A 55-Year-Old Pen is Still Transforming Lives

Embraced by the U.S. government and military, an iconic SKILCRAFT pen has been made according to 16-page specifications by National Industries for the Blind since 1968


ALEXANDRIA, Va.—National Industries for the Blind, the nation’s largest employment resource for people who are blind, celebrated its 85th anniversary this year. At the same time, a highly successful, extremely popular, and even legendary NIB product is celebrating 55 years. The SKILCRAFT U.S. Government Pen has been made by NIB associated nonprofit agency employees for the past five decades. Most of the employees who produce the pen are blind or visually impaired.

To Richard Oliver, director of community outreach and government relations at NIB associated nonprofit agency Industries of the Blind (IOB) in Greensboro, North Carolina, the pen has meant a 24+ year career. IOB and Industries for the Blind and Visually Impaired (BVI) in West Allis, Wisconsin, are the two NIB associated nonprofit agencies that currently manufacture the SKILCRAFT U.S. Government Pen. Between the two, more than 35 people who are blind manufacture nearly four million SKILCRAFT U.S. Government Pens each year.

Born with birth defects in both eyes, followed by two retinal detachments within six years, Oliver has been legally blind for 34 years. “I doubt that many of those in the government and the military who use these pens know what they represent for so many people who are blind, including myself,” said Oliver. “For so many, the pens have opened the door to successful careers.”

The small pen is nothing short of amazing. It can write continuously for a mile and not run out of ink. It can withstand extreme temperatures, from 40 below zero to more than 160 degrees Fahrenheit. The ink must not blot, skip, feather or spread and must dry within five seconds. It must also withstand water, light and bleach. To ensure the pens meet the 16 pages of required standards, batches are regularly and closely tested.

NIB and its agencies began producing the pen after the General Services Administration (GSA) received 13 million defective pens from a supplier in 1967 and urgently needed to find another manufacturer. The GSA approached NIB to see if its agencies could take over and make 70 million pens. NIB accepted the challenge and delivered on its promise. Today, the pens are still made to the same stringent specifications.

NIB’s successful delivery of this high-quality product proved to the GSA and other government customers that people who are blind are capable not only of making a durable pen, but of making other superior quality products. Today, NIB and its agencies provide more than 7,000 products to the U.S. government through the AbilityOne Program.

While the SKILCRAFT U.S. Government Pen may be found in agencies across the federal government (including U.S. post offices), it is used extensively by the U.S. military. To this day, while the military has changed many of the products, weapons and items it procures, its dedication to the SKILCRAFT U.S. Government Pen remains unchanged. Designed for durability and created with quality materials, it also meets military standards. At 5-1/8 inches, it is slightly smaller than an average pen so as to fit unseen into a soldier’s pocket. It also measures 150 nautical miles on a map from end to end.

For the blind and visually impaired employees at IOB and IBVI, the pen has not only provided employment. It has also made it possible for them to achieve lifetime goals—home ownership, putting children through college, advanced educational degrees and personal and economic independence.

“We are a family here, and we take great pride in the work we do. That pen has given all of us so much. It has given us steady employment, and that means the chance to own a home and raise our children. At the same time, it allows us to serve the military,” said Clifford Alexander, who has been supervisor of the IOB pen department since 1993. “For me, I bought a home and put my kids through school. It has made my life totally different in a really good way.”

NIB is a central nonprofit agency for the AbilityOne Program, a small government program that provides employment opportunities for people who are blind or have significant disabilities. The AbilityOne Program uses the purchasing power of the federal government to buy products and services from participating, community-based nonprofit agencies nationwide.

While the SKILCRAFT U.S. Government Pen and other AbilityOne products have allowed a large number of employees to obtain job security, people who are blind still have one of the highest unemployment rates – 70% of working age Americans who are blind are not employed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the jobless rate for those with a disability is about twice as high as the rate for people without a disability.

NIB is working to change those statistics and reduce that unemployment rate by creating opportunities for people who are blind to become wage earners and taxpayers, reducing reliance on government support and increasing engagement with their communities.

NIB and its nearly 100 associated nonprofit agencies across the country are the nation’s largest employment resource for people who are blind. In 2022, NIB and its agencies employed more than 5,000 people who are blind and provided jobs for 506 veterans.

“Even though people who are blind want to work and be engaged in their communities, they face obstacles in their search,” said Kevin Lynch, NIB president and CEO. “They have the same skills as someone who is sighted and are more than capable of getting the job done. Giving them that opportunity is essential. NIB will continue to empower people who are blind to choose the preferred career path and chart their own journey to achieving the American Dream.”


About National Industries for the Blind

Incorporated in 1938, NIB is the nation’s largest employment resource for people who are blind, and through its network of associated nonprofit agencies, the largest employer of people who are blind in the U.S. NIB creates opportunities for people who are blind to become wage earners and taxpayers, reducing their reliance on government support and increasing engagement in their communities. The organization offers career training and assists employers and employees in developing mutually beneficial workplaces. NIB’s vision is that blindness is not a barrier to employment. In 2021, NIB launched a national talent management enterprise known as NSITE. NSITE provides a continuum of employment services that connect employers with talented, dedicated people who are blind or visually impaired, including veterans. For more information, visit www.nib.org or www.nsite.org.