Hope. Independence. Pride. Those are words Jim Kerlin uses to describe Beyond Vision, a Milwaukee-based, self-funded social enterprise that provides employment opportunities for the blind and visually impaired.
“Most people don’t understand blindness,” said Kerlin, president and chief executive officer of Beyond Vision. “They’re visually impaired, they’re not dumb … they can do anything you and I can do if they have the right tools.”
Kerlin said the reality is 70% of those who are visually impaired can’t find work.
“The unspoken truth is when they walk through the door on an interview, as soon as somebody sees the cane or the guide dog, excuses start to happen and it’s just based on unfounded fears. The average person doesn’t understand blindness,” Kerlin said.
“It’s a greatly overlooked workforce,” he added.
Beyond Vision provides customer care, machining, assembly, packaging and website accessibility testing for a range of customers, from the state and federal governments to major brands like Harley-Davidson and Briggs & Stratton.
Serving those customers requires a focus on running a quality business. Kerlin said Beyond Vision uses the phrase “no margin, no mission.”
The mission is all about helping the visually impaired grow in their careers.
“We use the analogy that Beyond Vision is a runway,” Kerlin said. “It’s a place to land or it’s a place to grow.”
Take the example of the company’s accessibility coordinator who started in assembly and packaging doing light manufacturing. He later moved into machining and then the call center. After trying out sales, the employee landed in his current role.
“He’s like a rockstar,” Kerlin said. “He goes everywhere in the company and works on overcoming the status quo of ‘this can only be done by a person with vision.’ We don’t accept that.”
Another employee came to the company after losing her vision. The first time Kerlin met her, he could tell she was insecure about her recent vision loss, but she has continued to grow with the company and is now a call center supervisor.
Beyond Vision makes a point of paying market competitive wages to all employees and invested significantly in its enterprise resource planning system to make it accessible to all employees, opening up more opportunities for blind employees in every department.
Asked to describe the company culture, employees described a business focused on teaching, training, hiring and promoting with everyone pulling in the same direction.
“I am not looked at as blind,” one employee said. “There is no difference between sighted and non-sighted people.”
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