In Conversation: Gary Wagner, Director of VA Contracts and Public Policy for Visually Impaired Advancement

Gary Wagner standing in front the U.S. Capitol

Despite experiencing poor vision throughout childhood and progressive vision loss as a working adult, Gary Wagner lived most of his life trying to adapt to the sighted world.

It wasn’t until he connected with NIB and the AbilityOne® Program through Visually Impaired Advancement (VIA), an NIB associated nonprofit agency in Buffalo, NY, that he began to carve out a fulfilling career path.

Working first as a switchboard operator at the Buffalo Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center, Gary later became a supervisor at the Erie VA Medical Center, and he was the first blind or visually impaired person to serve in that role for VIA. Today, Gary is the director of VA contracts and public policy for VIA. In this role, he not only designs and implements systems and processes to assist employees who are blind or visually impaired, but also prioritizes hiring, recognizing, and promoting others who are blind.

“The Ability One Program and VA contracts have afforded employment, training, and upward mobility opportunities for me,” says Gary. “In addition to professional growth opportunities, the AbilityOne Program and VA contracts have provided means for me to support myself, my wife, and our three children.”

Earlier this month, Gary—a 2009 Peter J. Salmon Award nominee, a 2015 graduate of NIB’s Business Management Training Program, and a member of the NIB Advocates for Leadership and Employment program since 2015—spoke with NIB about growing up with vision loss and his path to career success.

Tell us a bit about your background and your personal journey with vision loss.

Gary Wagner: I have retinitis pigmentosa, RP. However, I wasn’t diagnosed until later in life. I always had poor vision, but I had no idea that I had RP, nor that it would continue to get worse.

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, there wasn’t awareness or many services available [for people experiencing vision loss]. So, I just lived a normal life. I played sports. Rode a bike. I did normal things, except I always had to make adaptations—for instance, in class, I would have to sit up front. I went on through high school and college, started working, and just kept adapting to my environment.

I know it sounds kind of foolish, but I didn’t know I was losing my sight. I worked for a company for 18 years, and when I left, I was an operations manager for that company. It must have been the late 1990s, early 2000s, when I was diagnosed. Unfortunately, I didn’t know about assistive technology, and the company was not aware of it. So, we couldn’t find a match for me, and I had to resign.

I was married at that point, had three children, so that was a difficult period. I’d always worked, so I was treading uncharted waters.

How did this journey lead you to NIB and the AbilityOne Program?

Wagner: When I was unable to find employment, I remembered being in high school on the city bus and seeing the Blind Association of Western New York.

I had no idea about assistive technology, had never heard of AbilityOne or NIB. I lived in the sighted world. I was naïve, unfamiliar. So, I called what I thought was the Blind Association of Western New York and asked, “Do you do anything in the way of hiring people who are blind or losing their vision?” They told me they did, and that they had two operator positions opening at the Buffalo VA hospital.

I thought, “I can answer phones, I have customer service skills, and I know the hospital well.”

My grandmother was blind. I didn’t know until later in life that I had inherited my condition from her, but she was blind my whole life, and I used to escort her up to the VA hospital. My grandfather was a World War II vet. So, I knew the VA hospital, and that piqued my interest. I thought, “Wow, that’s perfect.”

That’s how I was introduced to what is now VIA, Visually Impaired Advancement, and the AbilityOne Program. The VA switchboard operators are part of an AbilityOne contract.

Today you’re the director of VA contracts and public policy for VIA. What has your advancement journey been like, and what has it meant to you?

Wagner: I was a switchboard operator for many years. I was able to have access to employer-sponsored healthcare and a 401k. But as you can imagine, I had a lot less responsibility and I was making a lot less money than when I was an operations manager.

I reached out to my human resources person in 2014. I informed her that I felt like I could contribute more, and did she see any other opportunities?

It wasn’t too long before I got an email from her, originally from NIB. They were looking for participants for their upcoming Business Management Training Program. Approximately 20 blind professionals, including me, were selected from affiliated agencies like mine to participate in the 18-month program.

By the time my program concluded, I’d started a new position as the switchboard supervisor at our Erie VA Medical Center. I was the first blind supervisor at any of VIA’s contracts. After a couple of years successfully supervising the Erie VA switchboard, I was then promoted to the director of our VA contracts.

What the Business Management Training Program also did for me was open up my eyes, so to speak, to see that there were other opportunities for people who are blind all over this country. It was the catalyst for me and my growth as a blind professional.

Lastly, could you share a bit more about your involvement with NIB’s Advocates for Leadership and Employment program? What has this looked like for you, and what opportunities have you been afforded as a result of the program?

As a member of NIB’s Advocates for Leadership and Employment program, I’ve had the opportunity to play a small role in enhancing independence and creating and protecting jobs for people who are blind or visually impaired.

Working under the purview of NIB’s Public Policy team, my fellow Advocates and I meet with and garner support from our respective members of Congress on priorities that impact the larger blind community. I’ve been involved in helping to get co-sponsors for bills, which eventually became law. I’d never been involved with anything like that that impacted the larger blind community in a positive way.

My involvement in the Advocates program has led to an expanded role at VIA, as director of public policy, where I work with local and state legislators on agency, employee, and client-related issues.