by Damashe Thomas
From the Editor: Following Fred Schroeder’s rousing speech, a sheltered shop employee and NFB chapter officer was scheduled to speak. Because of serious illness in his family, he was unable to attend convention, so at the last moment Damashe Thomas stepped in to do the job. Mr. Thomas has worked for Georgia Industries for the Blind for five years. In addition to his high school diploma, he has two years of college credit toward a degree in computer information systems. He spoke from personal experience of sheltered workshop working conditions. This is what he said:
Good morning. My name is Damashe Thomas. I would like to make apologies for Stancil Tootle, who is not able to be here. His wife had to have surgery, and he is with her.
I began working at Industries for the Blind in Bainbridge five years ago. When I initially started working there and heard about the Industries for the Blind, I thought it was a great idea because, the way it was explained to me, they give blind people the opportunity first, not that we were forced to work or that the program excludes sighted people, but, when it comes down to blind or sighted employees, we’re going to look at the blind employee’s qualifications first. If the two are equally qualified, the blind person will receive the job.
As Dr. Schroeder described unemployment in the blind community, it sounded like a great opportunity to me. I went down. I took the job. I was told that there would be opportunities for me to have upward mobility, the possibility that, if I worked, learned, with the education that I had at the time and would continue pursuing, I could end up some day working in management, helping to make decisions that affected the other employees.
About two years into this job, I started noticing that there were quite a few openings for supervisor positions, and it wasn’t so much that I wasn’t being considered for those positions, but people that had worked there for ten, fifteen, twenty years were not being considered for the positions. At the time I met Stancil Tootle when I first moved to Bainbridge, Georgia, he was working under the BEP program in Georgia. About two and a half years after I arrived, his contract was closed out, and he looked around for work and found that he had to go back to the Industries for the Blind. He had worked there previously for about twenty years. I can honestly say from getting to know Stancil that the decision to go back to GIB kind of depressed him, and I was beginning to understand why. During my attempts to finish my degree there in Bainbridge, all sorts of roadblocks were put up, not only by VR, but surprisingly enough by the people at Georgia Industries for the Blind.
Me and Stancil would sit and talk, and a lot of times before he came back to GIB, he kept my spirits up because I started to get frustrated. People work at the Industries who have been there for ten years or more making file folders, which is a process of sitting there assembling a folder. This is what they do eight hours a day. Like I say, some of these people have worked there ten, fifteen years and still have not reached the required production rate. It became obvious to me after a short time that, if they had been working there ten years and still had not reached production, then maybe they should be doing something a little different. [Applause]
I was fed a lot of talk about open-door policies--if there is anything wrong, we have a process for improvement. Fill out a piece of paper. Let us know what you think needs changing, and we will consider it. If it’s feasible, if it’s plausible, we will make every attempt to do it. So I went to management. I spoke with management many times and spent time in offices behind closed doors, not realizing that, when promises were made to me behind closed doors, I had no witnesses. So, when I would call them on the agreements that we had made, it was always my word against theirs. I was labeled a troublemaker, not because I’m actually, in my opinion or anyone else’s, a troublemaker--I’m just not allowing them to continue to do what they’re doing. [Applause]
About two years in, me and Stancil got to be a little closer because of the Georgians Empowering through Mentoring Success (GEMS) Program, which was a pilot program of the National Federation of the Blind. Georgia, Utah, Texas, and Ohio were selected for that go-round. That actually is the time when the National Federation of the Blind helped keep me going, not because I necessarily reached out to people or let them know how bad I was feeling or let them know this job was starting to push me down (I was actually starting to question my self-worth), but simply because I was able to leave Bainbridge every two to three months and spend time with other blind people who were not working for Industries for the Blind. They were doing what they wanted to do with their lives, or they were going to school to pursue what they wanted to do with their lives. That kept me going a lot more than I myself could have done.
