By Sarah Hawkins
If you shop at Kroger, one day you may walk beneath a glowing EXIT sign made by someone who is blind or visually impaired.
Kroger is one of several big clients that buy products manufactured by blind and low-vision workers at the Cincinnati Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
“If you have the right adaptations, a blind person can pretty much do everything,” said Gerry Slusher, CABVI’s Bradley L. Kaylor Blind Employee of the Year for 2017.
Since 1911, CABVI’s employees have produced goods in a light industrial manufacturing building on Gilbert Avenue. In addition to signs, they also make office supplies that are distributed throughout Cincinnati and to points beyond – including Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
“When people lose vision, they often lose confidence and independence,” said Gary Ensing, a rehabilitation specialist with CABVI. “Going to work is way more than earning an income. We help give more people a bit of their purpose and routine back.”
But CABVI has outgrown the Gilbert Avenue manufacturing center, which also isn’t as accessible as it needed to be. So the organization, aided by a gift from the estate of Carolyn Voss Hornbeck, is opening a new 59,000-square-foot manufacturing building. The Hornbeck Social Enterprise Center will be fully accessible and will provide additional training and employment opportunities for people with severe vision loss.
Opening in August
Located on Kenner Street near the Cincinnati Museum Center, the Hornbeck Center will increase CABVI operations by more than 75 percent. For employees who are blind or visually impaired, the move to a new building will be a big change, but the location will offer many advantages.
For people with low or no vision, getting into the Gilbert Avenue manufacturing facility, and then navigating to their workstation, can be challenging. At times, trucks park in front of the building to drop off materials or pick up finished products. Also, employees must navigate between two floors during each workday – which can take up to 15 minutes.
The new Kenner Street manufacturing facility is all on one floor. Trucks use a loading dock in the rear of the building, far from the employee and visitor entrance.
“Once we get used to the layout, we’ll be able to get from the canteen to the lobby to our workstations a lot faster than in the previous building,” said Dave Perry, assistant machine operator at CABVI.
Perry, who is blind, was the National Industries for the Blind’s Employee of the Year in 2016. Each work day, he sets up and runs a tape machine. In the Gilbert Avenue building, this noise echoes. The echoes make it difficult for employees to use their hearing to help navigate their work, and their work space.
“In the tape area at the new building, the sound will be blocked better so there’s not as much feedback,” Perry said.
Meeting multiple needs
CABVI hired Cincinnati’s GBBN Architects to design the space. Katie Coulson, GBBN’s designer for the project, said a key goal was to design the space for three groups: People who can see, people who are visually impaired and people who are blind.
For people with severe vision loss, the unemployment rate is 65 percent – in part because many workplaces are neither accessible nor accommodating.
“A key question was how can we make someone who is blind or visually impaired feel like this foundation understands them when they walk in the door?” Coulson said.
During the research phase, Coulson and CABVI employees had detailed conversations about the challenges faced by workers.
“For example, someone who is blind or visually impaired has to know where they are in a public restroom,” Coulson said. “So in front of urinals, toilets and sinks, we have a tactile floor. We also have contrasting colors on the tile, walls and plumbing fixtures, so they’re easier to see for people with low vision.”
Fine-tuning the manufacturing area and processes was also a key component of the project. Hixson, an architectural and engineering firm, provided pro bono work on how to streamline the manufacturing process, separate people from machinery and improve safety.
“A lot of the manufacturing equipment is very loud,” Coulson said. “We tried to take noisy equipment and put it behind an acoustical partition so people working on quiet equipment would not be disrupted by noisy equipment.
”The noise in the Gilbert Avenue building was problematic for employees’ service animals as well. While employees don’t use service animals during their workday, some rely on them to get to and from work. The area where the dogs would rest was loud. Eventually, one employee’s dog refused to get on the bus in the morning to go to work.
“The new building includes a separate kennel room for service animals, in a quiet area,” Coulson said.
More than just a job
Perhaps most importantly, the new building – which has more capacity than the old one – will let more people who are blind or visually impaired experience the support many of us gain in our workplaces. Perry experienced this support after his wife – who is also visually impaired – was diagnosed with a rare brain disease and started having strokes.
“People on the floor have been extremely supportive of my wife and me. I’m really glad I’ve been able to continue to work for the agency,” Perry said. “It’s family here.”
The official ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Hornbeck Social Enterprise Center will be Thursday, Aug. 10, 2-5 p.m. 221-8558