NIB Advocates Give People Who Are Blind a Voice in the Halls of Government

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The Advocates for Leadership and Employment program, one of NIB’s signature initiatives, is a two-year training program targeting high-potential employees who are blind at NIB associated agencies that are interested in learning about the public policy process. Advocates are selected through a competitive process and, before the pandemic, traveled to NIB headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, for two days of intensive training, followed by a day on Capitol Hill, where they met with the offices of U.S. House and Senate members to discuss issues of importance to people who are blind and the AbilityOne® Program.

In 2020, the program found a new way to carry out its mission in a world with limited in-person contact. Eight new advocates completed their first year of training in a virtual environment and helped NIB’s public policy team score an important bipartisan victory in an age of deep political division.

Advocates and the public policy team worked throughout the year to garner support for H.R. 4920, the Department of Veterans Affairs Contracting Preference Consistency Act of 2020. Its enactment in August saved hundreds of jobs for people who are blind, including many veterans.

The measure protects a majority of contracts with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) currently on the AbilityOne Procurement List without affecting existing contracts held by veteran-owned small businesses.

“We are proud that for several decades, AbilityOne contracts with the VA have furnished steady employment for hundreds of people who are blind,” says NIB Vice President for Public Policy Rick Webster. “Thanks to these VA contracts, this skilled and dedicated workforce has had great opportunities for employment and career advancement.”

Webster explains many jobs were threatened in the wake of recent court decisions that held Congress intended the “Rule of Two” created by the Veterans Benefit Act (VBA) in 2006 to have priority over the AbilityOne Program. The Rule of Two required the VA to award contracts to service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses and veteran-owned small businesses when at least two such entities were identified as qualified offerors.

Until mid-2019, the VBA provisions were implemented alongside other contracting programs, including the AbilityOne Program. But following the court rulings, the VA’s implementation of the rule effectively pitted people who are blind against veterans for federal contracting opportunities.

“The competition between two worthy groups meant everyone was losing,” Webster explains, noting that without passage of H.R. 4920, hundreds of Americans who are blind, including veterans, would have lost their jobs. The compromise preserves roughly 65% to 70% of AbilityOne contracts with the VA.

Vivian Fridas, NIB public policy specialist, said that in addition to promoting the work done by NIB agencies at the federal level, Advocates perform other important tasks, such as providing public policy updates to their agencies and representing their agencies with state and local government representatives.

“Not only do advocates graduate from the training program with a better understanding of the public policy process and how it affects our mission, but they also apply that knowledge to develop relationships with their legislators and the people working in their offices. They become empowered voices within their local disability community.”

Despite the difficulties of the pandemic, NIB’s public policy team and the Advocates for Leadership and Employment will continue giving people who are blind a voice in the halls of Congress and in local and state governments.