Blind Entrepreneurs: Should Their Businesses Be Protected by Law?

February 22, 2012

This week, I came across two articles on my feed that illustrated the friction between two overlapping approaches in the disability market: protecting people with disabilities by law, and encouraging people with disabilities to be independent and work for themselves.

The first article is a recent press release from the National Federation of the Blind that called on the U.S. Congress to reject an amendment to H.R. 7 allowing commercial expansion at highway rest stops. Currently, the only commercial activity at these rest stops are vending machines operated by blind entrepreneurs under the Randolph-Sheppard Vending Facility Program, established by an Act of Congress in 1936. From the press release:

Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, said: “This amendment would threaten the livelihoods of hundreds of blind entrepreneurs in the United States who depend on revenue from rest stop vending machines. With an unemployment rate among blind Americans that exceeds 70 percent, such a move is deeply irresponsible, as these entrepreneurs will lose their businesses and be forced to rely on public assistance.  We urge Congress to reject this ill-considered and reckless proposal.”

Yesterday, Bloomberg Businessweek published an interview with Urban Miyares, a blind and deaf Vietnam veteran who works with the Forsythe Center for Entrepreneurship on an initiative to train budding entrepreneurs who are blind or visually impaired. Titled, “Training the Blind to Run Businesses,” this article serves as an interesting counterpoint to the NFB’s press release. Miyares says,

One of the requirements [for success] is that we can’t be passive. Vision is presumed to be required for business, so if we have to compete on the same level as the sighted, able-bodied world, that means working more aggressively — and longer hours.

My average work week is 80 to 90 hours. It takes me an hour to read a Facebook page with voice-output software. But the alternative is staying home waiting to die, which is what I was told to do when I lost my sight. So entrepreneurship is a good choice, particularly because there are so few employment options for the disabled.

Protect? Or train? Or both? Not as simple as it sounds.

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