KALAMAZOO — Rather than rely on grants, donations or fundraisers to make money, Midwest Enterprises for the Blind Inc. takes a different approach compared to most nonprofits.
Instead, the Kalamazoo-based manufacturer of about 40 items including tables, chairs and shelving units generates revenue via a contract through the federal government’s AbilityOne program. This year, Midwest Enterprises for the Blind, or MWEB, expects revenues to top $5 million, 10 times more than it brought in in 2002.
“Our largest customer is the federal government,” said Vicky Hickock, administrative manager at MWEB. “There’s a law that basically says that as long as we can provide quality services to the government, they are required to buy our products.”
MWEB, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, is one of more than 1,000 organizations throughout the United States that partner with AbilityOne. In 2016, the federal government purchased more than $3.3 billion of AbilityOne’s products and services, with the Department of Defense alone accounting for $1.7 billion of that total, according to the program’s website.
MWEB sources raw materials for the products manufactured at its 39,000-square-foot facility from companies in Kalamazoo, Plainwell, and Sturgis, Hickcock said, noting the company prides itself in offering a product line and using packaging materials made in Michigan.
Of MWEB’s current roster of 25 employees, five are fully-sighted, while the remainder are legally blind, Hickock said. In addition to producing products, workers also are involved in sales support, packaging and shipping.
“We have people working here who have been legally blind since birth and who have never had any working experience,” she said. “We also have people who later in life lost their vision through an accident or medical condition. We provide training and believe in promoting from within. We’re trying to build our commercial side so that we can recruit and hire more people who are blind.”
To that end, the organization is trying to grow by establishing partnerships with other commercial businesses. When MWEB began manufacturing its blow-molded folding plastic tables and chairs, it partnered with another Michigan company and had three different table models and one chair model, said William Drain, business development coordinator for the nonprofit.
“The government is the largest slice of the pie. My job is to grow the company by trying to find commercial business,” Drain said. “We want to diversify. We are promoting a business, not an agency.”
A MATTER OF TRAINING
MWEB consistently has a waiting list of people who would like to work for it. Hickock said the blind and visually impaired account for 70 percent of the nation’s total unemployment rate.
However, a tight labor market has encouraged companies to look beyond more traditional labor pools and hire visually impaired individuals, said Rick Stevens, executive director of the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Grand Rapids.
“Individuals with disabilities have historically shown to be more loyal employees and employers are beginning to recognize that factor,” Stevens said. “They have more of a commitment to the organization.
“We tell people that someone with vision loss can pretty much do anything you and I can do. It all comes down to training and understanding.”
Drain echoed that sentiment.
“You could pull all of our people and bring in sighted people and not have to move equipment. We just do things a little differently,” he said.
MWEB’s legally blind employees are able to use hand tools and small light tools to complete assemblies similar to what their sighted counterparts can do, according to Drain. To help employees perform at peak productivity levels, the company accommodates them with tables that can be lowered or raised, rugs that lessen fatigue, and magnifiers, he said. MWEB has applied for grants to cover the cost of some of the specialized equipment.
For example, Drain, who completely lost his vision in 2002, uses a computer that talks to him.
MWEB employees are typically individuals who have come to the area to attend Western Michigan University or another school and need to earn money to cover their expenses, or people who simply want to work to pay their own way. After graduating, some stay while others move on to jobs in the private sector, Drain said.
Drain noted that he had previous jobs where he wouldn’t tell his employer that he had visual impairments. Misty Stenberg, MWEB’s public policy liaison, said she remembers struggling to find a computer network job after graduating from college.
“This is the only place I’ve worked where I haven’t had to work quadruple as hard as everyone else to prove myself,” Stenberg said. “Most people end up staying because the unique thing about the MWEB work environment is that we don’t have to hide that we’re disabled. Everyone is on the same level.”
RELYING ON TECHNOLOGY
Technological advances over the years have provided the visually impaired and blind population with opportunities to live more productive and independent lives through greater accessibility, according to Stevens.
The Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired is a rehabilitation facility that prepares about 1,000 visually impaired people annually to enter the workforce, he said.
“We give individuals skills to succeed in a sighted world and we engage with other organizations and employers are invited in to solve accessibility issues with our clients,” Stevens said. “Most of our clients are students or older adults of working age.”
In addition to the hands-on training, employees at MWEB also have access to a training center during the workday where they can learn how to expand their computer skills, Drain said.
Marlene Seiler, a vision rehabilitation specialist based in Kalamazoo who completely lost her vision 20 years ago, said technology has really leveled the playing field for the visually impaired. She cited smartphones and computers that provide verbal rather than visual information, Amazon’s Alexa, and a free app called Be My Eyes as examples of resources that enable people with vision issues to live more independently.
Be My Eyes connects blind and low vision users with a random volunteer who will read back instructions or messages that appear on smartphones. The creators of the app recently introduced a new feature called Specialized Help, which makes available trained representatives from companies to answer more technical or in-depth questions. Be My Eyes volunteers can help users get in touch with the best person to solve a problem and refer them to the Specialized Help page app.
“I can call a volunteer on my phone, point the phone camera at whatever I want help with and the volunteer will read it to me,” said Seiler, who also serves as a substitute teacher at the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons Training Center in Kalamazoo. “People from all over the world volunteer to help blind people by reading to them. I’ve had people from England and all over the world help me.”
Services such as Uber and Lyft also have given Seiler, 62, the type of independence she didn’t have 25 years ago. She said she had to turn down employment opportunities in the past because transportation was an issue.
“Any of these services help the general public,” Seiler said, “but you multiply them by 10 for the amount that it helps us.”
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