The Braille Monitor                                                                                               May, 2002

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Building the New Randolph-Sheppard Program

by Kevan Worley

Kevan Worley
Kevan Worley

From the Editor: The National Association of Blind Merchants conducts a spring conference each year, whichcombines useful information, constructive networking, and great recreation. This year the conference was held in Las Vegas, and according to those who attended, it was probably the best spring conference the division has ever conducted. Kevan Worley is the President of the group, and he delivered an honest but up-beat opening address. It seemed appropriate to reprint it here for the benefit of all those who were not present to hear it in early March. Here it is:

I would like to welcome all of you to our BLAST 2002 Spring Conference, sponsored by the National Association of Blind Merchants. When you work to put together what I think will be a marvelous training and networking opportunity, you naturally have second thoughts and nagging fears that the conference won't include all of the elements that people in and around our program need to empower them.

As people arrived yesterday and we had our first reception last night, sponsored by our friends at Cantu Food Service, and as I looked over the agenda this morning, I became even more sure that this will be a high-caliber training conference and information-sharing forum offering all of the participants something--something you can take home, something you can use after this BLAST conference to build your businesses and our program. But if for some reason it doesn't meet everyone's expectations, if it is not really the BLAST we have planned and hoped for, I just want you all to remember that the Program Chairman was Don Morris.

I want to take just a minute to bring you greetings from Dr. Maurer. President Maurer would have liked to be here himself. When I called him a few months ago to talk with him about Business, Leadership, and Superior Training in Las Vegas, he said that he was very intrigued and that he would like to come but his schedule just would not permit it. He said, "Kevan, you know how important Randolph-Sheppard," or as  he sometimes puts it, "the vending program--how important that is to me and to all of us in the National Federation of the Blind."

Dr. Maurer asked me to bring you his greetings and to convey to you his continued involvement with and commitment to blind merchants. I was tempted to ask him if he knew the difference between involvement and commitment. You know, that's like an eggs and ham breakfast: the chicken was involved, but the pig was committed. I chose not to ask, knowing that our National President grew up in Boone, Iowa. I figured he might know something about chickens and pigs and such like, and I know he knows about involvement and commitment.

You will note that our agenda says, "’Building the New Randolph-Sheppard Program,' an address by Kevan Worley." As I considered what comments I should make to open our BLAST conference, I was reminded of a story I heard about Will Rogers. Just prior to World War Two concerns about German U Boats lurking off our country's coast ran rampant. Will Rogers offered the idea that it was easy to solve the problem. He said, "We can just bring the ocean to the boiling point; that will keep the German subs away."

But when someone asked, "Yes, but how would you do that?"

Will Rogers responded, "I don't know. I do policy, not implementation." With that in mind I thought I would begin our BLAST Conference by offering some perspective, which I hope will serve to tie together the various seminars and elements of our Business, Leadership, and Superior Training.

We are going to discuss managing and embracing change. We are going to provide training in customer service and customer recovery. We are going to tackle the sometimes treacherous task of hiring and managing our employees. We are going to talk about expanding our program by using teaming partnerships for military cafeteria contracting and in other areas where the Randolph-Sheppard priority extends. We will hear about the magic and the mystique found in one of the most successful franchises in this country, Krispy Kreme Donuts, to give us something to emulate and perhaps in which to participate.

We will have the opportunity to meet with and learn about national distributors offering us unique buying opportunities, through the National Buyers Group. And the National Buyers Group will co-sponsor ‘Cocktails and Conversation’ along with our friends at Blackstone Consulting, a company which has developed an entire division devoted to providing instruction and support to blind vendors in military dining.

In a very few minutes James Gashel, this country's leading authority on Randolph-Sheppard and related laws, will be providing his perspective, analysis, and insight. We will be hearing from Joanne Wilson, Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, the Federal Agency which is responsible for overseeing and insuring the health and vitality of the Randolph-Sheppard Program. There will be plenty of opportunity for both formal and informal networking and information-sharing, merchant to merchant, state to state, and partner to partner. It is a lot to tackle in about three days, and I think it is going to be a blast.

It's a lot to tackle; that's a phrase which for me often sums up the Randolph-Sheppard Program. Sometimes it seems awfully daunting with its maze of complexities and inconsistencies--man, it can be a lot to tackle. Don Morris, my merchant mentor, once described the Randolph-Sheppard Program as "An incredible opportunity with imminent disaster nipping at its heels," or, as another wise man once said, "We are surrounded by insurmountable opportunities."

