For more than 25,000 blind and visually impaired people across the state, the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind is a critical lifeline: providing training, accessible technology, and many other services.
It’s also, by many accounts, a state agency in distress.
Workers have filed a litany of complaints in recent years against Commissioner David D’Arcangelo, alleging verbal abuse and inappropriate comments, with some of those investigations still ongoing, a Globe investigation found. Five current employees, and six former members of the agency, told the Globe that D’Arcangelo has slashed resources and services while pursuing costly and quixotic projects such as a television studio in Boston and a comic book that’s unavailable in Braille and nearly unusable on the screen readers used by many blind people.
These conflicts led last month to a call for his ouster and a vote of no-confidence in D’Arcangelo by the union representing a majority of the agency’s 130 employees. And, on March 20, the board of the state’s largest advocacy group for blind and visually impaired people wrote to Governor Maura Healey’s office saying D’Arcangelo, who has led the agency since 2018, needed to go.
“He’s an inept and destructive leader,” said Amy Ruell, a former member of the commission’s statutory advisory board. “I’ve never seen the agency deteriorate as much as it has under him.”
According to a letter sent by the union to the governor’s office in March, D’Arcangelo’s outbursts have resulted in multiple human resources complaints, some filed internally and some made to the state’s human resources division. At least six of those complaints were still open in early March, the union’s letter says.
In a response to questions from the Globe, Olivia James, a spokesperson from the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said, “Our administration takes all allegations of misconduct seriously.
“We are reviewing these reports,” she said in a released statement.
D’Arcangelo did not respond to several questions and, through the spokesperson, declined a request for an interview. Healey’s office, which oversees Health and Human Services, also declined to comment.
The controversy surrounding D’Arcangelo — a former Malden city councilor and onetime Republican candidate for secretary of state who was appointed as commissioner in 2018 under Governor Charlie Baker — has been brewing for years. The Globe reviewed more than half a dozen letters sent to the Baker and Healey administrations dating back to late 2020, outlining concerns about his leadership and behavior and calling for more oversight.
One employee in 2020 described “the worst morale that I have seen in over 20 years” at the agency. An advocate for the blind in 2021 warned of an increasing “lack of transparency” from the commissioner. The agency’s previous commissioner, Paul Saner — D’Arcangelo’s predecessor — also wrote to then governor-elect Healey’s office with several concerns, including that services have been “greatly compromised” and that D’Arcangelo “has no financial acumen.”
But their concerns, some letter writers said, went unheeded.
“When we have filed charges, when we have made complaints, when his behavior has been outlandish, they have done nothing about it,” said Carolyn Ovesen, vice president of the Service Employees International Union Local 509′s chapter representing commission employees.
Baker is now the head of the NCAA. A spokesman for Baker, Jim Conroy, said that “any concerns raised by employees would have been dealt with through normal human resources processes.”
”The Governor and Lt. Governor are grateful for David D’Arcangelo’s service and advocacy on behalf of the community to which he belongs,” he added in an e-mail.
Consumers of commission services and advocates told the Globe that certain services, such as the issuance of legal “certificates of blindness” or grants from the commission’s private emergency fund, have slowed to a crawl or stopped entirely. Meanwhile, wait times for mobility training and supplies have grown, they added.
Money is not the issue. The agency’s funding from the state budget has steadily grown from fiscal year 2017 to 2022, from $22 million to $28 million, records show.
State leaders may be hamstrung in addressing the issues raised about D’Arcangelo’s leadership. Unlike with most other agencies, state law allows for each MCB commissioner to serve a term of at least five years — without exceptions. D’Arcangelo’s five-year term ends in August.
The commission, with a roughly $36 million annual budget drawn from a mix of state and federal funds, has a long, storied history. Since its creation in 1906 by a small group of people, including Helen Keller, it has been one of 22 state-level agencies in the United States that remain dedicated to people who are blind and visually impaired. That specialization, advocates say, is critical to providing such services.
When someone in the state is declared legally blind, eye care providers are required to send their information to the agency so the patient can be registered and the commission can offer its services.
