Letter to the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Committee Regarding the Older Blind and Randolph-Sheppard Programs (April 27, 2022)

April 27, 2022

The Honorable Patrick Leahy
Committee on Appropriations
United States Senate
437 Russell Senate Building
Washington, DC 20510

The Honorable Richard Shelby
Vice Chair
Committee on Appropriations
United States Senate
304 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Chair Leahy and Vice Chair Shelby:

On behalf of the National Federation of the Blind, I appreciate this opportunity to recommend two appropriations to help blind Americans live the lives they want: the Independent Living Services for Older Blind Individuals (OIB) and the Randolph-Sheppard Vending Facility Program.

The OIB provides grants to states for training and tools to help older blind Americans age fifty-five or older live independently. The American Community Survey estimated that in 2018 there were 4,584,000 blind people who were fifty-five or older1 and, according to the Centers for Disease Control, this number will increase rapidly due to diabetes and other chronic diseases that cause blindness.2 For the past five fiscal years, Congress has appropriated $33,317,000 each year to serve an eligible population of approximately 4,584,000 individuals. That averages out to roughly $7.27 per eligible individual. This funding is woefully inadequate. In order for blind people to be self-reliant, they must have access to technology such as screen readers and Braille notetakers and the training to use them, as well as training in orientation and mobility and independent living skills. The limited funding for the OIB program is far from adequate to cover the cost of such training. Therefore, we urge Congress to dramatically increase funding from the president’s proposed fiscal year 2023 amount of $33,317,000 to $229,200,000. An appropriation of $229,200,000 would equate to $50 per eligible person. This increased funding to the OIB will help provide the training and tools needed for older blind Americans to live their lives independently.

Additionally, blind merchants operating under the federal priority provided by the Randolph-Sheppard Vending Program administered by the Department of Education, have been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Department of Education, prior to the pandemic the number of blind merchants throughout the United States had declined to 1,786,3 which is about half of what it was three decades ago.4 Since March 2020, many blind merchant locations have closed, with an untold number of blind merchants closing their businesses for good. These businesses are often very small, sole proprietorships, that are being permanently impacted by such factors as federal employees now being allowed to telework. The General Services Administration has told us that 70 percent of federal employees are being offered the opportunity to telework either part-time or full-time, and that 40 percent of federal workers will never return to the workplace. That means a 40 percent reduction in the number of potential customers for our blind merchants. We project that within the next 24 months the number of blind merchants will decline to between 1,300 and 1,400 and will continue on a downward trajectory for the foreseeable future.  

We are proud of our blind merchants who have done their part during the pandemic to keep our essential response teams and front-line workers going. Blind merchants have provided vending machine, micro market, and pantry services in essential state and federal buildings, military installations, hospitals, police stations, firehouses, and interstate rest areas in order to provide necessary sustenance, even while putting themselves at risk to do so.

Unfortunately, without federal assistance we will continue to feel the devastating financial impacts of COVID-19 for years to come. Blind operators need Congressional support. The President’s budget provides $500,000 for training and technical assistance to state licensing agencies and blind merchants. While we appreciate the funding, training and technical assistance is already being provided. The declining numbers are not due to lack of training or technical assistance. We urge Congress to redesignate the funds for a grant to conduct a study on how to revitalize the Randolph-Sheppard Program. The study could identify deficiencies and make recommendations to Congress on potential legislation, needed regulatory changes, funding needs, and more. The study could also identify best practices that states can use to create new opportunities for blind merchants and to cultivate their Randolph-Sheppard program. Furthermore, expert thought leaders from the organized blind movement should be central stakeholders in guiding and carrying out the study to ensure that the proposed outcomes are grounded in the lived experience of blind individuals. This study will bring better opportunities to address future needs and allow a level playing field to compete in a 21st century business environment.

We welcome the opportunity to have further dialogue regarding these very important matters.  

Mark Riccobono, President
National Federation of the Blind

1. United States Census Bureau. American Community Survey. https://data.census.gov/mdat/#/.
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2020. “Fast Facts of Common Eye Disorders.” Last modified June 9, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/visionhealth/basics/ced/fastfacts.htm#:~:text=As%20of%202012%2C%204.2%20million,and%20our%20rapidly%20aging%20U.S.
3. Rehabilitation Services Administration. n.d. “Randolph Sheppard Vending Facility Program.” Accessed April 15, 2022. https://rsa.ed.gov/program/rand-shep.
4. United States House Committee on Education and Labor Subcommittee on Select Education. 1991. “Hearing on the Randolph-Sheppard Act.” October 31, 1991.