July 6, 2019 – Nonprofits have been providing jobs for Americans who are blind for more than 80 years, through manufacturing and service contracts with the federal government. These organizations help people who are blind across the country achieve greater economic and personal independence through the products and services they provide federal agencies every day. Today, more than 6,000 Americans who are blind have jobs thanks to Congress’ innovative work in 1938 to pass legislation establishing the program we now call AbilityOne.
Unfortunately, a recent federal ruling has dealt a severe blow to employment opportunities for Americans who are blind. The ruling effectively pits federal contracting opportunities for people who are blind directly against contracting opportunities for veterans. This is not at all in keeping with the spirit of the law. By creating competition between two worthy groups, everyone loses.
In 2006, Congress passed the Veterans Benefits Act, which created the “Rule of Two.” This provision established a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) contract set-aside for Veteran-Owned Small Businesses and Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Businesses when at least two of these businesses are identified as qualified offerors. Until now, the program has worked alongside other contracting programs at the VA, including the AbilityOne program. However, courts have recently determined that Congress intended for the “Rule of Two” to have priority over AbilityOne — a concept never outlined anywhere in the congressional record when the Veterans Benefits Act was signed into law.
As a result, hundreds of Americans who are blind, including veterans, will lose their jobs, as the VA contracts they relied on will be shifted away from AbilityOne work and subjected instead to the “Rule of Two.” Furthermore, the nonprofit organizations that employ these Americans who are blind and provide critical services in local communities across the country for thousands more — including services for children, aging adults, and veterans — will be irreparably harmed. Some will have to close their doors permanently. We cannot believe Congress ever envisioned this tragic reality when either of these laws were enacted.
The VA is an important partner to the AbilityOne Program. Americans who are blind take great pride in serving our nation’s veterans through AbilityOne, making thousands of prescription lenses for veterans each year; operating VA call centers; and manufacturing prescription pill bottles, surgical gloves, medical kits, and nearly 1,300 other products used by the VA. Thanks to these VA contracts, this skilled and dedicated workforce has been given opportunities for employment that most Americans who are blind do not have.
We applaud Congress’s efforts to develop new opportunities for our nation’s veterans, and believe that the Veterans Benefits Act created a smart, entrepreneurial program for small businesses owned by veterans. However, it’s a great injustice to both veterans and people who are blind for the courts to create an environment that effectively positions contracting opportunities for our nation’s veterans against contracting opportunities for Americans who are blind. This is unfair, unnecessary, and not what Congress intended.
As a result of the court’s ruling, something even greater is at stake. Nearly 70 percent of working-age Americans who are blind are not employed — an unacceptable statistic in an era when they can make great contributions to our nation’s economy. Eight decades ago, Congress provided them a remarkable opportunity for economic independence; today that promise is in peril. Congress must act to ensure that one misguided ruling doesn’t endanger the livelihoods of this great American workforce.
Kevin Lynch is president and CEO of the nonprofit National Industries for the Blind (NIB), the nation’s largest employment resource for people who are blind.
Reinhard Mabry is president of the board for the National Association for the Employment of People Who Are Blind (NAEPB), an organization supporting nonprofit organizations that employ people who are blind.