One of our tasks then over the next two-and-a-half days is to uncover those opportunities and think up the strategies to surmount them, to gain as much knowledge as we can from the experts we have assembled, and to take that knowledge home and act to avoid the disaster and embrace the possibilities of the Randolph-Sheppard Program. Emily Dickinson once wrote, "I dwell in possibility." It is in that spirit that I welcome you to Business, Leadership, and Superior Training and encourage you to absorb the knowledge, make the contacts, and embrace the possibility.

It would be easy to hold another conference where everybody sat around ranting about the problems, railing against the agencies, and wringing their hands over the shortcomings of the Randolph-Sheppard Program. But that wouldn't be practical or productive. So we will leave the hand-wringing, the name-calling, and the whining to someone else.

We all know the list of challenges. There are almost one thousand fewer blind vendors today than ten years ago. The state VR agencies don't seem to have the commitment to recruit qualified blind men and women, visually impaired or totally blind, and provide high-quality, concentrated training. Those of us who have derived great benefit from this program have not done as much as we should to reach out with thanks and appreciation to those in rehabilitation and our Federation. Training and licensing requirements are as inconsistent and varied from state to state as the topography of the states themselves. The active participation called for in the Randolph-Sheppard amendments in 1974 is still mostly a promise, not a reality. Randolph-Sheppard opportunities have become more limited by a shrinking federal and state workforce over the past decade and by a migration of a portion of that workforce to leased properties. Our opportunities have also been limited on many occasions by an inconsistent understanding of and adherence to the Randolph-Sheppard Law by many federal agencies. The Randolph-Sheppard Act has been interpreted by some vendors and some state agencies as a license for litigiousness. Some states have become battlefields of conflict and confrontation with far too much time and resources devoted to tussling over turf rather than recruitment, training, and business development.

In the face of those and other challenges, we must continue to challenge ourselves and to increase operational, sanitation, customer-service, and profit standards and expectations. Yes, even that non-exhaustive list of challenges and concerns could be exhausting if we let it, but we won't because that's not what we do in the National Association of Blind Merchants and the National Federation of the Blind. More and more we are finding state agencies willing to develop real partnerships with us, to dial down the rhetoric of divisiveness and ratchet up responsiveness, innovation, and expectations in order to realize the true potential and possibility of Randolph-Sheppard.

We in the National Association of Blind Merchants dwell in possibility because we know from where we have come. We know that the hopes and dreams of blind merchant vendors have always been and remain inextricably linked to the hopes, dreams, actions, and expectations of all blind people. As the National Federation of the Blind, the organized blind movement, over the past six decades has raised awareness and increased options, daring us to dream bigger dreams, so have we seen the expansion of possibilities for blind entrepreneurs in Randolph-Sheppard. And we in the National Association of Blind Merchants understand that it is our Federation philosophy, positive attitude about our blindness, inclusion, and experimentation that will allow us to tackle the tough issues and build a new Randolph-Sheppard Program.

It has been said that "An optimist believes that we live in the best of all possible worlds and that a pessimist fears that this is true." Sometimes, when I address meetings of blind vendors around the country, I am accused of being overly optimistic about our program--too idealistic, they say. I am called an utopian when I enthusiastically embrace the possibility that we can fix many of the problems at the foundation of this program. I think I am a realist, a pragmatist.

Just think of how far we have come. In 1936, when the Randolph-Sheppard Act became law, only a handful of blind people were eking out an income at little lobby stands selling candy and cigarettes. Today blind retailers are licensed to operate a variety of outlets including vending machines at postal facilities, at prisons, and on the highways; convenience stores; gift emporiums; snack bars; full food cafeterias; food courts; and military dining halls--serving thousands of meals a day to our nation's men and women in uniform. And while the challenges I mentioned earlier and others are truly cause for alarm, I believe we have it within our power to blast away at the fundamental flaws eating at the foundation of our program and build anew. But I believe we had better start now, this week, at this BLAST Conference, before it is too late.

As you might imagine, as President of the National Association of Blind Merchants I get many calls a week from blind vendors from all over the country, and I am often struck by an almost palpable sense of powerlessness from many of them. A vendor from an eastern state believes that the agency wants to take his Coke commissions; another vendor tells me he is being persecuted by the agency because he is losing money managing a facility which he believes used to be subsidized before he took it over. When I asked if he was involved with our organization, he says he doesn't see the point. When I asked him if he has taken steps to review service and reduce labor, he says he can't. He can't tell me why; he just can't. Not long ago a vendor from Colorado told me he blamed the agency for not buying him a waffle iron. I couldn't understand why, if there were bucks to be made in waffles, this blind vendor didn't just go to the restaurant supply, Target, or Wal-Mart and buy a waffle iron.

