The National Council on Disability says that the AbilityOne Program should wind down and be replaced by government efforts to get people with disabilities employed in integrated settings. (Nick Sabula/NCD)
An independent federal agency says it’s time for a decades-old government jobs program for people with disabilities to come to an end.
The National Council on Disability, which is charged with advising the president and Congress on disability issues, is calling for the AbilityOne Program to be phased out.
The 82-year-old program funnels government contracts to a network of 500 nonprofits across the nation that make products or provide services to federal agencies. At least 75% of the direct labor hours undertaken by the nonprofits must be performed by people who are blind or who have significant disabilities.
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However, in a report out this month, the National Council on Disability said the program is antiquated and is failing to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
“The AbilityOne Program is a federally sanctioned segregated jobs system,” said Neil Romano, chairman of the council. “Not only is its effectiveness in question based on our research, it is a policy relic in tension with current national disability policy.”
Currently, about 45,000 people with significant disabilities or blindness are employed through AbilityOne, according to NCD. And, in the 2018 fiscal year alone, the federal government allocated $3.6 billion worth of contracts to the program through a mandatory preference system.
Nonetheless, the National Council on Disability found that in the last eight years of available data, employment of people who are blind through the program has stagnated and positions for those with significant disabilities have declined even as overall program sales have increased. Accordingly, the percentage of AbilityOne Program revenue going toward wages for people with disabilities has dropped each year since 2011.
Meanwhile, there are concerns about transparency and oversight, particularly in regard to spending on executive salaries and lobbying. And, the NCD report said that the requirement that people with disabilities perform 75% of work hours reinforces an outdated model of employment.
“The ratio inherently creates pressures on the AbilityOne (nonprofits) to place workers with disabilities into more segregated settings, whether as work crews or on the production floor, while the entire program perpetuates a separate system for people who are blind or have significant disabilities at the same time federal laws seek to achieve greater integration,” the report states.
Only about 4% of AbilityOne workers leave the program each year for competitive, integrated employment, the NCD report notes.
The National Council on Disability is recommending that the government phase out the AbilityOne Program over an eight-year period. Instead, all federal contractors and subcontractors with at least $200,000 in contracts and a minimum of 50 employees should be required to hire a certain percentage of people who are blind or who have significant disabilities, the council said.
“The phaseout must be conducted in such a way to ensure that all employees working under the program are prepared to transition to the new requirement to avoid job loss, unemployment or underemployment, or lower wages,” the report indicates.
Officials with the U.S. AbilityOne Commission, an independent federal agency that administers the AbilityOne Program, said they are currently reviewing the report and declined to provide further comment.