The Center for Economic and Community Engagement (CECE) is partnering with Virginia Tech’s Institute for Policy and Governance to conduct an impact analysis and program assessment of the non-profit Melwood’s AbilityOne Program activities. The AbilityOne Program is the United States’ largest provider of jobs for people who are blind or have significant disabilities, providing employment opportunities to more than 42,000 individuals.

Melwood began in 1963 as a way to help individuals with disabilities gain job skills and an income. The first participants learned how to cultivate plants through a horticulture rehabilitative therapy program and sold the plants at sites around the Washington D.C. area.

In the 1970s, Melwood purchased a 108-acre property in Nanjemoy, Maryland where individuals with disabilities learned skills in agriculture, farming, landscaping, and horticulture.

Now, Melwood provides employment, career exploration, job training, life skill improvement, supportive and recreational services to more than 2,000 people with disabilities each year in the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland.

 “I have personally known about Melwood for many years,” Afroze Mohammed, associate director for strategic alliances at CECE said. “My sister, Mini, has Down’s Syndrome. As a lifelong advocate for her and now her legal guardian, I’m interested in organizations that help people with developmental disabilities. Something that’s been an aspiration of mine since I joined the center was finding partnership and project work that would relate to creating better lives and job opportunities for people with developmental disabilities.”

In addition to Mohammed’s background in developmental disabilities, this study leverages the expertise in economic impact and cost-benefit analysis developed by Sarah Lyon-Hill, CECE associate director for research development. CECE graduate assistants Hye-jeong Seo and Allison Ulaky are also contributing to the study.

“In conducting research for this project, we’ve delved into the policy of workforce development strategies for individuals with disabilities and how they continue to evolve to support the needs and capacities of these individuals,” said Lara Nagle, the community-based learning projects manager at the Institute for Policy and Governance.

“Melwood and its peers within the AbilityOne program are leading the way in providing comprehensive job support tailored to the individual in integrated work environments. Calls to reform AbilityOne must look honestly at the true cost to engage this population in meaningful employment, consider government-wide savings of programs like AbilityOne, and learn from leaders in the field, like Melwood, how to best support individuals with significant disabilities in their pursuit of employment,” she said.

The center is in the process of working on a cost-benefit analysis of the program. They have interviewed other AbilityOne non-profits, including ServiceSource, Didlake, and Goodwill to gain a sense of how the organizations run their programs and what additional benefits they may provide their employees.

“Sometimes these additional benefits aren’t captured. When we do the cost-benefit analysis, we want to include not only the employment opportunities they are providing to people but also the additional benefits, such as intensive support on the job, if needed,” said Mohammed.

The CECE team also interviewed vocational rehabilitation agencies, advocates and critics of the AbilityOne program, and government agencies, particularly those who obtain services under AbilityOne and other procurement programs, to understand their policies on hiring people with disabilities.

“During our interviews with Melwood clients, it has been gratifying to hear how much they value and appreciate the Melwood workforce at their facility. They often relate how dedicated and reliable those with disabilities are and that their work is as good or better than many other service contractors,” said David Moore, senior research faculty at the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance.

“What inspires me the most about Melwood’s mission is their intense commitment to providing job opportunities for people with disabilities, because I have seen firsthand the importance and the value of having a job for my sister. It makes a big difference in somebody’s life and raises their self-esteem. The fact that Melwood is providing those opportunities is a huge contribution to society,” said Mohammed.