They Keep America Writing

Nov 29th, 2012 | By | Category: Feature

Ever since I have lived in Greensboro, I’ve wondered what happened inside Industries of the Blind (IOB for short), the imposing and windowless building located on 920 West Lee Street. I was able to discover just that when my friend Jess Loer and I were privileged enough to be given a tour of the facilities by its Director of Sales, Richard Oliver.

When Jess and I arrived we were greeted by Industries of the Blind’s wonderful receptionist Trish Jarrett. I read about Jarrett when I visited IOB’s website prior to coming down for the tour. According to Jarrett’s profile, she was shot three times by a stranger when she was just 15. One of the bullets got lodged in her brain and left her with limited vision, loss of hearing in one ear, and paralyzed on one side of her body. Despite the hardships Jarrett must have faced after experiencing such intense trauma, she was remarkably warm and friendly.

Trish Jarrett, receptionist for Industries of the Blind

Richard Oliver came down to the lobby a few minutes later. Oliver explained to us that Industries of the Blind was originally named the “Guilford Association of the Blind” and was founded in 1933 by a woman named Myrtle Sternberger. Originally, the company employed six people who were blind and they manufactured commodities like mops, brooms, and rope. The organization changed its name to the “Industries of the Blind” when it was incorporated in 1954.

Oliver, who has been legally blind for 23 years, has been with IOB since 1995. “I applied and had a leg up since I was blind.” said Oliver. “I came in and started in accounting but have held almost every position in the company. I joke that they bounced me from department to department until they found one I fit in.”

After the introduction, Oliver led us to a conference room for our first stop on the tour. Once there, Oliver presented us with one of the many products IOB makes here. He said that the item “must be able to perform an in-field emergency tracheotomy.” The object in question wasn’t a piece of medical equipment, it was the “US Government Ballpoint Pen.” IOB has been making that pen for the US Military for over forty years. In fact, the pen was IOB’s first million dollar contract.

The U.S. Government Ballpoint Pen

The military requires that each of these pens meet a host of specifications: 16 pages worth to be exact . In addition to being able to perform the aforementioned impromptu surgery, the pen also has to be able to write in extreme temperatures (ranging from 120 degrees Fahrenheit to -40 degrees Fahrenheit), it can be used as a two minute fuse, and the length of the nose tip is also the regulation length of a female soldier’s fingernail.

IOB makes commodities and textiles for the government under the Javits-Wagner-O’Day Act. The act requires that all federal agencies purchase supplies from nonprofit agencies where people who are blind make up at least 75% of the direct labor. The federal agency that administers this program is the Committee for Purchase from People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled and they decide which commodities and and services the government should purchase.

The National Industries for the Blind assists the program with implementation and execution and acts as a liaison between IOB and the government. Typically, the NIB submits a cost to the government and, if the government says yes, IOB receives the contract. IOB has to be competitive, with both price and quality, to the commercial market. All of the textiles IOB uses to manufacture its products has to come from domestic sources, as a result of the Berry Amendment, although not all the raw materials used are American-made.

IOB currently employes about 220 people and about 125 of them are legally blind. Each of those employees is provided with medical, vision, and dental insurance along with a 401K and vacation time. If IOB makes a profit in a fiscal year, that profit is redistributed among all the full-time employees.

Oliver tells us, “We try to employ from the area. Eye doctors may refer their patients to us, especially those who have recently become visually impaired. Also, we go outside Guilford county. We send buses to Lexington, Reidsville, Eden, and Burlington to recruit people and give them rides.”

After giving Jess and me all this background information, Oliver takes us down to the manufacturing area. The first area we come to is an empty floor space where they keep finished products that are ready to be delivered. Oliver told us, “We had our Halloween party here this year. I went as Slash. This year, our president dressed up as Leisure Suit Larry, last year he went as Madea. We’ve been having a costume contest with San Antonio Lighthouse (another non-profit organization for the blind) for the past few years that NIB judges. Since our team lost this year our president had to dress in drag at a board meeting.”

Next up was another large room filled with military resale items, like brooms and clipboards, that are sold under IOB’s brand “SKILCRAFT” at commissaries on bases. There were also boxes of flight deck crew men’s jerseys made for the Navy. The jerseys come in seven different colors, each color representing a different job. They are made from fire retardant material.

