Sunday, October 26, 2014

Industries for the Blind
by Jennifer Tomazic

WEST ALLIS -- There are plenty of companies that make pens and brushes but there is one in West Allis that offers something more with its products the chance to help employ those who might not otherwise find a job.

Industries for the Blind employs people with limited vision and those who are severely handicapped or disabled.  Vice President of Corporate Marketing CJ Lange says 83% of the company's workforce falls under those categories and they work everywhere from the production floor to the sales office.

The company makes everything from brushes to pens, many of which are bought by the government.

"We're just living the dream and it's made possible by what I do here at Industries for the Blind Milwaukee," said Steve Heesen.

He started working with the company at a plant in Janesville when he was in high school.  Now Heesen is an inside sales manager and he works to get clients on board and follows up with them to make sure they're happy.

Because he was born legally blind, Heesen uses a special computer program called JAWS to read aloud what is on the computer screen.  That helps him when he's on the phone with clients.

"I have a phone call in my left ear and JAWS is talking to me in my right ear," said Heesen.  He also uses the carpeted and tiled sections of the hallway floor to help him find his office.

Heesen has become an advocate for the blind.  He talks to lawmakers on Capitol Hill about the issue once a year and says he's doing it, not only for others in his situation but also for his immediate family.  Heesen comes from three generations of blindness: his mother and sister are blind and two of his kids are blind, including an 8-month-old.

"This is what I live. This is where I live, so I feel it straight from the heart and its really easy to communicate that when I feel it right here," said Heesen.  "I consider Industries for the Blind Milwaukee family and every time I make a sale I'm providing employment for people that need it the most."

Some of Heesen's clients come from meetings that Dan Bailey, National Federal Sales Director IB Express, has with companies all over the United States.

"At each stop along the way they are thrilled to be able to impact the lives of disabled Americans," said Bailey.

He and his guide dog, Mr. Phelps, have been to 40 states and are about to embark on their 400th flight.  Bailey has been paired with Mr. Phelps for 4 years.  Heesen helped connect him to a group that connects the blind with guide dogs when Bailey's vision got worse.

"I'm actually the worst kind of blind guy," said Bailey.  "I've always had just enough eyesight to think I don't need any help from anyone."

Now Bailey appreciates the help he gets from Mr. Phelps and the companionship.

"He's one of my best friends," said Bailey.  "He slaloms me through the airport, shoulder to shoulder.  I tell him to find the escalator and he finds the escalator.  He ask him to find a chair and he finds me an open chair to sit in.  We're working on find Starbucks."

Both Bailey and Heesen attribute much of their success in life to the opportunities they received at Industries for the Blind.  Lange is happy to have them as part of the workforce.

"A lot of people who are doing well here were not given that opportunity in the commercial world and we see things a little different here," said Lange.  "We see their greater potential and we give them the tools they need to succeed."

Industries for the Blind has a goal of hiring 30 to 25 blind professionals in the next three years. 

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