Since 1906, The Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired has been one of the nation’s most comprehensive organizations serving people who are blind, visually impaired, and disabled, including veterans. While the Chicago Lighthouse has seen its share of history – including two World Wars and global pandemics –it’s made history of its own, laying claim to some impressive firsts.
For example, the Chicago Lighthouse is home to one of the most prominent and longest operating vision clinics in the country. It also runs a state-certified school for children with multiple disabilities, the first of its kind in the Midwest. And through a separate nonprofit, Lighthouse Industries, it holds an exclusive contract to manufacture clocks for the U.S. government.
The clocks, assembled by employees who are blind, adorn the walls of federal buildings, American embassies, and military installations around the world. One of those clocks, found in the ruins of the Pentagon after September 11, 2001, is now on display at the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City.
More recently, The Lighthouse has developed call centers that employ hundreds of people with disabilities and spearheaded the growth of knowledge-based jobs.
“We are a multidisciplinary organization that identifies the talents of people who are blind, enables them to pursue their dreams, and ultimately attain their goals.” says Lighthouse CEO and President Janet Szlyk, Ph.D., who has been at the agency’s helm since 2008. Szlyk joined the agency after a successful academic career at the University of Illinois at Chicago and is only the second woman to lead The Lighthouse in the agency’s history.
Building Knowledge-Based Opportunities
In addition to offering 40 programs in education, employment, rehabilitation, and other areas, The Lighthouse prepares people who are blind or visually impaired for jobs in such fields as human resources, finance, and IT.
“One of our people was recently snapped up for a position at Google,” Szlyk says emphasizing that The Lighthouse is training the leaders of tomorrow. She attributes the organization’s success, at least in part, to a willingness to be innovative.
One recent innovation is the agency’s digital accessible experience (DAX) consulting service, which launched in November 2019.
“Our DAX consulting service features certified IT professionals, all of whom are blind, who evaluate websites and digital properties across a variety of assistive technologies and accommodations to ensure optimized accessibility for all,” explains Phil Yatvin, senior director of Lighthouse Industries.
“DAX represents the next step in The Lighthouse’s model in that it enables our professionals who are blind to move into new and exciting positions,” he says. “It offers real career growth.”
The agency’s call centers continue to expand as well, according to Kathy Stoeberl, executive vice president and chief business development officer.
In 2012, The Lighthouse contracted with the State of Illinois to manage call center operations for the sprawling Illinois Tollway system, which runs throughout metropolitan Chicago.
“The call centers not only provide jobs for veterans and people with disabilities, they also supply necessary revenue to help fund our vital services,” Stoeberl explains.
Emphasizing that Lighthouse programs are designed to support one another, she points to a special project in 2021 involving a call center client, UI Health and DAX.
“UI Health was planning to switch its scheduling platform to Epic, an electronic health record system, but some of the platform’s features weren’t fully accessible for people who are blind,” Stoeberl recalls. UI Health brokered an introduction between Epic and the DAX team to address the problem.
“The DAX team helped Epic optimize its accessibility features so that our call center agents who are totally blind can use the platform to schedule appointments.”
Stoeberl says that because of the Epic optimization, many Lighthouse call center agents have been promoted into medical scheduler positions. “This is a huge breakthrough for us, Epic, and anyone who is blind or visually impaired working in the medical field.”
The Lighthouse also recently adapted its call center services to remote platforms, expanding job opportunities to people who are blind in other states.
In August 2021, the agency partnered with BlindSight Delaware Enterprises, Inc. (BSDE), an organization with a similar mission, to develop business solutions like call centers in Wilmington. Now, The Lighthouse is developing relationships with other Delaware-based agencies to grow the business.
“Our intent is for BSDE to serve as a template for creating similar partnerships and opportunities for people who are blind or visually impaired in other parts of the country,” Stoeberl says.
Breaking New Ground
Given Szlyk’s expertise as a scientist, it’s no surprise that she established a world-class research program at The Lighthouse.
One of the program’s most exciting studies involves an intracortical visual prosthesis (ICVP), a wireless device implanted directly into the visual cortex, bypassing the retina and optic nerves, that aims to restore some light perception for people who are totally blind.
The device was developed at the Illinois Institute of Technology; a neurosurgery team at Rush University Medical Center implants the device; and the ICVP testing and rehabilitation is conducted at The Lighthouse, where Szlyk serves as the site’s principal investigator for the clinical trial.
“It is a true partnership that has the potential to benefit the lives of people who are blind,” says Lighthouse Vice President of Research Patricia Grant, Ph.D.
The Lighthouse also expects to break ground on its first ever housing initiative this spring. The Foglia Residences at The Chicago Lighthouse will be the first building in the country specifically designed for people who are blind. It will serve as a showcase of accessibility technology for the home environment and provide safe, affordable, and accessible housing for people who are blind.
“Our hope is to provide a model for other organizations to create their own housing solutions in their communities,” said Szlyk.
Szlyk invites organizations serving people who are blind to reach out for more information about building knowledge-based opportunities “We are always happy to consult, advise, and otherwise assist our colleagues around the country.”