Graphic: The Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement

Frederick C. Collignon

Audio transcript: On a study leading to the reorganization of Rehabilitation Services Administration
Date: January 29, 1997
Interviewer: Frederick C. Collignon

Note: Transcripts have been lightly edited; therefore there may be slight discrepancies with audio clips.

I was a senior economist by the time I finished. Abt Associates won a very large job to evaluate what was then called the Neighborhood Services Program. The key to this is that it was the predecessor to model cities, but it was a demonstration program in seven or eight cities that was jointly sponsored by five or so large federal departments—Housing and Urban Development, Education, whatever was then Health and Human Services, and a few others. The whole point of it was to work with local community organizations to provide better services, better development programs inside inner-city ghettos to show that the government could coordinate its efforts. I was in charge of the evaluation for at least two of the cities and a couple of the issues that were across the entire demonstration.

That was interesting in its own right, but the key to this was that the federal monitor for this from the President's Bureau of the Budget was a fellow named Ed Newman. Ed Newman, prior to this job, had been in Massachusetts as Elliot Richardson's head of the mental retardation division—I think they were still using that word in those days—and had gone on to the Office of Management and Budget. During this three- or four-year evaluation study, Ed and I became close friends. One of the things I was doing for the national demonstration was a study of how the federal agencies coordinated their efforts. That meant I was talking to all the various feds, and Ed Newman had to be my broker as we set up those interviews.

To show you the implication, when the study was done I ended up giving personal briefings to all of the undersecretaries for the five departments—that's pretty heady stuff—on how to coordinate government services. One of my conclusions was, by the way, that often the feds can't begin to figure out how to coordinate; it's the local service organizations who make the coordination happen by putting the services together on the local scene. Most of the federal efforts usually ended up failing. But I suggested a lot of things they could do, et cetera.

So I'm working hand in glove with Ed Newman. We built a close friendship; we would often go out drinking, I would spend nights at his house afterwards, and we spent in a six-month period a great deal of time talking because we had two issues we were trying to resolve: Ed was campaigning for the job of Commissioner of Rehabilitation Services, and I was trying to decide whether to get married [laughter]. So we would basically sit and drink, and since I was a very political person—I had worked for a congressman, and I had been in politics literally growing up and so on—I would strategize with him on the politics, and he would advise me, "There's a time when it's sensible to shift your gears and get married, and family's a great thing," et cetera. The positive side to all this is that Ed got his job as commissioner, and I did marry the lady to whom I'm still married twenty-seven years later. So it was very positive on both sides. It was a very close friendship.

When Ed got his job of Commissioner of Rehabilitation Services [Administration], he then hired Abt to basically be his personal consultants in setting up shop. That included a study effort that led to a reorganization of Rehabilitation Services Administration [RSA]. This is all still before getting to Berkeley. Another fellow named Marty Gordon and I were responsible to keep people's responses for that study. But what happens in Washington is that new heads of agencies, at least in those days, were able to bring in one or two people to be their personal special assistants whose loyalty was to them. And in those days you could also instead bring in consultants. We were the consultant that Ed brought in. Literally, I interviewed at some point virtually everybody in RSA and advised Ed on who was good and who might not be as good. We did a reorganization study that led to a massive reorganizing of all of RSA that most of the staff bought onto because of the way we staged it—I don't know if that's relevant to your concerns; I could talk about that.

We also, at the very beginning of this, went out and talked to the most powerful figures in CSAVR—the Council of State Associations of Vocational and Rehabilitation Administrators—to get their perspective on what was effective and what was less effective about how RSA was conducting its activities. So we had a state perspective. Now we talked to the disability lobbyists that were in Washington, but these were early days: you had a blindness lobby, and you had a deafness lobby, each of which had one of their own in RSA as the head of activities affecting services to those groups. The other lobbies were basically—there was a paraplegic association, basically controlled by war veterans—and I'm not sure if there were any others that I can remember at this stage that were major political players. But you had nothing that resembles the disability movement now.

As someone who had always worked at the neighborhood level in inner cities, I can say, "Wait a minute. What about an organization that instead of being totally organized around running blindness vending stands—which was a major source of money and had business interests—represented the person on the street who happened to experience a disability?" It was very evident to me, and it was evident to Ed, that that grouping did not exist in the disability politics.

End of transcript

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