Braille Monitor                                                 August/September 2011

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Valuable Work and Valuable Workers: A Report from the Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

by Janet Szlyk

Janet SzlykFrom the Editor: The next speaker was Dr. Janet Szlyk, executive director of the Chicago Lighthouse.

It’s a pleasure and an honor to be here. I’d like to thank Dr. Maurer, Patti Gregory Chang, and Anil Lewis for inviting me and arranging for me to be here to talk to you about my favorite topic: employment opportunities for people who are blind or visually impaired. I’m happy to share with you my perspective on employment and how we have implemented our program that we are very proud of at the Chicago Lighthouse. Before I do that, let me provide you with a brief background on myself and the Chicago Lighthouse that will put this all into perspective.

First I would like to mention why I have such a passion for serving in my role as president and executive director of the Lighthouse. My first cousin, Carolinn White, six years my senior, was born premature, and is totally blind due to retrolental fibroplasia or retinopathy of  prematurity (ROP). Given that we are a close-knit, large family— Carolinn has three siblings; I have four--we spent a good deal of time growing up together on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Summers in Cape Cod were full of fun, swimming in the ocean, and biking. Carolinn is an excellent swimmer that none of us could keep up with, and we all fought to ride with her on the tandem bike to achieve top speeds and beat everyone else.

Growing up, I saw my cousin as a role model, an intellectual woman who embraced everything she ever did to the fullest extent. She graduated from the Perkins School for the Blind, went on to a top high school, graduating with honors, and received a master’s in fine arts from UCLA after graduating with a BA in music from Boston University. She is one of the few people who can read and write Braille music. She is now a professional musician, which included a long stint working for the city of Philadelphia. She continues to epitomize to me the notion of being self-sufficient and in complete control of your life. That is the main tenet of our philosophy at the Chicago Lighthouse.

When my predecessor at the Lighthouse, the beloved champion for the blind, Mr. Jim Kesteloot, who is speaking to you next, announced his retirement in 2007, I was a professor at the University of Illinois in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences with secondary appointments in psychology and bioengineering. I had a laboratory that was dedicated to the development of techniques for the early detection of eye disease and the evaluation of functional vision. I was also interested in designing training curricula for the use of adaptive technologies. Having followed the activity of the Chicago Lighthouse from afar in my university position for almost two decades, I witnessed its expansion under the administrations of Milt Samuelson and then Jim Kesteloot. I knew that I could not miss this tremendous opportunity to make a difference.

The opportunity I saw was to fulfill a mission of enhancing the lives of members of the visually impaired community and, to do so, by empowering individuals with broadened skill sets and more opportunities, which leads, of course, to greater independence, confidence, and self-esteem. I’d like to talk about how the Chicago Lighthouse does this.

To do so I will start by describing our activities at the Lighthouse and how broad-based our services are. I will then speak more specifically about how we are involved in employment. One way to think about the Chicago Lighthouse is as a service provider to the blind and visually impaired community. I think we provide these services in spades. We served over 65,000 people last year across our twenty-eight programs and services. For children we have programs from birth (in our early-intervention programs and therapeutic day school) to elementary-age kids and high school students (with our instructional materials center which provides Braille textbooks and technologies to over four thousand students who are blind and visually impaired in the state of Illinois) to our scholarship program (next week we’ll be handing out $100,000 in scholarships to college and graduate school participants who are blind or visually impaired) to our summer paid-internship programs (which are always a great opportunity to learn about employers and have employers learn about you).

We serve the adult community with our employment program, which I will speak about in just a few minutes, with our adult living-skills program for adults who are blind as well as having developmental disabilities, and with our seniors program, which provides socialization and technology training to hundreds of senior citizens who are blind or visually impaired. We have also provided clinical care for these populations. That includes our Pangere Center for the diagnosis, management, and treatment of inherited retinal diseases, which provides state-of-the-art ophthalmic care. It also includes the Forsythe Center for Comprehensive Vision Care that provides optometry care, occupational therapy, orientation and mobility training, and adaptive technology incorporation. It is a comprehensive rehabilitation program for people who are blind and visually impaired. It includes the Bergman Institute, which  provides psychological counseling for patients experiencing emotional distress.

We also have the only community-based program for deaf and blind individuals in the state of Illinois. We have a host of other offerings, including our Tools for Living Store, our free legal clinic for visually impaired clients, our radio station, and much more. As you can tell, we strive to be a comprehensive service provider to the community, and I am proud of how much we accomplish in these activities. As I said a minute ago, one way to think about the Lighthouse is as a service provider, but to think of the Lighthouse solely in this way misses what I believe is the essential theme of our services. We work toward enhancing the lives of our clients, and where possible we assist them in gaining a sense of self-determination. We work toward helping our clients help themselves.

