Manuel Nata operates a sewing machine for a living, but if a button popped off his own jacket, he wouldn’t be able to reattach it.
Nata is legally blind. He began losing his eyesight at age 25 and was completely blind by age 34; a cornea transplant later restored limited vision and light perception.
“Before I got really sick I was a trim carpenter, running circular saws and doing inside trim,” Nata said. “Then I was diagnosed with diabetes and it right away just ate at my eyes. When I first started working here I was completely blind.”
This year Nata will mark 22 years working as a sewing machine operator at the San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a nonprofit providing rehabilitation services and employment opportunities for the blind and vision-impaired in its manufacturing assembly plant. On a recent day, Nata was piecing together the waist strap for fireproof tactical pants worn by military service members.
Workers at the manufacturing operation on San Antonio’s South Side assemble office supplies, military helmet chin straps and clothing, and floorboards for KC-135 cargo planes. Lighthouse employees work on the dozens of separate components needed to construct the more than 30,000 products the organization assembles daily.
“This is a place of business that also happens to be a nonprofit,” said Lighthouse spokeswoman Nancy Lipton.
About 500 full-time employees, more than half of whom are blind or visually impaired, work at five Lighthouse facilities in South San Antonio, providing steady employment for a group of people whom many consider unemployable. The American Foundation for the Blind reported more than 698,000 Texans were blind or visually impaired in 2016; of those, more than 466,000 were of working age.
“There is 75 percent unemployment in the blind community, and this is not because people don’t want to work, it’s because of the stigma, or because [employers] think something else might also be wrong with them,” Lipton said.
Wages for warehouse manufacturing and assembly positions at the Lighthouse start at about $10 per hour, while salaried positions in the workforce development and administrative departments begin at $45,000, and are open to anyone sighted, blind, or visually impaired – the only requirement is a college degree. All positions offer full benefits, including a retirement fund.
Within each department, machines and computers are modified so people who are visually impaired can use them.
In the sewing department, every employee is legally blind, Lipton said. In-house engineers develop templates for programmable sewing machines that, with the touch of two pedals, automatically stitch the entire garment component.
“We program the machine so the machine knows what to sew,” Lipton said. “The person who is blind or vision-impaired then works it like a puzzle, placing the pieces of fabric or Velcro into the separate grooves. Then, the machine completes it by itself.”
“Every time we have a new product, our engineers make new plates, reprogram the machine, and teach or re-teach an employee the new setup.”
Ernest Arce, a 32-year Lighthouse employee, joined the manufacturing department after graduating from high school. He said his current position in the sewing department is the job he enjoyed the most, but assembling ballpoint pens – which he did for over a decade – is a close second.
“I love being able to run a machine, and all of the challenging work we have to do in the sewing department to piece the clothes together,” Arce said. “I never thought I would be able to do something like this.”
The Lighthouse has been serving the blind and visually impaired in San Antonio since 1933, with most of its employment opportunities made possible through the federal AbilityOne Program, which contracts with organizations employing people who are blind or have significant disabilities.
Much of the Lighthouse’s work comes from government contracts, but private-sector companies also provide work for the organization.
The Lighthouse packages products for shipment for smaller companies such as Gap-Flex, a local medical device company, and provide office supplies to organizations such as VIA Metropolitan Transit, San Antonio Water System, and CPS Energy, which awarded the Lighthouse its largest office supply contract, worth up to $4 million over three years, in June 2018.
“We bid on these contracts, and currently have more than 350 companies in town that buy office supplies from us,” Lipton said. “All of the dollars that we make go to providing free services for the people of San Antonio who are blind or vision-impaired.”
Gap-Flex CEO Ashley Hixon said her company contracted with the Lighthouse because it wants to support the local economy. “But our relationship with them is not strictly [charitable],” she said. “The Lighthouse also provides excellent and quick service, and is responsive to address our needs, and is an incredibly well-run business.”
The San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind also provides education and training on the latest technology available to enable blind or visually impaired people to stay in school or gain employment. A career support program provides guidance counselors to help people explore occupations and interests, and develop a career plan. The nonprofit also provides children’s education services and programming for seniors to help then remain independent and active.
Michael Guajardo, supervisor for the assistive technology department at the Lighthouse, manages the team of trainers who help blind and visually impaired people utilize such technologies as screen magnification equipment and online applications.
“We have some college-aged people who need to learn how to use equipment or software so that they can get around on the computer in order to write a paper or search the internet,” he said. “Or we might have someone who is seeking or found employment, and we help them to brainstorm and acquire the equipment needed so they can complete their job and maintain employment.”
Guajardo, whose job involves “a lot of paperwork and a lot of time on the computer,” is completely blind. A retinal disease caused Guajardo to start losing his sight at age 9, but he completed a degree in computer science that allows him to help other visually impaired people take advantage of the many technological tools now available.
As technology has improved, programs, apps, tablets, and software aimed at blind and visually impaired people have been a game-changer, he said.
“There are so many resources, and often times it just takes us connecting people to what they need, and teaching them how to use it so they can live as independently as possible,” Guajardo said. “Blindness does present a certain set of challenges, but like any other challenge, there are ways to work around it.”