Blind Entrepreneurship: An Analysis of the Randolph-Sheppard Program in the State of Louisiana

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ABSTRACT

Recent legislation and efforts by the federal, state, and private sectors have focused on providing employment opportunities for the disabled. The federal Randolph-Sheppard Act of 1936 provides self-employment opportunities for the blind by giving them priority in establishing businesses on federal or state property. This study examines the implementation of the Louisiana Randolph-Sheppard program. Problems in participant selection, support, training, and new site locations were identified. Otherwise the state is implementing its federal mandate. Opportunities for research into the Randolph-Sheppard program as well as into blind entrepreneurship are presented.

THE RESEARCH PROBLEM

There are approximately 600,000 men and women in the United States 18-69 age group whose work activities are limited due to visual impairment. Of this group, 68% are unemployed. A significant number of the remaining individuals are underemployed (14).

Federal legislation such as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Employment Opportunities for Disabled American's Act of 1986, and the recently passed Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 focus on discrimination and on expanding employment opportunities for the disabled, including those legally blind. Beyond mere compliance to legislative action, the private sector has found that training and hiring the blind is good business (3). Tight labor markets and technological advances make hiring blind workers appealing both for individuals and companies. To illustrate, IBM provides audio terminals and braille printers for blind employees, special keyboards for motor disabled persons and phone adapters for the hearing impaired (4). Corporations that hire disabled persons have found that these workers are productive and have a positive job performance level (6).

Federal, state, and private sector efforts generally focus on finding employment for the disabled in organizations. Research priorities as proposed by the federal government for Rehabilitation Research and Training Centers stress the development of programs, training and delivery systems for the employment, retention, and advancement of the blind and visually-impaired workers.

Relatively little emphasis has been given to the entrepreneurail efforts of the blind. According to the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), there are about 4,000 blind persons in the U.S. who run unsubsidized, part- or full-time businesses (16). The NFB does have a National Fund Program for blind entrepreneurs. Similarly, the Small Business Administration has a Handicapped Assistance Loan Program. Lastly, the Arkansas Enterprise for the Blind (Lion's World Services) is an example of a non-profit organization which provides training for blind persons who desire to start a small business.

One program which has provided entrepreneurial activity for blind persons is the Business Enterprise Program (BEP). It was initiated in 1936 by the Randolph-Sheppard (R-S) Act (PL 74-732) to expand economic opportunities via self-employment for persons with vision difficulties. The legislation and its amendments provide incentives for the blind by giving them priority in establishing businesses on federal property (20). In subsequent years, most of those state-federal rehabilitation agencies which serve the blind have initiated a Randolph-Sheppard Vendors Program. The BEP is federally funded, yet the state licensing agency (SLA) is responsible for providing business consultation, training for upward mobility, and oversight of fiscal reporting. The SLA also develops new sites and focuses on expanding work opportunities for the visually impaired (17).

As originally proposed, the intent of the Act was to: (a) employ blind persons, (b) showcase the abilities of the blind to employers, and (c) increase the employment of the blind in the private sector by the example of successful Randolph-Sheppard facilities. Of the three original program goals, the federal government has abandoned the goal of promoting extra-program employment of the blind. …