Braille Monitor                                                             February 2007

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It's Not Your Grandfather's NIB Anymore

by James H. Omvig

Jim OmvigFrom the Editor: Jim Omvig is a longtime leader of the National Federation of the Blind. He was one of Kenneth Jernigan’s students at the Iowa Commission for the Blind in 1961. He went on to become the first blind student ever accepted into the Loyola University of Chicago School of Law and then the first blind attorney ever hired by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). He worked for the NLRB in both Washington, D.C., and New York City, where he learned about and became expert in the federal processes of employee unionization, before changing his career path and becoming deeply committed to vocational rehabilitation and residential orientation-and-adjustment centers for the blind.

In 1976, through his work as an NFB volunteer, Jim was able to bring about a change in federal labor relations law which meant that, for the first time in American history, blind sheltered shop workers had the right to unionize in order to improve their wages and working conditions through collective bargaining.

In February of 2003 he was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve as one of the fifteen members of the President's Committee for Purchase from People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled. This group of presidential appointees administers what is known as the Javits-Wagner-O'Day (JWOD) program, under which the federal government purchases commodities and services from nonprofit agencies in order to provide jobs for the blind or severely disabled. Last July he was elected to serve a two-year term as vice chairman of the Committee for Purchase. Jim is also the author of the books, Freedom for the Blind and The Blindness Revolution.

He believes strongly that certain facts about the changing status of National Industries for the Blind and the JWOD program should be more generally known. Here is what he has to say:

Those who attended last year's national convention in Dallas will recall that we had quite a discussion on Friday afternoon about the current status of what were formerly known as sheltered workshops for the blind. The debate had nothing to do with whether the shops are good or bad, improved or not, or whether National Industries for the Blind (NIB), which manages the blind side of the Javits-Wagner-O'Day (JWOD) program, is doing a good job or a poor one. The sole question being debated was what political strategy the National Federation of the Blind should use in the twenty-first century to advocate most effectively for blind JWOD program workers.
It is well known that the Federation can and does sometimes use the in-your-face approach as a political tactic when this seems most appropriate, and I applaud it. However, sometimes another kind of diplomacy may be equally or even more appropriate. I believe that this is particularly true today, at a time when the National Federation of the Blind is the focal point of everything constructive taking place in the field of work with the blind in America.

Be all of this as it may, now that the dust has settled, it seems to me that it would be appropriate to provide Monitor readers with certain relevant facts about the JWOD program as it exists today. In my role as a member of what is commonly referred to as the “President's Committee,” I have had the opportunity to glean certain factual information that was not apparent to me as a civilian and that might not be apparent to you. Because I am integrally involved in the process of change, I feel some obligation to communicate the current facts accurately.

I begin by offering a few simple truths:

It seems to me that we who are blind (or at least most of us) are willing without a great deal of fanfare to acknowledge that improvements have actually taken place concerning library services, federal public assistance programs, vending stand opportunities, vocational rehabilitation programs, and the education of blind children. I believe that, as certain facts are made known, most of us will also agree that real and significant progress has been made concerning the employment and advancement of blind workers in the JWOD program.

Since some younger readers may be unaware of past issues that often brought about conflict in the blindness community, I offer the following brief history to bring you up to speed:

The first school for the blind in America, the New England Asylum for the Blind (now the Perkins School for the Blind), was established in 1829, and many others were established over the next twenty or thirty years. The stated purpose of these early schools was to prepare blind adults for jobs in the "blind trades," jobs such as rug or basket weaving, chair caning, and the like.

These lofty intentions failed, and officials concluded that a new employment program was necessary. Therefore, what was called a "sheltered workshop" program was established, and the first shop for the blind to provide employment for blind adults was established in 1850 in New York. Soon many other shops were established, and adult blind workers began making brooms, mops, brushes, etc.

By 1938, as America was coming out of the Great Depression, it occurred to a couple of members of the United States Congress named Wagner and O'Day that more employment for blind workers could be created if the federal government itself were to purchase the brooms, mops, and brushes it needed for cleaning federal buildings from sheltered shops for the blind, and a new federal program was created.

That year, 1938, Congress also decided to establish minimum wage protections for American workers. This was a lofty goal too, but in the view of some in the Congress, since “Blind workers couldn't possibly be as productive as sighted workers," they were excluded from the coverage of the new federal minimum wage laws.

The National Federation of the Blind was organized just two years later, in 1940, and from the very beginning the Federation was vitally concerned about the treatment and well-being of blind workers in the new federal sheltered workshop system. The Federation argued that blind workers were as valuable as sighted workers and should receive the same wages. As employee benefits became the norm in America, the Federation argued that blind workers deserved to receive these same benefits. Many of the shops were substandard in their working conditions and often tried to operate using antiquated or broken equipment, and the Federation argued that the shops should undergo modernization in the same way commercial businesses did. We maintained that shop workers should be able to try to improve their wages and working conditions through unions and the collective bargaining process just as sighted workers did, but the sheltered shops and their parent organization, National Industries for the Blind, vigorously opposed this effort. The Federation argued that blind production workers should be able to move into management or supervisory positions, but this rarely happened. And the Federation argued that at least some blind workers should be moved through the sheltered shop system and into ordinary, competitive employment, but this was also resisted by most of the managers--they had no incentive if they lost those whom they considered to be their best and most productive workers.

