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EDITORIAL: Program for blind deserves saving

August 12, 2017

Indiana and the nation have come a long way over the past century in helping people with disabilities become productive members of society. It’s a heartening evolution.

From a macro perspective, gainfully employed Hoosiers have greater self-sufficiency—and thus less need to fall back on overburdened government safety-net services. At least as important is the sense of self-worth that individuals draw from holding a job and succeeding in a workplace.

That’s why we’re so discouraged by the change in government policy that now imperils Bosma Enterprises, the Indianapolis not-for-profit founded more than a century ago to create more opportunities for people who are blind and visually impaired.

As IBJ reported in May, Bosma is among groups that have sued the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs—alleging the agency ignored a long-standing law when it changed contracting rules that have been used for decades to give jobs to the visually impaired.

The changes came in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that found the agency must follow a 2006 law requiring veteran-owned businesses be given priority. The new rules also are consistent with President Trump’s campaign pledge to do more for veterans.

But Bosma and its fellow plaintiffs argue that the VA interpreted the court decision too broadly when it changed the rules in March. They say the VA focused on for-profit businesses owned by veterans while ignoring a separate 1938 law that grants priority status to not-for-profits like Bosma that employ the disabled and blind to produce and sell goods to the government.

The lawsuit says the VA’s interpretation could have a “disastrous” effect on Bosma and similar groups across the country that have contracts with the VA through its AbilityOne Program, which was created through the 1938 law.

Use of the word “disastrous” is not hyperbole. AbilityOne contracts are the engine that drives Bosma—accounting for 96 percent of its $36.4 million in annual revenue.

Bosma has 208 employees, 116 of them visually impaired—making it the state’s largest employer of the blind. More than 60 make medical supplies under AbilityOne contracts; 19 others have some job responsibilities related to the program.

It’s important to note that Bosma’s positive impact extends far beyond that program. It operates a rehab center and provides job training, career coaching and employer integration. Last year, it served nearly 800 Hoosiers.

The need for services for the visually impaired is large and growing. The unemployment rate for the blind is 62 percent in Indiana and 70 percent nationally. Adding to the challenge: The nation’s rate of blindness is on the upswing as the population ages and is expected to double by 2030.

We implore members of Congress and other leaders to let common sense prevail and work out a solution, rather than letting the lawsuit play out, which could take years. We don’t doubt the merits of helping veterans, but their gains should not come at the expense of jobs for the blind.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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