WEB EXTRA: VA Blind Contracts

National & World News

Charmia Dixon makes eyeglasses for veterans, even though she lost her own vision to glaucoma. 

Dixon says of her job at North Carolina-based IFB Solutions: “It’s given me more independence, more confidence.” 

But Dixon’s job and more than 100 others in the company’s North Carolina optical lab are in jeopardy. 

“I don’t want a pity party but I mean, it’s just, it’s harder for blind and visually impaired to find employment,” says Scott Smith, who suffers from optic neuropathy although he can still make out some images. 

IFB Solutions is the nation’s largest employer of people who are blind or visually impaired. 

CEO David Horton says, “We have a lot of people who are dependent on their jobs here, and this is the first, you know, real challenge that we have really had.” 

The non-profit is at risk of losing its contract with the Department of Veterans Affairs following a court decision on the “Rule of Two.” That policy stipulates the VA must give precedence awarding contracts to veteran-owned small businesses over other programs like theirs called AbilityOne. The workers at IFB Solutions make about 1,200 eyeglasses a day but sustaining that volume would be challenging if the company has to lay people off. 

Horton says, “If we lose all of our optical business with the VA, we’re starting from scratch with empty labs and all of these people will not have a job.” 

He adds if comes to that, he will look for ways to transfer workers to other divisions that make everything from military equipment to clothing and scissors. 

“The sky’s the limit,” Horton says, “seeing that just fuels my fire to fight keep people employed.” The company is also enlisting help from lawmakers. Several members sent a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie asking the department to “cease attempting to take away any current…contracts.” 

In a statement to CBS News, the VA responded: “If Congress wants to change the federal laws it has set that govern this process, it can choose to do so.” 

Dixon says of her message to Congress and the VA: “I truly hope that they consider keeping this contract for us, so we can show them that we’re worth it.” 

IFB Solutions is not the only company that could be impacted. The National Industries for the Blind estimate 800 Americans – who are blind – could lose their jobs around the country without congressional intervention. 

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