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The Braille Monitor – November, 2000 Edition


Hope for a New Day in the Business Enterprise Program

by Kevan Worley

From the Editor: The following remarks were delivered by Kevan Worley, President of the NationalAssociation of Blind Merchants, at the opening session of a national conference on the vending facilities program. The conference, called "Randolph-Sheppard: A Vision for the Future," was held in New Orleans, Louisiana, from August 31 through September 3, 2000. Approximately two hundred thirty people from forty-five states attended, and by all accounts the event was an unqualified success. Kevan follows Don Morris as President of the NFB Merchants Division, and he was elected only last July. When he was introduced in New Orleans, he was inadvertently referred to as Don Morris. This is what Kevan said:

Kevin Worley
Kevin Worley

I don't mind being introduced as Don Morris, the immediate past president of our Merchants' Division (now the National Association of Blind Merchants), except that Don Morris would begin his presentation with a joke. Trust me, he would. He's got a million of them. I'm not nearly that funny. However, do you know what the rehabilitation counselor said to a blind person with very few skills? Hey, how about the Business Enterprise Program?

No, you're right; it's not funny. It's tragic, but all too often it has been the truth. Too often throughout its history the Randolph-Sheppard program has been regarded as a dumping ground, a place to put the untrained and the skill-less. Yet many of us over the years have come to realize the great potential of this program.

I have always been a huge fan of The Great Gatsby. But during the jazz age, when F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "There are no second acts," he couldn't have known about the Randolph-Sheppard program. He certainly didn't reckon on this crew, combined in this room this weekend. This is a formidable group representing a variety of constituencies, and we are all here to write the script for the future of the Randolph-Sheppard Program.  For more than sixty years we have seen the drama of the most successful national self-employment program for the blind unfold. It has been a storied performance, filled with great successes and some setbacks. We have enjoyed conquest and endured conflict. There have been some truly great performances. I think of scenes like a young blind man getting his license and turning the key to a little convenience store and a chance for a meaningful career. I think of a woman who retired after forty-five years of managing the Courthouse Grill in Pueblo, Colorado, after a career of service to government; the public; this program; her community; and her customers, friends, and family. She retired, not wealthy, but well respected. Many episodes have been filled with accomplishment, independence, and entrepreneurship. Our task this weekend is to write a script that will ensure that opportunities for great performances by the blind in business can continue.

I think that the critics would agree that we have some stars among us this weekend--stars who care about this program and who have stepped forward to bring this conference, this great script-writing session, into being: Fred Schroeder Terry Murphy, Joe Cordova, Tom Robertson, Suzanne Mitchell, James Gashel, Don Morris, and all of us--the collective, the cast, the players who will play the roles and deliver the lines of the next act in the life of the Business Enterprise Program. The part that each of us plays, the lines we deliver, will decide the quality, direction, and success of the next act.

We in the National Association of Blind Merchants stand with all of you here at center stage, ready, willing, and able to tackle the tough issues, to help meet the challenges that confront our program. The issue of true and meaningful active participation--essential, legally mandated active participation--is still a challenge in many states. These include the tasks of recruiting, training, and continuing to develop skilled, ambitious blind entrepreneurs; identifying and seizing lucrative business opportunities; stabilizing and increasing program funding; and the formidable challenge of developing different and creative opportunities, reaching for and accepting the challenge of the unique or more complex. It isn't easy; it never has been--blending a social program and free enterprise.

As president of the National Association of Blind Merchants I hear from vendors all over the country, and we have helped many. We have assisted with appeals. We have met to mediate and advocate. I am very proud of what our National Association of Blind Merchants, a strong and vital division of the National Federation of the Blind, has done to help with Social Security problems, establish tax law for blind vendors, advise in dining-hall contracting, arbitrate in VA cases, and negotiate with GSA. We have provided advice and consultation. We have worked together to develop group-buying projects. We exchange information on our NFB Vendtalk Listserv and our toll-free Merchants' Message Line, and always there is mutual support.

