NCD Letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Regarding AbilityOne

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November 2, 2021

The Honorable Senator
Jack Reed, Chairman
U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services
228 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

The Honorable Senator
James Inhofe, Ranking Member
U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services
228 Russell Senate Office Building Washington, DC 2051

Re:     Supplemental information about the AbilityOne program to assist policymakers in their decision-making process

Dear Chairman Reed and Ranking Member Inhofe:

I write on behalf of the National Council on Disability (NCD), an independent bipartisan federal agency charged to advise the President, his Administration, Congress and federal agencies on all federal policy matters affecting people with disabilities in this country and in our territories. We exercise our charge, in part, by  conducting objective and comprehensive investigations, research, and analysis to assist Congress in the development of national disability policies.

The purpose of this letter is to make the Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee aware of our recent recommendations to phase-out and replace the AbilityOne program in order to improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities.[1] The proposed amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), to add a statutory requirement to exclude from an Intergovernmental Support Agreements any installation-support service included on the AbilityOne procurement list,[2] if approved, potentially expands the program and runs counter to the advice that NCD has provided Congress to wind down and replace the AbilityOne program.  

NCD’s recommendation to replace the AbilityOne program resulted from a 2020 study which made the following key findings:

  • Despite increased program revenue earned through sales to the Federal Government, the employment of people who are blind has remained stagnant and the employment of people with significant disabilities has declined under the AbilityOne Program over the past eight years;
  • The program undermines current national disability policy goals to create competitive integrated employment opportunities for people with disabilities; and
  • Repeated concerns about transparency and conflicts of interest remain unaddressed and undermine confidence in the program.

In 2020, NCD advised Members of the U.S. House Committee on Armed Services against a proposed amendment to increase the AbilityOne set-aside under Department of Defense contracts, relying at the time upon our 2019 research into AbilityOne, which found that in fiscal years 2016 and 2017, the percentages of AbilityOne employees that achieved supervisory positions were only 0.87%[3] and 1%[4] respectively and that in 2016, only 18.6% of the $3.3 billion of the annual federal government purchases through the AbilityOne Program actually went to wages paid to employees with disabilities.[5]

NCD has studied the AbilityOne program for several years and concluded that the program limits job opportunities for people with disabilities. Accordingly, our advice to Congress with respect to any reform efforts or even modest changes through amendments like the one proposed for NDAA remains that policymakers should take affirmative steps to wind down, phase out, and replace the program - with 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 transition the current 43,000[6] AbilityOne employees into competitive, integrated employment - rather than take any actions that may expand it.

NCD stands ready to help inform your consideration of this amendment should your staff wish to discuss the findings and recommendations of our 2019 and 2020 reports on AbilityOne with NCD staff. Please have your staff contact Kimie Eacobacci, NCD’s Legislative Affairs Specialist, to arrange a time to meet if we can be of further assistance.

Respectfully,

Andrés J. Gallegos
Chairman

 


[1] National Council on Disability (NCD), Policies from the Past in a Modern Era: The Unintended Consequences of the AbilityOne Program & Section 14(c), (October 14, 2020) available at: https://ncd.gov/sites/default/files/NCD_AbilityOne_508.pdf.

[2] Congressional Research Services, Memorandum to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (October 14, 2021) (on file with author).

[3] NCD, A Cursory Look at AbilityOne (Feb. 22, 2019) 16, available at https://www.ncd.gov/publications/2019/cursory-look-abilityone (citing the U.S. AbilityOne Commission, FY 2017 Performance and Accountability Report, 19)

[4] U.S. AbilityOne Commission staff written responses to NCD research questions (on file with author)

[5] NCD at 17 (citing Committee for Purchase, “FY 2019 Budget Justification,” 25.)

[6] NCD notes that since the publication of its 2020 report, the number of AbilityOne employees has decreased from 45,000 to 43,000 according to the Committee for Purchase from People who are Blind or Severely Disabled, Notice of Proposed Rulemaking: Prohibition on the Payment of Subminimum Wages Under 14(c) Certificates as a Qualification for Participation as a Nonprofit Agency Under the Javits Wagner O’Day Program (October 12, 2021) RIN 3037–AA16.