Who made that paper towel you used to clean up a spill? If you’re a member of the U.S. military, the answer might be a blind person.
Lighthouse Louisiana is one of many organizations nationwide using blind workers to produce or package materials like mess trays, cups and paper towels, which are then sold to government groups such as the Department of Defense through the AbilityOne program. With its recent acquisition of a new single-fold paper towel machine at its State Street facility, Lighthouse will create 8-10 new jobs for blind workers in New Orleans, who can use the machine to transform raw materials into $2 million in paper towels each year.
“This isn’t just a job for anybody,” public policy and communications director Anne Jayes says. “This is a job for a population that has been limited in the workforce [and] excluded from the workforce. … To us, it’s about changing the expectation of what people think and feel and see when they see somebody who’s blind.”
According to the National Federation of the Blind, 1.3 million people in the U.S. are considered legally blind, and 70 percent of working-age blind adults are unemployed — a problem Jayes links to misconceptions about what people who are blind can do.
“At our agencies we show that [people who are blind are] employees, just like anybody else. They can’t drive trucks, they can’t fly airplanes, but they certainly can do a lot of things and make valuable contributions to the workforce,” she says.
The new workers will join the organization’s 80 blind employees across its Baton Rouge, Gulfport and New Orleans locations. People who are blind will be able to work at every station of the new machine, sliding paper towels through the machine to be cut, packaging finished rolls into boxes and checking to make sure the machine is operating smoothly.
The towels and similar materials often end up being used by U.S. soldiers who currently are deployed, Jayes says.
This acquisition is part of a years-long capital outlay project with the state, planned when a new government contract for the same paper towel became available and Lighthouse administrators realized they did not currently have the capacity to fulfill the contract.
The project was supported by state Rep. Neil Abramson; state Sens. J.P. Morrell and Conrad Appel; and Lieutenant Gov. Jay Dardenne and the office of Gov. John Bel Edwards, who Jayes credits with “seeing the importance” of this as an economic development project.
Revenue from the sale of paper towels and other products funds Lighthouse’s community programs. Among other things, the organization offers rehab services for people who are losing their vision or are hard of hearing, assistance for people who are blind or deaf, and workforce development programs which help people with disabilities get jobs.
With this machine, Jayes says the Lighthouse organization will be able to help more people with disabilities work toward independence.
“As a sighted person, I want to feel like I am supporting myself and making a difference in the world,” Jayes says. “I don’t think that’s any different for anybody with a disability.”