April 14, 2022
Jeffrey A. Koses
United States AbilityOne Commission
1401 S. Clark Street
Arlington, VA 22202
Re: Draft Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2022-2026, Docket ID No. CPPBSD-2022-0003
Dear Chairperson Koses:
The National Federation of the Blind appreciates the opportunity to comment on the US AbilityOne Commission Draft Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2022-2026 (“Draft Plan”). As avid and active proponents of competitive wages and integrated employment for more than eighty years, we are pleased to see the AbilityOne Commission (“Commission”) maintain its focus on these subjects for America’s workers with disabilities.
In 2015 the National Federation of the Blind and six other national organizations in the field of disability advocacy set forth seven reform principles for the AbilityOne Program.1 Chief among these principles were the payment of prevailing wages and the elimination of subminimum wages, the commitment to greater integration of Americans with disabilities into the workplace, and greater transparency and accountability. The Draft Plan published by the Commission addresses all of these principles, but there are some strategies in the Draft Plan that give us cause for concern.
As noted in Strategic Objective I, one of the Commission’s objectives is to “expand competitive integrated employment (CIE) for people who are blind or have other significant disabilities.”2 A stated goal to achieve this outcome is to “modernize the Commission’s regulations, policies, and procedures to expand CIE within the AbilityOne Program to the maximum extent possible in light of the constraints of the current statutory structure.”3 Two of the Commission’s three strategies to accomplish this are to: (1) abolish the payment of subminimum wages through eliminating the use of section 14(c) certificates on AbilityOne contracts; and (2) identify, develop, and disseminate examples of CIE in the AbilityOne Program.4 We are in favor of the elimination of subminimum wages, and therefore strongly support the first strategy to establish, as a criterion for qualification to participate in the AbilityOne Program, the requirement that nonprofit agencies (NPAs) cannot utilize a section 14(c) certificate to pay an employee on an AbilityOne contract. To the extent possible, we would be in support of the Commission expanding this requirement to any employees with disabilities working at member NPAs, not just those on AbilityOne Contracts.
We are concerned that the second strategy for this outcome goal may lead to unintended consequences. The definition of competitive integrated employment, as the Draft Plan notes on page 12, is well-defined in statute at both 29 U.S. Code § 705(5) and 34 CFR § 361.5(c)(9). The Commission then states:
A number of NPAs have established settings in which workers on AbilityOne contracts are paid in a manner consistent with workers without disabilities, perform their work alongside other individuals doing the same type of work, and are given the opportunity to advance in the workplace similar to that afforded to other workers.5
This slight but significant revision of the criteria for competitive integrated employment effectively creates a separate definition of the term that is only applicable to NPAs in the AbilityOne Program. Given that there is a clear and established statutory definition for competitive integrated employment, as the Commission itself recognizes within the Draft Plan, we can think of no reason to create an alternate definition for the AbilityOne Program and strongly discourage doing so. Member NPAs should be required to adhere to the same specific parameters of the existing definition.
In Strategic Objective II, the Commission commits to updating “its regulations, policies and procedures to facilitate greater transparency and Program modernization.”6 It intends to accomplish this goal through a number of methods including the use of an Enterprise Risk Management framework to prioritize and track corrective action plans,7 modernizing data collection capabilities,8 modernizing and enhancing oversight of NPA compliance,9 and utilizing cooperative agreements with the central nonprofit agencies to ensure compliance.10 We believe that if these strategies are implemented as described in the Draft Plan, they will increase the transparency of the AbilityOne Program and promote increased accountability for NPAs, the central nonprofit agencies, and the Program overall. Therefore, we support this objective and look forward to the greater transparency of the Program moving forward.
The Commission’s third and final strategic objective stated in the Draft Plan is to “Partner with federal agencies and AbilityOne stakeholders to increase and improve employment opportunities for people who are blind or significantly disabled.”11 However, the term “stakeholder” is never clearly defined in the Draft Plan. Without a clear understanding of what this term means, it could be interpreted to exclude critical stakeholders such as individuals with disabilities and disability advocacy organizations with democratically elected leadership like the National Federation of the Blind.
One of the stated goals for this objective is to “work with fellow Federal agencies to help increase general employment opportunities outside of the AbilityOne Program for people who are blind or have other significant disabilities.”12 Furthermore, the specific Federal agencies mentioned in this goal include the Office of Personnel Management, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. Each of these agencies has experience working in the area of disability employment and we believe they could be excellent resources for the Commission to use, but we are certain that individuals with disabilities and disability advocacy organizations would prove to be an equally valuable resource in this endeavor.
In conclusion, we are pleased to see the Commission taking steps to increase the employment opportunities for Americans with disabilities. The specific objectives and strategies set forth by the Commission in this Draft Plan are a good start, but there is still much work to be done. We believe there are still certain items in the Draft Plan that can be improved. Most notably, we would like to maintain a single definition for “competitive integrated employment” that applies to all employment settings for people with disabilities (regardless of whether or not they are employed by an AbilityOne NPA), and to include people with disabilities and disability advocacy organizations as stakeholders in discussions on how to improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
If there are any questions or clarifications regarding our comments, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Mark A. Riccobono, President
National Federation of the Blind
- National Federation of the Blind, “Leading Organizations of Americans with Disabilities Call for Reform of AbilityOne Program,” press release, September 15, 2015, https://nfb.org/about-us/press-room/leading-organizations-americans-disabilities-call-reform-abilityoner-program.
- U.S. AbilityOne Commission, “Draft Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2022-2026,” March 15, 2022, 10.
- Ibid, 12.
- Ibid, 13.
- U.S. AbilityOne Commission, “Draft Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2022-2026,” March 15, 2022, 13.
- Ibid, 15.
- Ibid, 16.
- Ibid, 17.
- Ibid, 18.
- Ibid, 22.
- U.S. AbilityOne Commission, “Draft Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2022-2026,” March 15, 2022, 23.