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Sequestration Hits Blind Workers, With Group For The Visually Impaired Forced To Cut Staff

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WASHINGTON -- In one of the more dramatic examples of budget cuts affecting the most vulnerable in society, non-profit groups that employ the visually impaired have begun to lay off workers as a result of sequestration.

The Cincinnati Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired announced on Thursday that it would be letting 28 of its 65-member staff go with sales orders from the federal government drying up. The group works predominantly with the General Services Administration to produce tape products.

"As a result of sequestration federal agencies across the boards have had their budgets cut," said John Mitchell, executive director of the organization. "Many have pursued an automatic reduction and stymying of ordering of products they normally would be using. And as a result, they have stopped placing orders with us about three weeks ago."

The move by Mitchell to reduce staff in absence of continued contracts is one of the more drastic examples to date of the sequester's indiscriminate ripple effects. Other groups that provide employment for the visually impaired have felt the pinch of budget cuts but have, so far, managed to weather them.

Greensboro's Industries for the Blind, which gets 98 percent of its business from the federal government, recently laid off 40 workers because of a slowdown in contracts with the Department of Defense. But the president of the group, David LoPresti, told The Huffington Post that he expects to bring those workers back on board. He has secured several additional contracts, mostly for t-shirts and other military garments, since he made the announcement.

"These people will be coming back. We will call them back starting in about three weeks. It will depend on how fast the material comes in," said LoPresti. Because of budget cuts, he added, "the military is ordering smaller and more cautiously. But, hey, they need underwear. Eventually they run out of underwear."

While sequestration's potential impact on visually impaired Americans was rarely discussed before the spending cuts went into effect at the beginning of March, some advocates predicted that this group would be particularly vulnerable.

Under the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act, federal agencies are required to purchase certain supplies from non-profit groups that hire blind workers or those with other disabilities. Now known as the "AbilityOne" program, the system has been in place since 1938 and was expanded in the 1960s. According to Mitchell, it currently provides employment for 48,000 visually impaired workers in the country. Sequestration has provided them with some of the toughest circumstances to date.

Mitchell, whose group represents 11 counties in southwest Ohio and northern Kentucky, said he has received roughly 10 percent fewer orders since the policy became law. He is hopeful that he can secure partnerships with commercial operations to fill the void left by the government. But in the back of his mind, he is concerned that a further or sustained reduction in his revenue stream will end up hurting the visual rehabilitation service his group provides.

"There is no question about it, for many people who work in this program. They have limited opportunities to have employment elsewhere," said Mitchell. "It is a case where, again, I won't argue with anyone that the federal government needs to be mindful and responsible with their debt. But at the same time, [there should be] leadership and responsibility when planning out the budget cuts."

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