Austin Lighthouse for the Blind has been creating employment opportunities for those who are blind or visually impaired since 1934. The nonprofit organization started out loom weaving mats and canning peaches that they then sold door-to-door within the neighborhoods of Austin, Texas.
Industrious and driven, Austin Lighthouse was uniquely positioned to operate under the Wagner-O’Day act when it passed in 1938. With the assistance of National Industries for the Blind (NIB), Austin started making mops for the federal government and then expanded their operations to include a variety of other mission-essentials for military and federal customers.
Today, Austin Lighthouse continues to make their vision of employment opportunities for those who are blind or visually impaired a reality within their community of Austin, Texas.
GOJO SKILCRAFT Partnership
GOJO believes everyone should be able to live a healthy, happy life. This mission is made manifest as Purell, perennial favorite of anyone who wants to kill germs on hands, and a wide range of antibacterial soaps, lotion soaps and hair and body shampoo.
Through GOJO’s co-brand partnership with SKILCRAFT and by extension, Austin Lighthouse, GOJO has been able to take their mission a step further, contributing to the lives of people who might not have employment otherwise.
GOJO is innovative, and so is Austin Lighthouse, so it’s no wonder that this partnership between them has been such a success. Together, they dream up ways to better meet the needs of those who serve in our Federal government and military.
Brandye Lacy – Marketing Coordinator
Brandye Lacy has been with the Austin Lighthouse since 2011, starting out as a sewing machine operator. Brandye has been visually impaired since 15; she has peripheral vision, but no direct vision. She earned a degree in Public Relations, but her visual impairment made it hard to find a job that utilized her degree.
Brandye worked her way through the facility in different departments and ended up in Austin’s Marketing Department. Currently, Brandye manages the GOJO SKILCRAFT website for Austin Lighthouse, and she also works with the sales team, manages marketing collateral and helps to create flyers. On the side, Brandye also handles some customer service, takes orders and manages Austin’s social media.
“I had my degree in mass communications and public relations, but I am extremely shy. And so, starting off as a sewing machine operator, I was never really one to speak up for myself and my confidence wasn’t that great. Starting here and really wanting to use my degree, I was pushed to really speak up and tell people what I can do and show people what I can do.” says Brandye. “I really kind of built up my character here, and my confidence.”
Brandye went to Austin, Texas for a rehab program and stayed because she loved the city, with its vibrant live music scene. Brandye’s work at Austin Lighthouse makes her happy.
“I enjoy coming to work. I never take time off. Our payroll people email me every once in a while: ‘You need to use your vacation time.’ I just like being here. The environment’s fun, the job is fun, so I just have a really good time here.”
In addition to her work at Austin Lighthouse, Brandye is also part of NIB’s Advocates for Leadership and Employment program, which trains people who are blind to advocate for key employment issues among elected officials and their staffs.
Thomas Stivers – Assistive Technology Trainer
Thomas Stivers has been working at Austin Lighthouse since 2006. He got in touch with the Lighthouse because he was looking for a job to pay the bills. Little did he know that the Lighthouse would still be a staple in his life over a decade later.
“They said ‘We’ll call you when we have something.’ and I was thinking it would be a couple of weeks. The next day, they called and said ‘Can you come in tomorrow?’ I went in on a Monday, they called me back on a Tuesday and I started work on Wednesday.”
When Thomas started with the Lighthouse, he worked in their manufacturing facility. He was a floater, working different departments. From there, he moved over to focus on the skincare department, repackaging, bottling and labeling soaps from GOJO. Thomas pumped soap from giant 55-gallon barrels into smaller bottles, and he applied nozzles and assembled dispensers as well. The variety of tasks on any given day provided ample learning opportunities for Thomas.
Thomas’s love of learning and eagerness to try new things led to him working at Austin’s distribution facility, working as a receptionist and in customer service, and finally, to working in Austin’s Technology Training Department.
Assistive Technology Training Department
Thomas helps people who work at Austin Lighthouse. He also works with community students located in the Austin area who need help learning how to use adaptive technologies in order to move forward with careers elsewhere.
Many students find their way to Austin’s Adaptive Tech classes through Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center. Criss Cole focuses primarily on vocational rehabilitation, while Austin Lighthouse provides a more holistic range of adaptive education that’s more widely applicable.
“If someone is older, and maybe retired, and they’re lost their sight, and they’re just looking for assistance with how to do everyday tasks, those are the kind of things we step in and help with.” says Thomas. “We’ll show them how to use the computer to just check their bank balance, pay bills, keep in touch with friends on Facebook, that type of thing.”
As an instructor, Thomas teaches people who are blind how to use the computer, iPhone and adaptive technology. Adaptive technologies include magnifiers and screen readers. Magnifiers include Windows Magnifier and Zoom, which is built into the iPhone.
For those with no vision, their adaptive technology consists of a screen reader like JAWS. These screen readers read out loud all text that’s on the screen, and they provide verbal descriptions of the visual layout of the screen as well. Screen readers have a steeper learning curve than magnification since the mouse is replaced by keyboard shortcuts. The experience is linear too; the screen reader literally reads, starting at the top left and moving to the right, every element that’s on the current page.
