Lighthouse for the Blind Closes Sheltered Shop

            and Feels that It Got a Bum Rap

	                     by Kenneth Jernigan

     In the fall of 1995 The Lighthouse, located in New York

City, decided to close its sheltered workshop and try to

help able-bodied blind employees find work in the regular

competitive market. Even though it would seem hard to

quarrel with this action as a basic concept, some did.
     In its December, 1996, issue, The Braille Forum, a

publication of the American Council of the Blind, raked The

Lighthouse over the coals. In an article titled, "Choice:

Not Just for the Chosen Few," the Forum accused The

Lighthouse of everything from robbing workshop employees of

their right to make choices to a deliberate effort to try to

prevent them from getting work in another sheltered setting.

As will be seen from the article, which we reprint here in

full, the language is anything but dispassionate.
     We have never hesitated to criticize agencies doing

work with the blind when we have thought it necessary. But

we do not publish inadequately researched, politically

motivated, biased articles, which (though they fit the

classic definition of "muck-raking") try to disguise

themselves as investigative reporting. Such tactics do

nothing but create strife and ill will.
     Before turning to the text of the Forum article, it

might be worthwhile to examine some of its specifics. In the

third paragraph from the end, there is a sentence which

reads: "The Lighthouse said that the only choice these

workers had was to give up their jobs and collect a benefit

check--or to accept work in substandard conditions."

Regardless of what The Lighthouse management might have

felt, is it really reasonable to believe that a Lighthouse

official would have said what is alleged? This speaks to the

tone and flavor of the Forum article.
     And so does a passage close to the beginning. The

second paragraph reads as follows: "There is a controversy

raging inside agencies serving the blind regarding the

merits of operating ■facility-based employment■ for blind

people." Regardless of how often one meets politically

correct language, it is always just as distasteful as it was

the last time. It attempts to deceive by using high-flown

     As to the present instance, in case you are not

familiar with it, "facility-based employment" is simply the

latest way of trying to sugar-coat the term "sheltered

workshop." Let me not be misunderstood. Sheltered workshops

may be good or bad. But we shouldn't try to pretend by

terminology that they are what they are not. A sheltered

shop is a sheltered shop, and it must stand or fall on its

own merit without the prop of a linguistic crutch.
     By way of background, The Lighthouse was established in

1906 by two sisters, Winifred and Edith Holt. Its purpose

was to help blind persons get opera tickets, and The

Lighthouse still runs a music school. Later it established a

sheltered workshop, and somewhere along the way it began to

recruit volunteers to do reading and recording for blind

persons. Barbara Silverstone, the president and chief

executive officer of The Lighthouse, says that in addition

to its New York City operation The Lighthouse is expanding

its scope to the national and international stage. Among

other things, this includes training of professionals to

work with people who have low vision.
     But back to the article in the December issue of The

Braille Forum. Here it is in full:
             Choice: Not Just for the Chosen Few

                       by Donald Moore
     (Editor's Note: The author is a former president of the

American Council of the Blind of New York. He currently

serves as vice chairman of the board of Industries for the

Blind in New York state.)
     There is a controversy raging inside agencies serving

the blind regarding the merits of operating "facility-based

employment" for blind people.
     While the goal of integrating blind workers into the

mainstream sounds good, the reality can be much different

and should raise serious questions among those concerned

with the continued employment and independence of blind

workers. With 70 percent of all blind working-age people

unemployed, mainstreaming today is more of a wish than a

viable option, especially for those without a college

education. As you'll see, it all comes down to the question,

"Who should choose what's right for blind workers, the

workers themselves or the people holding executive positions

at blindness agencies?"
     Having just passed the anniversary after The

Lighthouse, Inc. in New York City chose to close its

workshop, thus displacing fifty-five blind workers, it seems

fitting to look at what "choice" really can mean.
     The Lighthouse decided that its workshop facility

should close so that workers could be retrained and

integrated into the mainstream job market. That was the

reasoning of its leaders. The workers had virtually no say

in the decision. The Lighthouse was also facing a need to

quickly raise cash because of additional expenses incurred

in paying for what some considered unnecessary and

extravagant expenditures on The Lighthouse headquarters

building on East 59th Street in Manhattan.
     The Lighthouse's answer to its cash-flow concerns?

Firing the blind people and selling the land and building in

Long Island City in which they worked.
     The employees were given notice and told it was for

their good. This despite the fact that they clearly wanted

to work, and those who had been in charge of the former

Lighthouse facility wanted to continue working as well.

Furthermore, the operation had been generally operating at

break-even or profitable levels.
     This was a clear example of how a blindness agency's

pursuit of theoretical ideals can run roughshod over a blind

individual's right to choose what is best for him or her.

