Persons who are blind play a vital role in federal government operations.
Since 2010, National Industries for the Blind (NIB), a nonprofit organization in Alexandria, Virginia, has matched visually impaired employees with contract management support services (CMS) jobs at the federal government support.
The CMS program allows government personnel to focus on critical functions and creates career opportunities for people who are blind, according to NIB President and CEO Kevin Lynch.
“The goal of the program is to alleviate the government’s critical shortage of contract specialists by tapping into a talented workforce of people who are blind,” he said.
Lynch explained that CMS employees review contracts, verify that the government has received and accepted the contracted goods or services, and identify funds that have not been used for a myriad of reasons such as delays in hiring or long product development times.
Through this program, nearly 130 CMS employees have transitioned into full-time positions with public and private sector employers, including aerospace companies such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems.
“While we hate losing employees, it’s a good problem to have — it means our employees are doing exceptional work and building professional careers in government contracts,” Lynch said.
[SHRM members-only resource: Attracting and Retaining Workers with Disabilities]
A first-hand account
In 2011, the US Army Contracts Command in Rock Island, Illinois had nearly 10,000 completed contracts related to military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Government staff partnered with the Chicago Lighthouse, a nonprofit agency associated with the NIB, to process the contracts.
A team of six blind people worked on the contract on site at the army location. By 2013, the team was working so well that the government increased its size to 13 contract specialists, allowing Army Contracts Command to process its backlog of open contracts more quickly.
“Blind employees of NIB-associated agencies provide quality work in a demanding environment,” noted Lynch.
When the program started, it was open to people who are blind or legally blind. Later, it was expanded to include people with significant disabilities. Today, the program has 152 employees, 108 of whom are blind.
One such employee is Scarlet Nishimoto, a contract closeout specialist for the nonprofit organization VisionCorps — one of NIB’s associate agency networks — in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
“While attending James Madison University, I started working for the Office of Disability Services as a student advocate,” she said. “I realized that I had a passion for helping people and empowering others to succeed. As a visually impaired person, I have a unique skill set that can be an asset to any place of work. work, like VisionCorps.”
As a contract close-out specialist, Nishimoto helps the federal government clear its backlog of contracts and identifies allocated funds that have not been utilized. The remaining money is returned to the government and reallocated by Congress.
“VisionCorps’ Accessible Workplace provides the tools employees need to succeed,” she said.
VisionCorps asked Nishimoto what she needed to do her job successfully when she started her job. The organization shared past accommodations it had made for other visually impaired people, such as screen readers, providing Nishimoto with everything he needed to succeed.
VisionCorps has also helped Nishimoto strengthen his professional development.
“Through NIB’s CMS program, I had the opportunity to advance my career at VisionCorps,” said Nishimoto. “There are so many people who are blind or partially sighted who have so much to offer in the job market, and the CMS program gives us the opportunity to build meaningful careers. It’s special to be part of something that impacts major.”
Support blind workers
A 2022 study of the American Foundation for the Blind showed that workers with visual impairments face accessibility issues during the hiring and onboarding process. Of the survey participants:
- 33% of people who had to take an automated test or screening during the hiring process reported accessibility issues.
- 59% said they face accessibility issues when filling out paper onboarding forms.
- 48% reported accessibility issues with electronic onboarding forms.
- 25% said they were unable to fully access the training required for their job, which impacted their productivity and sense of inclusion.
Companies should be prepared to support applicants or workers with visual impairments. The Job Accommodation Network says these accommodations could include:
- Auditory versions of the printed document.
- Document in braille format.
- Reformatted document that displays as an accessible web page.
- Skilled reader who reads a text aloud for a person with a visual impairment.
- Tactile graphic document.
- Computer screen reading software.
- Computer braille display.
“Too often we hear of blind people being told they can’t do something because of their disability,” Lynch said. “[But] blind people can achieve great things when given the opportunity.”