Viewpoint: Don’t Abolish AbilityOne, Reform It

A recommendation by the National Council on Disability threatens 45,000 jobs for people with disabilities.

Last month, the National Council on Disability sent shockwaves through the disability rights community when it called for the elimination of the AbilityOne Program, which creates jobs for more than 45,000 people with disabilities across the nation. This is even more alarming when you realize that many AbilityOne employees are essential frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic and that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is a staggering 12% according to October 2020 data from the Labor Department. 

The AbilityOne program provides the government with a cost-effective way to fulfill many critical services, such as custodial and building maintenance, and it creates tens of thousands of jobs for an underemployed population of Americans. These services keep the government running. Created in 1938, the AbilityOne program leverages almost $4 billion in federal contracts to create jobs for people with significant disabilities. The program benefits the federal government, taxpayers, and people with disabilities, as well as states and counties that reap additional tax revenue and community spending from those workers.

For eight decades, AbilityOne jobs have provided a path to independence, self-reliance, and dignity for disabled workers. By and large, AbilityOne workers are eligible for full time hours, receive a living wage and comprehensive benefits. In many cases, these are people who, without the AbilityOne program, would have no means of supporting themselves other than through social benefits programs or family support.

Since President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act 30 years ago, we’ve made great strides in protecting and physically accommodating people with disabilities, but employers—both government and private—have failed to make significant strides to bring people with disabilities into the American workforce outside the AbilityOne contracting world. Like the National Council on Disabilities, I long for the day when the staggering unemployment and underemployment of people with disabilities are no longer an issue and programs like AbilityOne are not necessary. Today is not that day.

We need to build on the progress we are making with programs like AbilityOne; not go backwards. AbilityOne needs to be mended, not ended. AbilityOne can be made better, and there is a lot of momentum to do just that. In the last several months, multiple organizations, including NCD, the Defense Department and the Office of Federal Procurement have made practical and achievable recommendations for modernizing and improving the AbilityOne program. Melwood has been working hand-in-hand with other contracting agencies in the AbilityOne program to forge a path forward based on these recommendations, and we welcome participation by others. 

At its heart, this program has been improving the lives of people with disabilities for more than 80 years, so let’s not end a program without a replacement or an earnest effort to reform it. As the mother of a child on the autism spectrum and the CEO of one of the nation’s largest nonprofit AbilityOne contractors, I ask Congress and the new Biden administration to modernize—not abolish—the AbilityOne program.

Larysa Kautz is President & CEO of Melwood, one of the largest nonprofit employers of people with significant disabilities in the country. For more information, visit