Being blind or becoming blind does not--and should not--rob

a human being of the ability to determine where, how, and if

one will work to support oneself.
     The Lighthouse workers were very concerned about their

loss of employment and ultimately contacted Jean Mann,

president of the American Council of the Blind of New York,

with their concerns. Jean contacted The Lighthouse, asking

that it reconsider its decision to shut down the

manufacturing operation, but to no avail. Jean then spoke

with Steven Ennis, the president of Industries for the Blind

of New York State, and, with me in my capacity as the vice

chairman of the Board of Industries for the Blind, and--

together with National Industries for the Blind--helped to

form a new organization to employ these displaced blind

     The first meeting with the former Lighthouse employees

was held last fall after work in a modest diner in Queens,

New York, where several of us involved with the new

enterprise tried to give them some hope. We told them of our

plan to start a new shop--from scratch, if necessary--and

told them what we'd done so far to get the shop off the

ground. After listening to different employees tell their

stories, I felt really good knowing that we were trying to

offer them the option of employment rather than

unproductivity and unemployment. I feel good knowing we were

working to give them what they wanted--jobs.
     Dr. Barbara Silverstone, CEO of The Lighthouse, Inc.,

promised her board of directors that she would find

competitive employment for all the former Lighthouse

employees. However, employment never materialized for most

of them. Several received training, but that was for jobs

that would have paid them less than they could earn at the

former workshop and with worse hours.
     The negotiations with The Lighthouse were really

difficult. Dr. Silverstone apparently felt that her

reputation would be tarnished if a new blind workshop--which

the former Lighthouse employees wanted--were to open and

operate in New York City. Rather than allowing for a smooth

transition of the Lighthouse's former blind employees to a

new workshop employer, The Lighthouse created one obstacle

after another to try to prevent the new workshop from

     Even though The Lighthouse was shutting down its

workshop and selling the property, it determined not to sell

some essential equipment to New York City Industries for the

Blind that the facility would need to function

appropriately. NYCIB has since purchased some of that

equipment from those to whom The Lighthouse sold it.
     New York City Industries for the Blind, Inc., is open

and has already been able to re-hire all the former

Lighthouse employees who wanted employment, plus some

additional people. Last June Jean Mann and I visited the

workshop and were flattered to receive plaques from the

employees thanking us for ACB of New York's help in getting

the workshop off the ground.
     Today New York City Industries for the Blind is

celebrating its successful progress as a new employer of

blind people under the dynamic leadership of Rick Bland, the

former Lighthouse workshop director.
     The moral is that blind people are no different from

anyone else when it comes to their right to choose how they

will live their lives and that they are willing to fight to

be able to make their own choices. The Lighthouse said that

the only choice these workers had was to give up their jobs

and collect a benefit check--or to accept work in

substandard conditions.
     If blind social workers and blind agency executives

have the right to choose where and how they work, why not

blind workers? As one NYCIB employee put it, "Not every

blind person can go to college, but that doesn't mean we

should be told we're not entitled to work."
     New York City Industries for the Blind is living proof

that choice is important for every blind person, not just

the chosen few.

     That is the article as it appeared in the December,

1996, Braille Forum. And as might be expected, The

Lighthouse was not amused. Under date of January 2, 1997,

Barbara Silverstone wrote to Nolan Crabb, Editor of The

Braille Forum. She said in part:
     Recently I received two communications in the same mail

from the American Council of the Blind: the first, a request

for a donation from The Lighthouse to support The Braille

Forum; the second, the December, 1996, issue of The Braille

Forum with an article on page 18 that includes grossly

distorted and incorrect information about The Lighthouse. I

am bewildered that you did not choose to check out the facts

before printing this article...
     I am enclosing an article entitled "Facts from The

Lighthouse," which I am requesting be printed in its

entirety in the next issue of The Braille Forum.
     So said Barbara Silverstone, and at the time of this

writing (late January) I don't know whether her request will

be granted. Be that as it may, here is the full text of what

she asked the Forum to print:
               Facts from The Lighthouse, Inc.

              by Barbara Silverstone, President
     Donald Moore's article in the December, 1996, issue of

The Braille Forum contains inaccurate information about The

Lighthouse, Inc., and the circumstances surrounding the

reorganization of its career services program over the past

two years. The following FACTS are presented so that the

readers of The Braille Forum can be fully and accurately

     FACT #1. After lengthy study and as part of its

strategic planning, the Lighthouse Board of Directors

decided in the Fall of 1995 to phase out its sheltered

workshop for fifty-seven able-bodied, legally blind workers

in Long Island City and to move its work activity program

for fifty workers who have multiple disabilities to The

Lighthouse facility in Woodside, Queens. Now, one year

later, Lighthouse Industries has been closed, the work

activity program, as an enhanced therapeutic employment

program, is thriving in its new quarters, and Lighthouse

consumer and professional product catalog operations have

been reorganized and expanded under the banner of Lighthouse

     FACT #2. Training and career placement opportunities

were offered to all fifty-seven able-bodied, legally blind

workers. All workers who accepted The Lighthouse's career-

placement assistance have been kept on the payroll until

internships could be provided, and their former salaries

were maintained through their internships. All others

received comprehensive severance or retirement packages.

