October 20, 2005.
U S A Today.
WASHINGTON - Two programs established nearly 70 years ago to create jobs for the disabled have made millions of dollars for a handful of companies but helped only a fraction of those who were supposed to benefit, a Senate investigation has concluded.
Investigators for the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee reported that under one of the programs, companies run by those who are legally blind control $1.2 billion in cafeteria contracts at military facilities. But companies run by blind people don't always hire the blind.
As of 2002, the most recent year for which figures are available, the 2,681 licensed vendors in the program employed 337 legally blind workers, 278 with other disabilities and 6,507 persons with no disabilities, investigators reported. The findings were provided to USA TODAY by committee staff.
Enacted in 1936, the Randolph-Sheppard Act gives legally blind persons priority on government contracts to operate food services on federal property. Someone who is legally blind has vision no better than 20/200.
The Wagner-O'Day Act of 1938 required the federal government to purchase brooms, mops and other products from organizations that employ blind laborers. It was amended in 1971 by Sen. Jacob Javits, R-N.Y., to include other disabled workers.
Committee investigators discovered that the two programs provide jobs to roughly 48,000 disabled persons. There are 15 million persons with disabilities nationwide who are unemployed.
MAJOR MILITARY MONEY
Companies run by people declared legally blind control military cafeteria contracts worth $1.2 billion. The largest contracts (in millions):
Fort Benning, Ga. $305.9
Fort Jackson, S.C. $112.5
Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. $88.0
Lackland Air Force, Tex. $86.1
Fort Knox, Ky. $72.0
Source: Department of Defense
The committee investigators also reported that some companies with contracts pay executives "excessive" compensation.
"It is unconscionable that private companies and employers exploit federal laws to make millions off people with disabilities," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
Melanie Brunson, executive director of the American Council of the Blind, said "nobody can be expected to hire only blind people." She defended the program created by the Randolph-Sheppard law as one "that provides blind persons with an opportunity to run a business."
The two programs have created bitter legal fights between groups representing the blind and those representing people with other disabilities. Brunson acknowledged that lawsuits have been filed when lucrative military cafeteria contracts that had been held by companies controlled by people with any disability were transferred to ones run by those who are blind.
"We've tried to negotiate a compromise," she said, adding that the law gives priority to blind vendors.
The Senate committee is considering the possibility of combining the two programs. "We can and must improve on these laws by creating more and better opportunities for more persons with disabilities," said committee Chairman Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.
Enzi plans to air the findings at a hearing today.
Source URL: http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2005-10-20-disabled-jobs_x.htm.
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