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Lighthouse for the Blind a beacon for workers with impaired vision

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Shawn White, a production worker at The Lighthouse for the Blind, cuts 9-inch strips of material for Boeing 787 Dreamliners. (Photo/Liz Segrist)

Shawn White relies on his sense of touch to feed a piece of material into a machine inside a manufacturing facility in Summerville.

White, who is legally blind, guides the material into position with his hands before cutting a 9-inch strip.

The machine requires him to use both hands to press buttons to activate the cutter, ensuring his hands are out of the way.

The strips of material are then sent to Boeing’s North Charleston campus to eventually become moisture collectors in luggage compartments on 787 Dreamliner jets.

White had been out of work for two years when he was hired as a production worker at The Lighthouse for the Blind in Summerville. White said he likes the precision, repetition and flow of manufacturing.

“I was ready to go back to work to help my wife since she was the only one working. I didn’t feel right being home all the time. I was keeping the house clean and cooking — I was doing something, but it feels better coming to work, putting in the hours and getting a paycheck,” White said. “I’m back working again and it feels good.”

Amanda Malone, a production worker, places a Molle hydration pack on a horizontal stand and slides on a plastic bag to prepare it for shipping. The facility produces packs for the U.S. military. (Photo/Liz Segrist)The Seattle-based nonprofit, founded in 1918, hires people who are blind, DeafBlind or blind with other disabilities to perform assembly, production and machining work for manufacturers.

The company became a Boeing supplier in 1951 and now produces thousands of parts for Boeing airplanes. Lighthouse expanded manufacturing operations to Spokane, Wash., in 2008 and to Summerville in 2016.

The 25,000-square-foot facility at 230 Deming Way employs 10 workers, eight of whom are blind or sight-impaired. They assemble water pouches and backpacks for the military and make parts for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliners.

Military work involves a competitive bid process with the federal government, and aerospace contracts require a stringent supplier vetting process with Boeing Co.

The Lighthouse facility in Summerville is accredited to the AS9100 standard, an aerospace quality standard recognized by the Department of Defense, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Shawn Dobbs, Lighthouse’s public relations director, said Boeing S.C.’s footprint in North Charleston was a big draw for the company to launch operations in Dorchester County. The organization also saw a need to bring more employment options to the region for people who are blind.

“Seventy percent of people who are blind are unemployed, so there’s a desperate need for opportunities to be employed,” said Dobbs, who is blind. “It allows people to not just make a living, but more importantly, it allows people to be productive, to earn a paycheck and to have a sense of pride and self-worth.”

Designed for workers

The Lighthouse facility’s interior looks and operates generally like other manufacturing and assembly operations — with workers producing parts at stations — but it’s equipped with design features and machines to help sight-impaired, deaf or blind workers.

The floor has yellow stripes with raised bumps that act as wayfinders. A worker can move a cane across the stripes to feel the raised bumps, signaling when to walk straight or when there is an opening to turn.

Talking scales are scattered throughout the facility to help employees who are blind know if each package has the correct amount of product ahead of shipping. (Photos/Liz Segrist)Employees put finished products onto talking scales, which are produced by Lighthouse in Seattle.

The scales say aloud how much each backpack weighs or the number of screws in a bag, for example, to help the employee determine whether the order is complete.

Scales also have a Braille option for workers who are deaf and blind. Some employees work on laptops that speak the words on the screen aloud to them. For those who have some sight, a monitor displays words in larger font sizes.

In one area of the facility, workers produce e-nuts for Boeing Dreamliner jets. The pieces, which look like tiny screws, are used to fasten pieces of composite material together on the commercial airplanes.

Workers screw together the pieces of an e-nut by hand before setting each one into a small hole on a circular plate. They use a pneumatic drill to tighten the screws. Workers then walk the plate over to another machine, which pushes 100 e-nuts out of the plate, down a shaft and into a plastic bag.

Wanda Hartwell, a production worker, said employees are required to inspect each product. She uses her hands to ensure the bag is sealed properly, and she weighs each one on a talking scale before putting the bag of e-nuts into a box destined for Boeing.

Workers said producing goods for the military and aerospace sectors requires great attention to detail.

Without sight, workers need materials to be in roughly the same place every day; processes must be learned; and more reliance is placed on learning how products feel.

Wanda Hartwell, a production worker at The Lighthouse for the Blind in Summerville, uses a drill to tighten the screws, or e-nuts, that will end up on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Hartwell relies on her sense of touch and a talking scale to ensure each order is correct. (Photo/Liz Segrist)

Regaining independence

Workers throughout the facility said they came to work at The Lighthouse for the Blind because they wanted additional income — and more so, they wanted to regain independence that they felt had been lost by either losing their sight or struggling to find work.

Roosevelt Stevenson worked with Lighthouse for more than two decades in Seattle. He recently transferred to the Lowcountry, where he assembles Molle hydration packs for the military.

Stevenson places each water pouch onto an upright stand and puts a camouflage backpack over it, using his hands to put the drinking bag into place, securing the cap and drinking tube.

The hydration packs then head to Amanda Malone, a production worker who prepares the products for shipping. She places each backpack on a horizontal stand, slides on a plastic bag and seals each one. She adds 15 packs to a box before labeling them for shipment.

Malone has retinitis pigmentosa and has retained partial vision.

“It is like everything I see is a puzzle piece,” she said. “I went seven years without a job before starting at Lighthouse. It’s sort of like everybody is afraid of the blind world, so it took a while to find a job. ... I’m learning this world, too, but working gives back independence.”

The Summerville facility of The Lighthouse for the Blind is on track to generate $2.8 million in revenue in 2017, and Dobbs wants that growth to continue.

He said the facility will work to secure more contracts with manufacturers and the military to mirror the growth of the company in Washington. The goal is to triple the Summerville workforce to about 30 people within the next five years.

“This helps people grow and become independent and self-sufficient,” he said. “Having that feeling in the workplace can transfer into their personal lives."

Editor's note: A previous version of this story stated an incorrect number of employees at The Lighthouse for the Blind. The company employs 10 people in Summerville.

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119.

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