As I write these comments, I get a call from a vendor who says she has a brand new vending machine only two weeks old, and the switches aren't working properly. But rather than taking advantage of the warranty on a brand new piece of equipment, an agency staff member just came out, took a piece of wire, and rigged the machine to work, probably nullifying the warranty. Another vendor wants to know if it is legal for the agency to make him pay a 13 percent commission to the post office. Another vendor calls to ask if the bagel shop, located in the same break area as his vending machines in a Federal building, should be paying him a commission.

And another vendor calls to tell me that he thinks the agency and the state of Florida building management are treating him unfairly by writing him up for having a filthy facility because, as he puts it, "I don't see very well, and I can't always tell what's dirty." Last week I was on the phone with a blind vendor, trying to convince him to come to our customer service training at this conference. While I was on the phone, I heard him snap at a customer, "I am tired of running to the bank to get change for your parking meters and phone calls."

To each of these vendors I say, "Our struggle may be one of circumstance; it cannot be one of excuses. You must not fear; you must join your fellows for knowledge, understanding, and concerted action. You must read the Randolph-Sheppard Act and your state's laws and regulations; you must seek the training in the skills of blindness to increase your own personal confidence. You must get the necessary business and other training by attending your state's elected committee meetings, annual meetings, upward-mobility training, community college courses, independent study, and seminars such as BLAST. You can read the Business and Consumer sections of this country's newspapers, now available on NFB-NEWSLINE, nationwide and toll-free. I suggest that you join Business Organizations, Civic Organizations, and the National Federation of the Blind for knowledge, mutual support, inspiration, and empowerment.

Why must you do all of these things? Because that's what successful entrepreneurs do. Our struggle may be one of circumstance; it must not be one of excuses. No, the agency should not unilaterally snatch your Coke commissions and give them to the school district. No, you should probably not be paying big commissions to the post office. No, you are probably not entitled to a commission from the Bagel shop in your break area; instead you should be working with the SLA to take over and operate the shop yourself. We must be recruiting and training blind people in the competencies and confidence to operate that shop, not sell out our opportunities. And, yes, you can tell if your facility is dirty, and, if customers come to your store in need of quarters for phones and parking meters, go to the bank more often or find someone to go for you and give them those quarters with a smile.

Again I say, "Our struggle may be one of circumstance; it can not become one of excuses, for down that road lie lack of self-respect, low self-esteem, and servitude. Those who are lost on that road travel far from the spirit and intent of the Randolph-Sheppard Act and very far from the empowering precepts of the National Federation of the Blind.

You know, not long after the Randolph-Sheppard Act passed in 1936 came the birth of the National Federation of the Blind. So the history of our program and the Federation are very nearly parallel in time. In the banquet address at the National Federation of the Blind Convention given by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan in 1983 entitled "Blindness: The Other Half of Inertia," Dr. Jernigan spoke of those early days. He said: "In the beginning the force of inertia worked against us (things at rest tend to remain at rest); but pressure was applied, and the acceleration was noticeable and immediate. Of course at first the progress was slow (it always is). The situation was aggravated by the mass involved, for with a given pressure the build-up is always in direct proportion to the mass which has to be moved. And the mass which we had to move was tremendous. It was all of society--all of it (including ourselves): society--with its accumulated stereotypes, misconceptions, and prejudices; society--with its mistaken ideas and "freaky" notions about blindness, going back to the dawn of history--ideas and notions imbedded in literature, locked in folklore, and sanctified by tradition."

Dr. Jernigan was a builder, and as we consider from where we have come, evaluate where we are, and plan the constructive action to take us where we want to go, I can think of no better builder for us to emulate than Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. That is why we have included that banquet address, "Blindness: The Other Half of Inertia" and his insightful and inspirational article "Blindness: Handicap or Characteristic" in your training materials packet.

I think we can reclaim, remodel, and renovate Randolph-Sheppard; but the first step of this reconstruction project must be an honest and truthful evaluation of where we are. Ron Yudd, the nationally known food service marketing and management consultant, advises managers and small business owners to walk their facility from parking lot to back dock as though it is the first time they have ever been in that facility. He says, act as if you were a customer; what do you see? Note the good and the not so good. Mr. Yudd's advice has really helped me and my staff look at our business in a new and fresh way. It is perhaps my favorite of Ron's "Fifty Points of Profit" taught at our merchants conference last spring and available on our website at <www.blindmerchants.org>.

