Lighthouse for the Blind: Optical lab adds to employees’ skills, product line

Employees like Angela Yount handle shipping and other duties

In the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch (Paul Newman) says to Sundance (Robert Redford), “I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”

The same can be said of Lighthouse for the Blind in Fort Worth, except that the eyeglasses are being made by the folks at Lighthouse, and just as the name says, those glasses are being made by people who cannot see, although they clearly have vision.

“Unemployment nationally for people who are blind is around 70 percent. Learning a non-traditional skill makes any individual more marketable. For a person who is blind, it can be a game changer,” said Rebecca Smith, Lighthouse’s external communications coordinator. “Lighthouse for the Blind is dedicated to creating these kinds of opportunities.”

The optical lab to make eyeglasses is the most recent addition to the Lighthouse. Smith said plans are to soon add a sonic welding lab to manufacture drug-testing devices.

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“We are always looking for new opportunities to create opportunities,” she said.

Smith said the optical lab produced almost 3,500 pairs of glasses in the eight months it was open in 2017. “Our objective is to double that number in 2018.”

Smith noted that Lighthouse is the No. 1 employer in Tarrant County for residents who are blind. It operates an 80,000-square-foot facility just south of downtown Fort Worth.

The workforce makes and packages a variety of products including fast-pack shipping boxes, spiral-wound shipping tubes, copy paper, shipping and packaging of drug-testing devices, and optical lenses.

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Blind individuals also work in client services, providing orientation and mobility training, independent living skills and technology skills to others who are blind or visually impaired in Tarrant and surrounding counties.

Lighthouse also works to educate and inform people on vision issues.

“We try to dispel the impression that folks who are blind are unable to perform routine tasks, much less some of the production jobs that we have them do,” Smith said. “Folks who are blind can do everything that a sighted person can, it is just done a little bit differently.”

Lighthouse has a BAT program (blind awareness training) that allows sighted folks to gain a brief insight into how people who are visually impaired or blind handle day-to-day tasks.

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“Participants of our BAT program say this is a very eye-opening experience, no pun intended,” Smith said with a laugh.

She said that while there are a number of agencies that do good work with the visually challenged, Lighthouse is the only one dedicated 100 percent to the visually impaired and blind, serving children, youth and adults of all ages.

“Our objective is to provide meaningful employment and client services so that every individual can reach their independence goals,” she said. “Collectively, I think all of the agencies in Tarrant County and the state of Texas are making huge differences in people’s lives.”

Lighthouse began in 1935 when the Texas Commission for the Blind sent Willie Fay Lewis, who herself became blind as a child, to Fort Worth and assigned her to “find a handful of blind people and see what she could do to help them.” The biggest challenge was earning a living wage.

Operating out of a six-room house, a persistent Lewis organized a small group of workers with visual disabilities to make pillowcases, rugs, brooms, mops and other hand-sewn items and to cane chairs (weave the seats and backs from rattan cane). Lewis is considered the program’s first executive director. Her goal was to encourage and empower blind people to become independent and productive through gainful employment.

In addition to production workers, visually impaired sales people canvassed Fort Worth, going door-to-door in welcoming neighborhoods to sell the locally made mops and brooms. A small retail store was also opened.

Lighthouse was the first nonprofit in the nation to pay blind employees a standard hourly rate, Smith said. Today, the average wage for blind workers at the Lighthouse is $10.50 with full benefits, sustained by sale of products they make.

Instead of going door-to-door, the sales team has international reach and uses the internet to build its customer base.

Operations have evolved and now require an advanced set of job skills. Blind and visually impaired employees are trained to safely and precisely operate band saws, foam cutters, strappers, sonic welders and industrialized staplers to produce shipping containers, boxes, military products, drug test cups and other paper products. They also help make eyeglasses, of course.

Sharon McDonald has been working at the Lighthouse for 19 years and is in the box-manufacturing department. She said working at Lighthouse makes her feel like an independent adult.

“When you first lose your vision, one of the first things you think about is not being able to do a whole lot with yourself. Working here means I’m still a valuable part of society and I feel good,” McDonald said. “I’m not at home alone being depressed.”

Kevin Higgins is a certified independent living specialist who has been working at the Lighthouse for four years.

“Working here allows me to have a career so that I can provide for my family and help others who are visually impaired or blind,” he said. “For a long time, I was a recipient of government benefits, but now that I’ve graduated college and am teaching at the Lighthouse, I am able to contribute back and help others in the blind community.”

Throughout its history, Lighthouse has been honored with numerous awards, most recently the 2017 Employment Growth Award from National Industries for the Blind. It also was named 2013 Business of the Year from the Department of Assistive Rehabilitative Services and received the 2012 Outstanding AbilityOne Program Vendor Award from Defense Logistics Agency and the 2012 Employment Growth Award from the National Industries for the Blind.

Another milestone came in 1980 when the Fort Worth Cowtown Roadrunners Beep baseball team won the World Series of Baseball for the Blind championship. The Roadrunners are now the beep baseball team for North Texas.

“As the blind community has grown in North Texas, the team branched out separately to serve a larger area,” Smith said. “However, we do have a fully equipped gym with a 20-foot rock wall.”

Smith said Lighthouse dreams big and generated $14 million in revenue last year. She said the short-term goal is to reach $30 million in annual revenue within five years and $60 million a year within the next decade.

“At $60 million, we would grow our employment ranks to approximately 250 people who are blind and could serve 8,000 people within the community,” she said. “The more we sell, the more we can accomplish in the community.”

Lighthouse for the Blind

912 W. Broadway Ave.

Fort Worth 76104