Reporter

Second sight: Lighthouse Central Florida gives hope, employment to the blind

Lighthouse Works is the largest employment resource for people with low vision in Osceola, Orange and Seminole counties.

If you’ve ever purchased MagicBands from Disney World, you likely unwrapped the high-tech bracelets from a box assembled by a Central Floridian who is blind or visually impaired.

Since 2017, more than 2 million boxes have been built by employees of Lighthouse Works - the largest employment resource for people with low vision in Osceola, Orange and Seminole counties.

“Gainful employment is one of the greatest hurdles people with vision loss have to overcome,” said Kyle Johnson, who last month became president of Lighthouse Central Florida, the nonprofit parent organization of Lighthouse Works.  “That’s because many employers don’t realize what people with vision loss can do.”

Johnson admits he used to be one of those people. Then six years ago, he took a position on a Lighthouse business advisory board, where he soon learned how assistive technology and vocational rehabilitation make it easier than ever for the blind to remain active, contributing members of society.

Johnson said he’s committed to growing outreach and services to help as many Central Floridians as possible.

Losing vision at 55 years old

Lighthouse Works Fulfillment Specialist Carol Davis, who, like Johnson, didn’t know much about blindness or vision loss growing up.

Then during a surgery 15 years ago, a doctor accidentally severed part of her optic nerve.

The then 55-year-old insurance sales manager lost about 80 percent of her vision in a single day.

“It’s so life altering and overwhelming when it first happens,” Davis said. “You don’t even know where to start.”

Losing her sight was like a death in the family – Davis grieved over it. She mourned the loss of her once fiercely independent life. She had to resign from her job of 18 years at Nationwide Insurance. She had planned to retire from that job, she said, but not this soon. Not like this.

She had to turn in her driver’s license too, and that felt like the greatest loss of all. No more grocery store runs before dinner for last-minute ingredients. No more nighttime drives along the rural Ohio roads where she lived.

Davis’ husband passed away two years prior to her vision loss, making her feel more alone than ever.

“You can’t imagine this happening to you,” she said.  

About a year after the accident, Davis moved to Kissimmee, a familiar family vacation spot with better public transportation options and resources than Ohio.

Her low vision doctor on Oak Street urged Davis to contact the Lighthouse Central Florida for mobility training and a class on independent living skills.

Bringing light back

to life

It was hard to make the first call. But the nonprofit organization sent someone out to Davis’ home in Sherwood Forest off U.S. Highway 192 and helped her apply for Access Lynx, the public paratransit service for people with disabilities.

Soon, she was enrolled in classes at the Lighthouse. Davis learned how to cook without fear of burning or cutting herself; organize her home so she could easily find things and navigate unfamiliar streets with a white cane. She even crossed U.S. 192 blindfolded to test her cane training with her instructor walking behind her.  

She overcame fears and made friends along the way.

“It gives you hope, realizing you can do this and you’re not the first one to figure it out,” Davis said. “You stop feeling sorry for yourself. You don’t want anyone else to feel sorry for you, either.”

Lighthouse Works – a double bottom line

But Davis soon learned that landing a job with a visual disability can be tough – even with the right skills and education. According to 2016 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, less than 23 percent of people with low vision are employed.

That’s why Lighthouse Works is trying to change that by offering meaningful employment in an inclusive environment. It operates a double bottom line business model by re-investing the money it generates into training and resources to that helps hundreds of people each year.

This allows the group to create its own cash flow, so that Lighthouse Central Florida doesn’t have to rely solely on private donations and grants.

More than 30 employees work in the company’s supply chain division fulfilling orders not only for MagicBand boxes, but also military medical supply kits, personal toiletry kits for state inmates and more.

Another 41 employees work in the company’s on-site call center.

“These folks are incredibly hardworking, and some of the most loyal employees out there,” Johnson said, citing a 90 percent retention rate at the Lighthouse Work’s call center in Orlando. “They just need a company to give them a chance and believe

in them.”

Davis went on to get a job with Lighthouse Works in their supply chain division after undergoing a competitive interview and application process.

It’s been almost four years now, and Davis said she enjoys working again. It gives her a sense of purpose and she likes knowing she’s helping others.

Sight & Sole is March 2

Now, Davis and hundreds of other Central Floridians with visual disabilities are gearing up for Sight & Sole, the biggest annual fundraiser for the Lighthouse Central Florida.

The event has evolved over the last 30 years from a traditional awareness walk to a family friendly street festival. The event is meant to raise funds while spotlighting issues facing the blind and visually impaired community.

Money raised benefits programs at the Lighthouse like classes, job training and outreach resources.

To date, Sight & Sole has raised about $2 million for the Lighthouse. This year, officials are hoping to raise at least $70,000.  

Sight & Sole will be Saturday, March 2, at Cranes Roost Park, 274 Cranes Roost Blvd. in Altamonte Springs.

Davis said she would be there, her white cane in hand.

For more information about Lighthouse Central Florida, or to learn how to donate to Sight & Sole, visit www.lighthousecfl.org.