BISM Prepares People Who Are Blind to Attain Their Dream

Old black and white photo of BISM building

Headquartered in Baltimore, NIB associated nonprofit agency Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM), has been providing employment opportunities and life skills training programs to people who are blind or have low vision since 1908. Its multifaceted manufacturing operations employ nearly 500 people at three Maryland locations — Baltimore, Federalsburg, and Salisbury — and in Raleigh, North Carolina. BISM also operates seven AbilityOne Base Supply Centers® (BSCs) at federal facilities in Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.

Committed to providing opportunities for upward mobility, BISM is also dedicated to promoting from within, explains Vice President Michael Gosse. “My vision is for BISM to provide opportunity that grows with an individual’s commitment and capabilities.”

A recent pilot program in Baltimore offered employees promotion opportunities aligned with their personal aspirations. After taking aptitude assessments, personal training programs were developed for two production employees who were interested in new production planning positions. The employees received four hours of paid training per day to learn the skills needed to succeed in the new positions. The pilot will soon be extended to other locations.

“Now the challenge is helping the rest of our associates identify their dreams and aspirations,” Gosse says. “With the additional training, employees can develop skills that help them succeed at BISM or at an outside organization where they can have a positive impact on the broader community. I’ll be happy with either outcome.”

Vice President for Sales and Marketing Ken Barnett also stresses the importance of ensuring employees have the tools to succeed, including the latest assistive technology. The BSCs Barnett oversees now have text-scanners and registers, and all BISM employees can download software to their phones to access personnel information 24/7. Such technology helps employees who are blind succeed in challenging positions in accounting, communications, sales, customer care, retail, and at BSCs.

Trying Out New Positions

BISM employees enjoy trying out new tasks that could lead to job advancement. Edward Cokley, an associate at the Raleigh facility, says the training is excellent. Currently a sewing machine operator, Cokley, who is sometimes called on to operate a forklift in shipping and receiving, says “I like being busy and learning new aspects of the job.” He recently volunteered to train coworkers on a new accessible payroll system.

John Toliver, a sewing machine operator in Salisbury, Maryland, started at BISM on a material fusing machine and worked up to sewing military jackets. “I always wanted to join the Army as a kid, so I feel like I’m serving our country in a small way,” he says.

“We have very supportive supervisors who give everyone an opportunity to try new things and are there to support you when you have questions,” Toliver says. “People with vision impairment often second-guess themselves and their abilities, but when a place like BISM opens its doors to you, there’s a freedom to try new things.”

Building Self-Confidence

The agency’s commitment to opening doors is reflected in its Comprehensive Orientation, Rehabilitation, and Empowerment (CORE) program, an intensive, 8-to-12-month residential curriculum that teaches people who are blind self-sufficiency skills to regain control of their lives.  

CORE Manager Laura Shroyer says participants “learn life in a nonvisual way” through critical thinking and problem-solving. “Independence is a personal thing,” she says. “It’s up to individuals to choose what they want to be and do, and it’s up to us as instructors to make sure that happens.”

CORE sessions run year-round, providing one-on-one training for 10 to 12 students at a time. Classes include braille, cane travel, independent living, computer technology, woodworking, job readiness, and adjustment to blindness. Before graduating, each student prepares a four-course meal for friends from start to finish, including creating a braille invitation, choosing a menu, preparing a grocery list, shopping for ingredients, setting the table, cooking the meal, and cleaning up afterward.

In woodworking class, students learn to build a braille block to practice their braille skills and use a “click ruler” to make measurements. Using power tools with no modifications other than braille labeling, students’ self-confidence soars as they create beautiful projects of their choosing, such as table and chair sets, toy boxes, and benches.

Shroyer notes that many CORE graduates land jobs before they complete the program. Juniel Goode, who came to CORE for training in cane travel and to brush up on his computer skills, says the program enriched his life. Shortly after completing it, Goode was hired as an associate at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory BSC, where he now aspires to become a team leader.

“It’s really about empowering people who are blind to live the life they envision,” Shroyer says. “With the right teaching, skill set, and mindset, people can do anything.”

Shroyer is both a graduate of the CORE program and an example of BISM’s commitment to providing opportunity. After taking a break to raise her three children, she returned to the agency to work in the sewing department. When a position as an independent living instructor opened, she applied and was hired. Three years later, she is managing CORE.

Investments That Benefit Everyone

Nikki Jackson at computer

BISM’s philosophy of investing in employees’ growth and development benefits the community as well, Gosse explains. “Every dollar invested in our associates returns to the community at least 10 to 1 by creating productive, independent, taxpaying citizens.”

Communications Manager Nikki Jackson, who joined the agency in 2013 to teach cane travel to high school students, can attest to the wisdom of the BISM philosophy. After holding several positions, she was encouraged to “get out of her comfort zone” and apply for a communications opening.

“The message was ‘we want you to succeed and we’re going to support you in your efforts,’ ” recalls Jackson, who is now the first person who is blind to fill the role.

Employees at BISM embrace the agency’s philosophy of embracing opportunity to reach their personal goals as well, and are doing their best to make that ideal a reality.