JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas --
An Air Force staff sergeant brings a pile of products to the checkout counter at one of the Joint Base San Antonio supply stores. The cashier asks him to read her the part number of one item so she can verify it. The customer said, “It’s right here.” Then he points to the number on the product.
The cashier said, “I’m blind. Could you read it to me?” The sergeant’s face reddens and he said, “I had no idea.”
This disability isn’t overly obvious, explains Craig S. Recker, former command chief master sergeant for the 37th Training Wing here. He said his current teammates don’t want to differentiate themselves, because they work hard to define themselves by something other than a disability.
After 30 years in the U.S. Air Force, Recker retired. He said he loves the Air Force because he knows it matters, and he wanted to find a place in the civilian sector where he could have that same feeling. He found it in the San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering the blind and visually impaired.
“If more people knew about the lives of my team,” said Recker, “they would be inspired. Much like wounded warriors, they don’t want to be identified by inabilities; they want to be defined by their abilities.”
Recker explains a range of challenges that makes the lives of blind teammates different. “The 30-minute car ride I do every day is a two-plus hour public transport commute,” he said. “If there is anything outside of normal hours Monday through Friday, we have to give the employees enough notice so they can adjust their transportation schedule.”
The team is doing inventory this weekend. It’s a chance for overtime and a little extra cash. Of course, Recker said, everyone is welcome to participate, but very few of the blind employees can because of transportation challenges.
“We offer overtime for various jobs if employees want to participate, but transportation curtails options for those who want to earn a little more from overtime,” he explained.
To be successful, a non-sighted employee’s schedule must be very organized. It’s not just about transportation, it’s about work space. Recker noted the movie “Office Space,” where characters joke about someone who moves a stapler and upsets a colleague. “Oftentimes, if someone moves something on a desk, it can have a disruptive influence for a sight-impaired employee. Predictability and organization is critical,” he said.
While there are challenges and extra duties at his office for sighted employees like Recker, like making sure colleagues get to the right bus at closing time, he loves his new team. “It’s great to have such a dedicated workforce,” he said. “We have almost no turnover.”
Prior to taking over as manager for 14 stores serving installations like those in Joint Base San Antonio, Tinker AFB, Holloman AFB, Fort Hood, installations in Fort Worth, and others throughout Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, Recker had to do blind sensitivity training. Sensitivity training covers how to interact with the workforce, he explained. “For example: Grab my shoulder. We’re going to walk out to your bus,” he said. If a teammate has only peripheral vision, stand slightly off to the side to allow better visibility.
Down the hall from Recker’s office are the offices of the team that handles contracting closeout. On the next level are rows of colleagues who build the products sold in the base supply stores that Recker manages. One of the advantages of being so close together is that people can mentor and support one another. One of these mentors is Recker’s colleague, Janis Yanez, a contracting closeout specialist.
Yanez has a master’s degree in counseling. She discusses with Recker her sight loss, which came late in life.When she learned of her increasing sight loss, she wanted to maintain her independence. Now, in addition to the work she does in contracting, she often acts as a mentor both for colleagues and those who come through the center for adaptability training.
“People often don’t know how to assert themselves,” she said. “Many job applications for administrative jobs, for example, require a driver’s license. There’s no reasonable need for a driver’s license. It’s a kind of bias in the system.” She helps people communicate with their employers to understand their challenges and make appropriate adjustments so they can continue an independent life.
Patricia Wilform, has worked at the supply depot at Lackland AFB through the San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind for seven years. She said when she started working there it gave her a sense of purpose to find a place where she fit in. “It’s a wonderful comfort zone,” she said.
“Being visually impaired, employment comes with many challenges,” Wilform explained. “First of all, finding a job is a challenge in itself. There are so many employers out there that will look at your resume and consider hiring you, but during the interview, when they find out that you have a vision problem, the attitude changes even if your resume was impressive. So many feel that a person that doesn’t see well won’t perform well,” she said.
Wilform noted that while she is vision impaired, she still has some vision. “Working with those courageous people at the plant that are totally blind and to see how independent and brave they are, it really made me take a more positive attitude and outlook on my situation.”
Many members of the Lighthouse for the Blind team participate in the weekly tours. Anyone who wants to learn more about the mission is welcome on the tour.
During one of these tours, a tall, dark-haired casually dressed man in a room full of computerized equipment is surrounded by a couple of dozen guests. He is the expert on accessibility equipment, the technology that helps sight impaired people maintain independence. He moves confidently from machine to machine, demonstrating the capabilities of accessibility tools for the blind. He places a book under one and hits a button. It begins reading the text aloud. He turns it off and explains that this can be used to help the blind read the daily newspaper. He answers questions from the group, maintaining eye contact with each person who asks a question.
His colleague asked him about his level of sight. To the surprise of the group, he explained that he is completely blind.
He has achieved what many want. He is not defined by his disability. In fact, his challenges are virtually invisible.