by James Gashel
From the Editor: Jim Gashel is the secretary of the National Federation of the Blind, vice president in charge of marketing for KNFB Reading Technologies, and former director of governmental affairs and later head of strategic initiatives for the National Federation of the Blind. To newer members of the Federation, Jim is best known as the man who is always talking about books and reading technology, but to longtime members, and especially to those who have long been active in the Randolph-Sheppard Program, he is probably best known for his creative leadership in crafting legislation and implementing regulations to advance the rights of blind entrepreneurs.
The following remarks were delivered at the 2013 Business Leadership and Superior Training (BLAST) Conference, a place where the fruits of Jim's work are made manifest in the lives of hundreds of blind businessmen and businesswomen. Here is what he said to conference participants:
Thank you very much. What a pleasure it is for me to be back at BLAST, not to mention having the special privilege of being asked to speak to the whole crowd, and I don't think I am expected to talk about books or to demonstrate any technology. Wow! All I have to do is relax and say something meaningful about blind people succeeding in business—that I can do.
Although BLAST reflects an interest among blind people that goes beyond the operation of vending facilities alone, these business leadership gatherings certainly have a rich tradition of speaking to the needs of blind vendors. And, by the way, how about getting our more modern term, "blind entrepreneurs," officially adopted to express who we are and who we have become? According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, an entrepreneur is "one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise," and the same source defines "vendor" as "one who sells" or "vending machine." So here's your choice: you can organize, manage, and assume the risk of a business, on the one hand, or, on the other, you can be a vending machine—take your pick.
Now the Randolph-Sheppard Act was originally written in 1936 when two members of Congress—Jennings Randolph and Morris Sheppard—put their heads together to back an historic economic opportunity bill for the blind. Jennings Randolph served as a member of the House of Representatives from West Virginia, and Morris Sheppard represented Texas in the Senate. Their vision was to create business opportunities for blind people by means of a preference for vending stands run by the blind to be set up in federal buildings; the concept was really quite simple and amazingly elegant.
Elegant? I think so. Remember, we are talking about a bill developed in the 1930s in the midst of the Great Depression. Few blind people had jobs outside of working in workshops or making brooms or rugs at home. The chance to have a small business if you were blind at that time was all but unheard of, and here were two visionaries in the Congress working to create a business program for the blind. Even more amazing, they were working to create this program a full four years before the founding meeting of the National Federation of the Blind in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Imagine if Messrs. Randolph and Sheppard could be present here at BLAST 2013, how proud they would be; their vision lives in us.
But the vision that Jennings Randolph and Morris Sheppard had in 1936 was not the only vision for the blind at that time. In 1938 Congress passed two other laws about employment of the blind, and both are still on the books. One of these was the Wagner-O'Day Act, providing sheltered work opportunities for the blind to make products needed by the government. This is now called the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act, and the program is known as "Ability One." The second law enacted in 1938 was the Fair Labor Standards Act, for the first time setting up a minimum wage for all workers in the U.S., except for workers like the blind, who were presumed to be unable to be productive. Unlike the Randolph-Sheppard Act, which focused on enlarging economic opportunities, the abilities of the blind, and striving to become self-supporting, the Wagner-O'Day Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act focused on disabilities and limitations, promoting sheltered jobs at substandard wages for the blind on assembly lines but no jobs in the front office. All jobs in the executive suite were reserved for the sighted. This vision for the blind reflected a plantation mentality.
So what are the results of these visions from the 1930s three-quarters of a century later? Annual gross sales reported by blind entrepreneurs in federal fiscal year 2010—the most recent year available—$792,613,306, with net earnings to the blind of $134,412,036, and average earnings of $56,168. Although blind people can certainly find jobs individually that are more lucrative, as a group blind entrepreneurs do better than any other single subset of blind people in the U.S. and probably around the world as well.
Turning to Ability One, $557,700,000 was paid out in wages to 48,816 blind and disabled employees in fiscal year 2012. These 48,816 employees worked a total of 47,700,000 hours during the year, with the average number of hours being 977, or on average less than half-time employment. With an average hourly wage of about $11.24, the average annual compensation of Ability One employees was $10,983 and change during 2012. Now remember that the average net earnings of blind Randolph-Sheppard entrepreneurs was more than $56,000 even two years before these official figures from Ability One.
In Randolph-Sheppard, blind people are the managers, but not so in Ability One, where the amount paid to sighted, non-disabled managers is not even disclosed except through occasional press reports and annual charity filings. Imagine what life would be like to be the president and CEO of Goodwill International, perhaps the largest of the mega charities with contracts through Ability One. According to Goodwill's form 990, filed with the Internal Revenue Service for 2012, the president and CEO received an annual salary of $434,252 and total benefits and other compensation of $99,513, as well as retirement and non-taxable benefits of $103,554. Added all together, his total compensation and benefits package amounted to $637,319 in 2012. Also his eight other colleagues in the executive suite with pay high enough to report, collectively received salaries and benefits totaling $1,815,770 as a group. And all of this to produce average annual wages of less than $11,000 for their blind and disabled employees; and they wonder why we call it exploitation!
