Clocks Made By Visually Impaired Chicago Workers Hit Store Shelves

By Ally Marotti Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Chicago Lighthouse works with and employs people who are blind or visually impaired. Its sister agency, Chicago Lighthouse Industries, has been making clocks since 1977. As part of a federal contract, it supplies clocks to federal agencies, U.S. embassies and the military. The clocks also are sold to schools, on Amazon and in Lighthouse's gift shop, among other places.

CHICAGO

When Juanita Ferrel gets a moment to herself at work, she checks on the clocks.

Weaving in and out of the rows of newly minted clocks, she runs her hands over their faces and along the rims, leaning them off the makeshift walls they adorn and reaching behind to check the motors. She's searching for imperfections, trying to catch inadequacies before the clocks are sold. And she does it all by touch.

Ferrel, clockmaker at Chicago Lighthouse Industries, has been legally blind since she was 14.

"My eyes are my hands. I do everything with my hands," said Ferrel, who has worked at the clock-making facility for 27 years. "I don't have to look at it."

Chicago Lighthouse works with and employs people who are blind or visually impaired. Its sister agency, Chicago Lighthouse Industries, has been making clocks since 1977. As part of a federal contract, it supplies clocks to federal agencies, U.S. embassies and the military. The clocks also are sold to schools, on Amazon and in Lighthouse's gift shop, among other places.

In August, three Target stores in the Chicago area started selling the clocks, a big get for a social services organization that puts most of the revenue from the clocks toward its programming.

"Getting into places like Target ... gets us out into the mainstream," Lighthouse President and CEO Janet Szlyk said. "Every dollar is so precious."

Ferrel is one of about two dozen workers, 85 percent of them legally blind, at the clockmaking operation in the Illinois Medical District.

Lighthouse had been trying to get their clocks into Target for years, Szlyk said. "It's not easy," she said.

They came up with a line of 21 new designs for Target to sell. There are kids' clocks with rainbows and stars and cartoon animals. There's a clock with a rooster and one with a pile of vegetables. Some feature Pantone colors, and others have different snapshots of Chicago, like the lion statues in front of the Art Institute.

The models that are really "selling like hotcakes" are adorned with the Chicago flag and Chicago Transit Authority map, Szlyk said. As of the end of September, revenue from the clocks sold at Target amounted to about $20,000.

Including the products sold to the government, about 600 clocks roll off the facility's assembly line daily. The clocks bring in annual revenue of about $3 million.

There are boxes full of clocks piled high on the assembly room floor, unattached faces strewn about the printing room, bearing images such as the seal of Cook County or logos for agencies like NASA. And all along the assembly line, employees put the clocks together using a sense of touch, adeptly attaching nuts, bolts and motors without hesitation.

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