Braille Monitor                                                 January 2013

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Serving in His Shadow

by Anil Lewis

From the Editor: Anil Lewis is director of strategic communications at the Jernigan Institute for the Blind. Recently his efforts have focused on the rights of people who work in sheltered shops and specifically on the fact that it is legal to pay them less than the minimum wage. His work has earned him a seat on the federal AbilityOne Commission, where he follows in the footsteps of another Federationist we commemorate in this issue. Here is Anil’s tribute to a colleague, a friend, and a loyal soldier in our movement:

Mary Ellen Jernigan hugs Jim Omvig at his birthday celebration at the Center.Every day members of the NFB formally and informally contribute their time and talent to assist others in reaching their full potential.  One man who has committed his life to this service is a man it has been my pleasure to know and work with now for several years. I am proud to have gotten to know one of our most outstanding members, James Omvig, and to follow him in a part of his work that has meant much to him and to blind people throughout the nation and the world.

The author of Freedom for the Blind: The Secret is Empowerment, Mr. Omvig has helped me to understand that I must recognize that it is OK to be blind; I must master the alternative skills of blindness; I must effectively cope with public attitudes about blindness; I must successfully blend in as a productive member of society; and I must freely and generously give back to others.  He has integrated these five elements of success into the core of his being, and as a result he is a recognized trailblazer in securing the rights of blind people throughout America.  I am honored to serve in his shadow, embracing these elements of success as I continue blazing the trail toward our full participation in society.

A longtime leader of the National Federation of the Blind, James Omvig was Dr. Kenneth Jernigan’s student at the Iowa Commission for the Blind in 1961. He has amassed a legacy of personal and professional accomplishments and has dedicated his life to fighting for equality and full participation of the blind.  The first blind student ever accepted into the Loyola University of Chicago School of Law, Mr. Omvig was the first blind attorney ever hired by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). He worked for the NLRB, where he learned about and became expert in the federal processes of employee unionization before becoming deeply committed to vocational rehabilitation and residential orientation and adjustment centers for the blind. 

Today we take for granted that a blind man like Jim Omvig has capacity and is able to compete on terms of equality with the sighted.   However, despite personal and professional success, Mr. Omvig has never been a stranger to the plight of those paid subminimum wages.  In 1964 he was paid 75 cents an hour as a production-line worker at the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind.  Without acquiring the essential elements of success, James Omvig could have spent his remaining years toiling away at pennies an hour, and the Federation would have lost a champion for justice.  Fortunately, with his personal experience of the way that limited opportunities, lack of training, and managerial perceptions of incapacity can lead to the overwhelming underemployment of the blind, Mr. Omvig accepted the challenge of improving the work environment of blind workshop employees.  As a member of the NFB, he fought from the outside to change the discriminatory practices of the sheltered workshops for the blind.  He was instrumental in the efforts of blind sheltered shop workers to unionize.  The following is an excerpt from the June 2009 Braille Monitor article, “More Progress in the Javits-Wagner-O’Day Program.” That briefly describes, in his own words, how dogged persistence and collective action secured rights, privileges, and protections for the blind workers of the Chicago Lighthouse:

On the issue of unionization in Chicago, I told the blind employees that the struggle would be hard and long and that it would also be complicated. They would first have to select a union to represent them. Then they would have to request a National Labor Relations Board election so they could vote as to whether or not they wanted union representation…. The sheltered shop employees did decide to form an NFB Division, and the Chicago Lighthouse employees did decide to seek union representation. And, happily, in late June of 1976, the ruling came. The Board overturned the old 1960 decision and ruled that, henceforth, blind workers would enjoy the same rights, privileges, and protections as those enjoyed by sighted workers [working for the same lighthouse]. The Chicago action also encouraged blind workers across the country, and before long several of the agencies were unionized. I believe it is fair to say that from then on management began to view blind workers differently.

