Blind World Magazine

Job programs for the disabled are inadequate.

October 19, 2005.
Associated Press.

WASHINGTON (AP) - Blind vendors who win government contracts rarely share that success by employing blind workers. Enormous salaries and lavish perks are being paid to executives of nonprofit organizations that hire the handicapped.

Those findings are from an investigation by the Senate Health Committee, which looked into two work programs and said they inadequately serve individuals they were designed to help. The findings are contained in a 15-page memorandum obtained by The Associated Press.

"In my opinion, they're performing dismally," committee Chairman Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., said of the two federal programs.

The committee scheduled a hearing Thursday to discuss the findings by the panel's staff, which spent about our months reviewing the Randolph-Sheppard program for the blind and the Javits-Wagner-O'Day program for people with physical or intellectual disabilities. The review began after backers of the programs complained to lawmakers.

In the Randolph-Sheppard program, blind individuals operate snack shops and cafeterias on government properties. Last year, about 2,500 blind entrepreneurs participated. It generated $488.5 million in sales, and the average vendor's earnings amounted to $39,880, government statistics show.

The committee's staff focused on the vendors with contracts to serve 38 military cafeterias, which hire the great majority of workers employed through the program. Of the 7,122 employees, less than 9 percent had a disability.

"This is cause for concern in a program designed to create jobs for persons who are blind," the staff memo states.

But James Gashel, the National Federation of the Blind's executive director for strategic initiatives, said the concern is misplaced.

"Blind people who have those businesses do employ blind and disabled people," Gashel said. "Could they do better? Yeah." He said any corporation could do better.

Gashel said the biggest problem is that the federal government barely does more than "keep the lights on for it."

He said it's almost a $500 million-a-year business, and the federal government has only four full-time workers for it.

In the Javits-Wagner-O'Day program, federal agencies buy products manufactured primarily by disabled individuals. Its sales to the federal government totaled about $2 billion last year.

It provides jobs to more than 45,000 people, and it's the largest single source of employment for people who are blind or have other severe disabilities. The workers make mouse pads, aprons, ink pens and thousands of other products.

More than 600 participating nonprofit organizations employ these individuals. The CEOs of some of the nonprofits make enormous sums, according to the memo, which cites annual earnings of $715,000 in one instance, and $680,000 in another as examples of "excessive executive compensation, lavish perks, conflicts of interests and self-dealing."

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said some of the compensation is over the top.

"It is unconscionable that private companies and employers exploit federal laws to make millions off individuals with disabilities," he said. "It's also unconscionable that federal agencies responsible for implementing the laws designed to provide job opportunities aren't stopping this abuse."

Enzi said he was "shocked and appalled" by some of the salaries. He said the non-profits are supposed to take their profits and put them back into improving the jobs programs.

"Instead, their lining the pockets of their executive directors and CEOs," he said.

Still, it's the lack of incentives to move people into the mainstream that has advocates for the disabled most concerned.

Robert Lawhead, executive director of a job-placement program in Boulder, Colo., said he helps place about 200 of them annually into private sector jobs.

"People don't want to be segregated because of a particular individual characteristic," Lawhead said. "They want to be a part of the community."

Each year, only about 2,500 workers in the Javits-Wagner-O'Day program, or about 6 percent, are "outplaced" to jobs where, for example, they might work as greeters at Wal-Mart, or grocery baggers at Safeway.

"Those sheltered workshops don't help people learn the skills they need to move out into the community," said Lawhead, who will testify at Thursday's hearing.

The federal government designates two nonprofits to implement the jobs program. They in essence broker agreements in which federal agencies agree to buy goods and services from the nonprofits.

Tony Young, senior policy planner for one of those nonprofits, NISH - Creating Employment Opportunities for People with Severe Disabilities, said it's important to understand that people in the program have not been able to get jobs in the private sector.

"This program is often the only way these folks with very significant disabilities can get into the workforce at all," he said, adding that it focuses on trying to give workers the skills and confidence needed to work on their own.

"One of the major factors there is that private employers are not willing to hire people with severe disabilities into their workforce," he said.

Young said the government agency that oversees the jobs program is preparing to issue proposed rules on executive compensation. He cited a letter to nonprofits, dated Aug. 15, that said the agency "must ensure that we are both maintaining and strengthening our accountability and transparency to Congress and to the American taxpayers."

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