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Breaking barriers in the textile industry for people who are blind

Markets | November 1, 2020 | By:

National Industries for the Blind creates growth opportunities in the textiles industry for people who are blind or visually impaired.

by Holly Eaman

For many, 2020 has been a year of recognizing and working to overcome limitations—a technique that partners and employees of National Industries for the Blind (NIB) have mastered since 1938.

Headquartered in Alexandria, Va., NIB is the country’s largest employer of people who are blind, thanks to its network of nearly 100 associated nonprofit agencies. In 2019, NIB employed approximately 6,000 people who are blind, including 600 veterans. 

An employee who is blind sews cloth face masks at Industries of the Blind Inc. in Greensboro, N.C. Photo: Industries of the Blind.

By connecting these agencies with manufacturing and service delivery opportunities with the federal government, military and commercial companies, NIB helps to produce more than 7,000 different products, many of which are branded under its SKILCRAFT® line of products ranging from mattresses and bedding to office products and medical supplies.

Cut-and-sew complexities

Since its formation, NIB has supplied all branches of the U.S. military and federal government with items such as pillowcases and mops, expanding into uniforms, apparel and protective equipment over time. Today, roughly one-third of its nonprofit agencies manufacture cut-and-sew products for the federal government—primarily the military. 

Fuel handler coveralls fabricated for the Department of Defense by IFB Solutions in Asheville, N.C., are one of the most complex textile products that NIB-associated agencies take on. Made from GORE-TEX® fabric, the coveralls are designed to provide flame and contaminant resistance and environmental and electrostatic protection for soldiers handling fuel and petroleum products. From start to finish, the production process requires 340 operational steps, most of which are performed by employees who are blind or visually impaired—a labor pool not generally associated with such highly detailed, technical labor. But the right training can make all the difference.

Manufactured for the Department of Defense by IFB Solutions, these fuel handler coveralls provide flame and contaminant resistance as well as environmental and electrostatic protection. Photo: IFB Solutions.

Prioritize and customize

NIB’s team of engineers is dedicated to designing the easiest, most effective production methods for employees who are blind. Where possible, they recommend equipment that allows for automatic sewing cycles and precise alignment guides, often made to fit individual needs. A small group of rehabilitation engineers routinely visit agencies to help them convert jobs from sighted labor to blind labor as well as to train employees on operations.  

“It seems there’s nothing our engineers can’t train employees who are blind to do,” says Gary Colello, NIB’s director of textile product development. “Their innovation allows employees to do things you couldn’t imagine; people who can’t see the needle or thread are able to make a perfect seam every time.” 

When NIB’s engineers visit an agency, they first assess the process to identify improvement opportunities. Then, working with the host agency, they determine which operations and employees should be prioritized and work one-on-one with individuals to teach them how to sew and thread machines. If a piece of equipment is new, the engineers typically install a jig or fixture to help a person who is blind operate it safely and more effectively. 

“We often bring customers, government officials or anyone with misconceptions about what people who are blind can do into our facilities to see the work being done, and they walk away with a whole new perspective,” says Donielle Lorelli, associate product manager. “The quality is phenomenal because these employees take so much pride in their work.” 

Even the less complex products necessitate intense training. Most agencies have rigorous programs in place that address the various skills new employees must learn, Colello says. It usually takes a few months before employees are on their own on the production floor. In addition to the support of its engineers, NIB provides education on hiring employees who are blind and assessing their skill levels, resources for mobility instruction, grants and other financial incentives, and training specific to accessible technologies such as screen readers and other software programs.

An employee who is blind produces hand sanitizer at Austin Lighthouse for the Blind in Texas. Photo: Austin Lighthouse.

Community support

Though not as immediately obvious, challenges stretch beyond training the workforce. In fact, finding the workforce is the first—and perhaps largest—hurdle. NIB and its agencies are not alone in their struggle to recruit and retain employees within the U.S. textile industry. 

“If you’re in a sparsely populated area with very few people who are blind, you may be reaching across many miles to find employees and offering relocation packages to encourage those who are qualified and able to work to join your team,” Colello says. “Then, you have to step back and figure out how these employees can travel to work every day.” Many NIB agencies in larger cities help coordinate public transportation options for their employees who are blind. In more rural areas, some provide it themselves via van carpools. 

Discussing logistics like these is one of many reasons why networking is a valued benefit of NIB’s partnership. “NIB and its associated agencies are very much a family, and a lot of them are open and willing to help each other with anything from streamlining processes to offering recruiting and training tips,” Lorelli says. 

NIB’s annual Textile Apparel Group Conference provides agencies the opportunity to share best practices and is attended by representatives across the supply chain, from fabric producers and dye houses to printers and cut-and-sew shops. Like nearly all major events affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s event was held virtually in September.

Agency operations have been affected by the pandemic as well, and NIB has helped them pivot production to meet essential needs for the military and frontline workers. Highlights among myriad examples include:

  • IFB Solutions manufactured thousands of cloth face masks for the United States Air Force, general public and VA hospitals.
  • Industries of the Blind Inc. in Greensboro, N.C., whose products include parachutes and protective clothing for the military, received a contract from the U.S. Army to produce more than 400,000 face masks.
  • New York’s Northeastern Association of the Blind at Albany, whose products include safety vests, coveralls and other protective gear, added face masks made from the Body Filter 95+® material in its coveralls to its production flow to support frontline professionals.
  • Austin Lighthouse for the Blind in Texas, whose products include nylon and cotton military belts in addition to cleaning supplies, significantly increased its shifts and production to meet the country’s increased demand for hand sanitizer and cleaning products. 
  • Industries for the Blind and Visually Impaired Inc. in Milwaukee, Wis., whose products include apparel and outdoor gear, assembled kits for the National Guard to use when building COVID-19 treatment centers.

Whether employees are supplying in-demand products for a community in crisis or protective gear for the military members who serve these very communities, “the pride in their work comes through loud and clear,” Colello says. 

Holly Eamon is a business writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minn.

SIDEBAR: A brief history

In the early 1930s, leaders within the blind community urged Congress to open the federal government market to nonprofit organizations employing people who are blind. In response, in 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Wagner-O’Day Act—now known as the AbilityOne® Program—into law, requiring federal government agencies to purchase certain products manufactured by people who are blind. National Industries for the Blind was incorporated to serve as the central nonprofit agency responsible for allocating government orders and providing support to its network of associated nonprofit agencies.

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