increase medical costs. Licensure, we added, will make it possible for agencies to hire VRT's and O & M professionals, rather than what is becoming their increasing reliance on physical therapists and occupational therapists, who lack intensive training in providing services to the blind, but whose services can be billed for under Medicaid and Medicare. Once licensed, the services of VRT's and O & M professionals would also qualify for such reimbursement. This will encourage more people to train for these professions. As we concluded our remarks, the senator reiterated his support for the bill!
A cell phone call located our driver, who had spent hours driving around Albany, unable to find a parking spot large enough to accommodate our van. Back on the interstate, heading home, the rain had stopped. It was replaced by bitingly cold, gusty winds that buffeted the van, causing it to buck like a bronco. The trip home seemed longer, as is usually the case on return trips. The morning's excitement now having dissipated, the sleepiness caused by our early start began to overtake us as we settled in for the long journey home. Fortunately, our driver remained alert.
As we pulled up to the rental agency, the trip complete, a feeling of accomplishment crowned the day. We had done our part, and now it remained to be seen if the legislators would do theirs.