Two local residents are trying to raise awareness about how federal budget cuts are affecting an employment program for people with disabilities.
Holly Fischer of Vienna and Steve Juhnke of Falls Church said they likely would not have steady jobs without the help of the AbilityOne program.
They were part of a group that went to Capitol Hill this week to talk with members of Congress about the importance of the initiative.
The U.S. AbilityOne Commission works with nonprofit organizations around the country to help people who are blind or have significant disabilities secure employment through federal contracts. NISH, a national nonprofit agency based in Vienna, and National Industries for the Blind administer the program for the commission.
Unemployment among people with disabilities is “a huge issue,” said John Kelly, NISH assistant vice president, government affairs and public policy.
About 80 percent of people with disabilities do not have jobs, he said.
While the actual reductions to the AbilityOne program under the recent across-the-board federal spending cuts were minor, Kelly said, the effects on other federal agencies are reducing employment opportunities for people with disabilities. About 1,400 jobs for people with disabilities have been lost so far, he said.
“Any impact to that community turns out to be a huge impact because there are not a lot of other options in terms of employment,” he said.
People with disabilities tend to be the first to feel the effects of a declining economy and the last to benefit from good economic years, Kelly said.
Juhnke has worked as a clerk at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for a few months. Before that, he had some temporary jobs, but was unable to find permanent employment until he secured his current position through the nonprofit organization Didlake.
“I want to keep a long-term job, especially because it’s still a tough economy,” he said.
Fischer has worked as a custodian for the U.S. Geological Survey for about five years. She said it is important for others to get the opportunity she has “so they can work, so they can feel important — to contribute to society,” Fischer said.
Both Fischer and Juhnke said they were excited about the opportunity to speak to members of Congress.
They also attended a NISH training session Tuesday to help teach them to be self-advocates. While the effects of federal cuts are a focus this year, Kelly said, the training and advocacy effort is annual.
“This is not a paid lobbyist. These are people going up and representing themselves. That is very, very powerful,” Kelly said,
Juhnke said he wants members of Congress to “realize that people with disabilities can work.”
Fischer planned to talk about “how much I value working for AbilityOne and how much I value being able to work.”