Braille Monitor                                                     November 2007

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Work, Instruction, and Community Activity
at the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind

by Kirk Adams

From the Editor: We have always maintained that things would be different for blind industrial workers in specialized facilities if those who ran the organizations were themselves blind and committed to demonstrating that blind people can compete. Kirk Adams, incoming president of the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind, confirmed this conviction when he addressed the NFB convention on Wednesday, July 4, 2007. This is what he said:

Good morning. Thank you, Dr. Maurer, for inviting me to speak to the Federation this morning. I would like to talk a little bit about myself; would like to describe the Seattle Lighthouse that currently exists; would like to talk a little bit about the future of my organization and, in particular, technology and Braille; and would like then to speak about the Javits-Wagner-O’Day program, which is undergoing a name change, by the way, to the Ability One program. So if you hear that, that’s the JWOD program.

Myself, my retinas both detached when I was five years old. I became blind very, very quickly over a couple of weeks. My family moved to the state of Oregon, where I attended the Oregon State School for the Blind for first, second, and third grades. If anyone here from Oregon remembers Mrs. Summers, she was my teacher, and she taught me how to read Braille and write Braille, and type, and I learned how to travel independently using a white cane. I began attending the public school in my hometown in fourth grade, where I continued. I was usually the only blind student in my school settings for the rest of my educational career.

I am married. My wife Roz is here. We have a son who is twenty. We have a daughter who is seventeen. When I graduated from college with a degree in economics, I was a Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude. I had a little trouble finding a job. I had lots of interviews. I took the first job I could get, which was working as a stock broker on commission selling stocks and bonds. I did that for ten years. I decided I wanted to do something else with my life. I checked out the Braille copy of What Color Is Your Parachute? from the Talking Book library. I noticed in the Braille Book Review that there is a revised edition. I found it very helpful, and after doing all of the exercises and following the instructions in the book, it told me that I should follow the path to be the CEO of a nonprofit serving people who are blind located in Seattle, Washington. So fourteen years later here I am, and I am doing that.

In 1998, as Dr. Maurer mentioned, I earned a master’s degree in not-for-profit leadership from Seattle University. I received a very generous scholarship from the NFB of Washington, which I greatly appreciate. I have been at the Lighthouse seven years. I was hired originally as the development director to do fundraising and have received four promotions over that seven-year period.

I’d like to talk a little bit about the organization. If anyone in the room flew to the convention on an aircraft made by Boeing, would you give me a little applause? [Applause] Since 1953 every Boeing commercial aircraft has had hundreds of parts made by blind machinists at the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind. We currently employ eighty-five blind and deaf-blind machinists in a thoroughly modern computerized machine shop. We make 60,000 parts for the Boeing Company every month. They are incorporated in every Boeing aircraft.

Of our 185 blind employees, thirty-five are deaf-blind, mostly with Usher’s syndrome, born deaf and with retinitis pigmentosa, and we are a leader in employing, training, and supporting people who are deaf-blind. We are a manufacturing company. We have a precision machining operation. We do plastic injection molding. We do assembly. We make eighty-five different products. As Dr. Maurer mentioned, we have about $35 million in sales, so there are lots of different kinds of jobs available in an organization of that size. There’s marketing. There’s IT. There’s quality. There’s production planning. And we strive to have blind people employed at every level of our organization. Talking about wages, we are proud in our state to have the highest minimum wage in the country, $7.93 an hour. Our starting salary for entry-level production is $8.50 an hour. Our average production wage is about $11 an hour. We have twenty-eight blind people currently employed in jobs that are called indirect. They are computer trainers, IT, HR manager, president elect; and the average wage for a blind person in an indirect position right now is at $20.02 an hour, so we are headed in the right direction.

We have a number of supports in place. We have three O&M instructors on staff. We have a Braille production department, which I will talk about later. We have sign language interpreters. Benefits: medical, dental, 50 percent tuition reimbursement, a defined benefits pension plan fully funded by the company, and a 403B (like the 401K).

