Intro: 00:02 You are listening to the ACB Advocacy Update.
Claire Stanley: 00:08 Hey everybody, this is Claire here at the American council of the blind and welcome back to another episode of ACB advocacy update. Like I said, my name is Claire Stanley and I'm the advocacy and outreach specialist. And sitting next to me, fortunately, unfortunately depends on your view is
Clark Rachfal: 00:25 Clark Rachfal, director of advocacy and governmental affairs for ACB. So thanks to everyone who's joining us over ACB radio as well as those who are downloading or streaming via their favorite podcast players.
Claire Stanley: 00:40 So we'll jump into our podcast in just a second. We'll introduce our speaker who we're really fortunate to have today. But As always, please let us know what's going on in your hometown area. If you have any advocacy issues, you can always reach Clark or myself at firstname.lastname@example.org. Again, that's email@example.com. Nothing's too big or too small. Please feel free to reach out. I'll make Clark read all the emails and then you know, report back to me.
Clark Rachfal: 01:10 That's right. If you have any complaints, please send them to Claire. If you have anything that you liked, that ACB is doing, feel free to send that to me. Another thing that we've started to do recently and if any of our SASI - sight and sound impaired members out there or part of the deaf blind community, if it's of interest to you, we're now providing transcripts of all of our podcasts. So if those are helpful, helpful to you or if you have feedback, please share that with us.
Claire Stanley: 01:40 And if you have any friends who are members of SASI or the deaf blind community, please spread the word. We want to make sure that everybody has access to our podcast. So without further ado, we will introduce our guests today. We are joined by Dan Kelly and I feel like I can't do it justice. So would you like to introduce yourself, Dan, to our listeners?
Dan Kelly: 02:02 Oh, thanks very much for the introduction because I said it's my first podcast, so I'm very excited. I'm Dan Kelly, chief operating officer of IFB Solutions in Winston Salem, North Carolina.
Claire Stanley: 02:15 Great.
Clark Rachfal: 02:15 Dan, can you share a little bit about your background personally, professionally,
Dan Kelly: 02:21 Happy to do so.
Clark Rachfal: 02:23 Really?
Dan Kelly: 02:27 So I've been blind my entire life, have retinitis pigmentosa, the third generation in my family. Both father and grandfather had the eye disease. My, my son who is 10, Jack, also has RP unfortunately. But you know, like everything else we're, we're working through it. So we know everybody's struggles and trials. I've been involved in the AbilityOne program for almost two decades, feel like an old man but started, started an employment and recruiting business out of college and and then moved on to work for NIB for five years, the National Industries for the Blind and then IFB solutions for the last 12 years as chief operating officer.
Claire Stanley: 03:17 So Dan, I know most of our listeners are familiar with what a, I can't talk, are familiar with what AbilityOne is, but just in case we have listeners who aren't as familiar with the program, do you mind giving a quick blurb or summary on what AbilityOne is?
Dan Kelly: 03:34 Absolutely. I'm biased. I'll start with that statement, but I think the AbilityOne program is one of the best public private partnerships ever created by Congress passed under the Javits Wagner O'Day act in 1938. The US federal government has to purchase products and services anyway to do their daily business and they're mission critical activities that keep us all safe, whether it's the department of Homeland security or for our war fighters and the department of defense with military clothing and what have you and what better way than to create job opportunities for people who are blind and have other severe disabilities then through the purchase of products and services set aside for procurement through not for profit agencies that create now over 6,000 jobs for people who are blind across the country. So it was just a, it's a great win-win program where the government doesn't spend any of our tax dollars on stuff other than what they need to buy anyway. And it creates 6,000 jobs on an annual basis for people who are blind.
Clark Rachfal: 04:43 And what a great program to discuss during October, which is also National Disability Employment Awareness month. Yup. And then you talked about the, the 6,000 people who are employed annually by the AbilityOne program. But in addition to being an employment program, this program also offers upward mobility and job training and business growth as well. Correct?
Dan Kelly: 05:11 It has really expanded to provide so many opportunities for, for people who are blind. That was part of the National Industries for the Blind and all-girl business management training program class where 29 of us went through went through a program in 2003 to 2005 with the university of Virginia Darden school of management, their graduate program. And you know, created a lot of upward mobility opportunities for me. And that program as well. So many others have created upward mobility for so many others within the you know, AbilityOne program, you know, we at IFB solutions now have over 40 individuals who are blind or visually impaired in management and leadership positions around the organization. So just, just great opportunities for advancement and career advancement within our organization and across the country. You'd also mentioned the other services that are, that are provided.
