HED:Blind workers find jobs out in the community

By M. Scott Morris

Daily Journal

The safety record of blind workers at Signature Works is actually better than the safety record of sighted employees.

"When you think about it, it makes sense. They have to be careful when operating machinery. They don't take risks," said Walter Howell, placement administrator with Signature Works.

Blind people comprise 75 percent of the work force at Signature Works, which has plants in Hazlehurst, Tupelo and Gulfport. The company needs to maintain that 75 percent threshold in order to continue to receive special preference on government contracts, Howell said.

However, Signature Works is making its job a bit harder.

"My job primarily is to place our employees in jobs in the community," said Howell, who started his position in January.

Mike Ellis is ready to go.

"I've been here since March 29, 1993. I work on the flatware line, which involves packaging flatware," said Ellis, who works at the Tupelo plant.

Before a suicide attempt took his sight in 1991, Ellis was a car salesman. Now he's set to take a job at Dixie Cleaners where he will work as a customer service representative.

Rather than working on a production line, he'll make courtesy calls to clients as well as solicit new business.

"It's more in line with my previous experience," he said.

Ellis doesn't expect the transition to be easy, but he feels an obligation to other blind people to succeed.

"I feel that by working with people with vision I can help them learn about a blind person," Ellis said. "It will let them see a blind person is capable of doing more than they can imagine."

Signature Works' placement program involves training sessions to prepare its employees for the demands of the corporate world.

"We provide the same 40-hour training program that some industries use for their employees," Howell said.

The program concentrates on the interpersonal skills necessary to work with others. Training includes mock interviews.

"Many of our employees have never had to go through an interview before," he said.

Howell has met with industry representatives to dispel some of the misconceptions employers have about blind people.

"Blind workers face attitudinal barriers," Howell said. "Some employers believe hiring a blind worker will make their insurance increase or their accident rate increase. That's not the case."

Howell said people like Ellis will make it easier for other blind people to find work with private enterprise.

"You don't have a lot of blind people in the work force. As they become more numerous, people will become more comfortable with them," Howell said.

Ellis, a born-again Baptist minister, is used to spreading the good word in churches throughout the area. He also has his wife, Robin, and daughter, Mallery, pulling for him to succeed.

"You know you can't see, but you know you need to accomplish a certain task. You will find a way to do that," he said.

With attitudes like that, Signature Works might have a problem maintaining that 75 percent threshold in the future.

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