Innovative Solutions Keep NABA Thriving

A woman wearing a hijab and face mask and white apron over a dark colored dress sitting at a sewing machine

NIB associated nonprofit agency Northeastern Association of the Blind at Albany (NABA) is adept at finding solutions to difficult problems, so its ability to rise to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic is no surprise.

In addition to the rehabilitation services offered to people who are blind in eastern New York, NABA also creates employment through its manufacturing operations and the sale of products through the AbilityOne® Program and the New York State Preferred Source Program For New Yorkers Who Are Blind (NYSPSP).

NABA manufactures personal protective equipment (PPE) such as protective “cleanroom” coveralls; drug test kits; reflective work vests; disinfectants; and military uniform components and supplies. When the pandemic hit in 2020 and protective masks were in short supply, NABA’s response was ingenious.

The agency used its cleanroom coverall fabric, made with a propylene material similar to that used in N95 respirators, to make face masks. The agency provided about 25,000 of those masks to direct service providers at local and state nonprofits, the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, and state transit systems, while also keeping its manufacturing employees fully employed, says CEO and Executive Director Christopher T. Burke.

NABA was deemed an essential business by the state and federal government, so to keep its doors open, operations running, and employees safe, the agency installed barriers, enforced social distancing, monitored employees for virus symptoms, and went to a four-day workweek to free one day each week for deep cleaning.

Innovative approaches to problem solving didn’t start with the pandemic, though.   Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), for example, sends engineering students to NABA to work on cutting-edge solutions to manufacturing challenges.

“As part of their senior projects, students build or reconfigure machines to allow people who are blind to do jobs performed by sighted employees and figure out things like how to improve inventory controls, reconfigure floor layouts to improve process flow, and ways to reduce scrap,” Burke says. “They’ve helped us tremendously. I can’t say enough good things about RPI.”

Some of NABA’s best employees are former clients who came for rehabilitation services and appreciated the welcoming environment, like Entsar Alkhazrajy, who arrived in the U.S. from Iraq in 2010, unable to speak English and having never used a white cane. At NABA, she learned to speak the language, received rehabilitation and mobility services, and ultimately began working in the manufacturing department.

Currently sewing neckties for women’s U.S. military uniforms, Alkhazrajy loves her job. “It is challenging, but I learn new things and I can handle it,” she says. “I get so much support here — people help me with filing my taxes, with training, with any questions I have.” In addition, NABA adapted appliances in her home and helped her budget, enabling her to live independently and raise two children. “I like everybody here so much, they’re like my family,” Alkhazrajy says, noting that she doesn’t get to see her family in Iraq often.

“NABA is enormously important to the community,” says Production Specialist James Jones, who first came to NABA for rehabilitation services in 2009 after losing much of his eyesight. “Where else can people who are blind go for education and rehabilitation services? The icing on the cake is that they employ people too.”