AbilityOne is a federally funded program that has been tasked to funnel money to organizations that employ people with, what are considered to be, “severe” disabilities. While I’m not here to define what they mean by ‘severe’ or even to continue the rhetoric of the hierarchy of disability, on the face of it, any organization that is dedicated to improving employment outcomes for those with disabilities, seems like a good one to me.
However, maybe not so much for this one.
This organization has found itself in hot water lately, as there are federal investigations currently underway for fraud, bid rigging and steering of contracts. In other words, they took jobs away from people with disabilities, rather than helped to provide them.
As one might imagine, disability rights organizations across the country aren’t too impressed with AbilityOne right now and with good reason.
While AbilityOne is federally funded to provide contracts to businesses, they are mandated to require that 75% of the work hours required to complete a contract be performed by people with disabilities. This was originally designed to increase the number of disabled people that are employed. Unfortunately, according to allegations, AbilityOne not only steered contracts to their “friends,” they also asked employees to “exaggerate” their disability so that they qualified as “severely disabled.” Although, remember, these are still only allegations. Investigations are currently underway.
A deeper problem with this legislation is that it does not mandate that these employment opportunities be fully integrated for disabled people. While it is a program goal for AbilityOne to provide integrated opportunities, this is not currently required by the legislation and this may be contributing to the contract steering. According to dictionary.com, ‘integrated’ means “combining or coordinating separate elements so as to provide a harmonious, interrelated whole” or “having, including, or serving members of different racial, religious, and ethnic groups as equals.” It appears that AbilityOne didn’t get the memo on definition. Instead, reports have found that most of the contracts for products are completed in sheltered workshops and with disabled people in workgroups on their own. Unfortunately, as many of you know, sheltered workshops also often pay MUCH less than minimum wage. None of this is doing anything to advance the civil rights of those with disabilities. Integration and Equality are two of our biggest battle cries. There’s no reason for life any other way. This shows why we need integration to be embedded into the legislation itself.
On the bright side, the very fact that a federal investigation is happening might be a sign of how times have changed, as the AbilityOne program can be traced back to 1938 when views of disability were much, much different. In fact, one report indicated that concerns about this program have been raised for MANY years. However, in 1938, society had very low expectations for people with disabilities and did not believe disabled people, much less those with ‘severe’ disabilities, could be capable of working in a competitive work environment. This was also a day in time in which people with disabilities were forced to live their lives in institutions and excluded from everyday life. Thankfully, times have changed. While change never happens as fast as we want it to, the assumptions that underlie this program are inconsistent with modern disability policy, which indicates progress has been made. Today, we have federal policies, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, which demand equality in all aspects of life.
Whether the allegations are true or not, I hope that this federal investigation provides an opportunity for the program to revamp and be brought into the 21st century.
Leah Smith is a writer, communications professional and disability advocate. Leah holds a Bachelor’s in Public Relations and a Masters in Public Administration and Policy. She has focused her career on creating access and equality for all. Leah currently resides in Philadelphia with her partner and two dogs.