Near the end of the federal government’s 2020 fiscal year, the National Council on Disability sent shockwaves through the disability rights community when it called for the elimination of the AbilityOne Program, which creates jobs for more than 45,000 people with disabilities nationwide. What is even more alarming, though, is that many AbilityOne employees have been essential frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, yet, according to 2020 data from the National Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is the highest it’s been in years.
The AbilityOne program provides the government with a cost-effective way to fulfill many critical services, such as call center services, kitting, and other mission-critical services, while creating tens of thousands of jobs for underemployed Americans with disabilities.
These services keep the government running. Created in 1938, the AbilityOne program leverages almost $4 billion in federal contracts to create jobs for people with significant disabilities. The program benefits the federal government, taxpayers, and people with disabilities as well as states and counties that reap additional tax revenue and community spending from disabled employees.
For eight decades, AbilityOne jobs have provided a pathway to independence, self-reliance, and dignity for disabled workers. AbilityOne employees are eligible for full or part-time hours, receive a living wage, and have access to comprehensive benefits. In many cases, these are people who, without the AbilityOne program, would have no means of supporting themselves other than through social security benefit programs or family support.
Since President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, we have made great strides in protecting and physically accommodating people with disabilities but employers—both government and private—have failed to bring people with disabilities into the American workforce outside of the AbilityOne contracting world. More and more, this is becoming a national concern.
Many people and organizations, including the National Council on Disabilities and others, long for the day when the staggering unemployment and underemployment of people with disabilities are no longer an issue and programs like AbilityOne are not necessary. Unfortunately, today is not that day.
Instead, we need to build on the progress we’ve made with programs like AbilityOne, not break them down. AbilityOne needs to be mended, not ended. The Program can be improved, and there is a lot of momentum building to do just that.
Over the past several months, multiple organizations, including NAEPB, NIB, the Defense Department, and the Office of Federal Procurement, have made practical and achievable recommendations for modernizing and improving the AbilityOne program. IBVI has been working hand-in-hand with other NPAs and contracting agencies in the AbilityOne Program to forge a path forward based on these recommendations.
I bring this up because not only is it a growing concern, it’s a threat to the AbilityOne Program overall. IBVI is fighting to keep the AbilityOne Program moving forward and will become even more involved in industry Public Policy efforts of which Alison Fortney, IBVI’s Advocate for Public Policy, has been a big part of over the past several years.
The AbilityOne Program has been improving the lives of people with disabilities for more than 80 years, so let’s continue to fight and work with others to reform and modernize the AbilityOne Program. As the father of a legally disabled child and the CEO of one of the nation’s largest nonprofit AbilityOne contractors, I will be asking Congress and the new presidential administration to make enhancing—not ending—the AbilityOne Program a highest-priority action over the next several years.