Each worker made his own choice. A number of workers

declined training and placement assistance and opted to wait

for employment with New York City Industries for the Blind,

which was in formation. Fifteen workers chose retirement.

Four have completed training and/or internships and are now

working in competitive jobs at salaries higher than their

pay at Lighthouse Industries. Eleven other individuals are

in various stages of training for competitive jobs.
     FACT #3. The closing of Lighthouse Industries was a

philosophical, not a financial, decision. In short, the

Lighthouse commitment to a philosophy of inclusion in the

workplace for all able-bodied legally blind workers cannot,

and does not, support the sheltered workshop concept.
     The Lighthouse subsidized Lighthouse Industries for

many years so that a workshop option could be available for

unemployed, legally blind workers. The Lighthouse decided to

end this subsidy and devote its financial and personnel

resources to career training and placement in competitive

jobs for the following reasons:

     -    Passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and

          accompanying increased receptivity of employers.

     -    Increased job opportunities in the service and

          information industries offering better pay and

          benefits accrued from working in the mainstream.

     -    Advances in adaptive computer technology.

     -    Marked growth in the Lighthouse career training

          and placement capacity.
     FACT #4. The Lighthouse did consider the desires of

able-bodied legally blind workers--the workers of tomorrow.

Consultations with representatives from all secondary

schools in the New York City area which serve students with

impaired vision, and the job goals expressed by applicants

for placement, revealed that the youth of today are not

interested in workshop employment or workshop training

     FACT #5. The demand for competitive employment

opportunities by legally blind adults is increasing, as is

the receptivity of employers. In the last two years

Lighthouse career staff have placed 160 individuals in

competitive employment in a wide range of jobs in the

industrial, service, and office sectors. Only a fourth of

the positions required college preparation. The demand for

training and internships is growing, and The Lighthouse is

expanding its career-training and placement staff. The

Lighthouse also recently opened a customer service training

program at its Queens facility and continues to offer

competitive employment opportunities at its newly opened

Lighthouse Enterprises and in SPECTRUM, The Lighthouse

Store, located in Manhattan.
     FACT #6. While Lighthouse Industries had always been

subsidized by The Lighthouse (in FY 1995 the subsidy was

$238,000), it was not closed for financial reasons (i.e., "a

cash flow problem"). The resources of The Lighthouse,

however, are finite, and all programs are examined not only

from a philosophical perspective but in terms of their

outcomes and cost effectiveness. The Lighthouse has chosen

to devote its resources to services for the many hundreds of

visually impaired youth and adults seeking employment in the

competitive marketplace.
     FACT #7. The recently renovated Lighthouse headquarters

building in Manhattan was financed by a tax-exempt revenue

bond issued by the New York City Industrial Development

Agency. The bond issue enabled The Lighthouse to protect its

endowment and expand its programs to meet the rehabilitation

and training needs of a growing population of people with

impaired vision.
     The new Lighthouse facility is recognized as a national

model of universal accessibility and has tripled the

organization's training and classroom space.
     FACT #8. In closing its own sheltered workshop for

able-bodied legally blind workers, the Board of Directors of

The Lighthouse chose to direct its resources to training for

competitive employment and not to subsidize other sheltered

workshops for able-bodied legally blind people.
     However, inventory and equipment were sold for

approximately $750,000 to the newly-established sheltered

workshop, New York City Industries for the Blind. As of

January 1, 1997, The Lighthouse is still owed a considerable

amount of money from that sale.
     FACT #9. The Lighthouse mission, philosophy, and

advocacy efforts are carried out through regional, national,

and international programs to enable people who are blind or

have partial sight to lead independent and productive lives.

Headquartered in Manhattan, The Lighthouse provides

rehabilitation services to adults and children with impaired

vision through eight regional offices in the greater New

York area. It also offers a broad range of educational

opportunities for the public and health and human service

providers and conducts major research studies on the impact

of vision impairment and its amelioration.
     The Lighthouse is a staunch advocate of full inclusion

and equal access for people who are blind and partially

sighted and for full health insurance coverage of basic

vision rehabilitation services.
     The Lighthouse is a not-for-profit organization and

depends on support from individuals, foundations,

corporations, government, and the proceeds from Lighthouse

Enterprises, which comprises its catalog operations and

SPECTRUM, The Lighthouse Store.