By Julie Smith, Northwest GuardianNovember 2, 2012
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- Customers visiting Base Supply Centers on Joint Base Lewis-McChord will find many of the same supplies that can be found at any big-box chain or local office supply store. What makes the BSCs different is their employees.
That's because JBLM BSCs are fully owned and operated by the nonprofit organization Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind, and several BSC employees are either blind, deaf-blind or blind with other disabilities.
To create understanding about National Disability Employment Awareness Month, JBLM BSCs sponsored the fourth annual "Walk a Day in Our Shoes" event, allowing visitors to the store the opportunity to wear goggles simulating blindness and other vision impairments while searching for items on the shelves.
"It's a challenge," Lewis North BSC assistant manager Matt Howland said, who is not visually impaired. "Our employees have tools that help them do their job, but for the most part they memorize where everything is located."
Some of those tools include digital magnifying glasses, high-contrast and magnifying computer screens. Each blind employee chooses which accommodations he or she prefers. Store manager Andy Bacon said most customers don't realize he's blind until they see him at the register using his magnifier to read their credit cards.
"They ask me what I'm doing and if it's some kind of security device," Bacon said. "I say, 'Nope, it's my eyes.'"
According to Bacon, there are other blind agencies across the United States that also manufacture goods sold by BSCs. Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind has its own plant, with 300 employees who make hanging file folders, magnetic boards and cork boards. They are the sole provider of canteens to the military.
"We buy products from all the blind agencies and bring them into our store and sell them. And that creates jobs for all the people working here and at all those manufacturing plants," Bacon said. "So, every purchase the military makes at a BSC creates jobs for disabled individuals."
Brad Smith, an Air Force retiree who now works for JBLM's First Sergeants' Barracks Program, shops regularly at the BSC.
"There are a lot of unique things that we order for the barracks here on JBLM, and (the BSC) always hunts them down for us," Smith said.
While the event increased awareness about functioning as a blind person, Bacon and Howland agreed it was also a way to say thanks to their customers for supporting the mission of the BSCs.
"You'll see Soldiers in here loading up their carts," Howland said. "Once you create that dialogue with people, they understand the scope of our mission."
Bacon said about 45 percent of the items sold at JBLM BSCs are made by the blind. The other 55 percent are manufactured by other companies, but there is no outsourcing -- meaning every item is made in the United States.
"Unfortunately, not every pro-duct service members need is manufactured by the blind -- yet," he said.