by Mitch Pomerantz

Prior to the mid-year board and presidents' meetings, and the legislative seminar, I was asked by Charlie Glaser, president of the Randolph-Sheppard Vendors of America, to address the annual Sagebrush (vendors) conference in Las Vegas, Nev. This month's column is taken from my remarks and concerns the past, present and future of the Randolph- Sheppard program and the relationship between ACB and RSVA.

Everyone in this room knows the history of the Randolph-Sheppard program and its status as the pre-eminent employment program for blind and visually impaired people anywhere. Everyone is also aware of the serious threats to the program which engendered the need for the Randolph-Sheppard Stakeholder Collaboration Proposal which ultimately led to the Blind Entrepreneurs' Alliance (BEA). Let me briefly remind everyone of those threats: the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee's plans for overhauling Randolph-Sheppard and Javits-Wagner-O'Day legislation; implementation of detrimental regulatory changes recommended by the Joint Committee Report; the Department of Defense Controller General's investigation; the Department of Defense and Education Inspectors General investigation; an ongoing General Accountability Office evaluation and report; the lack of Rehabilitation Services Administration leadership in advocating for or defending the program; and permanent loss of contracts to the procurement list. For those of us who believe in the viability of the Randolph-Sheppard vending program, this is a daunting list, indeed.

To provide some perspective on the long-term nature of the problems faced by those trying to save the vending program, I'll comment on what's happening in my home state of California as an example of the benign neglect being practiced by too many of the state licensing agencies (SLAs) around the country. Thanks to Roy Harmon and David Hanlon, I received a copy of a 70-plus page audit of the Business Enterprise Program (BEP), which is managed (and I use that word advisedly) by the State Department of Rehabilitation. This document points out numerous glaring shortcomings in the program and makes more than a dozen recommendations to improve it. The most disturbing thing to me is that it's deja vu all over again, as the saying goes.

My first real exposure to the vending program came in the mid-1980s when I was one of two representatives from the California Council of the Blind serving on the Blind Advisory Committee, the entity which provides consumer input to the state's programs for the blind (we didn't have a separate division at that time). I recall being briefed about a BEP audit which had uncovered numerous violations of state regulations and federal statute. We all expressed serious concerns and DR staff promised to make changes that would rectify the problems referenced in the audit.

I know that there are states where the vending program is held in high esteem, where it is encouraged to develop and grow by the SLA. However, too many rehabilitation officials -- including officials within RSA -- see the Randolph-Sheppard vending program as an anachronism, symbolic of a bygone era. Others see it as the perfect opportunity to employ people with developmental or physical disabilities and therefore believe that the blind priority should be scrapped. In short, the Randolph-Sheppard program needs all the allies it can get.

So, where do we go from here? What can RSVA expect from the American Council of the Blind and how can our two organizations assure that the Randolph-Sheppard program will not only continue to exist, but to grow and thrive? ACB will continue supporting the Blind Entrepreneurs' Alliance and as our fiscal situation improves, it is my hope that we will be able to commit more of our financial resources to this effort. With RSVA and ACB, along with the other organizations comprising the BEA working together, we can restore the Randolph-Sheppard vending program to its former greatness.

Unfortunately, our two organizations must also be vigilant to ensure that no single organization dominates the alliance or tries to use it for political gain. It is, and must continue to be, a true coalition of equal partners. I am confident that the Randolph-Sheppard Vendors of America and the American Council of the Blind will maintain that vigilance and work collaboratively toward a stronger vending program.

RSVA will be a full partner with ACB during my time as president. Those of you who know me at all also know that I don't mince words or play favorites. Open and honest two-way communication is something about which I feel strongly, whether we agree or not. You will always know where I stand, and knowing some of you in the RSVA leadership, I am quite certain you'll let me know how you feel about things. That's fine with me as long as everyone respects each other's points of view. That is a core principle of the American Council of the Blind and a principle that is central to my administration.

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