Commentary

Renewing our commitment to veterans with disabilities

As our nation turns to Veterans Day to appreciate the heroes who serve our country, this year we owe a special debt of gratitude to the many skilled veterans who are blind or have other disabilities who are manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE) and other essential supplies and services necessary in the fight against COVID-19. These veterans find themselves in a uniquely difficult position in America: they answered the call to serve, yet we, as a country, must do more to provide sufficient opportunities for them to have meaningful employment, financial security, and a chance to build their own American Dream.

More than 130,000 veterans are legally blind and 1 million more have low vision. In today’s job market, being blind or visually impaired can unnecessarily restrict a veteran’s ability to find work. Among working-age Americans who are blind, nearly 70 percent are not employed, including the hundreds of thousands who served in the armed forces. In addition, many veterans who are blind are underemployed.

Businesses can thank these veterans by opening the door to greater opportunities for this untapped workforce. Organizations must make a commitment to their communities to employ, raise up, and celebrate veterans with disabilities, including veterans who are blind. And what better time to make that commitment than Veterans Day?

For more than 80 years, people who are blind, including many veterans, have been producing products and delivering services for the U.S. military as part of National Industries for the Blind’s (NIB) nationwide network of associated nonprofit agencies.

When COVID-19 hit, many of those agencies pivoted to meet the surging demands of the country and began producing PPE for frontline medical professionals and essential employees, along with hand sanitizer, cleaning products, first aid kits, exam gloves, and more. Employees who are blind working at 40 NIB associated agencies have produced nearly 1,600 different COVID-19-related products and provided crucial services, doing their part to keep America’s military strong and support their communities amidst this unprecedented domestic challenge.

Employees who are blind working at NIB associated agencies are also helping to maintain continuity and availability of essential services for our nation’s veterans by operating switchboards and manufacturing prescription bottles, exam gloves, and other products for U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers.

There are many steps employers can take to tap into this pool of talented and dedicated employees, often for minimal cost and effort, including offering better accessibility resources, designing recruiting and hiring processes to better attract and retain employees who are blind or have disabilities, and training supervisors on how to manage and support direct reports who are blind or have disabilities. For businesses that want to do the right thing, organizations like NIB and its associated agencies can help businesses develop and refine their approach.

As the nation continues to battle the pandemic, we must ensure that veterans who are blind are afforded the opportunities and appreciation they deserve. This Veterans Day, there must be action behind our words when we say, “Thank you for your service.”

Kevin Lynch is president and CEO of National Industries for the Blind.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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