Going through that program, I did make a lot of contacts in Georgia and around the country that were National Federation members. I had joined the organization early on because of Stancil Tootle, but I didn’t start taking it seriously until that mentoring program. I saw the difference I was able to make just talking to younger people about my experiences even though I was a mentee just like them. I was older, and I was able to steer them based on my life experiences. Go to school; do everything you can. Fight for your education because you don’t want to end up at Industries for the Blind. [Applause]
One of the biggest issues we have had with the Industries for the Blind is that, during the process of making file folders, you are required to press a counter, which keeps track of how many folders you have made at the end of the day when your supervisor comes around and takes your count As a blind person I’m not able to see that count, like most of the employees there. They are not able to see their counters. So it’s a good-faith system; we are relying on them to tell us accurately what we made and to pay us by what we made. We addressed this issue and wrote a letter to management asking them to work with us to come up with a better process. We had found accessible counters that would talk, that would read out the information that was contained on the counter. About a month after receiving our letter, management comes down and lets us know that, “Well, we’re going to fix the problem for everybody. We are going to count your folders for you. We’re going to come up with an equation. It’s going to take us a few months to get it together, but we’re going to come up with an equation where we can just weigh out the folders you make. We’ll pick them up, and we’ll tell you what you made at the end of the day.”
I’m going to be honest; I wasn’t happy about that at all. Basically you are already going from me not being able to keep track of my money as it is. At least at the end of the day you are telling me how many I made so I can somewhat try to keep an eye on you. Now you are just going to weigh them up and give me a paycheck every two weeks.
We tried to talk with them. We tried to work with them, and they were adamant that their way of doing it was going to be the best way. We got a lot of the blind people together and tried to talk to them. Most of them, as I said, have been there ten years or more. Some people are close to twenty-five years. Well, they’ve been dealing with Industries for the Blind for so long that all the fight has gone out of them. So they just give it up--if that’s what they want to do, that’s what they’re going to do. There is nothing we can do about it. That is their attitude.
It’s frustrating to me as a young person. It is frustrating to me as a blind person to have anybody feel that way, let alone to know that a job that is supposed to be there, that is touted by management and by workers in the state government of Georgia as one of the best things they could do for us, to be responsible for the attitudes of so many blind people. I thought when I went to Bainbridge that I would be meeting a lot of blind people because, where I had been living, there weren’t a lot. I sometimes felt like I was the only blind person in the world. I thought I was going to meet blind people. We would talk. We would learn a lot, and I ended up down there, as one of the youngest people at the Industries, trying to be a leader, simply because all the fight had been taken out of them.
Well, I’ve got to be honest: they almost took the fight out of me too. I was given an opportunity to go work at the Colorado Center for the Blind summer youth program. [Applause] (I didn’t think that many people came from Colorado.) I was given an opportunity to go out there and work in the summer program teaching technology, and I quit my job at the Industries just to go do that because I felt that spending my summer teaching younger students, younger blind students, would be a better use of my time than continuing to work there. Now, as life has a tendency to do, once I arrived at Colorado, a curve ball was thrown at me. They said, due to changes in things, you’re going to be teaching mobility. Wow, are you serious? Really? I am very confident of my skills, but I am not very confident in my ability to teach someone else. I spent the first two weeks bugging the heck out of the mobility instructor who worked full time at the center as well as my fellow travel instructor, Dezman Jackson, because I wanted to make sure what I was doing was right. Those are the first phone numbers I acquired when I arrived there, and I called them all the time. “How do you do this?” “Would I teach them this way, or would I do it that way?” “Ray, let me follow you around for the day.”
I can actually say, after about a month of teaching the students orientation and mobility, I’ve grown to love it. I’ve grown an interest in it. It’s something I’m actually considering going to school to get certified for. [Applause] I would like to thank Garrick Scott, who recommended me to the CCB staff, and I would like to thank the CCB staff for allowing me the opportunity to learn and also to give me the opportunity for a job in a field that I would never have considered had I stayed where I was. [Applause]
I would like to close by saying I encourage everyone to do everything you possibly can. Go to <www.nfb.org>. Find a link for the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act. Place it in your Facebook. Put it on Twitter. Email it to everybody. Those of you who are in NFBnet mailing list, forward Anil’s email to everybody, anyone in your contact list. Call your Congressman. Call your Senators. Do everything you can. If it takes us getting out and marching--we have to stop this!