One example of this perspective in action is our senior citizen technology training, where learning how to use a computer, the Internet, and email opens a whole new world to many clients. But the area I see as most significantly empowering in people’s lives is employment, and that’s what we’re here to talk about today. Work provides, not only a source of income, but for many that income is a key to independence. Beyond the income, having gainful employment provides many with a sense of self-worth and purpose. As we all know, the visually impaired community is impacted by an extremely high level of unemployment. We heard that today from Dr. Schroeder, 70 percent. Some estimates are currently at 75 percent. So a key mission of the Lighthouse is to assist our clients in gaining and being successful in employment.

There are three broad ways in which we accomplish this. The first way is to ensure that our clients are properly prepared for the workplace. We have a job-skills training program within the Lighthouse that covers office skills, the use of adaptive technologies in jobs, customer service training, as well as work etiquette, such as the value of showing up on time and communicating freely with one’s colleagues. Our clients who have gone through these training programs say that they are invaluable in helping them keep and thrive at their jobs. These training programs are funded in part by the state of Illinois, but these funds aren’t sufficient for the training that we provide. We see them as important enough that we cover the remaining costs of the programs through vigorous fundraising and development efforts. We are well supported by the Chicago community.

The second way that we assist in employment is in job placement. We have a staff of four counselors who are dedicated to providing employment for graduates of our training programs, depending upon the capabilities and desires of our clients. We have found employment, including  jobs at all skill levels in a number of restaurants and restaurant chains in Chicago, and administrative and specialized executive-level positions at Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Exelon, the energy company, to cite a few examples. In the three years that I have been at the Lighthouse, we have placed about 450 clients in jobs through our employment services department.  Let me say, though, that this process is not easy. During this three-year period we have gone through a deep recession, as we all know, and the job market has been and continues to be particularly difficult. In addition, we constantly need to be educating employers about adaptive technologies. Finding employment for our clients is a challenge that we take on with fervor. Our board is extremely helpful in the hiring process as well, hiring in their own companies many of those seeking employment. Our board certainly understands blindness. The board consists of thirty-six individuals who are leaders in the field of business, civic service, education, finance, human resources, law, marketing, and medicine. Fifty-six percent are blind, visually impaired, or have a close family member who is blind.

The third way that we assist in employment is by hiring internally. Of the total staff at the Lighthouse, which numbers 219 people, over half, 51 percent, are blind or visually impaired. This percentage increases to 60 percent if you consider those staff members who have a family member who’s blind or visually impaired. Some of these new employees come from the outside, and some clients come directly through our job-training skills program. Beyond hiring in our service areas, we also have a fully functioning industries program, all under one roof, that is designed both to provide gainful employment to the community and to generate funds that can help in our other service programs. One of these industries is one of the last remaining clock manufacturing facilities in the U.S. It produces wall clocks and wireless clock systems to the commercial market and to the federal market under the Congress-enacted AbilityOne program. Our major U.S. competitor in the commercial market closed its doors two years ago, and we have gained significant market share. Made in America has a strong appeal. [Applause] And we produce over 200,000 clocks per year to meet the demand.

Our industries program also supplies computer accessories: data calendars, wall planners, and banners--we have quite an extensive printing business. This business employs forty-one blind or visually impaired individuals, which I am proud to say is 97 percent of the workforce in the industries program. We currently operate a communications center that provides recipient identification numbers to those receiving state-funded health services in Illinois. The program employs eight individuals, all of whom are blind or have other disabilities. The program boasts an unmeasurable error rate. We also run a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warehouse in Urbana-Champaign; provide contract management services for the U.S. Army (both under the AbilityOne program); and have a call center that processes sales for a medical surgical products company, as well as for our Tools for Living Store Website and for a VA assistive devices contract. We also staff two convenience stores and run a Lighthouse novelty store in a tourist area on the City of Chicago’s Navy Pier. These programs employ another forty individuals with visual impairment.

As it should be clear, we have embarked on a number of business opportunities that can both benefit the workforce and make financial sense for the Lighthouse. These two goals do not have to be mutually exclusive. We can and do provide meaningful wages to all of our employees while still requiring fiscal responsibility for each of our businesses. The Lighthouse firmly believes in compensating people for their hard work and efforts. At a minimum we pay above minimum wage. While our agency’s overall pay rate is $23.48 per hour, in our AbilityOne programs the average pay rate is $11.21 per hour in manufacturing, $21.85 an hour in our service contracts, and $27.74 an hour in our contract management service program. All of these jobs include the 25 percent or more benefit package earned by all Lighthouse employees, including health insurance, pension, Social Security, Workmen’s Compensation, and generous vacation. A third of our executive management staff are blind or visually impaired, where the average pay rate is $35 per hour. [Applause]

You might ask how this pay model of fair incentives is working for us. With a low turnover rate and high morale even in a recession, I would venture to say it’s working quite well, thank you. We also hope that we are serving as a role model for how these external companies should treat their employees who are blind. In sum, the Chicago Lighthouse is committed to improving the lives of its clients, and one crucial way we do that is by facilitating employment. I am proud that we are able to have these important services, and I hope that other organizations can learn from our successes and those employers that follow a similar model. We fully support the two resolutions passed yesterday. It is the right thing to do. Thank you. [Applause]

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