A first for blind industries enterprise: a blind executive

by Jordan Green

Two weeks into the job the new executive director of Greensboro Industries of the Blind had a full schedule: meetings with the human resources manager to discuss evaluations, an employee luncheon to get acquainted with his front line, conference calls with vendors to explore opportunities to expand work orders and reports to read.

“When you come into a new job there’s usually a lot of history,” said 30-year-old Dan Kelly. “When you come into a new organization you always want to change things, to try something you’ve seen done before, but maybe it’s already been tried so you have to know what went on before.”

Then there’s the matter of adjusting to a new community after directing business development for the National Industries of the Blind in Alexandria, Va. for five years.

“My wife and I are loving living in Greensboro, North Carolina,” said Kelly, who was born in Minneapolis and earned his master of business administration from George Mason University in Virginia. “We love all the restaurants in town. We’ve made it over to the ‘furniture capital of the world.’ We’re looking to make this a home for a long time.”

After leading the way up a flight of steps and into the executive suite Kelly took a seat at the head of a wooden conference table, laying his folding cane across its polished surface. He noted with pride that Industries of the Blind has recently landed a major work order with the Army for T-shirts, and would be looking for three to five new employees who are blind to fill sewing jobs. Then there was the mop and broom assembly operation, the standard government-issue pens that have been in production since 1968 and the newer anti-microbial pens that have a special coating to kill germs.

Kelly is the first blind director of Greensboro Industries of the Blind, which was founded in 1933.

“I hope that and I’m sure the organization hired me because I’m the most qualified for the job,” he said. “One thing that we want to do is eliminate the glass ceiling. If somebody on the floor has the motivation to do that they should be able to. If they want to be a supervisor or a customer service rep we should be living those opportunities to the fullest.”

Kelly’s first comes less than a year after the organization set a precedent for itself with its board when it elected its first blind chairman and president, Michael G. Jackson.

“We hired Dan not because Dan was blind but because he was the best man for the job,” Jackson said. “He brings outstanding ability to the table. His knowledge of the National Industries of the Blind and the inner workings of the national organization was one of the key factors. So that’s it in a nutshell.”

Jackson said the incorporation of blind people into the leadership of Industries of the Blind is more a function of education, technological advances and opportunity than any emergence of more enlightened values.

“Blind people are now able to go out and be competitive in the job market,” he said. “There was a time when this was not possible. They have college degrees. They have job experience, and most of them have great work ethics. Modern technology is the main instrument to give blind people an opportunity to progress in the work society. I’m sitting here reading at a computer. In the length of my arm I can have a calculator that talks to me, a clock that talks to me. We’re no longer handicapped people.”

As blind people like Jackson and Kelly take over executive suites, other members of the blind community work on shop floors that could be considered an anomalous vestige of a bygone industrial age. Yet the bolts of cloth, the rows of sewing machines and the heavy needles that side-wind through plastic broom straws with stunning rapidity are not workplace facets that are frozen in place. The 1938 Javits-Wagner-O’Day Act sets aside a share of federal contracts to enterprises whose workforces are at least 70 percent blind or visually impaired with the condition that they provide a product at fair-market value that is of equivalent or greater quality. Ninety-five percent of Industries of the Blind’s business is with the federal government, Kelly said.

As he walked the production floor with Director of Operations Bob Hartsfield, the executive director noted that Industries of the Blind will need to be willing to adapt to meet its customers’ needs.

“Our industries and our programs are going through some tremendous changes because of globalization,” Kelly said. “I think there is a tremendous opportunity to provide these services and goods to the local community,” citing universities and healthcare providers as potential customers.

“I’d love to talk to anyone who’s interested in talking to us,” he said.

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