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What is the AbilityOne Program? Blog Feature
Stephanie Hagan

By: Stephanie Hagan on October 12th, 2021

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What is the AbilityOne Program?

GSA Schedule | 6 Min Read

When it comes to federal procurement, the government has a distinct order in which government agencies can purchase goods and services. For example, offerings through the AbilityOne Program, a program that provides employment opportunities for people who are blind or who have significant disabilities, must be considered for purchase before GSA Schedule contracts and other federal contracts.

It’s important for GSA contractors to know the ins and outs of this program and the requirements that come along with it so they can maintain compliance with their GSA Schedule. Let’s dive into the program and how it co-exists with GSA in the federal procurement process. 

What is the AbilityOne Program?

The AbilityOne Program (formerly known as the Javits-Wagner-O’Day Act) is one of the nation’s largest employers for people who are blind or have significant disabilities. Through this program, the government can procure fair market-priced products and services that are all manufactured in the United States. Government agencies are also required to purchase offerings from this program, which we’ll go into further detail on below when we discuss priority source requirements.

The AbilityOne Program is pervasive—with 500 nonprofit agencies nationwide and over 1,000 locations, AbilityOne employs 42,000 blind or severely disabled people and 3,000 veterans. In Fiscal Year 2020, the program accounted for $4 billion in sales. So, it’s safe to say that AbilityOne plays an integral role in federal procurement. 

What is the AbilityOne Commission?

As with any program, there needs to be a form of leadership. The AbilityOne Commission is an independent federal agency made up of 15 Presidential appointee members who facilitate program compliance with federal agencies and authorized distributors.

The AbilityOne Commission oversees the procurement list which identifies the products and services suitable for federal government buyers that can be acquired through the AbilityOne Program. The Commission is also responsible for determining fair market-price.

Within the Commission, there are 11 agency appointees and 4 civilian appointees. The 11 agencies are:

  • Department of Agriculture
  • Department of Commerce
  • Department of Justice
  • Department of Labor
  • Department of Defense
  • Department of Education
  • The General Services Administration
  • Air Force
  • Army
  • Navy
  • Department of Veteran’s Affairs

The 4 civilian appointees must adhere to the following:

  • Must be knowledgeable about problems associated with employment of blind people.
  • Must be knowledgeable about the problems associated with employment of people with severe disabilities.
  • Must represent blind individuals employed in qualified nonprofit agencies for the blind.
  • Must represent severely disables individuals employed in qualified nonprofit agencies.

AbilityOne Procurement List and Essentially the Same (ETS) Items

The AbilityOne Program Commission maintains a procurement list of the products and services that have been placed in the AbilityOne Program. Once an item is on the list, the government must purchase the offerings from organizations outlined by the Commission. In other words, if a commercially available product/service is deemed Essentially the Same (ETS) as products listed on the procurement list, the federal buyer must buy the AbilityOne version. Government contractors are also not allowed to offer these items unless they are an authorized AbilityOne distributor.

Essentially the Same (ETS) is a term for commodities that are comparable in all prominent physical, functional, or performance characteristics to items on the procurement list. This includes but is not limited to form, fit, and function. Government agencies and contractors can peruse the ETS Commercial Items List to see the majority (but not all) of the items that are off limits.

Priority Source Requirements

Government agencies have a specific guidance they need to follow when procuring items, and AbilityOne comes first before wholesale supply sources like GSA Schedule contracts, and VA contracts.

For products, government agencies must deplete their current inventories and excess inventories from other agencies, before they can move onto Federal Prison Industries, AbilityOne, Wholesale supply (ie GSA, DLA, VA), and then the open market. The order is depicted in the graphic below:

As you can see, services is slightly different because AbilityOne comes first before Federal Prison Industries.

How Do Contractors Comply with the AbilityOne Program?

Since federal government buyers must prioritize the purchasing of AbilityOne products, GSA contractors cannot offer products that are Essentially the Same (ETS) on their GSA Schedule. If you list a product in your GSA Schedule proposal, or add a new product to your existing contract, it will be rejected or will have to be removed. So in order to remain compliant, you should keep an eye on the list of ETS items and make sure you are not planning on offering the same products.

In addition to the ETS commercial items list, you can also check for AbilityOne products and distributors on GSA Advantage!. You can search for products by selecting the “AbilityOne” drop-down, by text, or by searching the direct National Stock Number (NSN). You can also tell if a product is distributed through the AbilityOne Program by looking for the AbilityOne icon next to each product listing.

How Do You Become an AbilityOne Distributor?

Becoming an AbilityOne distributor can be a strategic business move for your company. Since the federal government is required to purchase AbilityOne products, you’ll most likely get government business, and you’ll be able to resell the products that are off limits to other GSA Schedule contractors. However, you’ll need to meet a few requirements and apply to become a distributor.

GSA contractors who want to resell AbilityOne products must first get authorized as an AbilityOne distributor. New distributors will need to send an application to the AbilityOne Commission before they are granted authorization. Below is a list of some of the regulations you’ll need to meet before you apply to become an AbilityOne distributor. For a full list, you can look at the Commercial Distributor Program Requirements. AbilityOne distributors must:

  • Be able to demonstrate (after authorization) how AbilityOne items will be automatically substituted for commercial Essentially the Same (ETS) products if ordered.
  • Commit to annual sales requirement of $5,000
  • Include AbilityOne products on their federal contract, GSA Schedule, or other listing as applicable within 45 days of authorization.
  • Abide by the AbilityOne exclusive principle, meaning you cannot sell commercial products to federal customers on any federal contract including, but not limited to: GSA Schedule, DoD E-Mall, e-commerce sites, or federal solicitations if those products have been deemed Essentially the Same (ETS) as AbilityOne Products.
  • Provide sales reports for total AbilityOne sales on a quarterly basis within 30 days of the end of each calendar quarter (March 31, June 30, September 30, and December 31).

If you want to learn more about becoming an AbilityOne Distributor, you can visit the Potential Distributor FAQ on their website.

Maintaining Compliance with Your GSA Schedule

Whether you are an AbilityOne distributor selling through a GSA Schedule, or you are a GSA Schedule contractor selling your own solutions, you need to abide by the regulations of the AbilityOne Program. Failure to follow the requirements can lead to contract suspension or cancellation. We know it can be overwhelming to stay on top of all the rules and regulations of your GSA Schedule, and we don’t expect you to know them all off the top of your head.

If you want to learn more about GSA Schedule maintenance and compliance you can check out our blogs “How to Maintain Your GSA Schedule Contract: An Essential Checklist,” and “Updating Your GSA Schedule: Top 10 Most Forgotten Updates.” If you have questions about the AbilityOne Program and how it relates to your contract, or you have questions about contract maintenance, we would be happy to help you.

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About Stephanie Hagan

Stephanie Hagan is the Training and Communications Manager for Winvale. Stephanie grew up in Sarasota, Florida, and earned her Bachelor's of Arts in Journalism and Rhetoric/Communications from the University of Richmond.