In 1938, the United States was nearly a decade into the Great Depression. The unemployment rate was up, and production rates were down. The world had a very limited idea of what people who were blind could do, making employment even harder to obtain.
However, there was hope on the horizon. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was committed to enacting legislation to improve workplace conditions for all Americans. He signed the Wagner-O’Day Act into law on June 25, 1938, marking a turning point for people who were blind across the country.
The Wagner-O’Day Act directed government agencies to give priority to suppliers employing people who are blind when purchasing certain products. Philanthropist M.C. Migel, who formed the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), Dr. Robert B. Irwin, AFB’s first executive director, and Peter J. Salmon, executive director of the Industrial Home for the Blind in New York City, heavily promoted the Act and wasted no time once it had passed. The three men incorporated National Industries for the Blind (NIB) on August 10, 1938, in New York.
Forming NIB united 36 nonprofit agencies across the country that employed people who were blind and had previously competed for business. Chester Kleber, who successfully managed many AFB projects, was named as NIB’s first general manager and began managing the allocation of government orders among the associated agencies. The first two items placed on the federal procurement list were corn brooms and cotton mops, but other products quickly followed. By 1939, the agencies employed 150 people who were blind.
New Challenges and New Opportunities
With the onset of World War II, American defense spending skyrocketed and the demand for goods increased dramatically. In 1941, more than 1,000 employees who were blind joined the ranks of NIB associated agencies to answer the call. Through 1945, this growing segment of the workforce produced 21 million mops, 40 million pillowcases, and 16 million mailing bags, among other goods, firmly establishing the high-quality craftsmanship of individuals who are blind and the agencies’ ability to fill orders on time and at a fair price.
After the war, establishing a brand name for products produced by NIB associated nonprofit agencies became a priority, and the SKILCRAFT® brand was launched in 1952. NIB worked to diversify its product lines and find new customers, including the military resale market, to create a steady stream of business for its agencies during times of peace.
In 1967, NIB and its associated nonprofit agencies received an unusual request. The General Services Administration (GSA) had an urgent need for 70 million pens annually, and their original supplier could not meet GSA’s stringent new product specifications. The challenge was accepted, and the iconic SKILCRAFT U.S. Government Pen was born. The pen’s success created 133 jobs in the first year and opened the door for NIB agencies to develop a full line of office products in the decades ahead.
In 1971, Congress passed legislation introduced by Senator Jacob Javits to expand the Wagner-O’Day Act. The Javits-Wagner-O’Day (JWOD) Act included people with significant disabilities in addition to people who are blind and required the federal government to purchase both goods and services. NIB expanded its focus and created programming to further develop the skills and abilities of people who are blind.
The next big challenge arose in the 1990s. The Persian Gulf War spurred a massive surge in production, and the Department of Defense asked NIB’s associated nonprofit agencies to supply American troops with $67 million worth of critical items. While NIB’s agencies had never been called upon to deliver so many products in such a short time, they proved equal to the task. After the war, NIB further diversified its customer base by opening the first AbilityOne Base Supply Center® (BSC) at Fort Bragg in North Carolina; today there are more than 150 BSCs in operation.
Evolving to Meet the Demands of a Changing World
NIB and its associated agencies continued to evolve, taking on contracts in warehousing and distribution, customer service, order entry, invoicing, data entry, and database management. NIB expanded the SKILCRAFT® line to include more than 7,000 products and leveraged accessible technology to develop careers in professional services. NSITE, a new talent management enterprise, launched in 2021 to provide training and professional development programs for people who are blind, as well as services to connect employers with talented job seekers.
In 2018, NIB moved to its new headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, a strategic investment in the organization’s future. The state-of-the-art building was constructed in consultation with architect Chris Downey, a specialist in universal design who is blind, and provided a dedicated space for NIB to fulfill its mission, including expanded training facilities and accessible office space.
For 85 years, NIB has remained focused on its enduring mission: creating employment opportunities for people who are blind. In 1938, NIB’s founders could not have imagined the technological advances that would allow people who are blind to enjoy careers in nearly every sector of the economy. In its first year, NIB and its 36 associated agencies employed 150 people who were blind. In 2022, NIB and its nearly 100 associated agencies employed more than 5,000 people who are blind in locations across the country.
“While our mission has remained constant, the means of achieving it have evolved,” said Kevin Lynch, NIB president and chief executive officer. “In a future where opportunity is limited only by our imagination, NIB will continue to empower people who are blind to choose their preferred career path and chart their own journey to achieving the American Dream.”