by Ron Brooks
When I was a kid growing up in central Indiana during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I had a friend named Kevin. We were students at the Indiana School for the Blind, where we whiled away the hours flying paper airplanes off the balcony, formed a SWAT Club where we rolled down hills, slid down banisters, jumped off high railings and basically did whatever we could to be cool and avoid homework. Our paths crossed again at Camp Timber Ridge, where we shared a cabin and spent the late nights playing pranks on our camp counselor and talking about girls. Somehow, the years got away, and I moved on, leaving ISB and then Indiana. Eventually, I came back home to finish college, but I never reconnected with Kevin.
Then, about five years ago, I got a Facebook invitation from a recruiter for the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind. I have always been one to keep my options open, so I followed up. And wouldn’t you know it! Kevin Daniel was back on my personal radar screen.
During that long overdue conversation, I learned several things. First, it was great reconnecting with an old friend. Second, I learned that I had no desire to leave Phoenix. And finally, I learned that the Seattle Lighthouse does an amazing job in the area of employment for people who are blind or visually impaired. So when the Board of Publications decided to focus on employment in the October edition of the ACB E-Forum, I decided to chat with Kevin about the amazing job the Seattle Lighthouse is doing to enhance employment and professional development opportunities for people who are blind or visually impaired.
The Seattle Lighthouse (officially the Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc.) was founded in 1918 to provide training and employment for the blind and visually impaired. Initially, the Lighthouse offered production and manufacturing jobs, but over time, the organization grew and diversified. Today, the Seattle Lighthouse employs more than 470 individuals, more than half of whom are blind, in its Seattle headquarters facility, in satellite facilities in Spokane, Wash. and Somerville, S.C., and in Base Supply Centers located on military bases in California, Nevada and Washington. Many of the jobs are entry-level production jobs with competitive compensation and benefits, but a number of jobs are in technical fields and at supervisory, managerial and even executive levels.
During our conversation, I asked Kevin what sets the Seattle Lighthouse apart in terms of employment for people who are blind. After all, many organizations employ blind people, and a number hire blind technicians, managers and executives. According to Kevin, what sets the Lighthouse apart is its focus on continuous employee development at all levels. “We have an internship program for blind workers who have a limited skill set,” said Kevin. “These are people who might not be able to get a job otherwise. The internship program gives them the opportunity to develop specific skills that they can use at work. If we can find an opportunity within the Lighthouse, that’s great! If we can find an opportunity at Amazon, or Google, or Microsoft, that’s great too.”
Kevin went on to share several other innovative employment development programs. One is a requirement that absolutely every Lighthouse employee maintain an Individual Career Plan (ICP). The ICP identifies the employee’s career goals and the developmental steps which the employee will need to take to achieve his or her goals. Second, the Lighthouse makes a tangible commitment to employee training and development. Kevin states that “every employee is authorized to receive three hours of training per week. This is a budgeted expense! Training can be for any job-related area, but in addition to job-specific training, we have three core areas for training: adaptive technology, braille and mobility.” Finally, Kevin shared that the Lighthouse actively recruits its employees for internal advancement opportunities, and when no internal opportunity exists for a given employee, the Lighthouse actively recruits for external opportunities. As Kevin put it during our conversation, “Blind people are more tech savvy, have better training and have higher expectations for themselves and their careers. To be competitive, we need to support their goals.”
I asked Kevin about his own employment journey. “I have an academic background in business management and public relations,” Kevin shared. “But like so many others, I spent a good bit of my working life under-employed and under-valued. But when the Lighthouse offered me a position as executive director at the Inland Northwest Lighthouse in Spokane, I jumped at the chance. Then, I got the chance to come here and direct recruitment and employment. … Having a chance to be a champion for people just like me, and helping give them the chance to work, is a joy for me.”
Kevin and I closed our conversation with a discussion of the past and future. In September, the Seattle Lighthouse celebrated its centennial birthday, and while that is a momentous occasion, Kevin is looking forward. “For years, we focused on manufacturing, production and manual labor. But the number of production jobs is dwindling. And the number of blind people who are interested in production jobs is also decreasing. We will need to maintain a presence in manufacturing, but we need to increase our use of technology within the manufacturing process. We also need to move into more technology-driven industries. This is where blind job seekers want to work, so it’s where the Lighthouse needs to be.”
Like virtually every other organization in America, the Lighthouse has a website, and at the very top is this tagline: “Jobs, Independence, Empowerment.” Based on my conversation with Kevin, these aren’t just words. They are core values, and they represent the steps that blind people are taking with help from Kevin and others at the Lighthouse each and every day.
For more information about the Seattle Lighthouse, visit them online at https://lhblind.org/.