Jess and I were then led to a room that was alive with the incessant buzzing of industrial sewing machines. Here, dozens of operators stitched together portions of shirts. The workers in this area incorporate Toyota’s “Bunk Back System” to improve efficiency by reducing the number of steps it takes to finish a product.

The sewing machines can cost up to $30,000 and have been adjusted, in house, to be accessible to people with limited to no vision. The workers train each other how to operate the machines and work together to find the most efficient methods of productions. In addition to shirts, the machines are also used to sew a variety of other textiles, ranging from parachutes and cargo nets to hard hat liners and fitness sweatpants.

A large portion of the textiles manufactured here are for the military. IOB’s cargo nets are a one time use product that are used to drop in supplies to troops from the sky. Once they are dropped, a soldier can simply use his knife to cutaway the cargo net and get the much needed supplies. Each finished net costs $150. The demands for these nets are going down since the military is dropping fewer supplies into Afghanistan.

These cargo nets are keeping our troops supplied with necessities.

IOB also makes parachutes for the military; they made 6,000 of them between January and October. These parachutes are made from graphing 30ft long strips of fabric together. Once the parachutes were made, they had to be rigged. The military requires parachute riggers to be qualified so they came to IOB and trained 30 employees to rig parachutes.

The products made at IOB have been used by the military to not only drop in supplies but to also shield a soldier’s head. IOB sews the kevlar pad that is underneath a soldier’s helmet. This pad is rated to withstand being shot from a 9mm round that’s fired from six feet away.

A government inspector from the Defense Contract Management Agency comes to IOB before the products are shipped to decide if IOB’s finished products pass or fail federal standards. The amount of government oversight is understandable, given that that soldiers lives are dependent on the performance of these products.

We were then led to the portion of the building where IOB manufactured, assembled, packaged, and shipped the US Government Ballpoint Pen, as well as 40 other types of pens. Oliver tells us, “I always have a pen, in fact I sign everything with our pen. If Dominos delivers, I sign the receipt with our pen. If I’m at a restaurant, I use our pen instead of the waiter’s.”

“Every single ink pen that’s gets made has to go through the hands of these people” said Oliver as he pointed to a group standing over a machine, packing pens into boxes. “Kathy’s grandfather was one of the first six people to work here way back when it was called “Guilford Association of the Blind.  He made their first broom.”

Every pen made at IOB goes through their hands. Kathy is the lady on the left.

One worker assigned to the pen department is a delightful woman named Sharon Brisbon. Brisbon was another one of the ladies whose bio I read on IOB’s website. In 1983, Brisbon was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease, that damaged her liver, lungs, and eyes. The disease worsened in 1987 and took away her site. Brisbon didn’t let the disease bring her down and persevered to make the best of her life. She has been with IOB since 2004 and is the current IOBs employee of the year, an award which allows her to fly out to Baltimore for a NIB convention.

Sharon Brisbon, IOB’s Employee of the Year

Our final stop on the tour was the Assembly Department downstairs. It’s here where IOB makes broom handles, cotton mop heads, clipboards (18-20,000 of them a month), and other military resale items. All 19 employees in this department are cross-trained, so they can make and assemble every product.

One of the workers in the Assembly Department is a man named Val Alexander. Alexander been inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame for both his band, The Gospel Keynotes, as well as his solo work.

Annie Alexander, or “Miss Annie” to her fellow employees, is the supervisor for the Assembly Department and was another lady profiled on IOB’s homepage. Annie is blind as a result of being born an albino. She uses her position as a supervisor to bring out the best in people, especially in workers who have recently lost their vision and, as a result of being blind, their confidence. When training someone, Annie will use rhymes to help the trainee: “First the metal, Then the board, Press the button, Then you’ve scored!”

Miss Annie Alexander, Assembly Department Supervisor

Industries of the Blind has been a staple of the Greensboro community for decades. In the nearly 80 years of its operation it has provided opportunities and independence to hundreds of people with limited vision. All of IOB’s employees are remarkable individuals who use their creativity, ingenuity, and dedication to improve the lives of everyone around them.

Photo Credits go to Jess Loer

The images of Trish, Sharon, and Miss Annie come from IOB’s website

For more information on IOB visit their website at

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