Program helps blind vendors earn success

DOVER — About 14 years ago Wayne Marsh had a problem: The bank where he worked was relocating.

Mr. Marsh, who is blind, didn’t want to move with the company because it would have required him to leave Delaware.

So, he found a new career— as an entrepreneur.

Mr. Marsh is one of five visually-impaired Delawareans who operate vending machines, cafes and snack stands in a variety of federal, state and local government facilities in Delaware.
If you’ve ever stopped by a kiosk or shop in a state facility to grab a bagel or a coffee, you might have done business with one of the members of the blind entrepreneurs program.

Based on a federal law aimed at helping people with disabilities find employment, the initiative is administered by the state’s Division for the Visually Impaired.
While officials involved in the program were unable to determine exactly when it started, Mr. Marsh said the effort is at least several decades old. He estimated about 60 or 70 vendors have taken part.

“When people get into the program, they usually don’t leave for 30 or 40 years,” Mr. Marsh said. He also serves as the chairman of the state’s Blind Vendors Committee. “It’s good, and there’s no reason to do anything else except retire.”

When there’s an opening a successful applicant will receive training from the state on food service and financial management. The goal is to provide visually impaired individuals a sustainable job, thus allowing them a chance to support themselves financially.

The job carries with it plenty of autonomy and, for some participants, simply having it creates a sense of value.
Those who join are assigned to a location and have the chance to expand their operation as time goes on. Mr. Marsh started at Holloway’s Hideaway Cafe at the Department of Health and Social Services’ New Castle campus. He now owns several vending routes making him responsible for stocking vending machines in multiple locations, including the Carvel State Office Building.

A friend runs hot dog carts at Division of Motor Vehicles facilities while another of Mr. Marsh’s pals serves food at New Castle County Courthouse.
Veteran vendors help new participants, Mr. Marsh said, creating a sense of camaraderie where other workers are happy to assist their colleagues.

“They’re always mentored. We’ve always kind of helped each other out,” he said.
Operators must service their own equipment, which they do with the aid of a phone app called Be My Eyes. The app connects them with a volunteer who uses the phone camera to spot potential problems the operator wouldn’t see.

To join, they take online classes through Hadley, a nonprofit group that helps people with visual impairments.
Professional development and networking opportunities are also available, Mr. Marsh said. He noted that he recently attended a conference of about 200 blind vendors and state officials in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Individuals in the program are not state employers or contractors — they’re considered independent businesspeople.
Because the only money allocated for the program is funding for a few Department of Health and Social Services employees who help oversee the initiative, it pays for itself. Some vending machines aren’t assigned to any one person so the money collected from them is used to cover administrative expenses and other overhead.

While entrepreneurs in the program no longer have any accounts outside government, there’s been some talk nationally about expanding it to the private sector, according to Mr. Marsh.

A task force created by the Joint Legislative Oversight and Sunset Committee is currently reviewing the Division for the Visually Impaired, including the blind entrepreneurs program. Members weighed in on making possible changes to the initiative, such as imposing formal regulations spelling out the process and practices around it.

The task force will continue meeting on the future of the division, with a report due by Jan. 3.
“It’s given me a pretty good life,” Mr. Marsh said of his food service job.

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