SEATTLE — One of Seattle's oldest nonprofits has been empowering people who are blind, deafblind, and blind with other disabilities by creating opportunities for them to learn a diverse set of sustainable and meaningful job skills that lead to lasting employment.
The Lighthouse for the Blind has been operating since 1918. It's now the largest employer for blind individuals on the West Coast, and the largest employer in the entire country for those who are deafblind, a condition where a person has little or no useful hearing and little or no useful sight.
It's a sense of pride and a source of pain for the organization as its leaders grapple with some troubling statistics.
Estimates report that seven out of 10 blind people are unemployed.
"Over 70% are unemployed or underemployed and we need to significantly change that," said George Abbott, senior vice president of the Lighthouse for the Blind.
He said the change starts with inclusion and opportunity through innovation.
The organization has been considered an essential service during the pandemic and met the demand for supplies they provide to the federal government.
The manufacturing facility in Seattle produces everything from aerospace parts to office products and even canteens and other tools for the Military.
The machine shop has a 99.9% acceptance rate and the conditions are slightly modified for their blind employees.
Abbott said, “We try to use as much standard equipment as we possibly can but in order to do the job there has to be certain adaptations.”
For instance, the machines are equipped with braille keyboards and audio based programs that verbalize the process through screen reading. There’s an on-site kennel for employees who have service dogs and the factory floor features tactile lines and ridges so people can use their canes to safely maneuver the aisle ways.
The organization even has nearly two dozen specialists who are there to assist the 260 plus blind employees.
The Lighthouse started working with Boeing in the 1950s and has since grown to 20 facilities across five states with interpreters to assist in over 19 languages spoken.
Visually impaired employee, Dan Porter, is now a card carrying machinist and said The Lighthouse changed his life.
“I came here with no experience and now I help train other people. The Lighthouse made it possible for me to buy my own home, I met my wife here and met a lot of cool people here,” said Porter.
During the pandemic, the organization opened their own in-house Low Vision Clinic that provides rehabilitation services, clinical exams and many tools to help individuals adjust to vision loss.
The Lighthouse funds much of their training and upward mobility programs through the manufacturing, retail and service businesses, but also relies upon fundraising and donations.