The Braille Monitor                                                                            January/February 2002

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Vending Opportunities for the Blind on Military Bases:

A Victory in the Courts

Andrew Freeman
Andrew Freeman

by Andrew Freeman

From the Editor: Andrew Freeman is an attorney with the law firm of Brown, Goldstein, and Levy. Except for Jim Gashel, he probably knows more about vending cases in the United States than anybody else. He was the attorney handling our most recent efforts to protect the rights of blind vendors. He addressed the NFB convention Thursday morning, July 5, in Philadelphia. This is what he said:

Do any of you object to successful blind people? Do any of you object to blind people working hard and running large and profitable businesses? Do any of you object to blind people becoming rich?[cheers and applause in response to each of these questions] Well thanks to the Federation's enforcement of the Randolph-Sheppard Act, there are now blind businessmen and women successfully operating cafeterias and military mess halls throughout the country. Well, thanks to the Federation's enforcement of the Randolph-Sheppard Act, there are now some rich blind people. But it doesn't come easy. It doesn't come without some very hard work by some very talented vendors. It doesn't come without overcoming opposition and jealousy. And it doesn't come without the Federation's clout or without its willingness to enforce our rights in court.

Twenty-seven years ago, in 1974, Congress amended the Randolph-Sheppard Act to give blind vendors a priority to operate vending facilities, including cafeterias, on federal and state properties. The Act was explicitly intended to provide opportunities for blind entrepreneurs. Earlier this week twenty-seven years later, I was given a copy of a letter that complained a blind entrepreneur on an Air Force base in Texas is earning a million dollars a year. The writer seemed to think that it's okay for small business people to get preferences that allow them to work hard and become millionaires. He seemed to think that it's okay for minorities and other disadvantaged groups to get preferences that allow them to work hard and become millionaires, but somehow he was distressed that blind people should be given an opportunity to work hard and become millionaires. Some people think that sort of success is to be ashamed of. We say it's something to be proud of and something to repeat.

Some of our opponents don't like the idea of rich blind people. They prefer to keep blind people in sheltered workshops, but blind merchants in Texas and Oklahoma and Louisiana, blind merchants in Kentucky, Ohio, Colorado, and New Mexico, blind merchants in New Jersey and Maryland and Virginia and the District of Columbia and states all over America are saying, "Hell, no. Let blind merchants walk through the door that Congress opened over twenty-five years ago. We have the experience and skills to operate multi-million dollar food service contracts. Where we don't have the experience and the skills, we know how to get them." Blind vendors around the country have proved they can offer high-quality food at competitive prices. They have proved and are proving it every day that they have what it takes to satisfy their customers on a large scale, to feed thousands of meals--good meals--a day to military personnel, and to earn a good living while doing so.

A year and a half ago the folks at NISH, who operate sheltered workshops and operated some cafeterias on military bases began to feel threatened. They felt threatened by the idea of blind entrepreneurs, so they filed suit challenging the decision of the contracting officer at Fort Lee, an Army base in Virginia, to apply the Randolph-Sheppard priority to the mess halls at Fort Lee--mess halls that feed several thousand meals a day. Mind you, the contracting officer hadn't just gone out and arbitrarily awarded the mess hall contract to a blind person. After a lot of ground work by advocates for the blind, she had determined that the mess halls are cafeterias covered by the Randolph-Sheppard Act, so when the Virginia State Agency for the Blind and its blind vendor demonstrated that they could provide good food at good prices, they were entitled under the law to operate those mess halls. Well, NISH and Goodwill and the sheltered-workshop folks claimed that the Randolph-Sheppard priority shouldn't apply to those mess halls. For political reasons the Commonwealth of Virginia refused to defend its own programs, so the National Federation of the Blind stepped in to the case and underwrote the legal costs on behalf of the Virginia vendors and others.

A year ago we won the case in federal trial court, but NISH appealed. The NFB kept fighting and sent me to Richmond to argue the case in front of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. In April we won a resounding victory. The Fourth Circuit adopted all three of our arguments. The court agreed that the Randolph-Sheppard Act applied to military mess halls. The court agreed that the interpretation of the Secretary of Education and the Commissioner of Rehabilitation Services is entitled to deference, and it agreed that, because the Randolph-Sheppard Act applies more specifically to cafeterias than does NISH's Javits-Wagner-O’Day Act, the Randolph-Sheppard Act controls those situations.

The result is the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Marines are now somewhat reluctantly complying and recognizing the Randolph-Sheppard priority for many, though not yet for all, of their mess halls. We taught the same lessons to the Department of Veterans Affairs in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals a few years ago, and we will teach it again to any other agency or organization that seeks to deprive blind people of their rights.

These victories require follow-up, follow-up by blind vendors, follow-up by the courts when necessary; but we are not going to sit on these individual victories until blind people are operating the cafeterias and the mess halls in VA hospitals and military bases all across America. These victories have established precedents that allow blind merchants to operate those contracts, and where blind merchants have gotten through the door, they are proving that they have what it takes to operate these multi-million-dollar food service operations.

Victory and opportunity--victories in court by which the NFB has made sure that blind vendors had the opportunities that Congress established twenty-seven years ago in the Randolph-Sheppard Act, blind vendors who are making the most of those opportunities. Let's keep up the great work.

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