Written by David Castellon
Imagine a business run largely by blind people.
Not a little shop or store, but a factory where heavy equipment is involved and the workers produce tons of goods.
It’s happening around the country, with blind people producing office supplies, aircraft parts and even rice to feed U.S. troops, along with businesses with mostly legally blind workforces providing various non-manufacturing services under contracts with federal agencies.
“Most of these [companies] are back East. There’s almost nothing from the Midwest to the West Coast, and I’m figuring to change that. I think the Valley here is ripe with labor pools to do some of these contracts,” said Ken Warkentin, executive director for Valley Center for the Blind in Fresno.
To that end, he’s looking at having the nonprofit center start its own business, a packing house for jasmine rice, with at least three-quarters of the employees — line workers to executives — legally blind.
To do this, the center would have to obtain a contract to supply rice to a federal defense agency under a program run through National Industries for the Blind, an agency under the federal government’s AbilityOne Commission.
The program, dating back to the 1930s, awards federal contracts to nonprofit businesses in which at least 75 percent of workers are disabled or legally blind.
If that sounds outlandish, Warkentin said to consider the first company to get one of the federal contracts was Skillcraft, which started out with legally blind workers making pens for federal agencies. Over the years, the contract has grown to include other office supplies, cleaning and janitorial goods, mattresses, bedding products, medical and food service supplies and equipment, aerosol paints and primers and some painting tools.
He noted that the federal contracts are very precise in describing the product specifications, so the blind workers have to meet strict quality standards.
Last month, Warkentin presented the idea to the Fresno Rotary Club’s monthly downtown meeting, asking the members with businesses if they might want to work with the agency and gain new customers by supplying goods to one or more federal agencies.
“Anybody interested in securing a contract with the federal government, this is a way of doing it, through us. They might be giving up a [profit] point or two, because we’d be their middleman, but we’re their ticket into a larger [customer] source,” Warkentin said in an interview.
Currently, he said, he’s discussing such a proposal with interested rice growers in Northern California, with them supplying the rice and it being packed here and shipped out to federal customers.
Warkentin said the idea to pack rice was inspired by a rice-packing business started by VisionCorps, a Pennsylvania program to help the blind and visually impaired there.
“Organizations like mine, if we can produce a product at a fair-market price and meet the government’s quality standards and delivery standards, then they will purchase it from us,” said Dennis Steiner, president and CEO of the nonprofit, which not only operates the parboiled rice packing house but also operates businesses that install padding into advanced combat helmets for troops and bottled cleaning products under other federal contracts.
He added that his company purchases the rice in bulk from southern states, and the advantage to those rice farmers is an indirect but reliable way to sell their goods to the federal government, which they might not be able to access on their own.
The contracts don’t have to just involve manufacturing, said Steiner, noting that another one of his federal contracts has legally blind people reviewing contracts for the federal government.
He noted that these workers aren’t lawyers, but have been trained to do the work, often using technology that makes words on computer screens more readable and systems that read words out loud to the users.
Warkentin said some employers don’t realize that blind people can be a lot more functional in the workplace than they expect.
For one thing, being “legally blind” doesn’t always mean a complete inability to see, as most people who meet that criteria have some degree of vision, Warkentin said.
“You can be legally blind and still get a drivers license,” in some cases, he noted.
People with severe vision impairments can do a number of jobs, from office work to handling heavy machinery, often with the help of technology, software and training geared to them.
When it comes to getting jobs, partially- and fully-blind adults often are passed over for sighted applicants, usually because employers worry visually challenged employees can’t do the work, or they’ll fall and expose the businesses to liability.
Warkentin, who is sighted, challenges such notions, saying, “Look at my office. Did it look like it was different or set up differently than any other office? Most of my office [staff] is blind or visually impaired.
“We have over 90% unemployment of blind people in this area,” and he estimated that employers here in the 90% range aren’t interested in hiring blind people.
While many legally blind people are unable to work, often due to circumstances beyond just blindness, a lot want to work, and their best bets of doing so may be creating a business geared toward having a largely blind workforce, Warkentin said.
He’s not just looking to start one business. Warkentin noted that being in the Valley makes this an ideal place for the Center for the Blind to start food-related enterprises beyond packing rice, which could include canning peaches, tomato paste and other products or packaging nuts or raisins.
For the moment though, the organization is working on a rice-packing operation.
“It would be us. We do the labor. It would be our company,” Warkentin said, adding that a rice supplier couldn’t be a business partner under the federal rules, but it could provide some of the seed money to develop a plant as part of its supply contract with the center.
“They don’t have to give us money to build a plant. That’s my responsibility. I have to get that from donors or investors or however I need to create that plant,” said Warkentin, adding the current plan is to supply rice to the U.S. military, but that could change or expand to other agencies, possibly FEMA or the federal prison system.
He said he’s already looking at a warehouse in Fresno that could be converted into a rice packing plant in about 12-18 months.
Even though Warkentin used to run a small business making automotive seat covers, which he left after his daughter was blinded in a traffic crash that led to his current job, Warkentin said VisionCorps officials in Pennsylvania have agreed to help him get the business started, and he expects more help from a federal program that makes retired business people available to advise businesses.
Beside the benefit of creating jobs for the legally blind community here, “ the proceeds we will make, which isn’t a ton, will fund our operations here,” providing services and training to blind and visually impaired people, including job training.
“And then I won’t have to go around and beg people to give us money.”