Dan Kelly: 06:15 You know, we're, we're not for profit organizations and so the money we make from our AbilityOne contracts doesn't go to lining the pockets of stockholders or what have you. It goes back into the programs and services that we provide. Whether that be a low vision services for people across the country who come to one of our four low vision centers in North Carolina or, or Arkansas, or low vision centers run by many of the other 90 not for profit agencies that are involved in this program and create these employment opportunities. We're also doing outreach and, and kids camps and afterschool care programs for children with visual impairments. And I know many other associated agencies for the blind do the same thing across the country. So just a, just a great use of taxpayer dollars, again, who would have to buy stuff anyway and are doing that and doing good work at the same time.
Clark Rachfal: 07:18 What a great way to leverage the everyday workings of the federal government to provide these great services and opportunities. And you said you're down there at IFB solutions in North Carolina. Can you talk to us a little bit about the specific work that's done there at IFB?
Dan Kelly: 07:38 Yeah, sure. Yeah. IFB solutions has been in Winston Salem, North Carolina since 1936, so 83 year old business. We are now expanded of course, and beyond Winston Salem to three major centers of manufacturing and job creation. So Winston Salem, Asheville, North Carolina, and then Little Rock, Arkansas. We run retail stores on military installations and bases from West Point Military Academy up in New York down to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on the military Naval base down there.
Claire Stanley: 08:16 Oh, I didn't know that one.
Dan Kelly: 08:17 Yeah. If you've never been there it's an exciting place to go.
Dan Kelly: 08:22 No sarcasm there at all.
Dan Kelly: 08:25 And and our call center staffing operations in Sacramento, California and El Paso, Texas, Irving, Texas around Dallas. And and some individuals that work from home too in our call center environments on different federal contracts. So we're now a little old Winston Salem and the largest employer of people who are blind with over 500 associates that that work for us in 14 states.
Clark Rachfal: 08:52 So then one of the cool, what I think is one of really cool things that you guys do down there at at IFB is you have a, an entire optical optical lab, correct?
Dan Kelly: 09:03 We do. We've been making eyeglasses since the mid nineties, so almost 25 years. And it's, it's, you know, we've, we've heard from so many of our employees, it's, it's great to be able to help people see better and you know, blind people making eyeglasses for US military veterans and our commercial customers. It's been a tremendous experience, mostly because it's, you know, it's a really a commercial operation. Our optical lab looks like just like anybody else's. And people are learning great career skills along the way and all of those skills are, are transferrable to, to any, you know, any, any outfits. So our lab runs just like anybody else's.
Claire Stanley: 09:52 I think that's such a great thing to, to mention and highlight is that the skills are transferable. Meaning it's such a great career opportunity right here and right now for people who are blind, but then it's also an opportunity to be able to transfer their skills to anywhere they might or want to go in the future. So it's a great opportunity to help people build up their resume.
Dan Kelly: 10:15 Yeah. And such just give you, you know, a couple of examples. We, we've had folks that you know, are, have become, so who are folks who are blind, who have become certified you know, American board of opticians, certified opticians you know, gone through that testing and those requirements. One individual who retired from us a couple of years ago you know, lost her job in a commercial provider, but was able to get the accommodations and continue the great work and helping, you know, fit people's glasses and dispensing glasses at one of our VA locations that we had in South Carolina. And then, you know, we have several folks in customer service gone through the AVO certifications and become, have become certified, you know, board of opticians certified folks. And just to get that professional accreditation while working for us, they've been thrilled to have that opportunity and increase their wages and, and move ahead in their careers.
Claire Stanley: 11:15 That's great.
Clark Rachfal: 11:17 Dan, one of the main drivers for the business at your optical lab is a contract with the the department of veterans affairs, correct?
Dan Kelly: 11:28 It was until recently, unfortunately. Yes.
Clark Rachfal: 11:31 Yeah. And there's been some challenges there.
Dan Kelly: 11:35 There have been we've been in an unfortunate legal battle for the last three years to try to protect our work with the department of veterans affairs and more importantly, protect equal rights to employment for over 70 Americans who are blind that we're working in our optical lab up until the end of September of this year.
