One of the best aspects of my job leading the human resources team at IFB Solutions here in Winston-Salem is the privilege of witnessing the transformative power of a job for a person with disabilities. I see their pride in being able to live independently, of having financial freedom and of being part of a supportive work community. Having come from an HR role at a traditional, for-profit manufacturing organization, I appreciate the unique opportunity our team has to change a life when we tell someone, “You’re hired!”
Seven of every 10 working-age adults who are blind or visually impaired are unemployed. That sobering statistic is an everyday reality for too many people, and a daunting prospect for those who are blind.
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, an important time for our organization, IFB Solutions, to heighten awareness in the community about the employment challenges for people who are blind. Ironically, many of these challenges are because those of us who are sighted don’t see the abilities and potential in those without vision.
As the largest employer of people who are blind in the country with more than 400 individuals working in Winston-Salem and in other locations, IFB Solutions employees demonstrate each day that there are no limits, no barriers to what individuals who are blind can achieve in the workforce. The only barriers are the ones those of us who are sighted create by our own mis-perceptions and biases.
We should all work to break down those barriers, especially this month by being a part of National Disability Employment Awareness Month in some way. If you are an employer, consider ways that you can grow jobs for individuals with disabilities at your organization. Technology in the workplace is becoming a critical equalizer especially for people who are blind or visually impaired. If you have a business, look for ways that you can partner with a nonprofit agency like IFB Solutions for manufacturing, distribution or services contracts.
Every contract IFB Solutions signs with a customer means more doors opening for individuals wanting that first chance at a job. For many of our employees, IFB is their first job — the first opportunity to earn a paycheck, to gain independence and to realize a brighter future.
We cast a broad net, going cross-country to find people who are blind who want to work. Time and time again, we hear stories of how that one opportunity at IFB changed some-one’s life by giving them new-found purpose, confidence and hope. And the commitment to the person does not stop with the job offer. Hiring someone who is blind is only the first step to assuring his or her success. Our human resources team along with other IFB team members frequently go above and beyond the call of duty helping with living arrangements and transportation, providing job training and modifying equipment to make it accessible.
Going the extra mile for our employees is the foundation of our success in becoming the employer of choice in this country for people who are blind or visually impaired. I often share the story of a young employee, Chris Palmieri, who came to us from Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts. We developed a partnership with Perkins to help coach and mentor students as well as to showcase employment opportunities at IFB. Chris was interested in what he learned, and we flew him and his mom to Winston-Salem for an interview and a chance to tour the local community. Eager for the opportunity for independence, Chris accepted a job and now works in the IFB Optical Lab making eye-glasses for military veterans. Outside of work, he enjoys the freedom of having his own apartment and is active with a local church choir. Chris is making his mark in our community thanks to a job opportunity that never saw his lack of sight as a limitation.
I hope National Disability Employment Awareness Month opens dialogue in our community about how all of us as employers, manufacturers, distributors and service providers can play a vital role in building life-changing job opportunities for people who are blind.
And, if you know someone who is blind or visually impaired who wants to work, encourage him or her to reach out to IFB Solutions. That one contact may change a life. It will also certainly help reduce the overwhelming 70 percent unemployment rate for people who are blind.
Learn more at ifbsolutions.org.
David Hampton is the IFB Solutions vice president of Human Resources.