Food for Thought – Business Opportunity for Blind Adults
For those not in the know, the acronym sounds like a popular sandwich. However, for Louisville, KY resident, George Bouquet, The Hadley School for the Blind’s and the National Association of Blind Merchants’ joint“BEPLT” program (Business Enterprise Program Licensee Training) is more like a dream come true.
Hadley is the largest provider of distance education for people who are blind and visually impaired worldwide and the BEPLT program is part of the school’s Forsythe Center for Employment (FCE) and Entrepreneurship. Under the Randolph-Sheppard Act, legally blind adults are given first right of refusal on operating state and federal government vending facilities including cafeterias, snack bars, convenience stores, micro markets, and vending machines and rest stop vending areas nationwide. In February 2014, Hadley’s FCE partnered with the National Association of Blind Merchants (NABM) and the National Federation of the Blind Entrepreneurs’ Initiative (NFBEI) to bring the academic portion of training to would-be blind vendors. Individual state Business Enterprise Programs provide the hands-on component of the blind vendor training. Bouquet is Hadley’s first graduate from the school’s new BEPLT program.
Born with both Pierre Robin Syndrome, which often results in a smaller-than-normal lower jaw, a cleft palate, a tongue that falls back in the throat, and difficulty breathing, as well as Stickler Syndrome, which causes hearing loss, eye abnormalities and joint problems, Bouquet has struggled with health issues throughout his 54 years. Although he was born without eye lenses, he was not born blind. Rather, his vision worsened over time. Bouquet worked in several food service positions since high school and had wanted to become a Randolph-Sheppard vendor even before he would have qualified as legally blind!
There are only so many blind vendor licensee training slots available and many more people compete for them than such programs can accommodate. The first time Bouquet applied to receive the training was in February 2014. Unfortunately, he was not accepted into a program. However, he was fortunate to gain some blind vendor experience by working under friends who already held the license. In early 2015, Bouquet’s counselor told him of another opportunity to apply for vendor training. This time he was accepted and Bouquet began Hadley’s BEPLT program in April 2015. Bouquet was so motivated to graduate from the program that he completed approximately two modules (one-lesson online courses) per week. Hadley’s BEPLT students complete a 10-module program and then take their state’s physical training component. After passing both elements, graduates are eligible to bid for the opportunity to become a blind vendor in their community.
“The [Hadley BEPLT] program offers a lot of useful information. It will really help anyone wanting to undertake vending,” he said. Bouquet then acknowledged that the material about food borne illnesses helped him to realize the tremendous responsibility he would be accepting by running a government food service area. “As a manager, you need to decide what you are willing to delegate to other people,” he added.
For Bouquet, becoming a blind vendor allows him to hire and train his 25 year-old unemployed son, who inherited most of his visual and hearing problems. This training is Bouquet’s first step toward creating a legacy of financial independence.
Sheryl Bass, MA, MSW
The Hadley School for the Blind