I urge all of us to go home and walk our businesses looking and touching and tasting as though for the first time. Do it critically, with attention to every detail with a view to highlight and celebrate what you do well and challenge yourself to change what isn't working immediately. Take your key manager with you if you have one; take a spouse, parent, or someone from your SLA with you; and take seriously their input and advice. This is a hands-on, proactive small business evaluation, which really works.

Can we apply this methodology to our entire program? I think we can, and I think we must. Look around the system; walk our program from rehabilitation counselor to retirement. What do we see? What do we notice when we walk through the Randolph-Sheppard system as though we have never been here before? We should all take care to highlight and celebrate what is working well, for indeed many things are working well, and we must make up our minds to work individually and collectively to change what isn't working. We must make up our minds to reclaim, remodel, and renovate Randolph-Sheppard. We must build on the best of what we have and infuse our program with new ideas, experience, and energy.

We can build a new Randolph-Sheppard. It will happen only through our effort, based on our experience, ignited by our energy. It will be built only if we build it. I believe we can, and I believe we will, and who are we? We are the National Association of Blind Merchants, a strong and proud division of the National Federation of the Blind. We have the means, the momentum, and the muscle to take the lead; to increase the inertia; to turn the wheel of progress; and to spin the wheel of experimentation, inclusion, and expansion.

In the mid-1970’s the Randolph-Sheppard amendments gave blind vendors the promise, at least, of more rights to control our own destiny through active participation and, with those rights increased, responsibility to become true entrepreneurs. By the mid-eighties more blind vendors were on the highways, and a little over a decade ago we began to develop teaming partnerships so that some blind entrepreneurs could use their experience and expertise to manage military cafeterias. In recent years the National Association of Blind Merchants has endeavored to develop a National Buyers Group to harness the incredible buying power of Randolph-Sheppard retailers. This National Group Buying Project has not been a complete success yet. But neither has that promise of real active participation called for in the Randolph-Sheppard legislation of twenty-eight years ago, and I am not ready to give up on either one.

In the early 1990's the National Counsel of State Agencies for the Blind (NCSAB) refused to pass a resolution endorsing real active participation; last year they did. And with the leadership of the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) and the active participation of Blind Vendors and state agencies, a new federal policy has been drafted. Joe Cordova of RSA assures us that the new directive on active participation will be coming out soon.

My colleagues and friends, I do have the faith that working together we can blast into a new era and build new opportunities in Randolph-Sheppard. But I also know that, even as we improve business practices and active participation and achieve a greater acceptance of our priority and presence by federal and state agencies, we never know from where our next challenge will come.

For example, I never expected that an organization representing teachers of blind children and other rehabilitation professionals would question the purpose and possibilities of our Randolph-Sheppard Program. But let me read to you from a letter written by Brenda Sheppard, the president of the Colorado Chapter of AER [Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired]. First she quotes from our NFB of Colorado fact sheet, which supports the creation of a separate agency for the blind in Colorado. "In Colorado the Randolph-Sheppard Program has been facing severe budgetary problems and a lack of direction." At this point CAER President Sheppard interjects, "Questions have been raised as to whether or not this program is discriminatory as it is currently only a program for blind individual participation."

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised by Ms. Sheppard's lack of understanding and insight; after all, history shows us that there is precedent for this attitude on the part of some who work in the blindness field. In 1936 the American Association of Workers for the Blind (AAWB), an AER predecessor organization, refused to pass a resolution at its national convention to endorse the pending Randolph-Sheppard legislation. You would think Brenda and her colleagues who teach blind children and counsel blind adults would be all for the most successful employment program for the blind ever.

So let this BLAST Conference serve as a focal point to strengthen our resolve to meet whatever challenges come. And there will be challenges: of that you can be sure. Yogi Berra had it just about right when he said, "You have a great future even if the future isn't what it used to be." Franklin Delano Roosevelt put it another way. He said, "The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today." I have no doubt that the Business, Leadership, and Superior Training offered at this conference can serve as a foundation for building a Randolph-Sheppard Program that can withstand future challenges. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "The ancestor to any action is a thought." Over the next three days we will be thinking together so that we can go home and act. Einstein said, "Nothing happens until something moves." I hope this BLAST conference is a launching pad for thoughts, ideas, strategies, contacts, and partnerships which will propel this Randolph-Sheppard Program to even greater possibility.

As Dr. Jernigan said in his 1983 banquet address, "We have learned the truth of the other half of inertia: things in motion tend to remain in motion, and it is as hard to stop something which is moving as it is to start something which is not." Dr. Jernigan said, "We are moving." Federation Merchants, we are moving. We can recapture that momentum, reclaim Randolph-Sheppard, and blast into the future together--renewed, refocused, and reenergized.

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