‘They hit it out of the park.’ The eye-opening wonders of a blind Philadelphia workforce | Maria Panaritis
You wouldn't believe what these blind workers in the Philadelphia area can do in front of a computer screen. And yet, far too many are being ignored by big businesses. That must come to an end right now, writes Maria Panaritis.
I could have sworn Matt Wallace was a cyborg working in communion with the computer at his desk.
Click! Click! Click! his finger slashed at the up-arrow key. The cursor on his screen danced through a list of densely named data files: "N6523607D7880 …" The impersonal timber of a robot voice spouted off one soupy acronym after another through headphones in Matt's ears. This was how Matt was speed-reading the migraine-inducing garble.
Nope. Not that file, he decided. Or that one. The alt-tab keys got into the action with his left hand. Matt called up a new application. A spreadsheet. A letter in pdf format. He scrolled to a line item displaying a government contract award amount. Another showed a vendor fee. I asked Matt to slow down. I couldn't keep up. And unlike Matt, I have eyes that can see.
"When I first got this job," he said, offering me unearned reassurance, "I was so overwhelmed."
Perhaps you remember this remarkable 27-year-old Montgomery County man. I wrote about him during Super Bowl season earlier this year. He was unemployed but channeling his remarkable mental acuity as an unpaid women's ice hockey team commentator at the University of Pennsylvania, alongside play-by-play buddy Sam Fryman. The pair are Temple University grads.
He was depressed because no one had offered him a job for years after graduation. He was living in a trailer home in Eagleville and trying not to go out too much because his disability checks were too small to cover more than a few Uber rides out of town. Several readers asked how they might help. Flyers broadcaster Tim Saunders brought the boys into the broadcast booth for a treat. But no corporation in our millions-large metropolitan region offered Matt a job.
The lone hero — and our corporate community should be ashamed of this — was a 92-year-old nonprofit based in Lancaster County. They made Matt a contract closeout specialist. The valiant organization is called VisionCorps, and I hope you flood them with donations. Human resources executives might consider giving them a call, too. Because putting blind people to work is not the onerous, costly task people might think it is.
That myth must die today.
When I swung through Matt's new workplace a few days ago — a Northeast Philadelphia office park — here is what I saw in a handful of cubicles: Men and women, some with seeing-eye dogs napping at their feet during 10-hour shifts, others with only walking sticks folded at their desks, working blazing-fast and with intrepid focus.
"That team over there closed over 1,000 contracts last month," VisionCorps chief executive Dennis Steiner, himself a blind man, told me in an interview. The workers close out government contracts. "They hit it out of the park."
It's devastating to think about all the years that Matt and his teammates were forced to squander until they got hired by VisionCorps.
The blind man who trained Matt a few months ago lost a full decade being unemployed after college. No one would hire him into even an entry-level job — and the 36-year-old has an aerospace engineering degree from Purdue University. Paul moved to Philadelphia from Maine a year ago to work, finally, for VisionCorps.
I had never spent much time with a blind person before meeting Matt earlier this year. It was extraordinary.
I watched Matt make himself a bologna sandwich at home and show me his laundry routine. His house was impeccably clean. His broadcasting brilliance gave me the chills.
And yet, it was disturbing to realize that none of this was enough.
With today's advanced digital technology, such as computer-screen-reading software, there is no excuse for businesses to avoid making room on their payroll for people like Matt. Decades ago, a kinder federal government created bidding priority for businesses who employ the blind. And yet, jobs remain scarce.
"Even in today's environment," Steiner said, "about 65 to 70 percent of people who are legally blind are either unemployed or underemployed. That's an amazing statistic. All I can tell you is we're trying to change that here, one job at a time."
Meanwhile, you would be delighted to hear that Matt and Sam have scored a paid broadcasting gig, thanks to Sam's dogged pursuit of opportunities. They're flying to Boston this weekend to call a Pride women's ice hockey game. Life is good — and getting better.
"This company," Matt said, "has very much changed my life."