People who are blind play an integral role in the federal government's operations.
Since 2010, National Industries for the Blind (NIB), a nonprofit in Alexandria, Va., has paired employees who have visual impairments with contract management support (CMS) services jobs in support of the federal government.
The CMS program allows government personnel to focus on mission-critical functions and creates career opportunities for people who are blind, according to Kevin Lynch, NIB president and CEO.
"The program's goal is to mitigate the critical government shortage of contract specialists by leveraging a talented workforce of people who are blind," he said.
Lynch explained that CMS employees review contracts, verify that the government received and accepted the contracted goods or services, and identify funding that wasn't used due to myriad reasons such as delayed hiring or lengthy product development timelines.
Through the program, nearly 130 CMS employees have transitioned into full-time positions with government or private-sector employers, including aerospace companies such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems.
"While we hate to lose employees, this is a good problem to have—it means our employees are doing outstanding work and building professional careers in government contracting," Lynch said.
[SHRM members-only resource: Attracting and Retaining Workers with Disabilities]
A Firsthand Account
In 2011, the U.S. Army Contracting Command in Rock Island, Ill., had nearly 10,000 completed contracts related to military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Government personnel partnered with the Chicago Lighthouse, an NIB-associated nonprofit agency, to process the contracts.
A team of six people who are blind worked on the contract onsite at the Army's location. By 2013, the team was performing so well that the government increased its size to 13 contract specialists, allowing the Army Contracting Command to process its backlog of open contracts at a faster rate.
"NIB associated agency employees who are blind are delivering quality work in a demanding environment," Lynch noted.
When the program began, it was open to people who are blind or legally blind. Later, it was expanded to include people who have significant disabilities. Today, the program has 152 employees, 108 of whom are blind.
One of those employees is Scarlet Nishimoto, a contract closeout specialist for nonprofit VisionCorps—one of NIB's network of associated agencies—in Lancaster, Pa.
"While attending James Madison University, I began working for the Office of Disability Services as a student advocate," she said. "I realized I have a passion for helping people and empowering others to succeed. As someone who is visually impaired, I have a unique skill set that can be an asset to any workplace, like VisionCorps."
As a contract closeout specialist, Nishimoto helps the federal government clear its backlog of contracts and identifies any appropriated funds that weren't used. The leftover money is returned to the government and reallocated by Congress.
"The accessible workplace at VisionCorps provides the tools employees need to be successful," she said.
VisionCorps asked Nishimoto what she needed to successfully perform her job duties when she began the job. The organization shared past accommodations it had made for others with visual impairments, such as screen readers, providing Nishimoto with everything she needed to be successful.
VisionCorps also has helped Nishimoto strengthen her professional development.
"Through NIB's CMS program, I've had the opportunity to advance my career at VisionCorps," Nishimoto said. "There are so many people who are blind or visually impaired who have much to offer in the workforce, and the CMS program gives us the opportunity to build meaningful careers. It's special to be part of something that has a major impact."
Supporting Blind Workers
A 2022 study by the American Foundation for the Blind showed that workers who had visual impairments faced accessibility challenges during the process of being hired and onboarding for their jobs. Among survey participants:
- 33 percent who were required to take an automated test or screening during the hiring process reported accessibility challenges.
- 59 percent said they faced accessibility challenges when completing onboarding forms on paper.
- 48 percent reported accessibility challenges with electronic onboarding forms.
- 25 percent said they could not fully access trainings required for their jobs, which impacted their productivity and sense of inclusion.
Companies should be ready to support applicants or workers who are visually impaired. The Job Accommodation Network states that these accommodations could include:
- Auditory versions of printed document.
- Braille-formatted document.
- Reformatted document that displays as an accessible webpage.
- Qualified reader that reads text aloud for a person with a vision impairment.
- Tactile graphic document.
- Computer screen-reading software.
- Computer Braille display.
"Too often we hear about people who are blind being told they can't do something because of their disability," Lynch said. "[But] people who are blind can accomplish great things when given the opportunity."