Blind World Magazine

Blind American Clockmakers Threatened by Chinese.

June 26, 2005.
ABC News, Chicago.

CHICAGO, June 26, 2005 - The wall clocks made at the Chicago Lighthouse are a familiar sight to most people in schools and government offices.

But not to the people who make them: Nearly everyone who works at the factory is blind.

That's no problem for Rita McCabe, who can turn out a clock every 50 seconds. She has worked here for 25 years, doing everything by feel.

"The dial face has a tab that I can tell where the 12:00 is at," she said.

Lately, though, she feels very vulnerable. The factory once employed 100 visually-impaired workers. Now there are only 30 because of competition from cheaper products made overseas.

"I thank God everyday for my job," McCabe said. "I don't know what I'd be doing [without it]. I'd probably be sitting at home. And I don't want to do that."

Cheaper Chinese Clocks

The price difference between domestic and foreign clocks can be significant. One clock made at the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind retails for about $23, but a similar model made in China can sell for half as much.

That is why sales to the federal government, the Chicago Lighthouse's biggest customer, have dropped 30 percent in recent years.

"It is a more severe threat," said Jim Kesteloot, executive director for the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind, "because it's going to cost a person who is blind their job."

Nearly 70 percent of blind people in the United States are already unemployed, according to the American Council of the Blind.

"Lots of people don't want to hire the handicapped," said Leon Taylor, a legally blind employee at the Chicago Lighthouse. "And there's no jobs out there."

"No matter how skillful you are, it's difficult to find employment if you don't drive and can't get to a job," said Oswaldo Barbosa, a supervisor who is visually impaired.

To compete, managers at this nonprofit organization have stepped up marketing efforts - attending trade shows and aggressively pursuing partnerships with companies like Office Max.

Managers claim that the Chicago Lighthouse clocks last longer than cheaper products made overseas. They also have expanded their ability to customize clock faces with company and military logos.

It may be an effort to buy more time for a product with a value that far exceeds its price.

ABC News' Barbara Pinto originally reported this story for "World News Tonight" on June 18, 2005.

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