D’Arcangelo, who is legally blind, was little known among advocates in the blindness community when he became commissioner in 2018. Aside from a stint leading the state’s Office on Disability, D’Arcangelo spent time largely in Republican political circles as a local councilor and communications consultant.
In 2014, he was the party’s nominee for secretary of state alongside Baker. Shortly after Baker’s election, the governor tapped D’Arcangelo to lead the state disability office. At the end of Baker’s first term, D’Arcangelo was appointed to run the commission.
Multiple current and former employees said D’Arcangelo has a pattern of making disparaging or demeaning remarks and raising his voice in public and private meetings.
In a labor management meeting in 2021, D’Arcangelo berated two employees and called people on the Zoom call “disgusting” before hanging up, said James Badger, the union chapter’s acting president. The union subsequently filed a labor relations charge, prompting the commissioner to offer an apology, Badger said.
Amid the internal squabbles, colleagues and critics, including the commission’s former leader, have questioned D’Arcangelo’s financial oversight. Since taking office, the commission has left hundreds of thousands of dollars unspent in its budget annually, despite rising caseloads and a shrinking workforce, according to annual budget reports and current and former employees.
At the same time, D’Arcangelo pushed several initiatives that have raised the blindness community’s ire. He directed more than a million dollars in state and federal funding toward surveys and marketing that some advocates say are unnecessary and misguided.
Some of the questionnaires included questions about sexual orientation and gender identity, multiple consumers said. Another inquired about immigration status, which is not a prerequisite to receiving services from the commission.
“How does this ever translate into what is really important, which is services for the blind?” said Saner, the former commissioner, who began receiving services from the commission after he was declared legally blind at age 36. “I’m not sure that it does.”
For the last two years, advocates have gone to lawmakers on Beacon Hill to lobby for earmarks to be tied to the agency’s spending to ensure it went to services, Saner said.
“The fact those earmarks have emerged over the last four years is a financial indication of lack of trust in the commissioner,” he added.
The agency’s spending has also included an increased effort to promote the agency online and on social media, though many of the commission’s consumers are older and use technology infrequently.
In 2020, the agency put out a $200,000 bid to reimagine its marketing materials and guide to pre-employment transition services, meant to connect blind and visually impaired students with resources to help them find work.
The project culminated in a 40-plus page comic book featuring a commission employee as an “undercover superhero” sending two teenage characters on a “quest for independence” — a storyline several employees told the Globe felt condescending and rude.
Formats for the comic book do not include Braille, according to the agency’s website. The PDF version online, which is advertised as accessible with screen-reading software, is also rife with typos.
“It really is one of the worst things you could do for the blind,” said Ruell, the former board member who has been legally blind since childhood and long benefitted from MCB services.
Though the union’s contract caps caseloads at 70 clients, most workers now routinely manage many more, said Badger, the union leader. “Very few people are at the caseload they should have — it’s not atypical to see 120 at a time,” he said — a 70 percent increase.
In October 2020, the agency also announced it would shutter two offices in Worcester and New Bedford at the end of the year — a surprise to consumers and advocates in part because D’Arcangelo had denied planning to downsize the agency’s footprint in public board meetings.
Closing the offices stranded consumers in more ways than one.
Nona Haroyan, an advocacy committee co-chair of the Bay State Council of the Blind, said she got calls from consumers asking how to get in touch with their caseworkers because their old phone numbers no longer worked.
More broadly, advocates and consumers said, services from the commission have deteriorated, leading to months-long waits for trainings and equipment that in other eras might have taken just days to arrange. In some cases, they said, it’s taken more than a year to confirm someone’s been registered with the commission at all.
Maureen Foley, 82, of Jamaica Plain, said after she was declared legally blind in 2019, finding resources “was like being dropped in the middle of a rotary and told to find my way to the sidewalk.”
And asking for help from the commission, she said, has been a carousel of frustration. Calls have been regularly ignored. It took her eight months to receive a talking blood pressure cuff and she is still waiting for a talking thermometer she requested half a year ago, she added.
Foley says the agency’s services have gotten worse and leadership is part of the problem.
“I feel like I’m fighting for everything,” she said.