Baltimore Sun, Maryland.
Sunday, June 04, 2006.
CHICAGO // Rita McCabe says it was a proud moment back in 1979 when she gave her mother one of the clocks she had made at the Chicago Lighthouse, a century-old nonprofit group dedicated to employing the blind.
The clock still works. It's simple and sturdy, a 12-inch face set in a deep brown frame - the same clock that, for nearly three decades, has been keeping time inside most U.S. government offices.
The nonprofit's hold on the market of helping government workers tell time came thanks to a 1930s federal law, called the Wagner-O'Day Act: It requires federal purchasing managers, whenever possible, to favor buying certain goods and services made by blind workers.
But amid lawmakers' desire to cut costs and stretch tax money - as well as the globalization of the public marketplace - the power of such legislation has waned. Chicago Lighthouse officials say they have watched as time and again state and federal agencies ignore the law and opt for less-expensive imports.
In addition to competition issues, the program originally intended to benefit the blind has become entwined with efforts to help people with other disabilities - some not as well-defined - and have helped trigger a review of the program. There's a lot of money at stake: The program has doubled in size in the past five years, thanks to a boost in military spending, and annually sets aside about $2.25 billion in contracts.
The law was designed to give market protection to enterprises such as Chicago Lighthouse, and for almost 30 years, orders for its clocks have been sent through the General Services Administration, the procurement arm of the federal government.
The Illinois nonprofit, which used to control nearly 80 percent of the federal contracts for timepieces, has seen its market share shrink to about 50 percent. Its customers are turning to the competition: a flood of battery-operated clocks made in China.
As a result, Chicago Lighthouse has been forced to cut workers' hours - from a 40-hour week to a 30-hour week. Other programs for the blind around the nation have seen a similar shift in fortunes.
Envision, a nonprofit in Wichita, Kan., that employs blind workers to make printer cartridges and air filters, said it has seen its sales slump in recent years. In Baltimore, at Blind Industries and Services of Maryland, officials used to rely on sales of paper to federal agencies to make up nearly one-third of their $9 million annual budget, said President Fred Puente.
"Now, with competition, it's about one-half of 1 percent of our annual sales," Puente said. "We had to move into other areas, such as cutting fabric for military and prison uniforms. Even there, we're barely keeping our sales flat."
This year, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will review the federal legislation governing the contracts to assess how it's being implemented - and its efficiency. Part of the program's problems, critics say, date to the 1970s, when Congress expanded the act.
It was renamed the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act and grouped blind workers with those with other severe disabilities, such as mental retardation, and Vietnam veterans who returned from war with missing limbs or brain damage.
The law has a set standard for who is blind - 20/200 vision in the best eye, with correction - but not for other disabilities.
The program simply states that workers need to have a "severe physical or mental impairment," one that so affects their ability to be employed that they can't engage in the normal, competitive workplace.
As the years passed, what qualified as a "severe disability" changed as nonprofits, with a nod from federal regulators, expanded the definition. Some nonprofits selling their products under the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act say those with speech difficulties or drug addictions are severely disabled.
Last month, an investigation by The Oregonian newspaper found that some nonprofit groups were hiring workers who were mildly disabled, or completely healthy. The paper reported that the program's biggest contractor - the National Center for the Employment of the Disabled in El Paso, Texas - had pulled in more than $800 million in government sales, even though it couldn't document most of its workers' disabilities.
"Are there problems? Yes," said Puente, of Blind Industries and Services of Maryland. "We need changes, and it's got to come from the government."
Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat who has asked to take part in the Senate committee hearing, describes the Chicago Lighthouse's operation as a model program that accomplishes exactly what lawmakers intended.
Initially, Chicago Lighthouse earned a reputation as being a home away from home for the local blind community, a place where the sightless of all ages could come for counseling and job training.
Through the years, workers here have bundled together brooms, assembled science experiment kits for children and woven baskets.
"The idea for the clocks came about in the 1970s, when we were brainstorming for new products and new ideas," said James M. Kesteloot, president and executive director. "We had to figure out ways to take away all eye-hand coordination, when building a clock is all about putting together pieces that are very small and exact."
Last year, McCabe and the other 14 blind workers here pieced together more than 104,000 bold-numbered faces with tiny timers, which hang on the walls of each of the military branches, the Justice Department and the United States Postal Service.
P.J. Huffstutter writes for the Los Angeles Times.
End of article.
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