Claire Stanley: 11:58 Do you want to talk a little bit more about that, that lawsuit? I put my lawyer hat on here and it's something that I've been really interested in following. And I can kind of give a quick summary, but I think you would add far more value based on your experience. But basically what we're seeing is that under some new legislation more contracts are being being given to veteran owned businesses. And like Dan was saying at the beginning under the Javits Wagner O'Day act, these contracts in the past had been given to these disability specific contracts. And so we're now kind of having a, a superseding policy that's starting to potentially bring about negative implications for these programs that are benefiting the blind. So we're starting to see, you know, what are we going to do? Are these blind individuals going to lose their jobs? Are these opportunities going to be taken away? And again, I'm, Dan, I'm sure you can explain this in far better detail than I can, but do you mind talking a little bit about the act and what's going on?
Dan Kelly: 13:05 Yeah. Sometimes for the last three years, I feel like I've been playing a lawyer on TV
Dan Kelly: 13:10 The first thing to mention is, you know, there's these two laws on the books, right? The, the Javits Wagner O'Day statute. You mentioned the ability, one program that creates jobs for people who are blind and with other disabilities to include many blinded veterans and other veterans with other disabilities who want the opportunities to work and opportunities for employment that they're not able to achieve or, or find. In 2006, this other law was packed for the veterans beneficiary act, which is strictly focused on awarding opportunities to veteran owned small businesses through competitive procedures with the department of veterans affairs. Those two laws co-existed one in this mandatory source space, the set aside contracts through the Ability, One program that create employment and the entrepreneurial opportunities for veterans through this veteran owned small business law. They coexisted side-by-side for 10 years with really no issue or interaction.
Dan Kelly: 14:18 Until 2016 when a veteran owned small business decided to sue the department of veterans affairs for the VA's compliance with the AbilityOne program and basically said these opportunities for eyeglass manufacturing or for prescription bottle manufacturing or for glove packaging or for switchboard operations should instead of going to AbilityOne program participants that create jobs for people who are blind, they be going to veteran owned small businesses. And unfortunately, you know, the VA and IFB solutions who intervened in the lawsuits the court haven't been going our direction had the, at the district court or at the at the circuit court level. And we've now taken this, in this case our petition for social very, or petition to the Supreme court went in on on September 9th and, and we are in process of waiting to hear from the Supreme court or whether they're going to take up our case.
Clark Rachfal: 15:26 Dan, you mentioned that approximately 70 employees will be impacted by the loss of the glasses contract with the VA program wide for the AbilityOne program. Do you have a sense of how many blind and low vision employees could be impacted by this decision? And in addition to the employee is the potential loss of services provided by these agencies to the greater community who's blind and low vision?
Dan Kelly: 15:58 Yeah, as mentioned you know, we, like I said, we, we have, we had 76 individuals who are blind in our optical lab and, and that, that now is sitting at 22 based on the loss of three of our major contracts program wide, 34 agencies for the blind have contracts with the department of veterans affairs that are under threat right now. That, and, and those organizations employ upwards of 800 people who are blind on those contracts. If we add individuals with other severe disabilities that also have contracts with the department of veterans affairs, this is an effect on nearly 2000 individuals who are blind or have other severe disabilities. So it's, it's impactful. And in a negative way on, on both the employment piece and, and as well as you mentioned the, the services that we provide the community we, we talked about earlier, the are the funding that we get from these contracts and going back to, you know, stockholders or shareholders cause we're not for profits, but it is going to provide all these other services and you know, we as an organization, and I'm sure others are going to have to take a very strong look at how we're going to restructure our businesses and, and what services we're going to be able to continue to provide the community.
Clark Rachfal: 17:34 And this is an issue that we've heard about more frequently this year from ACB membership throughout the country, whether that's folks here in Virginia, Florida, Texas, Illinois. And I think that's one of the reasons that the ACB membership drafted and voted unanimously to approve a resolution at our annual convention this year. It was citing the, you know, upwards of 15% of the AbilityOne blind workforce, those potential 800 out of 6,000 employees. That could be impacted and people who could potentially lose their jobs in addition to the folks throughout the country that will lose access to organizations. You know, a lot of people are familiar with the the lighthouses for the blind throughout the country. A lot of those places have AbilityOne contracts and they provide services. So if you think that those services may no longer be available to folks who are losing their vision or have gone blind, that's a, that's scary for a lot of folks.
