Policies from the Past in a Modern Era: The Unintended Consequences of the AbilityOne Program & Section 14(c)

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Two male work colleagues, one with Down syndrome, use a digital tablet at work in an industrial setting.

October 14, 2020

FULL REPORT (PDF)
FULL REPORT (DOC)

Related Report (2019): A Cursory Look at AbilityOne

SCOPE AND PURPOSE: NCD conducted a comprehensive analysis of the AbilityOne Program to determine whether it promotes Congress’ goal of improving employment opportunities for people who are blind or have significant disabilities. Today, the program is made of a government-appointed Commission and staff, three central nonprofit agencies (CNAs) that facilitate the program, and over 500 participating nonprofit agencies that hire people who are blind or have significant disabilities to sell goods and services to federal agencies.

NCD’s report raises the following concerns about the AbilityOne Program:

  • Despite increased program revenue earned through sales to the Federal Government, employment for people who are blind or have significant disabilities has steadily declined since 2011 – While overall program sales have increased, the number of employees and total direct labor hours from the employment of people who are blind or have significant disabilities have declined since FY 2011. The percentage of overall program revenue paying wages to people are blind or have with significant disabilities has also declined each year since FY 2011.
  • The program undermines current national disability policy goals to create competitive integrated employment opportunities for people with disabilities – The program is a federally sanctioned segregated jobs system from 1938 that reinforces distinct employment paths for people who are blind or have significant disabilities that may result in subminimum wages. The program relies on an outdated societal landscape that existed prior to a public right to education and other core civil rights for people with disabilities. For this reason, only approximately four percent of employees hired under the program exit the program to enter competitive, integrated employment each year.
  • Repeated concerns about transparency and conflicts of interest remain unaddressed and undermine confidence in the program – While the CNAs continue to seek opportunities to increase program revenue, past scrutiny and criticism from Congress, the Government Accountability Office, its own Inspector General, and the Advisory Committee on Increasing Competitive Integrated Employment for Individuals with Disabilities remain unresolved. The CNA program fee remains exempt from federal restrictions on its use allowing it to fund executive salaries and lobbying expenses. In addition, NPAs have the discretion to decide which employees have significant disabilities, however NCD’s interviews and site visits with NPAs raised concern that they lack the capacity, skill, and knowledge to objectively evaluate the skills of their workers with disabilities.

NCD concludes the report by advising Congress to transition the outdated AbilityOne Program into a new requirement under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act that will incentivize federal contractors to hire a percentage of people who are blind or have significant disabilities at competitive wages and provides recommendations to successfully transition the current 45,000 AbilityOne employees into competitive, integrated employment.