Looking at the results, the vision of Randolph-Sheppard, focusing on ability, has clearly delivered better opportunities for blind entrepreneurs than the so-called "Ability One" program has done with its focus on disability and limitations of blind and disabled workers. The reason why is not a mystery. If you're looking for the secret sauce that makes the Randolph-Sheppard vision work, look no further than the spirit of an entrepreneur—not to mention the collective power of several hundred entrepreneurs assembled for this conference and hundreds more working to support one another through the National Federation of the Blind and our merchants division.
To be fair, the Randolph-Sheppard program does provide blind entrepreneurs with space, resources, and support (including money) needed to set up shop. This help is vital, but businesses succeed over time with smart management, strategic planning, hard work, dogged determination, and serving the customer first to sustain and build demand. State agencies do not—cannot—provide these essentials, but all of them are job one for blind entrepreneurs.
In 1974 the law on federal property was changed to convert a preference for the blind when feasible into a priority, meaning a first-in-line status or prior right for blind people over other competing interests. The 1930s term "vending stand," was replaced by a far broader definition of vending facility, incorporating gift shops, cafeterias, and other services not thought of as falling within the more limited scope of a vending stand. The point is, blind people had outgrown the original concept of a single vendor in a small stand and were demanding more lucrative business opportunities.
In 1966, when a new federal building was constructed in Des Moines, Iowa, a great kerfuffle ensued over how food service would be provided to employees and the public. As late as the 1950s (according to the minutes of the Iowa Commission for the Blind), popcorn stands were the most common form of business operated by the blind in the state, so the idea that a blind person would operate the cafeteria in the new federal building was unthinkable, and the law did not support this outcome.
But the fact that the blind had popcorn stands but not cafeterias did not stop Dr. Kenneth Jernigan and the blind of Iowa. Never mind the limitations of the Randolph-Sheppard Act at that time; the tide of change was rising, and the newfound voice of the blind—the organized blind—would not be denied. So, when the cafeteria opened on the first day, Sylvester Nimmers, a blind person, was in charge. Regardless of the limits of the Randolph-Sheppard Act, and over the objections of the U.S. General Services Administration, a way had been found to honor the preference for the blind. Rather than calling the food service a cafeteria, which it was—no question—a permit was granted for operation of a manually operated snack bar. That's what they called it on the books at the GSA in Washington, DC, but in Des Moines this business was a cafeteria. Call it by any name you want—call it George or Kevan if you want—but this business was a cafeteria. The rising expectations of the blind would not be denied.
So it was by no means an accident that, when the 1974 amendments to the Randolph-Sheppard Act were written, cafeterias were specified as covered under the priority for the blind. Through our advocacy in Congress we made that happen. Today, although the Ability One executives don't like it, cafeterias even include military troop dining services. The businesses resulting from these contracts keep faith with the Randolph-Sheppard Act objective to support blind people in achieving their maximum vocational potential. In fact some blind entrepreneurs show higher annual earnings than the sighted executives at Ability One and its affiliates. Need I add that they do this without exploiting their blind or disabled employees? Business opportunities awarded to blind entrepreneurs resulting from the vision of Jennings Randolph and Morris Sheppard are among the best business opportunities available to blind people anywhere in the world.
And what of our counterparts, the state agencies and the Department of Education? Clearly some of the state agencies are our partners and stand with us in promoting the vision of Jennings Randolph and Morris Sheppard. Some of those agencies are represented at this conference, and others would be here, state funds and travel restrictions permitting. To those who support us and work with the blind to expand opportunities we say: your support deserves our support. When times get hard, when jobs are on the line and budgets get tight, you can count on our support, and you have nothing to fear from the blind.
But, I think I have to say this: there are other agencies that have turned their backs on blind entrepreneurs and view the Randolph-Sheppard program as an annoyance. Rather than taking pride in the success achieved by blind entrepreneurs, their administrators and staff resent the blind and especially resent those whose earnings exceed their own. Rather than sharing the entrepreneurial spirit of Jennings Randolph and Morris Sheppard, they view the blind as subservient. And to these agencies and their resentful staff we say: your days are numbered. Although you may not understand or believe this fact, the jobs you have depend on us. Trample on the blind if you will, but we will not forget what you have done.
To the Department of Education for failing in its statutory stewardship on behalf of the Randolph-Sheppard vision and mission we say: shame on you. Shame on you for putting bureaucratic inertia—the desire to go along and get along—ahead of doing your duty to build more opportunities and better lives for the blind. And shame on you especially for tying the hands of our friends and colleagues both inside and outside of the Department who share the vision of Jennings Randolph and Morris Sheppard. To the blind it matters not whether your failure comes from ineptness, indifference, or a conscious disregard of the law; the result for the blind in lost opportunities and wasted lives is all the same.Finally, what of ourselves—America's blind entrepreneurs and our friends? To this group—growing in numbers and firm in purpose—we say: on behalf of the blind we salute you. In business and in life you are the finest examples of success and tenacity. Because of you the vision of Jennings Randolph and Morris Sheppard is still alive. For the blind of the present generation and the generations to come, we thank you. Through your entrepreneurial spirit you are changing what it means to be blind.