Blind workers not always satisfied with state help

By David Block

Wed, Mar 23, 2016 Philadelphia Free Press
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Some adults who are blind or visually impaired get help from state agencies to find employment; others, like John Sutton and Agnes Dutill, create their own jobs.

If you walk through Suburban Station in Philadelphia and pass the Penn Center Restaurant across from the Aubon Bakery weekday mornings during the rush hour commute, you will hear Sutton and Dutill’s melodic voices as they sing a repertoire of songs including My Eyes Adored You and God Bless America.

Sutton, 54, is 5′ 7″ tall; his friend Dutill, 53, is half his size. Both are blind. Many of the morning commuters drop money into a huge cup as they walk by. Sometimes Sutton and Dutill make a hundred dollars in less than an hour.

“We don’t need to sing that long,” Sutton said. “People always give us money.”

Usually they stop for the day after an hour or so.

“This is not panhandling,” Sutton said. “We’re providing a service. We never ask anyone for money.”

When Sutton, Dutill, and their former partner Bernie Buckles began singing at Suburban Station in 1984, a number of blind people objected.

“They told us to get real jobs,” Sutton said.

Some of them suggested that they get a job through a blind agency, such as the Philadelphia branch of the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services (BBVS), a bureau within the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, which is a state agency.

“They shut up when they saw that we were getting gigs on radio shows and making money at Suburban Station,” Sutton said. “We sang at St. Joe’s, Penn’s Landing, New York. At that point, I didn’t need BBVS. I was doing fine.”

In 1989, BBVS found Sutton a job developing film in a darkroom. He wanted to see if he would like having a “regular” job. He quit two years later because the job interfered with his singing gigs.

“I was glad that they took the time to get me a job, but I didn’t need it,” Sutton said.

In 2007, BBVS taught Dutill to cook and clean, but they never found work for her.

“I couldn’t be bothered,” said Dutill. “They wanted me to work with computers, but I wasn’t interested.”

BBVS Director Joe Strechay, who works at the Harrisburg branch, has no objection to blind and visually impaired people singing in train stations for money, or finding work without their assistance.

“That is their choice as consumers,” Strechay said in an email. “We will be there if and when they need assistance working toward another employment goal or independence in their lives. We assist consumers toward agreed-upon goals for greater independence in work and life.”

According to Marian Bassler, an officer of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry, from October 2015 to February 2016, BBVS had 2,309 cases open. The agency was able to find work for 87 of them, which was 23 percent of their yearly goal.

Strechay said a client must find a steady job in order for their case to be closed. “An individual’s case will be closed successfully after 90 days of community integrated employment as long as the individual is satisfied with his or her job, and that there are no barriers of employment caused by their disabilities,” Strechay said.

Although BBVS tries to help their clients meet their work goals, the results have not always been successful. Dr. Andre Watson, 39, sought help from BBVS on his way to becoming a blind psychologist in Philadelphia.

“I thought that BBVS was in my corner,” Watson said. “My caseworker told me that if I got good grades, finished college, then they would help pay for me to go to graduate school to become a psychologist.”

He said his case manager told him that he could be anything he wanted to be — just get good grades. Watson earned A’s and B’s. But when he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, everything changed.

He now had a harder time getting his BBVS case manager on the phone. After a month of leaving phone messages, he finally got her on the phone.

“I’ll never forget what my caseworker said to me that day,” Watson said. “She said, ‘Let’s see if your goals are viable.’ So, the people who I thought were in my corner, and who had been in my corner, the people who I thought were going to support me, ended up flinching at the idea of me becoming a doctor. They questioned if I was being realistic.”

He arranged to speak with his caseworker and her supervisor by phone. He reminded them of their promise to help him if he earned good grades.

BBVS finally provided him financial assistance. Watson earned his license in psychology in 2007 from Widener University.

“They [BBVS] did help me,” said Watson. “But if I was not persistent in getting that help, those doors would have been shut in my face. … My mother taught me to be pushy and not take no for an answer.”