AN OPEN LETTER

Dear Randolph-Sheppard Stakeholder: 

As we pause to celebrate this holiest of all seasons in the midst of a national emergency, there are still many things for which we need to be thankful.  Yes, these are challenging times and we face an uncertain future but we will come through it.  My old football coach used to preach about overcoming adversity and how it makes us better and stronger.  We have all faced adversity in our lives and it was those experiences that prepared us for today.  We will survive and come back stronger than ever because we have family who are in this with us.  Right now, your top priority needs to be your immediate family.  Do the right things to protect them.  And know that you have your Randolph-Sheppard family to lean on. 

When we said we will come back stronger than ever, we mean it.  But that doesn’t mean things will look the same.  Randolph-Sheppard has been changed forever by this pandemic.  Teleworking will change the government workplace.  Distance education is here to stay which will result in fewer students on college campuses.  Prison visitation policies will be altered impacting some of our more profitable facilities.  We are going to have to rethink and reshape the Randolph-Sheppard of the future.  We are already thinking about what that might look like and what is needed to get us to a better place.  We will be talking about ideas with you on down the road. 

But let’s get back to today’s challenges.  These difficult times have not slowed the advocacy efforts of the National Association of Blind Merchants and the National Federation of the Blind.  To the contrary, we have amped them up even more.  I wanted to share with you what we have been doing  and some of our plans. 

NABM and our parent organization, the National Federation of the Blind, have asked Congress for a one-time $35,000,000 appropriation.  The intent is to secure funding to provide financial assistance to blind vendors who have been displaced or seen a significant curtailment in their businesses.  Yes, that means most everyone not on a military base or in a major post office.  Unfortunately, most states do not have adequate funding sources to provide meaningful support.  Although we are proud of those states who have gotten creative in leveraging their reserve funds to provide assistance, the fact is most states have provided very little in the way of financial support for their vendors.  And the sad truth is that many of our blind entrepreneurs will not be able to take advantage of the relief package Congress intended to help small businesses.  Our programs are going to be strapped financially to do the things they are statutorily obligated to do.  Our funding request provides dollars for the agencies as well  We created a website to make it easy for you to send letters to your elected officials in Washington, D.C.  This is not the same letter we sent out in March.  In that letter, we were trying to get money in the CARES Act.  We knew we had an uphill climb on that one.  Now, we are trying to get some money added to what is being referred to C-4 which will be the fourth Coronavirus related relief bill.  Based upon our conversations with Congressional staffers, we are encouraged but members still need to hear from you.  If you have not sent in your letter, simply click on the link below.  It couldn’t be simpler.  And for those of you who had issues with the first site being challenging when using JAWS, this is a different site so you shouldn’t have any issues.  Go now to: 

https://protect-us.mimecast.com/s/HGBpC9rLnJFWnylco6QWL?domain=blindmerchantsspeakout.org

There is a way Congress can help without appropriating a single dollar.  We wrote to the Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Acting Assistant Secretary Mark Schultz asking for two things: (1)  Grant a waiver to any regulations that prohibit the use of federal funds for fair minimum return; and, (2)  Allow states to use federal dollars to restock vending facilities when they reopen.  There is some debate as to whether or not  RSA can grant waivers.  Our position is that RSA can interpret its own rules and do so broadly if it chooses.  It has chosen not to.  To his credit, Mr. Schultz did call us and said he is aware of our issues and they are working on them.  In an effort to support Mr. Schultz’s efforts, we have taken our case to Congress and are asking them to weigh in on both issues.  We are optimistic it will do just that.  Stay tuned. 

            We were as surprised as anyone when news broke on Saturday that the U.S. Department of Transportation was not going to enforce the prohibition against food trucks setting up at interstate rest areas.  Our rest area guys have already seen an 80-90% decline in sales and this will only make it worse.  We immediately wrote a letter to the Secretary of Transportation and reached out to the Assistant Secretary of Transportation with whom we have a relationship.  He called us on Saturday evening to discuss.  That was followed up with a second call on Monday.  He said the action was taken in response to requests from truckers who were having a difficult time finding food.  He assured us that this is temporary and the prohibition against food trucks will be strictly enforced once the pandemic is over.  NABM joined the National Association of Truck Stop Operators and other coalition members to write a very strong letter to DOT.  The one thing to keep in mind is DOT is leaving it up the states as to whether or not they want to allow food trucks.  We know of five states that have decided to allow them and about the same number who have decided not to.  NABM will continue to monitor this matter. 

            NABM continues to serve as a clearinghouse for information.  We have sent out everything we can get our hands on about the relief that is available for blind vendors.  We have held multiple conference calls with blind entrepreneurs and SLAs both nationally and on the state level.  One call had 175 people on it.  We are doing virtual training sessions.  We did two on SSDI and how it  intersects with unemployment benefits. We are in the midst of a 5 part series on micromarkets.  And we have more in the works. 

            Before closing, I want to say a word about BLAST.  Having to cancel the conference was heartbreaking.  However, we remain committed to bringing quality upward mobility training to our community.  We are still looking at all of our options and trying to figure out next steps.  Whether it’s in the fall or next year, we will have BLAST again.  We are exploring what we can do between now and then so stand by for an announcement soon. 

            We have been unbelievably busy over the last few weeks and the work continues.  NABM and NFB will continue to do our parts to advocate and educate and to work on your behalf.  We will continue to get information out to you as quickly as we can and do whatever else we can to change what it means to be a blind entrepreneur in this country. 

Sincerely,

Nicky Gacos, President

Terry Smith, Director of Randolph-Sheppard Training and Technical Assistance

NABM Board of Directors – Harold Wilson (VA) – First Vice President, Ed Birmingham (IL) – 2nd Vice President, Sharon Treadway (TN) – Secretary, Pam Schnurr (IN) – Treasurer, Melissa Smith (TN) – Board, Gary Grassman (NY) – Board, Melba Taylor  (MD) – Board, Joe Higdon (IN) – Board, Michael Colbrunn (MN) – Board, John Fritz (WI) – Board, Deb Smith (AZ) – Board, Lewanda Miranda (OR)- Board

The National Federation of the Blind knows that blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future. Every day we raise the expectations of blind people, because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams. You can live the life you want; blindness is not what holds you back.