Braille Monitor                                                    June 2008

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Jim Gibbons Leaves National Industries for the Blind

by James H. Omvig

Jim GibbonsFrom the Editor: Jim Omvig is vice chairman of the President's Committee for Purchase from People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled, the federal agency that oversees the AbilityOne Program, which directs federal contracts to National Industries for the Blind agencies among others. Jim is also a longtime Federation leader who has just retired to Arizona for the second time. Here is an announcement in which he knew we would be interested:

Many in the blind community are not aware that a blind man named Jim Gibbons is the very first blind person ever to head National Industries for the Blind (NIB), the nonprofit agency that coordinates the purchase by the federal government of goods and services offered by what were formerly referred to as sheltered workshops for the blind. Jim was appointed CEO by the NIB board in 1998. (See my article about the profound changes in the NIB system over the past few years, “It's Not Your Grandfather's NIB Any More,” in the February 2007 Braille Monitor.)

Just consider: Congress adopted the original Wagner-O’Day Act (requiring that the federal government purchase certain goods from sheltered workshops for the blind) in 1938. That same year National Industries for the Blind was established to serve as the link between the federal government and the workshops, yet it took sixty years for the NIB board to conclude that a qualified blind person could be NIB CEO and then actually to do something about it.

I know nothing about earlier NIB board search committees, but at an annual NIB meeting a year or two ago Sharon and I met a distinguished gentleman from New York City by the name of Abram (Abe) Claude Jr. He is the managing director of Gilbert Tweed Associates, Inc., and he was on the 1998 search committee. He told Sharon and me that, once the 1998 committee got the idea that NIB should be run by a blind person (it was probably Abe's idea), this new thought prevailed, and the committee refused to stop until it did in fact find a qualified blind candidate. That candidate turned out to be Jim Gibbons, who had come out of the rough-and-tumble of the private business sector.

In February of 2008 Jim announced that he is moving on. Beginning in March, he became president and CEO of Goodwill Industries International, located in Rockville, Maryland. So Jim headed NIB for almost ten years. It is fitting for us to review what was accomplished on his watch. NIB now has a nationwide policy that all blind workers be paid at least the federal minimum wage unless these employees have profound multiple disabilities. Most NIB agencies now provide blind workers with the same benefits as those available to management. And most NIB-associated agencies are now modern manufacturing facilities that use up-to-date machinery and equipment.

These changes are significant, but to me some of the management changes have much more long-term potential. During the last ten years NIB has set up four management training programs: a two-year Fellowship for Business Leadership; an eighteen-month management training program developed and delivered for NIB by the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, called the Business Management Training Program; a Leadership at All Levels Program; and a new distance-learning program inaugurated in 2006 to offer additional learning and self-improvement opportunities for blind production employees. At the time of this writing, more and more blind people are moving up into supervisory and management positions. And, of the eighty-seven NIB-associated agencies, ten are now headed by blind people. I believe this is a record.

No one would argue that Jim Gibbons made all of these positive changes on his own, but it is also fair to say that his vision of the capabilities of the blind and his leadership were key factors. We wish Jim well in his new venture, and we urge the NIB board of directors to continue its policy of steady improvement in the wages, benefits, and working conditions for individual blind workers in the program. Much progress has been made in recent years, and the momentum must continue.

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