Braille Monitor                                                 August/September 2011

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Changes in Policy and Programs for the Blind

by Jim Kesteloot

Jim KestelootFrom the Editor: The next speaker on this panel was Jim Kesteloot, who is a member of the Committee for Purchase From People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled, now named AbilityOne.

Thank you. I am going to start off my comments by doing something different than I planned on. I hope it is no secret here that I support the payment of at least U.S. minimum wage to people who are blind. Based on that, I personally have to support the two resolutions that were passed yesterday here at this convention. [Applause] Further, I believe going right to the root, right to the legislation, is really the way to do this and to put this to rest once and for all. Normally I am introduced these days as the past executive director of the Chicago Lighthouse, but, to tell you the truth, I never really saw myself as president or executive director of the Chicago Lighthouse. I always saw myself first and foremost as a person who is blind. I’ve been blind my whole life.

In 2010 I was appointed by President Obama to the United States AbilityOne Commission, which was formerly known as the Committee for Purchase From People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled. I was appointed as a private citizen to represent the interests of people who are blind, and that’s how I see my role. That’s how I see my responsibility. It was an honor to be appointed by President Obama, because I know he is a strong supporter of the AbilityOne program. And I also know he is aware of the National Federation of the Blind. [Applause] I know that because just a few years ago I took him on a tour of the Chicago Lighthouse. He came specifically to see our AbilityOne programs. He came with some of his staff, and after the tour we had a chance to talk with him and some of his staff. At that time I learned he was aware of the National Federation of the Blind and its advocacy in the area of minimum wage.

I’ve been in this business a long time, forty-five years, so I have had a chance to develop some historical perspectives, but, before I do that, I’d just like to take a few minutes to explain the AbilityOne program, to describe it a little. The landmark legislation was originally known as the Wagner Act, and it was passed in 1938. The Act set up a method whereby a not-for-profit organization that employed people who are blind could manufacture and supply a product to the federal government. In 1971 the Act was amended and became known as the Javits-Wagner-O’Day Act (JWOD). Two changes happened back then. The first was that they added that not-for-profits that employed people who are blind could supply services as well as products to the federal government. The second change was that the Act included other not-for-profit organizations that employed people with other severe disabilities.

The Act established the independent federal agency known as the United States AbilityOne Commission with fifteen members appointed by the president. Eleven are executives from federal agencies. Two members represent the interests of people with severe disabilities. And then there are another two members who represent the interests of people who are blind. I’m one of the appointees that represents people who are blind. The other is James H. Omvig. [Applause] And Jim Omvig is also the vice chairperson of the AbilityOne Commission. The commission has the power through casting votes to place a product or service on a special procurement list. Once that product or service is listed on that special procurement list, federal agencies must buy those products and services from designated not-for-profit organizations that employ people who are blind or people with other severe disabilities.

There are two associated national not-for-profit agencies under the AbilityOne system. One is National Industries for the Blind, and the other is NISH. National Industries for the Blind helps local not-for-profits develop products that will eventually go to the Commission for a vote and hopefully placement on the procurement list. And NISH does the same for not-for-profits that employ people with other severe disabilities. Through this process of casting votes, agencies for the blind manufacture and supply writing instruments and all kinds of office products. They manufacture U.S. Army T-shirts and Coast Guard sweat suits and supply switchboard operations to veterans hospitals and army installations--all kinds of products.

As I said, I’ve been in this business a long time; I have sort of an historical perspective. I’m basically an optimistic person, but I do remember as Dr. Maurer said, in the early 1970s, '73, '75, the mentality and the generally accepted practice in which agencies for the blind were paying piece rate without guarantee of minimum wage. As I see it today, the vast majority of agencies for the blind truly accept that the best business practice is to pay people who are blind at least the U.S. minimum wage. I was on the board of National Industries for the Blind when we voted that its members were as a policy to pay at least U.S. minimum wage to blind workers. NIB set up a system in which rehabilitation engineers would help local not-for-profit agencies use the best manufacturing methods, equipment, and technology to make sure revenues were maximized so at least the U.S. minimum wage could be paid to blind workers. Yet even today, as we’ve heard from the previous speaker, we still have a long way to go.

