After graduating from college, Kevan Worley found doors shut in his face time after time. As a blind man, he had trouble finding a job. Then, he found a solution.
“I heard about the Randolph Sheppard Act,” he said. “And I thought if these people can train me so I can own my own business, become an entrepreneur, then I can take it from there.”
And he has. As the owner of Worley Enterprises, he runs a consulting firm that holds the contract to manage Fort Carson’s dining facilities. His company has worked with Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, and Worley provides consulting services to other businesses that want to gain federal contracts.
He said he owes it all to the Randolph Sheppard Act, a law passed in 1936 that gave preference to blind merchants to operate vending facilities on federal property.
“What’s better – to give people a cup and a street corner, tell them to beg, or train them for a job?” he asked. “Blind people are just like anyone else; we want to work, we want to make our own way.”
Worley has made his way, from a stint in radio to a musician to owner of a company. And he is helping other blind people find their way as president of the National Association of Blind Merchants.
The NABM is another way blind business people can find work, by using the organization’s network of partnerships and training. The nonprofit association encourages partnerships between businesses and blind professionals.
“Our newest initiative is with Dunkin’ Donuts,” Worley said. “They have always been a big supporter of hiring blind people, and training them. Now they are accepting franchises from blind business people.”
Worley is enthusiastic when he discusses the mission of his organization: to empower blind workers to create their own opportunities.
“When I first joined NABM, it was about 50 blind guys in a room complaining about how they couldn’t get ahead,” he said. “Now, we have about 300 people nationwide and we help empower and train them – everyone from the blind college student majoring in business marketing to the 55 year old man who wants to start an online business. We empower blind entrepreneurs and teach them leadership.”
One way the organization teaches leadership is during its annual BLAST meeting, or Business, Leadership and Superior Training. The two-day seminar draws about 300 people, all eager to learn ways to make their business more profitable. Most of the businesses are in the vending or food service field, with locations at federal and state military and National Guard facilities.
But even as the blind merchants’ association gains ground, actions in Congress threaten its success. Lawmakers are considering reviewing the 70-year-old Randolph Sheppard Act, which could put thousands of blind merchants out of business.
“Some people say that it only benefits 3,100 blind Americans,” Worley said, noting that many blind business owners could receive Social Security disability payments. “But blind people want to work. We’re keeping an eye out, and we’re working to make sure they don’t change the law, or do away with it completely.”
Don Hudson, a member of the NABM since 1974, said he believes the organization’s work is crucial to assist blind people in finding jobs and obtaining necessary training.
“We’re a minority of a minority,” he said. “There are only half a million blind people in this country. We need to lobby; we need to fight for our rights, for adaptive equipment to do jobs.”
Hudson oversees the dining facilities at the High Country Inn at the Air Force Academy. In the food service business since his first job at the University of Denver School of Law, he said his vision is not his biggest handicap.
“My biggest handicap is the attitude of the sighted world,” he said. “There’s no correlation between the degree of sightedness and brain function. But it’s hard to get that through to people – I can do anything you can do; I just need to do it differently.”
While most blind entrepreneurs work on federal and state property, some are branching out to private locations. Worley hopes to see that trend continue, as companies such as Frito Lay and Pepsi hire and train blind workers.
Companies, such as Aspen Pure bottled water and Otis Spunkmeyer, are platinum partners of the NABM – providing their products in vending machines and retail shops operated by blind people.
“We have a lot of partners who work under the auspices of Randolph Sheppard,” Worley said. “Blind people were extremely disadvantaged before the act, this (act) allowed people to have business opportunities for the first time.”
NABM is a subsidiary of the National Federation of the Blind, the oldest organization for blind people in the United States, Worley said. The NFB gave blind people another option – the option to become self-sufficient. It’s an option that Worley hopes to give other blind people, including his 16-year-old adopted son.
“We work with the Colorado School for the Blind and Deaf here in Colorado Springs,” he said. “We hire blind teenagers and show them they can do it. So often, you have a kid who has been told all his life, ‘you can’t do this, sit here and let me do it for you.’ By the time they are 17, they really believe they can’t do anything. We’re here to teach them they can.”