Rebounding from the COVID Economy: Improving Opportunity for People with Disabilities from The National Association for the Employment of People Who Are Blind (NAEPB)

INDIANAPOLIS--()--The following is an opinion editorial from Reinhard Mabry, president of The National Association for the Employment of People Who Are Blind (NAEPB) and CEO of Alphapointe in Kansas City, Mo.

As we wrap up National Disability Employment Awareness Month, let’s not forget the millions of workers with disabilities trying to make a living in this country. Nearly 40% of workers with disabilities were laid off or furloughed during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to research conducted by Global Disability Inclusion.

The federal government’s response to the pandemic has been massive: $1.9 trillion as part of the CARES Act, $900 billion in the 2021 appropriations agreement and $2.1 trillion in President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act. There is no better time, especially as we invest in our pandemic-battered economy, to look at making investments in jobs for people who are blind or have significant disabilities. We need to update antiquated policies and increase investment in the most successful program ever developed to address this challenge — the AbilityOne Program.

Founded more than 80 years ago, the AbilityOne Program has connected hundreds of thousands of people who are blind with nonprofit jobs on government contracts. It is the nation’s leading, and most cost-effective, government program for creating jobs for people with disabilities. Whether it’s a position on a U.S. military base, at a manufacturing plant or in the U.S. Capitol building, employees — including disabled veterans — hired under AbilityOne receive the training they need to perform complex tasks.

We know this program works. But it is time to make important changes in how we support working Americans with disabilities. I am the proud president of The National Association for the Employment of People Who Are Blind (NAEPB). We are partnering with leading disability employment groups — National Council of SourceAmerica Employers (NCSE), National Industries for the Blind (NIB) and SourceAmerica — on a series of key recommendations that will strengthen the AbilityOne Program.

First, we need to end the practice of allowing employers to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage. This is allowed through the Fair Labor Standards Act, and virtually every disability advocacy group agrees this practice should end. We also need to strike the statutory language dating back to 1938 that defines a person with a disability as someone who is “unable to maintain normal competitive employment.” This reflects outdated thinking and needs to be revised.

It’s also critical that federal rules not artificially limit opportunities for career advancement. Currently, government does not count management roles performed by people with disabilities when determining which jobs should qualify under the program. This creates the perception that there are limited opportunities for professional advancement, even though such promotions are routine. When coupled with incentives for employees to refuse promotions and bonuses to preserve their Social Security Disability benefits (sometimes called the SSDI “cash cliff”), we believe federal policies are holding down — rather than lifting up — employees with significant disabilities.

One of the most important changes we need federal policymakers to make is to strengthen AbilityOne by establishing a goal of purchasing at least 1.5% of all government products and services through this program. Establishing this threshold would add as many as 100,000 people with disabilities onto payrolls.

As we come back from almost two years of turmoil, we can build a better tomorrow for so many Americans. These key recommendations from leading disability employment groups would ensure people with disabilities make a fair wage, remove disincentives for upward mobility and create a true public-private partnership. While the Biden administration and Congress have expressed a commitment to looking out for disadvantaged communities, we have laid out an actionable pathway to deliver on those promises and ensure the nation’s disability employment policies remain effective.


Kelly Asiala, 260-444-8141


Kelly Asiala, 260-444-8141