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New Tech, Old Tech Merge in a Workplace without Limits

In a workplace where most of the employees have experienced vision loss, it’s the seemingly minor adaptations that make the environment function day to day.

At Beyond Vision, those adaptations may involve the latest in adaptive technology, or they could just as likely be decidedly low-tech solutions. For example, take the short plastic tubes alongside the work stations, which help keep employees’ walking canes in a consistent spot, while leaving a clear path for coworkers to move.

Located on Milwaukee’s west side, the nonprofit fulfills contracts for a variety of light assembly, packaging, machine-shop work, and more. To broaden the reach among unemployed visually impaired adults, a $25,000 Foundation grant helped Beyond Vision develop a new call center division, which taps into the skills of people who excel at customer service.

Beyond Vision’s call center program provides employees such as Steven Gastrich with a job path, despite his vision loss. Text-to-speech software and Braille readers aid Steven in performing the tasks related to his duties of customer-satisfaction calls, sales orders, and database updates.

“Whether I’m taking calls or making them, the person on the other end has no idea whether or not I can see,” he said. “We’re both focused on business, and when it comes down to it, that’s really the point.”

A Century of Employment

Beyond Vision is a program of Wiscraft, Inc., a nonprofit with roots that trace back more than a century as a state-run program. In 1985, budget constraints led the State of Wisconsin to spin it off into an independent nonprofit. Since then, Wiscraft has relied almost entirely on income from its contracts, on which it bids competitively from private and public sector clients.

Nationally, more than 70 percent of working-age, legally blind adults are unemployed, placing them at higher risk for isolation, depression, and substance abuse than the public at large. According to Wiscraft CEO Jim Kerlin, those long odds mean that a steady job provides more than financial stability for its employees; it also offers the camaraderie of working alongside other adults with vision loss.

“I’ve been in manufacturing operations for decades, and these are some of the most dedicated, dependable workers I’ve needed to rely upon,” he said. “They work well in teams, and perhaps part of that is the need to rely on each other as much as their other senses.”

Beating the Statistics

With a location on the State Street industrial corridor, Beyond Vision is accessible by county bus lines and paratransit services, although some employees come from as far away as Hartland in Waukesha County. Of its 39 employees, 80 percent have some sort of vision limitation, living with conditions that span from total blindness to narrow vision to light sensitivity. While some have been blind throughout their lives, others in the program have only recently experienced vision loss.

George Washington, a longtime Wiscraft employee was given his memorable name as a child when he was found abandoned on the Fourth of July. George has been blind since birth and today he works in Wiscraft’s light assembly operations piecing together oil hoses for small engines. When he started this job, he struggled to assemble just nine pieces in a workday, but efforts to enhance efficiency have helped so much that he can now produce more than 600 per day.

Simple Steps

To ensure quality, Beyond Vision relies upon ISO industry standards, which entail documenting each and every step of a particular production process. As the steps are refined for employees with sight issues, the team develops custom tools and workspaces.

Sometimes, it’s just a matter of placing pegs in a workbench, and keeping tools in the same place, but more recent technology has also helped increase efficiency. While employees once had to leaf through pages and pages of Braille instructions, now a computer is wheeled to the shop floor to speak the training steps.

“When you work with your hands, it’s obviously a major improvement to free them up to learn a process,” said Kerlin. “We all know our clients demand high quality, so we’re constantly increasing our team’s ability to meet those needs.”