Why we need to preserve and modernize AbilityOne

This content is sponsored by Melwood.

New research underscores economic and community impact of AbilityOne program at Melwood

According to census estimates, there are 20 million people with disabilities who are unemployed in the United States, but desire employment. Twenty million.

It’s an outrageous number, particularly when you consider the significant workforce shortages our country has faced over the last several years. Centuries of stigmatization, stereotypes and a fundamental lack of understanding around disabilities have created significant barriers to employment for people with disabilities. Steadily, over the past several decades, progress has been made in small but nevertheless meaningful ways. One of the biggest leaps, and at the time a truly novel solution, was to harness the power of federal purchasing through a socio-economic procurement policy – to set aside contracts focused on incentivizing hiring people who were blind or had significant disabilities. It started in 1938, when the AbilityOne program was born.

AbilityOne is a federal procurement program originally designed to create job opportunities for people who are blind. In 1971, it expanded to include people with significant disabilities.

The Virginia Tech Center for Economic and Community Engagement (CECE) recently conducted a study on the economic effectiveness of the AbilityOne program at Melwood, a leading employer, advocate and preferred provider for people with disabilities in the D.C. area. Melwood is one of more than 400 nonprofit organizations that employ a total of 40,000 people with disabilities across the country through the AbilityOne program.

In recent years, some critics of the program have suggested that AbilityOne isn’t worth the investment – that it’s not doing enough for people with disabilities and is more expensive than traditional government contracting for the federal government. This new research, conducted by Virginia Tech in partnership with Melwood, explores – and rejects – that theory based on Melwood’s experience within the AbilityOne program.

“The economic impact analysis sought to understand the cost of the program to the federal government,” said Sarah Lyon-Hill, associate director of research development at the Virginia Tech CECE. “What is the cost, and what are the benefits received by the government and the community as a whole? For every $1 put into this program, how much do we get back?”

The study’s results reveal that the fiscal benefits of Melwood’s participation in the AbilityOne program surpass any alternative and produce significant positive impact, not only for the individuals employed, but for the government and economy at large. It also shows that AbilityOne at Melwood outperforms other employment mechanisms – such as vocational rehabilitation programs – in two significant aspects – quality of workplace and compensation for employees with disabilities.

AbilityOne at Melwood saves the government money

In response to Lyon-Hill’s question, the study revealed that Melwood’s AbilityOne contracts save the government an additional 50 cents for every dollar invested.

And that’s a conservative estimate – overall savings go even further than the study’s calculated direct savings.

People with significant disabilities are among the most likely to receive long-term government benefits, such as Medicare, provided by the state and federal government to qualifying individuals. Sustained, stable employment of more people with disabilities through Melwood’s AbilityOne contracts results in government savings by reducing these monthly benefits payments.

Through employment, the AbilityOne program at Melwood also converts people who previously relied on government benefits or family support into taxpayers supporting themselves independently. Moreover, with participants working full time, more caregivers are able to join the workforce, increasing purchasing power and resulting in greater tax contributions.

Taking all of these variables into consideration, the study found that the AbilityOne program at Melwood reduced government spending by approximately $38,000 per significantly disabled person employed per year.

AbilityOne at Melwood creates a path to independence through employment

Alonzo Brown is a lead worker at the Department of Housing and Urban Development through one of Melwood’s AbilityOne contracts.

Before Melwood, he was working at a grocery store in Silver Spring, Maryland, which was far from his home in D.C. When he heard about Melwood through a local advertisement, his mom suggested he learn more about it.

Immediately following his high school graduation in 2008, he started working at Melwood’s agriculture site in Beltsville, Maryland and remained there until the opportunity at HUD came about.

“When I got to HUD, I fell in love with the building,” Brown said, adding that he also likes his managers, whom he described as being “pretty awesome.”

Brown has been working at HUD for 13 years and has worked his way up to a lead worker position, supervising and mentoring others on the team. Brown credits many of the people at Melwood – from Mr. Chesterfield who received his application to his current supervisors – with supporting his continued career growth and development, including multiple promotions and recognitions at HUD.

Brown said that if he had not joined Melwood, he would need to work two or three retail jobs to earn enough money to pay rent or put groceries on the table.

“I’m very happy that I joined this company,” Brown said.

Lyon-Hill said that one of the things that impressed her most about the AbilityOne program at Melwood is the hands-on support of the staff, who are highly trained and truly invest in each employee to help them succeed and find their own path to independence and purpose.

Larysa Kautz, President & CEO of Melwood, said she loves hearing stories about Melwood employees’ newfound freedom and the things they are now able to do in their spare time. “They can take trips now. They have paid vacation. They have paid sick leave. They talk about being able to go and get their nails done or buy food for their family. There is a new dignity, a new confidence, and a new joy that were not there before.”

AbilityOne needs to be preserved – and modernized

Kautz noted that Melwood’s approach and focus on competitive, integrated employment through the AbilityOne program outperforms and fosters greater opportunities for financial independence than more traditional alternatives such as vocational rehabilitation programs in Melwood’s geographic footprint.

“The annual median income through a traditional vocational rehabilitation program is about $16,000 a year,” Kautz said. “For a Melwood AbilityOne job, it’s about $27,000.”

In revealing the significant economic and community impacts of AbilityOne at Melwood, the study also points to ways the program can be modernized to increase and optimize impact, including expanding the types of contract work on the federal procurement list and prioritizing integration strategies with people without disabilities.

Kautz would also like to see changes in how disability is defined in the AbilityOne program.

Disability, as defined by AbilityOne, is “a person with a severe disability who is not able to competitively work.” But what Melwood and other organizations have shown is that the more than 40,000 people in the AbilityOne program can work competitively with appropriate job accommodations and support.

“We’re doing it every single day. Our employees are working side-by-side with other federal contractors, with other federal employees that are in the same competitive space, that are in the for-profit space. Their duties, compensation, benefits and rights as employees are the same as any other employee in the community. And our work is excellent,” Kautz said.

To learn more about the AbilityOne program and how it can be modernized to further economic and community outcomes, download the full report here: Assessing the Impacts of AbilityOne at Melwood 2022 Report – Melwood.

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