Blind vendors say reform is a long time coming

At many state-owned buildings, the candy machines, coffee kiosks and cafeterias are operated by someone who is blind. Or if this isn’t the case, a sighted vendor will pay into a fund to support the retirement plans of blind entrepreneurs in return for access to the locations. The same thing goes for rest stops off state highways. And blind vendors also are given priority to set up shop in federal buildings, state prisons and military installations, too. All of this is due to the Randolph-Sheppard Act, which provides federal dollars to help the Department of Rehabilitation administer the Business Enterprise Program for the Blind in California. It is a program that trains, licenses and supports blind businessmen and women in food service–to help them achieve self-sufficiency.

But some vendors say DOR has failed to address concerns raised in its last audit five years ago. The audit found persistent problems in its accounting and management of the program. The vendors say the department hasn’t updated regulations and taken enough administrative action to make the program more efficient by collecting fees from delinquent vendors. As a result, the number of new entrepreneurs opening shop isn’t what it could be.

“They have done a mediocre job at best and a very poor job at worst. Even now,” said David Hanlon, who operates a snack bar.

Hanlon has been in the program for 35 years and is president of the Randolph-Sheppard Vendors of California, which promotes employment opportunities for blind vendors. He is also vice-chairman of the California Vendors Policy Committee, which advises DOR on policy and issues that affect program participants. Hanlon said the program has given him “tremendous self-esteem” and allowed him to support a family.

Over the years, he said, DOR has become less proactive about growing the program and recouping federal dollars. “When I came in the program, we had almost 360 locations. Now we are down to about 140, even though the state’s population has increased and there are many other government buildings we could get into.” Hanlen added that he’s initiated talks with other vendors to form a nominee agency that could wrest some control of the program from DOR.

Tony Candela, a deputy director with DOR, said that the actual number of blind vendors in California this year is 160. Still, he acknowledged that a plan to improve the program, by setting specific benchmarks for progress, has been years in the making. But Candela said over the last couple years the department has worked hard to engage blind vendors in the process. He said that five new facilities have opened this year. And the department hopes to up this number to 10 in future years. “There are several balls in the air, but I am hoping that they all come into play at the same time,” Candela said. “Contracting, revenue collection

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