As president of the National Association of Blind Merchants I am fortunate to be able to travel throughout the country to meet with, talk to, and listen to blind vendors. What I hear is that, yes, we have many problems that we must deal with, but we also have great advantages and opportunities. In other words, the glass is half-full, not half-empty. One of the challenges is to learn to work  together as vendors, managers, operators, merchants--whatever our label--to accept that we have differences but to agree on some common goals.

As I say, I am very proud to be a member of the National Association of Blind Merchants, a division of the National Federation of the Blind. We believe we have a philosophy of blindness and business, a philosophy born in the National Federation of the Blind, which proclaims that it is respectable to be blind and by extension that it is respectable to be a blind vendor. We should do all we can to protect, defend, and expand business opportunities for blind and visually impaired entrepreneurs. We believe it is long past time to enhance the image of the blind vendor and to change what it means to be a blind vendor.

Just because I have a set of precepts and a philosophical foundation that work well for me as a blind person and as a businessman, I'm not here this weekend or in the future asking you to take up my banner or share all of my personal beliefs. I am asking you not to criticize me for them but to respect me for them, as I pledge to respect you for yours.

I believe this will be a historic conference. For once it sounds like many of us are trying earnestly to set aside personalities and petty organizational bickering in order to find true common ground, map processes, and make progress. I know it's hard for many of us, but we must check our egos at the door. We simply must find new, innovative, and peaceful ways of working together--agency and entrepreneur. Whether we are a blind vendor in Oregon or Oklahoma, Missouri or Maryland, Colorado or Texas, we must do a better job of finding ways to work with our state agencies. I know it's sometimes hard to relate to state employees who don't seem to understand our long hours or the intricacies and eccentricities of running a business. And I'm sure they have trouble comprehending why we can't understand how much paperwork they have or why we always seem to need another piece of equipment.

I recently heard New York Yankee manager Joe Torre speaking about his relationship with pitcher David Wells. He said, "Man, we didn't get along at all. We just didn't trust each other. Over time we tried to talk, but we always disagreed. We kept trying and talking, but it was very adversarial." I heard the word adversarial and immediately thought of the BEP. Anyway, Torre went on to say, "But then we talked some more, and then came respect, and now a true friendship has developed."

It occurred to me that, if two men in the ego-driven world of big time professional sports could agree to set aside some of their differences, then we who care about this program had better learn to work harder to achieve mutual respect in order to attain mutual goals.

We in the National Association of Blind Merchants have come to believe that mostly, the days of appeals, altercation, and litigation must give way to understanding, mutual respect, common sense, good planning, active participation, goal-setting, and reason. We are developing some wonderful opportunities in this program--gift emporiums, highway vending, food courts, delis, snack bars, convenience stores, and military dining halls. I was recently  in Texas, and committee chairman Don Welsh, RSVA [Randolph-Sheppard Vendors of America], said to me, "Kevan, I do not understand why some of our operators in Texas want to fight all the time. Many operators down here can stand on their heads and make forty or fifty thousand dollars a year."

Don, I agree. Certainly there are times to take a stand and damn the consequences. But we in the NFB, who are not strangers to fighting the good fight when it is necessary, are finding that the states that are leaving that old paradigm of conflict and confrontation for one of understanding and active participation are more than surviving; they are thriving. We in the National Association of Blind Merchants are very proud to be a big part of that paradigm shift. We want to be there on the front line working with Terry Murphy, Fred Schroeder, agency officials, RSVA, and other blind vendors.

We know that, working together, we can write a script that will meet the challenges of image and marketing, recruitment, training, active participation, new location development, employing more disabled people at our sites, developing team approaches, and working with other agencies and privat companies. We can move our program from dumping ground to common ground to higher ground. All these challenges and many more can be met only with a shared vision and common conviction. Mark Harris, a blind vendor from Texas, tells me of a country song that says, "If you don't stand for nothing, you'll fall for anything."

I stand here today to urge all of us not to fall for the old ways of strife, divisiveness, back-room dealing, conflict, and confrontation. We have an opportunity this weekend to write it the way we want it, to change the dialog,  to decide how we will be portrayed, to write a new script based on reason,  respect, and results.

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