Winston-Salem Industries for the Blind (IFB) successfully filed a motion to intervene in support of the U.S. Government, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the AbilityOne Program in response to a complaint filed by a veteran-owned business regarding IFB’s contracts to supply eyeglasses made by people who are blind to VA facilities in five states. The complaint requests an injunction on IFB’s contracts with the VA which would essentially shut down IFB’s Optical Lab operations. The result would be the loss of 45 jobs for people who are blind and seven jobs for veterans, with additional risk to other IFB operations and positions.
“Since IFB was established as a nonprofit agency in the AbilityOne Program nearly 80 years ago, there has never been a more real threat to the work we do in providing employment, training and services for people who are blind or visually impaired,” said Danny Kelly, IFB chief operating officer. “We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the VA to protect the charge of the AbilityOne Program in creating employment for people who are blind or have severe disabilities. There is enough business with the VA for everyone, veteran-owned businesses as well as AbilityOne agencies like IFB, to be successful. In fact, many of our IFB employees are veterans – some having lost their sight after leaving the military, and others with service-connected disabilities.”
More than 45,000 people who are blind or have other severe disabilities, of which approximately 3,000 are veterans, have found employment through nonprofit agencies like IFB participating in the AbilityOne Program. Established by the Javits-Wagner-O’Day Act (JWOD) in 1938, the AbilityOne Program, through its network of nonprofit agencies, supplies the Federal Government with products and services, like IFB’s contracts to manufacture eyeglasses for the VA.
“IFB has been a strong partner with the VA for more than 16 years, and we have an outstanding record for quality and service,” said Kelly. “Our employees are immensely proud of our track record of
producing close to 1,000 pairs of eyeglasses each day in service to the more than 830 veterans seen daily at VA locations. In the last 10 months, our team has provided eyeglasses to nearly 175,000 veterans with 97% of those orders meeting or exceeding the delivery window. We are, by all accounts, an exceptional service provider to the VA, and I don’t believe any organization can match our employees’ pride and patriotism.”
A key foundation of the AbilityOne Program is that all products and services are vigorously vetted by its administering body, the Committee for Purchase, to ensure no adverse effect on small business before those items can be added to the federal Procurement List. Thus, the AbilityOne Program is considered a priority program pursuant to the JWOD Act, the Competition in Contracting Act, and implementing guidance in the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), and all contracts are considered “other than competitive.”
According to Kelly, this “other than competitive” foundation of the AbilityOne Program is at the crux of IFB’s response to the complaint which references a recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of another veteran-owned business, Kingdomware. The Kingdomware ruling “extends to all competitive VA acquisitions, without exception, as long as those businesses can meet the ‘rule of two’ – a reasonable expectation at least two such businesses will bid on a VA contract and can do the work at a fair and reasonable price.” IFB’s contracts with the VA do not fall under this requirement because those contracts were added to the Procurement List by the AbilityOne Commission under the JWOD Act and are considered “other than competitive.”
“The recent Kingdomware ruling clarified that veteran-owned businesses receive priority for contracts with the VA in a competitive environment, but the AbilityOne Program was specifically and purposefully created almost 80 years ago to create and protect jobs for people who are blind or severely disabled outside of this competitive environment and with the vigilant oversight of the Committee for Purchase to ensure equity and access for all,” said Kelly. “I don’t believe it was the intent of the Supreme Court justices in making the Kingdomware ruling to deny the rights of people who are blind or disabled from finding employment.”
Kelly, blind since childhood, points to the success of the AbilityOne Program and the Committee for Purchase in creating jobs while also ensuring that those contracts do not harm small business. “I think the AbilityOne Program should be commended for balancing the needs and rights of all parties – those who are blind, those who are severely disabled, and those who have so ably served our country.”
Winston-Salem Industries for the Blind (IFB) is a nonprofit corporation founded in 1936 that provides employment, training and services for people who are blind or visually impaired. As the largest employer of people who are blind or visually impaired in the United States, IFB operates manufacturing facilities in Winston-Salem, N.C., Asheville, N.C., and Little Rock, Ark., in addition to more than 40 office supply stores and optical centers across the country. IFB also provides outreach through A Brighter Path Foundation, which operates Community Low Vision Centers across North Carolina and Tracy’s Little Red Schoolhouse based in Winston-Salem