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The Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc. stands out as one of Seattle’s oldest nonprofit organizations, with over eighty years of practical service to blind people in our community. The Seattle Lighthouse saw its beginnings in 1914 as a social club called the Seattle Association of the Blind. The fledgling group soon realized that many blind people faced barriers in the areas of basic education, training and employment. In order to address these needs, the Association opened a small retail shop, selling jigsaw puzzles and baskets made by their members. Many of Seattle’s leading citizens became involved with these efforts to promote self-sufficiency for blind people. In April of 1918, the growing organization was incorporated as The Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc. This name was already in common currency throughout the country – over 100 different agencies chose the Lighthouse name.
The very first mission statement of the Seattle Lighthouse read:
To carry on any business, avocation or charitable work which shall contribute to the general welfare and well-being of the blind and those directly dependent on them and to maintain a workshop to make the blind self-supporting.
In the early years, volunteers provided a wide variety of services to blind people in Seattle: home visits, reading, food baskets, and financial assistance. However, organizational focus ultimately turned toward employment. The Seattle Lighthouse believed that jobs were the first step on the path toward independence and self-sufficiency for blind people in the community.
The Lighthouse opened a manufacturing operation in rented space in downtown Seattle, the current site of the Olympic Four Seasons hotel. This manufacturing operation concentrated on basket-weaving, chair-caning and broom-making.
In 1925, a larger facility was constructed on the waterfront at Elliott Avenue West and John Street, allowing expanded broom-making operations. Seattle citizens donated materials, funds and labor needed to construct this larger site. At this time, the Lighthouse employed fifteen people.
In 1964, the Lighthouse merged with Handcrest Inc., until that point a state operated “sheltered workshop.” Handcrest brought an entirely different product line, specializing in hand-woven textiles and machine shop work. After the merger the new Seattle Lighthouse employed over 100 people. Many long-time residents of Seattle recall that Lighthouse brooms were sold door-to-door and Handcrest woven neckties were featured in department stores all along the West Coast.
The Seattle Lighthouse moved to its present facility, located in the Rainier Valley, in 1967. Construction of the new building was financed by surpluses from manufacturing operations as well as through bequests and donations. The original 1967 building has been expanded several times, and now occupies more than a full city block.
The 1970’s brought major changes. The handicrafts of the past gave way to modern industrial manufacturing. Aluminum easels, binders, sponge mops and paper trimmers replaced brooms and baskets. Over the years, the Lighthouse has benefited greatly from our relationship with The Boeing Company, producing several thousand different airplane parts in our state-of-the-art machine shop. At the same time, the Lighthouse has benefited from the Javits-Wagner-O’Day Act that allows agencies employing blind workers to compete for contracts supplying commodities to the federal government. These changes gave blind people opportunities to work at jobs requiring higher skill levels and to gain skills that were marketable with other employers.
During the 1970’s, the Lighthouse also joined a growing movement to provide specialized professional vocational rehabilitation services to people who are blind. Beginning with one psychiatric social worker, the Lighthouse developed an extremely effective rehabilitation department. Rehabilitation services include: vocational testing, counseling, orientation and mobility training with white cane or guide dog, independent living skills, technical support, in-house sign language interpreting, recreational activities, job training, braille classes, sign language instruction and information and referral services.
During this same time period, the Lighthouse began offering pre-vocational programs and employment for people with multiple disabilities. Our first program involved blind adults with severe developmental disabilities, many living in state institutions. The Lighthouse’s Specialized Industries Program provided a large group of severely disabled people, previously thought untrainable and unemployable, with their first taste of independence and productive work. Many of those original severely disabled employees still work at the Lighthouse today, integrated into our manufacturing departments, earning regular wages and living in the community.
In 1972, the Lighthouse hired its first Deaf-Blind employee. More Deaf-Blind employees soon followed, and the Lighthouse became part of the unique, and growing Deaf-Blind community in the Seattle area. The Lighthouse continues to demonstrate unparalleled expertise in providing training, support services and employment for people who are Deaf-Blind. The Seattle Lighthouse is the nation’s largest employer of people who are Deaf-Blind, and our programs are viewed as models of best practices for other agencies throughout the country.
Today, the Lighthouse is one of Washington State’s top 100 manufacturing employers, with approximately 300 employees. The nature of employment opportunities offered to blind people has improved dramatically. Jobs once thought impossible for blind individuals are now done routinely. Our emphasis mirrors those of other manufacturing and service companies: competitive skills, world-class training, quality products, just-in-time delivery, teamwork and employee involvement. The Lighthouse continues to modernize and diversify business operations, while maintaining a commitment to providing each employee with whatever training and workplace accommodations are necessary to perform jobs to the fullest capacity.
However, unemployment for blind adults in the United States remains over 70%. Until our society as a whole provides blind people with equal opportunities for training and employment, The Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc. will continue striving to fulfill our mission.