NIB/NAEPB Public Policy Forum Tackles 1% DOD Utilization Goal for the AbilityOne Program

National Industries for the Blind (NIB) – in partnership with the National Association for the Employment of People Who Are Blind (NAEPB) – held its annual Public Policy Forum May 13-16 in Alexandria, VA.  

The event, which has taken place for more than 15 years, was held at the Westin Old Town Alexandria, with 42 different NIB associated nonprofit agencies represented and nearly 200 people traveling from around the country to take part. Business kicked off May 13 with Advocates for Leadership and Employment training and an NAEPB board meeting.  

“It was such a pleasure to meet our Advocates Class of 2024 and to get better acquainted with some of our NIB associated nonprofit agency representatives,” said Soraya Correa, NIB’s new president and CEO. “This year, the Class of 2024 added 14 new Advocates to help represent the community of people who are blind or visually impaired to our elected officials.”

There are now more than 60 active Advocates in NIB’s program. The focus of this year’s public policy work is to ask Congress to formalize the Department of Defense’s (DOD) voluntary pledge to increase its utilization of the AbilityOne Program from its current .55% to 1%. In order to formalize this goal, Congress would include it in the FY2025 National Defense Authorization Act.  

“Together, our strong, collective voice calls on elected policymakers to open doors for the millions of people who are blind or visually impaired and not currently employed. Our focus on the 1% DOD utilization goal for the AbilityOne Program can impact employment for thousands of people who are blind in the future,” Correa said, noting the DOD is one of the AbilityOne Program’s biggest customers. “We are grateful they voluntarily committed to this goal, but we know that making the goal mandatory will help build momentum.” 

Tuesday’s PPF schedule was robust, beginning with the morning’s General Session and continuing with public policy training in the afternoon.  The day featured multiple speakers, including former U.S. Congressman Luke Messer and RSA Commissioner Dante Allen; a salute to Kevin Lynch, recently retired NIB president and CEO; networking and breakout discussions; and four panels of leaders from NIB associated nonprofit agencies and other partner organizations. Many panelists shared tips with the advocates, who spent Wednesday visiting their elected officials on Capitol Hill.  

Cindy Watson, president and CEO of Vibrant Works, sat on a panel with Shellena Heber, executive director, Valley Center for the Blind, and Joshua Gould, president and CEO of Industries for the Blind, along with Dan Kelly, NAEPB’s vice president of public policy and president and CEO of IFB Solutions, who served as moderator. Watson said researching the legislators the Advocates planned to visit would reap rewards. 

“Doing your homework and understanding the committees your legislators serve on or the issues they’re passionate about are critical to delivering the message,” Watson said, encouraging Advocates to tie that to the goal and mission of their organization. She also strongly encouraged Advocates to invite legislators to tour their facilities. “That’s where the magic happens. And be shameless in telling your story about how the AbilityOne Program has impacted your life.”

Messer also offered pointers. Among them: don’t over- or underestimate what people know about the subject; shoot straight and be honest; avoid political commentary at all costs, because “our issue is bipartisan;” make your ask specific; and remember that all politics are local politics. “Every single member of Congress represents between 700,000 to a million people,” he said. “Framing things to their state gives you a better chance.”  

A number of panelists reminded Advocates to say thank you and never fail to follow up in the days and weeks after their visit. Many also told those going to the Hill not to be discouraged if the answer they received about supporting the 1% utilization goal wasn’t a definitive “yes.” 

“Sometimes, legislators and staffers will basically say, to quote the movie, that ‘they’re just not that into you,’” Rob Buettner, vice president of relationships and business services for Beyond Vision, said during a panel discussion with Lise Pace, executive vice president of Bosma Enterprises, and Greg Szabo, director of government and public relations for The Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc. “This 1% thing is going to pass at some point. It might not happen this session, but it’s just a matter of time before it passes, so don’t let the no’s get you down.” 

Advocates gathered in a room in the Rayburn House Office Building before and after their visits to break for lunch and compare notes on how their meetings went. Many were positive about the reception they received from elected officials. 

Nicole Eberhardt, an administrative assistant from Lions Services in North Carolina and a member of the Advocates Class of 2023, said she didn’t sleep much Tuesday night because she was so excited about her day on the Hill, even though she never imagined she would be involved in something like this. 

“And my meetings this year went better than my meetings last year,” Eberhardt said, adding she loves being an Advocate and making a difference. While she had to tell one of the two staffers whom she met what the AbilityOne program was all about, she felt very positive about the outcomes. “My first two meetings I had really positive feedback, and it looks like they’re going to communicate back with the senator and the rep about our issue.”