Confusion over state funding for the blind after the governor's realignment of state agencies led to a temporary denial of services for at least one man, complaints from other visually impaired people, and a filed then quickly dropped lawsuit.
The lawsuit, filed late Wednesday in Pulaski County Circuit Court, named as defendants the Division of Services for the Blind and Director Cassondra Williams.
Robert Blackowicz, 28, was the plaintiff, and Disability Rights Arkansas represented him. The nonprofit is federally authorized to monitor the treatment of disabled individuals.
The watchdog group withdrew the suit Thursday after division officials promised Blackowicz he'd get orientation services, said Thomas Nichols, legal counsel for Disability Rights.
Orientation services teach life and work skills to people who are blind or going blind so they can stay independent.
Although state officials say the issue is resolved and they aren't aware of any other visually impaired Arkansans having trouble accessing services, Disability Rights officials say they aren't convinced.
"We are still waiting to see about the impact it might have on others," Nichols said.
Tom Masseau, the nonprofit's director, said Disability Rights knows of five or six other people who have had trouble with services recently.
Blackowicz's lawsuit alleged that Gov. Asa Hutchinson's transformation plan, which condensed 42 state agencies into 15, resulted in a name change and funding shortage for the Services for the Blind Division.
The realignment moved the agency for the blind from the Arkansas Department of Human Services to the Department of Commerce on July 1.
The name change meant the division had to fill out fresh paperwork to get its federal funds. Staff members were told that funding was low, information they shared with blind clients.
Hutchinson said in a statement Thursday that he was "delighted that the lawsuit was withdrawn."
"I think that's an indication that the Division of Blind Services is working with individuals to resolve those issues," he said. "We not only want to make sure that we have adequate funding for blind services, but that the clients know that there is adequate funding."
Shortly after the division was moved under the Commerce Department, officials drafted a letter to visually impaired college students who expected tuition assistance, suggesting that they "explore and utilize any and all comparable benefits that are applicable to their case to cover expenses," according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette through a public records request.
The letter went on to tell students to apply for other grants or scholarships because division funding would be limited.
But on Tuesday, department officials told Disability Rights that the tuition issue had been resolved and the funding had come through, said Masseau.
Then, late Wednesday afternoon, Disability Rights filed the lawsuit claiming that Blackowicz had been denied his orientation services and that the change occurred without the required public notice or public hearing.
"What we're trying to get answers to is: why are they not providing services to clients, how can they just make these decisions without following the process that is laid out in federal law," Masseau said at the time, explaining why Disability Rights decided to move forward with the suit.
Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said he thought the lawsuit was filed prematurely -- before the department had time to tell Disability Rights that it had addressed the issue.
"That was something that was already addressed or being addressed," Preston said in an interview Thursday.
Steven Porch, the department's chief legal counsel, said the staff member who told Blackowicz that he couldn't go to orientation was relying on old information because he hadn't read the most recent division email.
"He's supposed to check it [his email], and he admitted that he didn't check it," Porch said. "He was operating under the old idea that we may not have any money, which we do have money to take care of that need."
Preston said he encourages anyone who is having trouble to reach out to the division to get it resolved.
"Let us know so that we can correct the situation," Preston said.
He added that top officials are meeting with Williams today to ensure that everything is running smoothly after the transition.
But Masseau and Nichols said they aren't sure problems won't recur.
"That just addressed the individual," Nichols said, referring to the lawsuit.
"We want to look at it from a systemic standpoint," Masseau said.
A Section on 08/09/2019
Print Headline: State funding for blind confused in shuffle; paperwork bug blamed for lapse