by Kim Charlson
For the past 50 years, we have been hearing the same statistics about the rate of employment for people who are blind in the United States. Seven out of every 10 Americans of working age who are blind are not employed. These numbers have not changed significantly over the decades, which is why ACB continues to make employment issues one of its highest advocacy priorities.
One of ACB's partners in the work of growing opportunities for employment for people who are blind is National Industries for the Blind (NIB). NIB is the largest employer of people who are blind or visually impaired in the U.S., with its associated agencies employing roughly 5,000 individuals with vision disabilities. NIB-associated agencies provide people who are blind with employment and rehabilitative services such as early childhood intervention, adult literacy, low-vision services, braille literacy, nutritional/health services, occupational/physical therapy, personal and career counseling, recreation, transportation, mobility, daily living skills, employment training, and more. NIB operates under the AbilityOne Program, which helps employ individuals who are blind as well as those with other severe disabilities.
Each year, NIB and the National Association for the Employment of People Who Are Blind (NAEPB), hold a conference to bring together leaders from associated agencies to discuss best practices in procurement, human resources, manufacturing, and other relevant areas to the AbilityOne Program. At this year's conference, NIB and its agencies also held a closing gala dinner, which celebrated the 75th anniversary of NIB's programs and services. Eric Bridges, ACB director of external relations and policy, and I represented ACB and were honored guests on Friday evening, Oct. 11, 2013. The awards gala also recognized the achievements of employees of the year from NIB-associated agencies for their dedication and outstanding work inside the AbilityOne Program.
For 75 years, National Industries for the Blind has been focused on its mission to enhance opportunities for economic and personal independence of persons who are blind, primarily through creating, sustaining and improving employment. Despite continued gains in employment, people who are blind remain one of the nation's greatest untapped labor resources.
Today, NIB is not only focused on creating jobs, but on developing careers through challenging, skilled positions in high-quality work environments. NIB works with 91 associated non-profit agencies based in 35 states, at more than 250 locations, offering a wide range of career opportunities.
Federal budget uncertainty and the across-the-board cuts that resulted from sequestration have been devastating for many of NIB's affiliated agencies. It is estimated that hundreds of people have been laid off throughout NIB's nationwide network of agencies. Hundreds more have been impacted by work slowdown and furloughs. If the sequester remains law, it is clear that more blind or visually impaired employees will be negatively impacted.
According to a survey by NIB and NAEPB that measured employment conditions during the first three quarters of fiscal year 2013 at NIB-associated agencies, budget uncertainty and sequestration have resulted in considerable layoffs. In particular, product purchases by the Department of Defense and the General Services Administration have fallen and people who are blind are losing their jobs, with little hope of obtaining other employment. Those people experiencing job loss will also be forced into greater reliance on federal benefit programs, thereby increasing costs for the federal government and taxpayers.
During the first three quarters of FY 2013, 35 of the 55 NIB associated agencies responding to the NIB/NAEPB survey were forced to reduce hours for their employees due to lower AbilityOne sales, and since the end of the third quarter, 31 agencies were forced to lay off employees. The result is jobs lost for a total of 774 employees (both blind and sighted), including 465 employees who are blind (61% of total employees).
A reported 66.7% of respondents – 36 agencies – anticipated a need to lay off employees before the end of FY 2013 if AbilityOne Program support does not improve. Anticipated layoffs by agencies that were able to predict the impact include a total of 1,205 additional employees (both blind and sighted), including 720 additional employees who are blind (61.6% of total employees). This data shows a clear connection between the triggering of sequestration and its negative impact on the employment of people who are blind and employed through the AbilityOne Program.
Many NIB-associated agency employees are ACB members. During our national conference and convention in Columbus, ACB adopted a resolution calling on NIB to develop a communications plan to spotlight the damage that the sequester has caused for so many blind and visually impaired employees working under the AbilityOne Program. NIB has done so, and is embarking on several initiatives, including outreach to Congress to inform members of the negative impact of sequestration.
ACB stands ready to assist NIB in reaching out to Congress, the federal government, and national media to insure that the damaging effects of the sequester are reversed so that people who are blind can continue to work and be active participants in the American dream.