From the outside, it looks like a thousand other factories, but what happens inside this 1950s-era industrial building is far from ordinary. Once a bottling and canning plant, the 290,000-square-foot building is now home to Outlook Nebraska Inc., the largest employer of blind and visually impaired people in the Omaha metropolitan area.
ONI is a private, nonprofit organization operating under the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act of 1971 and the AbilityOne Program, which mandates the federal government to provide preferred vendor status to agencies such as ONI that employ people who are blind or have other significant disabilities.
ONI is a tissue-converting business, which means they make toilet paper. Huge rolls of recycled paper fiber come into the plant and leave as packaged toilet paper and paper towels. The products are sold to the federal government and other customers. Much of the product is used in federal prisons.
I had been invited to visit ONI several times but kept putting it off. John Wick, director of fund development, kept sending me kindly worded invitations, so I eventually took him up on the offer of a tour.
Upon arriving, I found the main office and checked in. To my surprise, many of the front-office employees were visually impaired, including Mr. Wick, a former health care executive who lost his sight more than 20 years ago due to a rare eye disease. I also met an industrial manager who has substantial visual impairment.
Our first stop was the technology center. Both of ONI's information technology professionals are blind. All of their computer work is done through sound and touch. In fact, the keyboard buttons at ONI have no letters, numbers or symbols printed on them at all.
I watched in awe as the blind IT guys maneuvered computer programs faster than most sighted individuals can. Special software reads aloud the text. You can speed up or slow down the pace of text reading to suit your personal preference. The two IT guys have been using audio text for so long, their ears are highly attuned — they can decipher words at an astounding speed.
While touring the factory, I saw blind and visually impaired employees running machinery, sorting items on an assembly line by touch and deftly packing finished product into boxes. The workers were so efficient I kept forgetting they couldn't see. Though one of my tour guides was completely blind, he nevertheless knew where everything was located in the plant.
At the end of the tour, I sat down in the conference room with a couple of ONI employees. I was the only sighted person in the room, but it never felt that way. I was truly amazed at the adaptations these successful professionals have made.
I left feeling thankful, comforted and inspired. I was thankful for several reasons. I was thankful for my sight, which I typically take for granted. ONI employees were clearly thriving, but there's no denying that visually impaired people have a tougher row to hoe than most of us. I was also thankful for the hospitality ONI extended to me and how ONI employees figuratively opened my eyes to a whole new world.
I was comforted knowing that such high-quality resources are available to the visually impaired. Nearly 3 million Americans are visually impaired and almost 1.3 million are legally blind. Unemployment among blind people is a staggering 70 percent. ONI and organizations like it are working hard to change that. Think how rewarding and empowering it must be for someone whose blindness had forced them into years and years of public assistance to finally find a job specially designed for them to succeed.
Most of all, I was inspired. Some of the people I met were born blind. Others became blind later in life. Whatever the reason, nobody at ONI used their disability as an excuse. Nobody complained. Nobody lamented. Nobody shied away from challenges. The organization has a palpable culture of positivity, optimism and can-do attitude.
On this Thanksgiving week, I'm thankful for many things. My visit to ONI is certainly among them.
Jeff Beals is an Omaha author and speaker who can be reached at www.JeffBeals.com.