Queens Nonprofit Gives The Blind A Place To Work

(Originally published by Patch Media authored by Maya Kaufman. View original article here)

Alphapointe helps hundreds of people with vision impairments join the workforce.

By Maya Kaufman, Patch Staff  | Updated 
RICHMOND HILL, QUEENS — In a sprawling industrial complex in Richmond Hill, Joshua Romero is learning how to pack boxes. It’s a task that might seem intuitive. Romero, however, is completely blind.

Romero is one of 220 Queens-based employees at Alphapointe, a nonprofit that helps individuals with vision problems find work. The organization trains people across the spectrum of blindness for jobs in their call centers, warehouses and factories. Blind workers take calls for Aetna, pack boxes for the NYC Administration for Children’s Services and sew U.S. military uniforms. If individuals have other career aspirations, the nonprofit helps them find work elsewhere.

In the U.S., over 70 percent of adults with visual disabilities don’t have a full-time job, according to the National Federation for the Blind. Founded in 1911 in Kansas City, Alphapointe is now the third-largest single employer of individuals with visual impairments, with more than 400 such workers across four states.

Alphapointe opened its 19-building Queens campus in late 2018, after rising rents pushed the nonprofit out of its Brooklyn home. Alphapointe has spent more than a year — and $3 million — to make a dilapidated property at 123rd St. in Richmond Hill fully accessible to its blind workers.

Now, on a quiet residential street, mops, latex gloves, brooms, tourniquets and military uniforms share a common denominator — they’re made by people who can’t see.

“I wanted an opportunity to see if I could learn a new skill,” Manhattan resident Dwayne Mitchell said. “It really feels good to use my hands and make something out of nothing.”

Mitchell, who is training for a sewing job with Alphapointe, used to work as a substance abuse counselor. Then, in 2015, he lost his sight — and his job.

“I wound up in a shelter,” he said. “Who’s gonna hire a 60-year-old guy who can’t see now?”

Alphapointe aims to help people like Mitchell recover their self-sufficiency by giving them a paycheck and a sense of independence.

The nonprofit spent months teaching workers their new commute, so they can ride the subway by themselves. The Richmond Hill campus has tactile floors to tell workers when they’re leaving a walkway. Workers wearing earbuds get directions from an app that tells them exactly where they are in the massive complex and how to get to where they want to go. The app, called BlindSquare, beams the workers’ coordinates to GPS trackers on the ceilings.

“If you’re confident about what you’re doing, you can be more successful,” Anthony Luisi, Alphapointe’s director of development, said.

Alphapointe is fully automating the technology in its sewing department, so blind workers will be able to do jobs previously reserved for people who can see. (The nonprofit also employs a number of people who don’t have visual impairments.) That means helping more blind New Yorkers get back on their feet, according to Luisi.

“There’s more to it than just a job,” Luisi said.

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