Not only did management begin to view blind workers differently, blind workers began to view themselves differently.  More and more blind supervisors, managers, and executives obtained employment through the AbilityOne program than ever before.  Through persistent advocacy by the NFB, blind workshop employees made significant progress toward the goal of equal employment, but many hurdles remained.  Mr. Omvig realized that in order to effect systemic change, a blind person must be at the table where policies are created.  So in 2002 he accepted a presidential appointment and took his seat at the table of the Committee for Purchase From People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled.

Known today as the AbilityOne Commission, this fifteen-member, presidentially appointed committee administers  a program under the Javits-Wagner-O’Day (JWOD) Act, in which specific products and services are procured by federal agencies from businesses in which 75 percent of direct labor is performed by qualified people with disabilities.  The nonprofit agencies of the National Industries for the Blind (NIB) and NISH (formerly National Industries for the Severely Handicapped) manage the activities between the federal agencies contracting for supplies and services through the program and the community rehabilitation programs employing workers with disabilities to produce the products and provide the services.

Mr. Omvig eventually became the vice chair of the AbilityOne Commission, and in that role, through a strategy of rational instrumentalism, he has been able to effect significant positive change in the program.  Along with the development and implementation of several management training programs, he has been a champion in the development of the quality work environment initiative that improves working conditions, job opportunities, and wages for employees with disabilities under both the NIB and NISH programs.  His success was chronicled in the February 2007 Braille Monitor article, “It’s Not Your Grandfather’s NIB Anymore,” in addition to the June 2009 Braille Monitor article, “More Progress in the Javits-Wagner-O’Day Program.”

James Omvig has left his mark on the JWOD program and has the respect of every member of the AbilityOne Commission, the AbilityOne Commission staff, and the staff of both NIB and NISH.  Now, as his term on the AbilityOne Commission comes to an end, he will pass the torch on to another to continue his good work.  I am honored and a little intimidated to have been chosen.   

Both my personal and professional lives have allowed me to focus on the competitive integrated employment of people with disabilities.  I have come to know that, when provided the proper training, opportunity, and support, people with all types of disabilities can be competitively employed.  In my current role as director of advocacy and policy for the NFB, I am primarily responsible for our efforts to repeal the unfair, discriminatory, immoral provision in Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act that allows employers to pay workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage. I am grateful to have a mentor like James Omvig in this work.

My personal experience with the subminimum wage workshops is through my brother and sister.  They both worked for the Georgia Industries for the Blind (GIB) and were paid subminimum wages.  In fact, when I became blind, I thought that would be my future as well.  Although my brother and others were successful in their efforts to require GIB to pay their blind employees a competitive wage, he never received the training and encouragement to secure gainful integrated employment in a career that capitalized on his unique skills, talents, and abilities.  I often consider the impact he would have had on the self-esteem and self-confidence of students if he had capitalized on his athletic talents and people skills to become a coach or physical education instructor.  I also think of how many more otherwise successful individuals we have lost to the disabling low expectations of the subminimum wage workshops.  I am thankful that my sister was successful in her career transition and is currently working as a supervisor for the General Services Administration.  However, far too many others have been unsuccessful, and as a nation we are diminished as a result.  Think of how much we would have lost if Mr. Omvig had succumbed to the workshop’s claim of incapacity masked as compassion and therapy.

Mr. Omvig and others have provided me encouragement and support. President Obama recently appointed me to serve as a member of the AbilityOne Commission.  This is a five-year-term, part-time position that allows me to maintain my dream job as a member of the staff of the National Federation of the Blind.  Now it is my turn to sit at the table, and, thanks to the National Federation of the Blind, I know that I am well equipped for the challenge.  As Jim Omvig’s term as a member of the AbilityOne Commission ends and mine begins, I take great honor in serving in his shadow.  I will work to usher the JWOD program into the new era of Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities.  We work diligently in the shadow of many leaders in the Federation, and, although they have made our path a little easier, we must work just that much harder to be sure that our own light shines bright.

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