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Advocacy: Randolph-Sheppard Act

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      Randolph-Sheppard Act

      Securing gainful employment was an important aspect that emerged repeatedly in blindness advocacy.  Since the 1930s, one avenue of employment for the visually impaired has been in vending stand programs. However, obtaining this opportunity was a hard fought battle.

      Throughout the 1930s a steady progression of federal laws concerning vending stand operations run by the blind were passed. In 1936, the Randolph-Sheppard Act, also known as the Federal Vending Stand Program, was enacted to provide employment opportunities for the blind in federal property.  The Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) authorized vending stands in federal buildings for the purpose of "providing blind persons with remunerative employment, enlarging the economic opportunities of the blind and stimulating the blind to greater efforts in striving to make themselves self-supporting." (Moore, 455)  The blind were allowed to operate small stands in federal buildings (post offices, court houses) and sell convenience items, such as candy, gum and newspapers. The stands provided an opportunity for employment, but income was minimal.

      Issues regarding the federal vending stand program arose again in the 1960s and 70s. In 1966, Kenneth Jernigan, Director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind, spurred the revision to this act. In that year, the General Services Administration (GSA) proposed to construct a new federal building in Des Moines. Jernigan saw this as an opportunity to provide a substantial number of quality jobs for the blind and sought to acquire the right for a blind vendor to operate a full service food operation in the building. The GSA initially resisted Jernigan's request to install a blind cafeteria manager at the site. His request was one of the first, if not the first attempt by a blind vendor to provide this type of service. After Jerningan sought assistance from U.S. Senator Jack Miller on the issue, GSA relented, with concessions that if the Iowa Commission for the Blind was granted the contract, they would agree to hire other disabled persons whenever possible. This key event ultimately led to the revisions of the Randolph-Sheppard Act.

      In 1969, Iowa adopted a mini-Randolph-Sheppard act, which required all public agencies, except the Board of Regents, schools and the State Department of Social Services, to make a "good faith' effort to contract with the Iowa Commission for the Blind for cafeteria and vending machine services in all public buildings before negotiating with private vendors and concessionaires.

      In the 1970s, Jernigan worked closely with U.S. Sentor Jennings Randolph to revise to the federal Randolp-Sheppard Act. As a result, the 1974 Amendments to Randolph-Sheppard Act Act gave blind vendors the option to operate full-scale cafeterias in federal facilities. The amended act also required preference for blind organizations and for blind people in need of work, established a Committee of Blind Vendors in each state to help oversee the program in their state, and brought an arbitration process unequaled by any other to protect the rights of people in federal programs. These changes led to the development of blind businesses ranging from small concession stands, to vending machine banks, to full service cafeterias that now employ thousands of blind individuals across the nation.  It provided training and jobs with livable wages, and demonstrated that the blind can operate effective and cost competitive businesses.

      For more information on the vending program in Iowa, please go to Randolph-Sheppard Vending & Cafeterias

      Blind Iowans Talk About the Randolph-Sheppard Act

      John Taylor

      Roger Erpelding

      Full narrations and transcripts can be found on the Oral History Page.

      Documents related to the Randolph-Sheppard Act:

      Letter from the Iowa Commission for the Blind

      Washington Post article 


      J. Elton Moore; “A Look Back: 100 Years of Trends and Issues in Employment, Rehabilitation, and Legislation;” Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness (publication of the AFB); August 2006.

      Jim Gashel recounts the work to amend the federal Randolph-Sheppard Act in his oral history.