For many, the sight of a SKILCRAFT® US Government Pen brings back memories. The trusty writing implement tucked in many a military pocket. The pen that numerous people first used to ink their enlistment papers for military service. A ubiquitous presence on the desks of those in the Federal government.
We know this staple of modern Americana by sight – the clean lines and utilitarian styling of this workhorse are iconic and easily recognizable – but for those who make it, the pen is instead recalled and remembered by touch and feel. You see, the best-kept secret of the SKILCRAFT US Government pen is that for the past 50 years it has been assembled sight unseen by the people who make it. It’s not because the pen’s components are proprietary or need-to-know – it’s because the workforce who makes this pen consists of people who are blind or visually impaired.
If the SKILCRAFT pen could talk, imagine the stories it would be able to tell. About life out in the field, but also regarding the careful hands who put it together, piece by piece, in preparation for use by warfighters and administrative officials alike. The SKILCRAFT pen lives a double life of sorts, being a superior writing instrument on one hand and a social change agent on the other.
Eight Million Strong
Today, eight million of these pens are created every year to keep up with the Government’s steady demand for the product. Nearly 70% of working-age Americans who are blind or visually impaired are not employed in the United States. The US Government Pen has provided steady, reliable employment for these Americans for five decades now, making it a foundational part of their lives.
“It’s my job and it’s been my employment for the past 24 years.” says Susan, who works at Industries for the Blind and Visually Impaired (IBVI) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “Visually impaired employment isn’t all that easy to get and so this is good employment for several people.”
“It’s just a good job for those who don’t see well.” says Kathy, who also works at IBVI. “75% of the production work has to be done by blind people.”
IBVI is one of the three nonprofit agencies associated with National Industries for the Blind that manufacture the SKILCRAFT US Government Pen. They, along with the other two agencies, Industries of the Blind in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Alphapointe, in Kansas City, Missouri work on the SKILCRAFT U.S. Government Pen.
“There’s been people here who’ve been here 30 or 40 years, which is astounding.” says Marjie, who works at Alphapointe.
“I just think it’s unique in that, you know, Marjie came to us as a client in our rehabilitation services, and now she’s employed.” says Sharon from Alphapointe. “She makes the pen that’s used by the military and government employees. It’s just a continuing story.”
Richard Oliver at Industries of the Blind, Greensboro echoes this: “We are super proud that we’ve been making this pen for 50 years, and we have people who have been here 30 years, 40 years and almost 50 years. What this simple pen has helped to provide is means for people’s families. Putting kids through college, putting groceries on the table, buying your house; all kinds of things. Let’s call it that American Dream that everybody else has. People who are blind have that same thing. This pen has been one of those products to help serve as a means to an end for people here.”
“It’s made us independent, and frankly, it’s really changed our quality of life here.” says Clifford, who recently celebrated his 40th work anniversary at Industries of the Blind, Greensboro. “It really has because it’s enabled us to do a lot of things that we probably wouldn’t have been able to do if we had not been part of this operation.”
One hundred people who are blind are employed by the SKILCRAFT US Government Pen’s production each year. The level of visual impairment ranges from legal blindness to Deaf Blindness.
Kathy, who is legally blind, used to work on the US Government Pen, but these days she works primarily on the recycled SKILCRAFT pen. Her old job was transferred to a woman who is both deaf and blind. “Jay Anderson had a machine made that was specifically for a visually impaired person. It is easy, you couldn’t hurt yourself on it if you tried! You’d have to try hard. Right now, I’m doing the recycled hot stamper. Four or five years ago, a Deaf Blind lady started. So they had me train her on that because it’s easier to move me around than her. Now, that’s her primary machine.”
An Audacious Vision
The spec sheet for the US Government Pen is a whopping 16 pages long and includes features that would make James Bond proud.
- Must lay down no less than one mile of ink
- Must write in extreme temps ranging from 160 degrees to -40 degrees
- Ink must survive two applications of bleach
- Ink must have 5 second dry time with no smudging
The original attempt to create pens to this spec failed, with the original commercial supplier sending 13 million defective units to the General Services Administration. The requested specs, though rigorous and challenging to meet, were not something the US Government was willing to compromise on. So a new supplier capable of meeting the need was required.
After the defective batch in 1967, the GSA decided to look for another, more reliable source instead. National Industries for the Blind was given the opportunity to try meeting the stringent pen requirements. It was a bold move on the part of GSA Commissioner Heinz Abersfeller, but his intuition and vision paid off. By 1970, 70 million SKILCRAFT US Government Pens were delivered to the government, each meeting the specs of the original 16-page document. The workforce of those who were blind or visually impaired succeeded where others could not, producing a consistent product with reliable performance.
The rest is, as they say, history. With NIB’s workforce proving themselves ready, able and exceptionally capable, the US Government began to lean on them as a partner for creating the supplies needed to support their mission. To date, more than 2 billion government pens have been delivered to US Government customers since the pen’s addition to the AbilityOne procurement list on April 20th, 1968.
Of the SKILCRAFT US Government pen, Clifford feels a sense of pride. “That’s a big thing, pride. We manufacture a top quality product that customers continue to buy. We were not able to serve in the military. The fact that we know the military uses this product – it’s just a good feeling. We, people who are visually impaired, are able to be part of something like that.”
“They can write for a mile. And they write upside down. They wash well! I’ve run a number of them through the washer- just don’t take them apart afterward!” says Susan. “It’s a sturdy pen.”
Marjie says about the pens she makes being used by the military. “It’s pretty exciting, because you know you’re helping them. And it’s just – I think it’s kind of fun, actually. You know? I like to go kind of fast ‘cause I challenge myself to see how many I can get done.”
Off-label Uses and Future Legacy
Anything in use for five decades is bound to have its fair share of off-label uses, and this pen is no exception.
- Military MacGyvers have used the tube of this pen for emergency tracheotomies out in the field.
- The metal nose-tip is equal to the regulation length fingernails can be in the military, so it’s been used as a standard for measurement there.
- When the two barrels of the pen are unscrewed, the center ring is revealed, and this has been used as a makeshift wire-holder.
- Lay the pen on a flight map, and you’re looking at 150 nautical miles.
- The bottom of the barrel is the exact length of a two-minute fuse.
The success of the original pen also led to the development of an entire family of SKILCRAFT pens in a variety of styles, colors and thicknesses. Today, the SKILCRAFT name can even be found emblazoned across a co-branded Zebra gel pen. As the needs and usage of the Federal customer changes, the range of writing instruments available through the AbilityOne Program evolves to accommodate.
“We put out a recycled pen which is becoming quite popular. We also came out with blue colored pens, the outside is blue,” says Jeff from IBVI. “The recycled one is a plastic – the part that holds the ink, is a plastic, and everything in that pen is from recycled materials. Just like it says, it’s 100% recycled.”
Currently, there are thousands of SKILCRAFT products available through the AbilityOne Program, ranging from paper to toner, mop heads to floor cleaner, and even shelving to USB drives. SKILCRAFT items encompass almost any category of product the Federal government needs.
The success of the SKILCRAFT US Government Pen, 50 years ago, paved the way for this current selection of products available through the AbilityOne Program. Collectively, more than 46,000 people who are blind or have significant disabilities enjoy rewarding, career-based employment through the AbilityOne Program.
Now that’s a pen worth writing home about.