Thomas teaches students how to find what they want out of that linear stream of information the screen reader provides, and he shows how to use the iPhone to get email or text friends and loved ones. The result is students who know their way around technology – able to leverage it to stay connected with their friends, relatives and their community.
The adaptive technology training available from Austin Lighthouse is also uniquely tailored to the individual student. Vision loss often happens after someone is already established in a career. If someone comes to Thomas and explains the programs they’re used to using on the job, he’ll work to find ways to make those applications accessible again. This potentially allows the student to continue where they left off in their career. This kind of personalized training is hard to find elsewhere.
Thomas himself is completely without vision. He lost what limited vision he had at the age of 14, and these days, he doesn’t even think about the fact that he doesn’t have eyesight.
“I really like the work I do. I enjoy teaching people how to use the computer and I feel that it can really open up their opportunities to get information. I’ve seen several people obtain employment because of the work I’ve done with them. I’m not saying I caused it, but I feel like I had a part in that.”
The impact of Thomas’s innovative brainstorming in terms of tech has been felt by his coworkers, including Pamela Chesser.
Pamela Chesser – Warehouse Specialist
Pamela has worked at Austin Lighthouse for the past 9 years. She has been completely without sight since the age of 2 ½. Pamela had friends who worked at Austin Lighthouse, so she decided to apply. What started out as just a job at the Lighthouse grew to become a career for Pamela, who resonated with the company’s mission and goals. She has been a backup receptionist for seven years, and she currently spends most of her time as a warehouse specialist.
Austin Lighthouse’s distribution facility serves the military. Uniforms and garb are stored in this facility and are then shipped out as needed. Branches served include the Army, Navy, Marine Corp, Air Force and Coast Guard. 400,000 orders are shipped out per year.
Most of Pamela’s workday consists of picking orders. A system called VocalX, synced up with the RF gun, tells her the location of the item it scans, making it possible for her to pick orders at the warehouse. Another more recent innovation has also made it possible for people with complete blindness to handle orders that require special clearance.
The person who figured out how to make JAWS play well with this computer system was Thomas Stivers, who uses his position in Assistive Technology to devise creative new ways to leverage tech in different departments in the Lighthouse.
“It sounds very simple, but it was a big step in the right direction because it gave us a little more variety in terms of the tasks we can accomplish.” Pamela says.
When she’s not busy working at Austin Lighthouse, Pamela is busy elsewhere. Her five children, two of which are twin boys, keep this Super Mom on the move. She serves on the board for the South Austin Little League, and she’s also a Girl Scout troop leader for Juniors and Brownies.
“I actually had gone to try to find a troop for my daughter when she was a Daisy and they said ‘Well, there will be one if you start one.’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know about all that.’” Pamela says. “And they start giving me information like I was going to be a leader, so I was like, ‘Alright.’ But the Scout Store had the books in braille already and everything, and I thought that was pretty awesome.”
As a troop leader, Pamela teaches her scouts lessons on environmental stewardship, organizing litter cleanup activities and teaching them about recycling. Her girls also learn lessons in entrepreneurship through their involvement with the troop – after the yearly cookie sales, troops come up with a goal for how to invest that money, and Pamela’s troop decided on buying supplies for local animal shelters.
Equal Opportunity at Work and Play
Everybody’s equal at the Austin Lighthouse, and being without sight is the norm rather than the exception. In this environment, a lack of vision makes no difference in terms of the expectations placed on employees. Austin Lighthouse is a place that knows what people who are blind are capable of, and nothing less than this standard of excellence will do. Setting the bar high for their employees sets the stage for success.
“Everyone is always pushing people for upward mobility. To really show off your skills.” says Brandye. “Everyone is always encouraging everyone.”
“One of the things I like best about the Austin Lighthouse is that we set expectations for those who are blind high. We treat people who are blind as equals.” Thomas says. “We’ll work with people in order to help them achieve those highest of standards, but at the same time, we set the expectation as high as we can for that individual. It’s critical for their success to expect them to succeed.”
“I think that it’s great that we have an opportunity to be involved in it.” says Pamela. “We’re able to help get things out to our soldiers who are fighting for our country and even to the kids in training at different camps and everything. I really think it’s amazing that technology has come so far to provide more job opportunities for the visually impaired.”
At work and at play, lack of vision isn’t allowed to dictate what’s possible. Go to festivals and concerts. Go travel the world and rack up those frequent flyer miles. Go out and play some baseball. Yes, baseball. Six employees at Austin Lighthouse, including one of the founders of the sport, play Beep Baseball. Pamela’s team, the Austin Blackhawks, took 6th place in the Beep Baseball World Series this year.
Supporting Austin Lighthouse’s Mission
Austin Lighthouse’s partnerships like the one with GOJO make the work they do within the community of Austin, Texas possible. “Our production contracts and our distribution center make enough profit to support what we’re doing.” Thomas says. “We often say that our mission at the Austin Lighthouse is to create opportunities for those who are blind through employment. That’s why we do the business side of everything. That’s what the business is there for – it’s there to support the mission.”
Federal purchasers, when you buy products available through the AbilityOne Program, like Austin Lighthouse’s GOJO/SKILCRAFT products, you are helping to support their mission. Each purchase keeps their good work going, providing a place of hope, possibility, and opportunity for those with limited or no vision in Austin, Texas.