Claire Stanley: 18:42 Yeah. So here at ACB and the national office, we were approached to help in this issue and we gladly said we would love to help it in the way we're helping specifically right now is drafting an Amicus brief, meaning where an Amicus or friend of the court and this brief basically just talks about the negative implications that really already have arisen but will also continue to arise as a result if these contracts continue to be eliminated. And so we have been partnered with the law firm who via pro bono, very graciously are helping us draft this amicus brief to really again highlight the negative implications that have arisen and people like Dan Kelly and other members of IFB and similar AbilityOne programs have been so helpful to help us find different people to share their stories, provide statistics, and just talk about how hard it is as somebody who's blind to get a job or continue to stay employed. So we're really excited to be able to submit this Amicus brief and you know, put in, you know, such a small that have helped. We, we know, but anything we can do to help work on this case because ACB does believe it's an important cause.
Clark Rachfal: 20:01 So Dan, either legislatively or in the courts what are the, what are the next steps here for this issue?
Dan Kelly: 20:10 Sure. And by the way, if I, if I haven't said along the way, thanks to ACB for your participation in, in both of this, from a, from a resolution standpoint at your national conference to you're filing an Amicus brief, this is important to the entire community of people who are blind, all Americans who are blind, and most important to the seven out of 10 Americans who are blind and, and looking for work and are unemployed. One thing I just want to make sure your listeners know is this is not a fight between people who are blinds and veterans, right? This is a technical procurement law issue that affects both populations. But there are many people who are blind who are, like I said, also veterans and seeking employment opportunities and, and others that are you know, veterans who want to be entrepreneurs and the VA buys 26, 27 billion dollars a year worth of stuff.
Dan Kelly: 21:12 There's plenty of room to share to grow the pie, to go exist side by side and create both employment opportunities and, and, and opportunities for entrepreneurship and business ownership. So, I just want to say that first. And you know, I think the fortunate thing is here this great Republic that we live in, we have opportunities to take this to the Supreme court and your participation in that has been wonderful. We also have an opportunity to, to go forward and change the law make with Congress, right? Make congresses clarify the intent of what Congress meant and how these two laws that are on the books are to interact. So those are the two initiatives that we're certainly engaged with along with our other sister agencies. And we're so proud that ACB standing by us, Source America's standing bias on the side for people with severe disabilities, Blind Veterans of America. And, and please don't hurt me if this is a dirty word, but also the National Federation for the Blind, where the entire blindness community is all on the same page on this issue, which is tremendous.
Clark Rachfal: 22:26 It is. It's great. No, it's true. And are there opportunities or will there be opportunities in the future for our members if they would like to weigh in? For them to do.
Dan Kelly: 22:40 I think there will be more in fairly short order, but if you want to do something immediately, it never hurts to call up your congressional house representatives or your your senators and say, protect the AbilityOne program and jobs for people who are blind working on VA contracts that, that message has been told on Capitol Hill for, for a long time, but especially over the last six months. And we're all actively working. You know, we don't have, we don't have a bill introduced yet and, and as soon as we do, I'll, I'll be, I'll be back on your radio show to, to, promote what we're trying to do specifically, but the, the general ask right now is call Congress and tell them to protect the AbilityOne program and jobs for people who are blind working on VA contracts.
Clark Rachfal: 23:29 Well, great. And folks can do that by calling the US Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121. Again that's 202-224-3121. And you can ask the switchboard to put you in touch with your member of Congress or your US senators and again, ask them to protect the AbilityOne program and VA contract.
Claire Stanley: 23:58 So easy to do so we encourage everybody to do it. Great. Well thank you so much Dan. This has been, I know I've learned a lot and I think our listeners have learned a lot as well. So thank you so much for taking your time to speak with us.
Clark Rachfal: 24:12 Well thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure.
Claire Stanley: 24:15 Of course. And we will keep all of our listeners posted on what we find out. Again, we'll be submitting the Amicus brief within the next few days and then as we hear what, what the Supreme court eventually will decide, we'll keep you guys posted. If it does get a writ of cert, that means it'll go before the Supreme Court and then if it does go before the Supreme Court, they do take, tend to take quite some time to hear the case and then write up a decision. So we'll keep you posted on first if it receives a writ of certiorari. And then if it goes further, what the final decision is. So we promise we will keep you up to date.
Clark Rachfal: 24:54 Great. And again, Dan, thank you so much for speaking with us today and sharing this issue that's important to a lot of ACB members.
Dan Kelly: 25:05 Thanks again. Thanks very much for having me. And I hope I didn't ramble too much.
Claire Stanley: 25:08 No, not at all. Remember everybody, if you have any issues you want to bring to us, feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and Clark. What do we always say?
Clark Rachfal: 25:19 Keep advocating. Thanks everybody.