My job, as I see it, is to create jobs by being the most efficient, effective manufacturing organization we can be, to make sure that every job is accessible for a blind person to perform successfully, and to make sure that we have qualified blind applicants for all of our jobs. In the future I can see us continuing to build on our core capabilities. In the realm of technology we currently have a hundred or so adapted work stations in the building. That includes the machine shop. Manufacturing is becoming computerized. All the machines are controlled by PCs, but we’ve been able to adapt all of the off-the-shelf computerized manufacturing equipment with JAWS so that blind and deaf-blind machinists can be fully independent in doing their work. We see technology becoming increasingly important, and one of our strategic objectives is to raise the general level of technology competence throughout the organization. So we’ve developed a partnership with Carroll Tech out of Massachusetts, that has distance learning programs developed specifically for blind computer users. We offer our employees the opportunity to spend three hours per week of paid work time in our computer lab to increase their technology skills.

Equally important to increasing our competency in technology is increasing our level of Braille literacy throughout the organization. I saw on the agenda Dr. Ruby Ryles had a program for parents of blind children, I believe last evening, entitled “Beating the Odds.” It was about the importance of Braille in employment, and we all know that to be true--that Braille skills are essential to successful employment. Braille is beautiful, and, as an aside, we are a large purchaser of the NFB Braille Is Beautiful kit. For the last three years we have purchased twenty Braille Is Beautiful curricula. We’ve given them to fifth-grade classes in the Seattle public schools, where they work with Braille for a month; then they come in and take a tour and meet some successfully employed blind adults who use Braille in their everyday work. It’s been a great program. There was an article in Future Reflections about that last summer, if anyone wants to reference that.

Among our 185 blind employees, I’d say about fifty are strong Braille readers. Mary Helen Scheiber, who is a longtime Federationist, was recently promoted to become our Braille production specialist. She produces Braille for all our Braille-reading employees. Our blind employees receive their Braille paychecks at the same time that sighted employees receive their print paychecks. So everyone gets to see how much is taken out at the same time. Benefits information, agendas, work orders, anything that a sighted employee would see in print, our blind employees can receive in Braille. Now that I’m in charge, there’s a new rule, and it goes like this: no Braille, no meeting! [Applause]

So we are working to put together a pilot program which will begin October 1 with our new fiscal year. It’s designed to increase Braille literacy skill for all of our employees who are blind. We’ve consulted with a number of people around the country. I’ve talked with Jerry Whittle at the center in Louisiana, and we’ll begin that pilot in October. We’ll be keeping in touch with Mark Riccobono and others at NFB as you move towards your Louis Braille coin program of funding Braille literacy programs. We hope to partner with you at some point. Congratulations, by the way, on the Louis Braille coin. That’s tremendous.

Before I turn to talking a little bit about the JWOD program, Ability One, I just want to make sure people can get ahold of me if you want to. Our Website is <www.seattlelighthouse.org>. My email address is <kadams@seattlelh.org>. My telephone number is (206) 436-2110. I’d like to talk a little about the Javits-Wagner-O’Day program. In a resolution passed last year, July 2006, the NFB called for modernization of the JWOD Act, and you mention in your resolution the original promise of good work, good paying work, respectable work for blind and disabled Americans. I personally, and the Seattle Lighthouse as an organization, fully concur with the need to modernize the JWOD Act. It was passed in 1938, two years before the Federation was born, and 1938 is long ago and far away, and it’s long overdue that the act be modernized. We are working very closely with Jim Gibbons, another blind guy, who is the CEO of National Industries for the Blind (NIB). I believe he is here with us today. So the Seattle Lighthouse is working closely with Jim so that we’re prepared when the opportunity to modernize the program arises. The opportunity is going to take the form of some sort of congressional action. There’s lots of common ground between the Seattle Lighthouse, NIB, and the NFB, where the JWOD Act and modernization is concerned, and I am looking forward to us all working together to advance the opportunities for blind people in our country.

Our focus as we move forward in modernization is four things: to encourage and reward upward mobility, to advocate more effectively on behalf of the blind employees, greater accountability throughout the entire system, and to focus on results, which is namely good jobs for blind people.

Again, I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you. My wife and I will be here through the end of the convention. I hope to talk with many of you in person. Enjoy the rest of your convention. Thank you. [Applause]

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