The original Wagner-O'Day Act was amended by the Congress in 1971 at the urging of Senator Javits of New York, and the program became the Javits-Wagner-O'Day (JWOD) program. The new law included shops that employed severely disabled workers as well as the blind within the program, and it also authorized the federal government to purchase services as well as commodities in order to put more money in the pockets of blind or severely disabled workers. Even after the new amendments, however, conditions remained about the same for blind workers despite the fact that much more modern and sophisticated work has become available for blind workers through the years.

Few Monitor readers know, but I myself did a short stint in one of the shops--the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind. I was attending law school in Chicago, and I needed money in the summer of either 1964 or 1965, so I worked at the Lighthouse putting little things together with my hands for $.75 per hour.

These, then, and similar issues are what has kept the sheltered shop system and the Federation at odds through the years, and it is fair to say that there has not been much cooperation or collaboration on anything. But that was then, and this is now.

A brief review reveals that the Federation's dogged persistence has paid off and that major changes and improvements have taken place over the past twenty or thirty years. Although employment opportunities and conditions for the approximately fifty-eight hundred blind workers in the NIB system are not utopian, they are far better today than they were in the past, and relations between the Federation and the NIB and its associated agencies are also much better today than they have ever been.

Before turning to a discussion of some of these significant changes, one final piece of historical information is relevant: in 1998 the NIB board took what some would probably perceive to be drastic action. It hired a blind person as its president and CEO. This was a first. He is Jim Gibbons, a blind man who had made his mark in the rough-and-tumble of corporate America. Difficult as it is to imagine, never in its sixty-plus years had NIB appointed a blind CEO.

In the overall scheme it really doesn't matter who claims credit for what has happened. What does matter to blind people is that change, real change, has occurred.

For example, rather than making mops and brooms, most production workers now operate high-tech equipment producing office products; other, more sophisticated items for the government; or uniforms, helmets, and the like for the military. Blind workers also perform certain kinds of services for the government.
A few of the more notable policy changes or other events are:

A) A nationwide recruitment program was launched in 2003 to identify blind people who might possess leadership potential, and a two-year Fellowship for Business Leadership program was established. Three blind students graduated from the first two-year class in the fall of 2005--they are now working in key management positions in NIB-associated agencies, and six more blind trainees were enrolled in 2006.

B) Twenty-eight blind students graduated in 2005 from an eighteen-month management training program developed and delivered for NIB by the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. It is called the Business Management Training program, and another twenty-eight trainees were enrolled in 2006.

C) An estimated one-thousand blind workers will have been served in 2006 through NIB's Leadership at All Levels program.

D) A new distance-learning program was inaugurated by NIB in 2006 to offer additional learning and self-improvement opportunities for blind production employees.

I believe all this adds up to a kind of progress that should be acknowledged, but there is more. Modernization is also taking place both in programs and facilities, and the management recruiting and training programs are already working and beginning to pay huge dividends.

At a recent meeting of the NIB board of directors, I commended the associated agencies for the outstanding progress they are making by moving blind people into key leadership positions, but I also offered a caution. I reminded them that, occasionally in the history of the blindness system, blind people have been moved into key positions simply because they were blind, not because they were qualified, and failure was the inevitable outcome. I reminded the agencies that their process must be to hire qualified leaders who happened to be blind.
Finally, concerning modernization, a year or two ago my wife Sharon and I sat at the NIB annual awards banquet with a blind telephone operator who was being named NIB employee of the year. He answered phones at the Dover (Delaware) Air Force Base, and he earned $22 per hour with full benefits. And I have toured many modern industrial plants, including Baltimore's Blind Industries and Services of Maryland and Lancaster's Susquehanna Association for the Blind, which are quite different from the facilities I knew in the old days.

Perhaps the most intriguing of these is a military warehousing facility that members of the Committee visited in Phoenix in the fall of 2006. It is operated by Arizona Industries for the Blind. Members of the President's Committee (including admirals and generals) were unanimous in their opinion that this was the most impressive warehousing operation they had ever seen anywhere. It was huge, spotless, complicated, orderly, and armed with high-tech equipment which made it possible for totally blind employees to go independently throughout the warehouse picking out items of inventory for packaging and shipping by other blind employees. I spoke with a nineteen-year-old blind man (an inventory picker) who was earning $11 an hour, and he enjoyed the same fringe benefits as Arizona state employees. He had been earning $6 an hour (with no benefits) in a commercial business before coming to work in the warehouse.
As we of the President's Committee were leaving the warehouse, the current sighted CEO told us that it is his plan that the next Arizona Industries CEO will be a blind person. Attitudes about the management abilities of the blind are shifting.

Who knows what the future may hold? Certainly not all NIB-associated agency programs mirror what I have just described, but the good news is that many do. I have always assumed that, as the Federation positively affects educational or vocational rehabilitation programs everywhere so that blind people routinely receive the training they need to become empowered, blind people would move more and more steadily into competitive jobs, and the need, at least for the blind portion of the JWOD program, would quietly fade away in the relentless, grinding crush of evolution. And perhaps it will, but a tiny part of me wonders if the day might conceivably come when employment opportunities in the JWOD program will equal or exceed those in the competitive world and be at least as attractive. The nineteen-year-old Phoenix warehouse inventory picker probably thinks so, and the newly appointed blind CEOs probably think so too.
In any case, one thing is certain: It really is not your grandfather’s National Industries for the Blind anymore.

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