The Lighthouse for the Blind

The Lighthouse stands out as one of Seattle’s oldest nonprofit organizations, with over eighty-five years of continuous service to blind people in our community.
The Lighthouse saw its beginnings around 1910 as a social club called the Seattle Association of the Blind. The fledgling group soon realized that many blind people faced barriers in the areas of basic education, training and employment. In order to address these needs, the Association opened a small retail shop, selling jigsaw puzzles and baskets made by their members. Many of Seattle’s leading citizens became involved with these efforts to promote self-sufficiency for blind people. In April of 1918, the growing organization incorporated as The Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc. This name was already in common currency throughout the country with over 100 different agencies choosing the Lighthouse moniker.
The very first mission statement of the Lighthouse read: To carry on any business, avocation or charitable work which shall contribute to the general welfare and well being of the blind and those directly dependent on them and to maintain a workshop to make the blind self-supporting.
In the early years, volunteers provided a wide variety of services to blind people in Seattle including: home visits, reading, food baskets, and financial assistance. Ultimately, organizational efforts focused on employment.
The board of directors believed that jobs were the first step on the path of independence and self-sufficiency for blind people. The Lighthouse opened a manufacturing operation in downtown Seattle, at the current site of the Olympic Four Seasons Hotel, consisting of basket-weaving, chair-caning and broom-making. In 1925, a larger facility was constructed on the waterfront at Elliott Avenue West and John Street, allowing expanded broom-making operations and employment for fifteen blind people. Seattle citizens donated materials, funds and labor needed to build this larger site.
In 1964, the Lighthouse merged operations with Handcrest Inc. Handcrest’s hand-woven textiles and machine shop operations, combined with the Lighthouse’s traditional product lines, provided employment to over 100 people. Many long-time residents of Seattle recall that Lighthouse brooms were sold door-to-door and Handcrest woven neckties were featured in department stores all along the West Coast.
The Lighthouse moved operations to its present facility, located in the Rainier Valley, in 1967. Bequests, donations and surpluses from manufacturing operations financed the construction of the new building. This building has since expanded several times, and now occupies more than a city block.
The 1970’s brought exciting changes. The handicrafts of the past gave way to modern industrial manufacturing. Aluminum easels, binders, sponge mops and paper trimmers replaced brooms and baskets. The Lighthouse’s relationship with The Boeing Company continued to strengthen, as the state-of-the-art machine shop satisfied the demand for an increasing amount and variety of different airplane parts.
At the same time, the Lighthouse aimed to maximize benefits from the Javits-Wagner-O’Day (JWOD) Act by continuing to expand and diversify product lines. JWOD mandates that the federal government purchase certain goods and services from agencies employing people with disabilities. The expanded product lines gave blind people opportunities to work at jobs requiring higher skill levels that were marketable to other employers.
The Lighthouse also joined a growing movement to provide specialized professional vocational rehabilitation services to blind people. Beginning with one psychiatric social worker, rehabilitation services expanded over time to include: vocational testing, counseling, orientation and mobility training with white cane or guide dog, independent living skills, technical support, in-house sign language interpreting, recreational activities, job training, braille classes, sign language instruction and information and referral services.
During this same period, the Lighthouse began offering pre-vocational programs and employment for blind people with multiple disabilities. Our first program involved blind adults with severe developmental disabilities, many living in state institutions. The Lighthouse’s Specialized Industries Program provided a large group of severely disabled people, previously thought untrainable and unemployable, with their first taste of independence and productive work.
Many of those who participated in the original program still work at the Lighthouse today, integrated into our manufacturing departments, earning regular wages and living in the community.
In 1969, the Lighthouse hired its first three deaf-blind employees. More deaf-blind people seeking employment soon followed, and the Lighthouse became an integral part of the growing Seattle area deaf-blind community. The Lighthouse continues to demonstrate unparalleled expertise in providing training, support services and employment for deaf-blind people. Lighthouse programs are viewed as models of best practices by other agencies throughout the country.
Today, the nature of employment opportunities offered to blind people continues to change dramatically. Jobs once thought impossible for blind individuals are now done routinely. Our emphasis mirrors those of other manufacturing and service companies: competitive skills, training, quality products, just-in-time delivery, teamwork and employee involvement.
The Lighthouse continues to modernize and diversify business operations, while maintaining a commitment to providing each employee with whatever training and workplace accommodations are necessary to perform jobs to the fullest capacity. However, unemployment among blind adults in the United States remains over 70 percent. Until society as a whole provides equal opportunities for training and employment, we will continue striving to fulfill our mission of promoting the independence and self-sufficiency of blind people.