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Helping blind and visually-impaired Texans gain independence

Austin Lighthouse offers skills training and employment opportunities to those with visual impairments as a way to provide independence.

AUSTIN, Texas — Financial independence and success are two things we all strive for. But career opportunities shouldn't be limited for those who are blind or visually impaired. 

Austin Lighthouse, a nonprofit in Austin, hopes to break that cycle.

"It is handy. It's like having another set of eyes that actually works," Chris Perkins said.

Perkins knows what it's like to have something taken away. He was born being able to see but started losing his vision in his late 30s. Perkins went in for a routine eye exam and the doctor discovered he had retinal dystrophy. 

"It was really frustrating, and it was scary. I struggled with it, you know, quite a bit the first few years. But I went to vocational rehab, and it helped me realize I'm not the only person that has an eye condition," Perkins said. 

Perkins' vocational rehab and road to independence started at the Austin Lighthouse. Inside the nonprofit's warehouse, Perkins and other members of Austin's blind and visually impaired community can learn a skill and find employment. 

"They can learn software applications such as Excel or Outlook. They can learn how to keyboard. A lot of people don't know how to keyboard, don't know how to use a computer," said Al Perales, Austin Lighthouse's vice president of business innovation.

Perales was instrumental in helping Perkins reach his full potential.

"I was sweeping and mopping the floors, cleaning the bathrooms. Then I moved into vending machines," Perkins said.

"One day, I ran into him, we started talking and I realized that he had what in the IT world we call a 'logical mind,' meaning that he had the capacity to do much more than put coke cans in coke machines," Perales said.

With the right training and certification, Perkins became Austin Lighthouse's e-commerce administrator. He now runs the website that helps bring the nonprofit money.

"I put all the artwork up on the website. I rearranged all the banners and I've tied it in with Google analytics," Perkins said.

The job Perkins does is an important one. In fact, in every corner of the nonprofit's warehouse, you'll find people doing meaningful work. 

The Austin Lighthouse contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense to provide work for those in the nonprofit. One group makes rigger belts and trouser belts for the military, and another group makes smaller inserts for bulletproof vests. 

Residents don't have to work at the nonprofit to benefit from its services.

"This room focuses on video magnification. All around you're seeing different sized devices, but essentially, they all achieve the same purpose. Each device makes things larger, others speak to you," said Eric Sinfuentes, the assistive technology lead for the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC). 

With a referral from the TWC, anyone can visit the nonprofit's low-vision room and test out the tools provided. Some of the devices can help individuals read their mail or a prescription bottle, while others can make your day job easier.

"The one I use is called Fusion. It inverts the color. See, most people have a light background with dark letters, and I reverse that," Perkins said.

The goal of the nonprofit, for all those participating, is independence.

"This is the only place I've worked at in my 40 years of being in work where at the end of the day, I feel like I accomplished something. It is the most fulfilling place I have ever worked at in my life," Perales said.

For Perkins, there's no cure for his eye condition. Doctors told him the only certainty was that his sight will get progressively worse. 

"And that's a pretty heavy burden to carry. Waking up every day and realizing, okay, I can see less today, less today," he said.

However, Perkins is confident he will continue to succeed. And because of the Austin Lighthouse, his quality of life has changed. 

"I've never been the type to give up. You can't be afraid to ask for help," Perkins said.

The Austin Lighthouse includes a million square feet of warehouse, spanned across four locations. Those who would like to visit a warehouse can find three throughout southeast Austin and one in Taylor.  

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