Despite Budget Cuts, Dallas Lighthouse for the Blind Remains Top Employer for Visually Impaired

November 11, 2011  


By Lauren Scheinin

Blake Lindsay in the industrial building of the Dallas Lighthouse for the Blind. (Photo by Lauren Scheinin/Beyond the Bubble staff)

A bell sounds as Blake Lindsay opens the door to the industrial building of Dallas Lighthouse for the Blind, signaling the seven steps that lie ahead of him. Inside the building, more than 150 blind and visually impaired employees work together making products such as highlighters, binders and eyeglass cases for military, federal and state governments and commercial customers.

Lindsay, 45, completely blind since infancy because of Retinoblastoma, a cancer of the eyes, has been the communications director at Dallas Lighthouse for two years. With a background in both radio and customer service, he frequently speaks with groups of all ages about overcoming a disability and how to successfully set and achieve goals and dreams.

“Our job is to get out in the community and tell people these aren’t barriers, these are obstacles, and we can get around them,” Lindsay said.

The 50,000-square-foot facility, located on Capital Avenue, is the largest employer for the blind and visually impaired in North Texas. But, due to the recession, the private non-profit organization has had to develop new strategies for funding. Contributions from organizations like the United Way, individual donations and federal and state grants have fallen, causing Dallas Lighthouse to make changes and get creative with the funds that they have.

“What we are doing is getting more aggressive and spreading the net wider, which is a good thing. But we’ve got to be sharper and more clever about where we go for support. We need to do more advertising, talk to more people,” Nancy Perkins, CEO and president of Dallas Lighthouse, said.

Affiliated with the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, United Way of Metropolitan Dallas and National Industries for the Blind, Dallas Lighthouse has been looking for additional support since funding difficulties began with the federal government and United Way.

“Programs in the community service side no longer have those funds from the United Way, so we have had to shift some of our strategies and tactics to accommodate that,” Terry McManus, the director of community service, said.

Typically, the organization receives more than $218,000 from the United Way, but this year they have received just $75,000.

There are approximately 42,000 blind or visually impaired people in the North Texas region and more than 50 percent of them are looking for jobs.

While Dallas Lighthouse has been making due with the decreased funds, if they continue declining changes will have to be made, such as shorter work weeks.

The organization is working to expand and recently bought the building next door. The ultimate goal of business services is to train enough people with job skills that are real and transferable, so they are able to eventually enter the community work force.

Employees of Dallas Lighthouse are often cross-trained in multiple areas. The organization customizes training programs for each individual to make sure their needs are met.

“National statistics say that 75 percent of people who are blind or visually impaired can’t get or keep a job,” McManus said. “A big part of that is because the American Disability

Association says employers have to make reasonable accommodations for their employees, and we’re trying to educate people to how reasonable that can be.”

Employees and trainees of Dallas Lighthouse have an 85 percent job retention rate, which is 60 percent higher than the national average for the visually impaired.

Last year, because of the slowdown, Dallas Lighthouse switched to a three-day work week in order to avoid lay-offs. The organization wound up finishing the year in better shape than they thought they would, and resumed a five-day work week in May.

“We are at a threshold with the number of people we can help with our staff, but there is no limit on the number of people we can ultimately help,” Perkins said. “It is going to be a growing demographic as people age, so it’s just going to be an even bigger number to tackle.”

Margie Harris, an industrial supervisor and the longest tenured employee of Dallas Lighthouse, has been with the organization for 33 years. Recently, her department has been slowing down, causing some of her employees to move temporarily to the sewing department.

“It’s good that they know how to do other things and are able to go to a different department. It keeps them employed and gives them work, preventing layoffs,” Harris said.

The assistive technology department teaches people with little or no vision how to use computers with assisted software. The state of Texas has fewer than 30 people who are approved to teach, three of whom are employed at Dallas Lighthouse.

One of those instructors, Bradford Snyder, has very low vision because of retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition. Snyder graduated from Texas Tech University and worked on computer mapping for a number of years until his vision started to change.

Using a program called ZoomText, Snyder, who is no longer on disability, helps other people with visual impairments master skills such as typing quickly.

Looking towards the future, Dallas Lighthouse hopes to change outsiders’ perceptions and increase involvement by reaching out to the community.

Inside the industrial building of Dallas Lighthouse. (Photo by Lauren Scheinin/Beyond the Bubble staff)

“If you lose some of your vision, your hearing, your mobility, even some of your marbles, it’s just a part of life and we’re all here to work together,” said McManus.

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