Some agencies still pay subminimum wages. You know, paying at a piece rate is a nineteenth-century concept. That’s how people were paid in the 1800s. That’s how people were paid in 1905 and 1910. When you’re paid on a piece-rate basis, an unfair burden is put on your blind labor. They are unfair burdens that really don’t belong on the blind worker; the burden belongs on the employer because some of those burdens will affect the blind person’s ability, anybody’s ability to produce higher quantities of work, which means higher income for the person. For example, if the employer has poor supervision, that can affect the blind workers’ piece rate that they are producing, so it’s going to result in their earning less money. If the employer has poor supply techniques, that isn’t the problem of the worker. That’s the problem of the employer. If the parts are defective, that shouldn’t affect the worker’s wages through lower production. They’ve got to get the right parts there. If you are not using the right, most efficient, effective machinery to do your production, that’s not the blind worker’s fault. It should not affect that person in the form of lower wages. If you’re working in conditions that are hot or cramped or cold, that can affect production. That is not the responsibility of the blind worker; that’s the responsibility of the employer. If you have generally poor industrial engineering techniques, that is not the problem of the blind worker; that’s the problem of the employer.

A guaranteed minimum wage means that, when those negative factors are in place, they don’t affect the blind workers’ wages. They still get paid the guaranteed U.S. minimum wage. They affect the employer that is not doing things right. Paying on a piece rate is a nineteenth-century concept. I believe paying U.S. minimum wage is a twentieth-century concept. We’re in the twenty-first century; we’re not in the twentieth century. I believe that we should be paying a living wage greater than U.S. minimum wage. It should be a wage that workers could support their families on, a wage that enables people to purchase a home, put their children through school, and have all the other American dreams that everybody else has the opportunity to access.

I mentioned earlier that I’m kind of an optimistic person. I’m probably the newest appointee on the U.S. AbilityOne Commission. I honestly see that paying a living wage is the direction that the U.S. AbilityOne Commission is going. I have no doubt that this is because of the National Federation of the Blind’s advocacy over the past thirty-five or forty-five years. [Applause] You have done it single-handedly, without help from anybody else, put this major issue in front of everybody to the point where it is, in my view, changing, and the actual best business practice is now accepted as paying U.S. minimum wage. As Janet Szlyk mentioned, we have contracts and wages that we’re paying our manufacturing workers $11.21 an hour, our service workers $21.85 an hour, and our contract management staff $27.74 an hour. As I see staff and leadership at AbilityOne up through Tina Ballard, that to me is what they want to do, and the direction that they’re going is to pay a minimum wage.

Dr. Maurer mentioned his first time at the Chicago Lighthouse in 1975. I recall those days very clearly because the National Federation of the Blind advocated all these years not only for good wages, but also for good working conditions. I remember in 1975, when we were picketed, we weren’t doing things right; we were paying on the piece-rate basis, not necessarily with any kind of guaranteed minimum wage, and frankly our working conditions were substandard. The National Federation confronted Chicago Lighthouse on those two issues. I look back at that, and that was the best thing that ever happened to the Chicago Lighthouse. [Applause] The reason that was the best thing that ever happened to the Chicago Lighthouse was that shortly thereafter the board changed management. Shortly thereafter management instituted the U.S. minimum wage. Shortly thereafter we instituted a guaranteed minimum wage that was higher than the U.S. minimum wage. Shortly thereafter management and board vowed to build a facility that was a model—that people who were blind and everybody involved would be proud of.

Shortly after that confrontation the board relooked at its board of directors and wanted to make sure that there was significant representation on that board by people who were blind or perhaps family members of people who were blind because that was a good way to ensure that good wages were paid and that the working conditions were good. Those three things have kind of become part of the culture at the Chicago Lighthouse, and I have no doubt that that has influenced many agencies across the country to do the same thing--to pay minimum wage, to have a quality work environment.

I think the changes I see, and I am optimistic, definitely result from inspiring leadership, leadership from both national and state NFB people, people like Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, Marc Maurer, James H. Omvig, Jim Gashel, Fred Schroeder, Anil Lewis, Patti Chang, who heads up the Illinois Federation of the Blind. When you first walk into the AbilityOne offices, there is now a display that you can’t help running right into. It features Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. A quote on that wall says, “It is respectable to be blind.” [Applause]

I see the staff and other Commission members, and I have great confidence in Tina Ballard and the staff moving the program in the right direction—higher wages. The jobs that are coming out of the AbilityOne program today are knowledge-based. They exist in federal buildings, federal facilities--federal military facilities--and they have a principle of quality work environment. A subcommittee in the AbilityOne Commission on quality work environment is chaired by James H. Omvig. There are three or four principles: paying competitive wages, making sure that worker satisfaction is monitored, that there is a clear career path for people who are blind, and that there is ongoing training that could help people in the program move up in the system. NIB has a training program that leads to all kinds of leadership jobs in NIB. They offer graduate training to folks in the program, supervisory training, internships, and fellowships. People have moved up to CEO positions at not-for-profit agencies, vice president positions, and supervisory positions. This is what I see as AbilityOne today and where it’s going. Thank you. [Applause]

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