by Terry Smith
From the Editor: One of the most successful employment programs ever constructed for blind people was begun in 1934, has been expanded several times, and is now known as the Randolph-Sheppard Program. It provides facilities for blind people to manage, but with the increased success of the program we have seen a number of challenges from those who would like to have the opportunities blind people enjoy. One of our more active divisions is the National Association of Blind Merchants, and here is a report of its meeting at the Washington Seminar:
The National Association of Blind Merchants is one of the largest divisions of the National Federation of the Blind and was high profile at this year’s Washington Seminar. NABM President Nicky Gacos has taken the opportunity to turn the gathering into a training opportunity for blind entrepreneurs. He brought in several experts to speak to the group.
One of the most interesting presentations was by representatives from 7-Eleven, which is one of the largest convenience store chains in America. 7-Eleven is interested in exploring ways that its national brand can be used to enhance blind entrepreneurs’ operations in government buildings. Two concepts are being explored: One is what is called a micromarket or small store. These are self-service operations where customers make their selections from shelves and displays in the store and pay at a self-pay kiosk. These are becoming increasingly popular in today’s retail marketplace. The second option is an operation that is manned by the blind entrepreneur and/or his employees. The branded concept has the potential to greatly increase profits for blind entrepreneurs and President Gacos is committed to developing a partnership that works for both parties.
David Fialkov, who is with the National Association of Truck Stop Operators (NATSO), attended and talked about efforts to commercialize the interstate rest areas. Such legislation would adversely impact blind entrepreneurs who operate vending at the interstate rest areas. President Trump supports rest area commercialization, and it is expected to be part of his much-anticipated infrastructure plan. NATSO and NABM are part of a coalition working against the initiative. Jason Eberstein with the National Automated Merchandising Association (NAMA) spoke about issues blind entrepreneurs have in common with the vending industry at large. NAMA is also a member of the coalition opposing rest area commercialization. In keeping with the DC advocacy theme, John Paré and Gabe Cazares with the NFB Office of Advocacy and Policy stopped by to talk about joint advocacy efforts underway with the Merchants Division.
Jesse Hartle, Randolph-Sheppard specialist with the Rehabilitation Services Administration, gave some statistics from the 2016 annual reports filed by the state agencies. Hartle reported that the number of blind vendors nationwide was down by sixteen to only 1,981, with one-third of those being on federal property. Average income rose to an all-time high of $63,505. The most interesting stat was that more than 50 percent of all money spent by the states on Randolph-Sheppard was for management services, most of which went toward paying agency staff.
Other speakers included Andy Freeman of Brown, Goldstein & Levy who spoke on a number of recent cases in which blind vendors were awarded damages by arbitration panels and federal courts. This is a significant development and offers hope for blind vendors who have their rights trampled on by state agencies. Catriona Macdonald with the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind spoke about a recent policy interpretation by the Rehabilitation Services Administration that now requires state agencies to get prior approval from RSA for any purchase that exceeds $5,000. This has the potential of adversely impacting blind entrepreneurs who have to operate without needed equipment while the purchase goes through the lengthy approval process. Terry Smith, who heads up the National Federation of the Blind’s Entrepreneurs Initiative, spoke about NABM’s planned DC Fly-In May 22 and the Emerging Leaders Training that will take place May 21-23. NABM is committed to a strong advocacy effort in DC.
President Gacos is also committed to developing tomorrow’s leaders; thus, the third Emerging Leaders class. Jim Chico with USI, a vending machine manufacturer, talked about new and improved vending equipment hitting the market and opportunities for blind entrepreneurs. John Murn with the RSA Management Group also spoke. His buying group gave out almost $2 million in rebates to blind entrepreneurs over the last twelve months.
It was a jam-packed agenda and represented another example of how the blind merchants are bringing quality training to blind entrepreneurs.