A local manufacturing facility in Albany is the only one of its kind employing an unusual workforce.
They make products for our nation’s military, the New York City Transit Authority, and New York Department of Transportation.
“Production has to flow. We cannot have errors or mistakes,” Christopher Burke explained.
A skilled seamstress named Diane Hubbard sat at the front of the assembly line.
“I like to sew; I enjoy it,” she said.
Diane is able to produce 100 safety vests a day.
Upon closer inspection of the factory floor located on Washington Avenue, you’ll learn it’s no ordinary factory. The fabric of this workforce is mostly the blind.
“You learn you just get used to it ,” Hubbard said.
With no sight, Diane is able to feel her way through each perfect stitch.
“We don’t think it’s amazing,” she said. “It’s a job we get paid for.”
The only thing helping her is a small piece of adaptive equipment.
Burke is the executive director at Northeastern Association of the Blind at Albany (NABA).
“A low profile fixture right next to the needle is just enough for an individual to line that zipper up with the rest,” he explained.
The rest is all Diane and her training.
“Our job is independence,” Burke said. “We change people’s lives every day. We see it right here on the floor.”
Burke’s mission is to create as many jobs as possible for people who can’t see. The blind community has a 70 percent unemployment rate.
“When I got here, they said ‘Well, blind people can’t iron. They are blind,’” he recalled.
Now all the ironing is done by people with no vision, but that comes with its own set of challenges.
“Mainly just getting over the fear of working with the iron as hot as it is, learning where my hands need to go,” explained Lynette Stevens.
After ironing out the details, Lynette is now able to make neck tabs for women’s military uniforms.
“We make them for The Navy, The Army, and The Marines,” Burke said. “So anywhere in the country, or in the world, that you see someone in a dress uniform, they are all made in Albany on this floor.”
It’s a point of pride for Stevens.
“It’s a way to honor our service people,” she said.
“We might do something differently than you but the fact is we get it done,” Diane added.
Burke, showing off one of the reflective vests, explained, “When the light hits this, it lights up as if light was shining back at you.”
This blind workforce now leading the sighted to better see state DOT crews, workers in the NYC subway, and Metro North. They also have full benefits and opportunities many once thought were reserved for people with sight.
“That’s why this is so important because people find out they really can work,” Hubbard stated.
The sewing machine is more than just a needle and some thread piecing together parts of a uniform. It’s become a tool for mending a community who can see far beyond their challenges.
NABA’s manufacturing operation has been in business for 30 years. The organization provides around 500 jobs within their facility and through outside job placement.
If you’d like to contact NABA and find out more about their services, you can visit their website: https://naba-vision.org/