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The AbilityOne Program is the best Federal government program you've never heard of - it provides jobs for over 50,000 people with significant disabilities.  I'm sure you've seen some of the dismal unemployment statistics for people in this group - and any one of us can become a member at any time€.   Please join me below the little orange cloud to hear more about an approach that not only works, it pays for itself!

KosAbility is a community diary series posted at 5 PM ET every Sunday and Wednesday by volunteer diarists. This is a gathering place for people who are living with disabilities, who love someone with a disability, or who want to know more about the issues surrounding this topic.  There are two parts to each diary.  First, a volunteer diarist will offer their specific knowledge and insight about a topic they know intimately. Then, readers are invited to comment on what they've read and or ask general questions about disabilities, share something they've learned, tell bad jokes, post photos, or rage about the unfairness of their situation. Our only rule is to be kind; trolls will be spayed or neutered.

First, the boring history bit about how the program got started:

1938, Congress created a program enabling non-profit agencies (NPAs) serving people who were blind to sell products to the Federal government. By 1971, the original Wagner-O'Day Act was amended to permit people with other significant disabilities to also benefit and is known today as the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act. The Committee for Purchase From People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled (Committee) is the Federal agency authorized to administer the AbilityOne Program. The Committee is responsible for determining which products and services are suitable to place on its Procurement List for the Federal government. It also determines the fair market prices for those items.
The Committee has designated two central NPAs to assist with program implementation: the National Industries for the Blind (NIB) and NISH – Creating Employment Opportunities for People with significant disabilities. More than 600 NPAs associated with either NIB or NISH produce products and services under the AbilityOne Program. The core criteria for NPA eligibility is that 75% of total direct labor hours must be performed by people who are blind or have other significant disabilities.
More at the AbilityOne website here

So, how does it work?  Well, the federal government buys lots of stuff, both products and services.  In order to help ensure employment opportunities for people with significant disabilities (PWSD), certain contracts are set aside permanently – basically, as long as the government agency has that need, it must be awarded to an NPA through the AbilityOne program.  Only a tiny, tiny percentage of federal contracts are set aside, but they currently provide jobs for over 50,000 people.  The program goal is to double that number by the end of 2015.

This is just one video from the AbilityOne channel on youtube:

AbilityOne video

These are all sorts of jobs.  Yes, there are some of the traditional things people might expect, such as custodial and grounds maintenance.  But they also manufacture a large percentage of the uniforms for our troops, including sophisticated and complex garments such as the chemical and biological protective suits.  They operate call centers and make office supplies.  And the program also advocates for the disability community in Congress, develops assistive technologies, and provides support services to help the nonprofits to manage the contracts and establish the business processes and systems they need to provide a quality product or service.

I can’t begin to tell you how it feels to walk through a beautiful, spotless plant where people are making uniforms for our troops.  The disabilities vary – some people have cognitive disabilities, others may have significant physical issues, or mental health issues.  You can’t always “see” the disability, but what you can always see is the joy of working.  In every plant I visit, employees almost always say something along the lines of  “I'm so happy to be paying taxes”.  It’s pretty interesting – they know what it’s like not to pay taxes, and they are thrilled to be in a position where they do.

Sometimes people just need a safe environment where managers and supervisors understand the issues an employee may be dealing with.  He or she may be an Iraq veteran with PTSD, and need to rebuild old capabilities and skills, or to develop new ones.  By working in a place where love and compassion are the bottom line, many are able to graduate and move on to employment in the commercial world.  Others will work on AbilityOne contracts for their entire careers.

Link to a fairly balanced Bloomberg article:  Bloomberg

Is it perfect?  No, of course not.  In my opinion, the successes far outweigh the problems.  I’ve had many, many conversations with people who have told me that this program saved their lives.  As budget cuts for state funding cut deeper and deeper, there are many local nonprofits that would have closed their doors long ago if it were not for the income they make from AbilityOne contracts.  Those of us who are part of the program wake up every day knowing that we are fighting to provide jobs – and hope.

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