Elton Thomas, production supervisor at Lighthouse for the Blind-St. Louis, a not-for-profit assembly, manufacturing and shipping operation, is also an activist, lobbyist and busy advocate for people who are blind, particularly those who want to work rather than rely on Social Security Disability Income (SSDI).
"Seventy percent of working-age Americans who are blind are not employed," said Thomas. "People in the blind community are one of the nation's greatest untapped labor resources. We need to find viable ways to help people who are blind become more independent through job training, education and employment to earn steady income."
"One way to do that is to encourage legislators to support federal and state policies enabling people who are blind to find meaningful jobs," he says.
Thomas, who is legally blind, 39 years old and married, has worked in increasingly responsible jobs at Lighthouse for the Blind-St. Louis (also known as LHB Industries) since 2003. As production supervisor at LHB's plant in Berkeley, Missouri, which develops cleaning and paint products, he supervises 20 employees and is responsible for safety initiatives, training, preventative maintenance and quality control, among other tasks. LHB also has an assembly, packing and shipping plant in nearby Overland, Missouri, which develops products for government, business and retail customers.
Thomas became a vocal advocate for people who are blind in 2009 after he learned about the limitations of SSDI and friends told him how difficult it is for a blind person to find meaningful work.
"I began to believe that if the system could be changed or modified that it would be easier for people who are blind to get jobs," Thomas says. He became a member of the Missouri Council for the Blind that year, serving as its Resource & Development Committee Chair in 2010, and he began to attend "Legislative Day" events in Missouri's state capital of Jefferson City to lobby for people who are blind.
Thomas is a graduate of the Business Management Training Program (BMT) from National Industries for the Blind. BMT's goal is to support upward mobility for people who are blind and expose them to business operations outside their own. In the program Thomas received graduate-level training in General Management, Finance, Marketing, Operations, Accounting, Human Resources and Information Technology, and other business skills.
"It was truly a life changing experience," Thomas says of the 18-month series of intense, one week training sessions. "I remember getting advice from a CEO who told me that when I finish the program to do something with it. This was great advice because it made me understand that opportunities won't just be handed to me or others because of an education or training - you still need to do the work to prove yourself. Education may give people a foundation to succeed, but not a guaranteed job position. I do my best to pass that advice to my mentees in life."
Thomas devotes a great deal of his personal time to advocacy activities.
On June 21, he met with members of the St. Louis County Board of Elections to help train county poll workers in the proper use of audio voting technology for people who are visually impaired to prepare for the upcoming Missouri primaries in August and the Presidential election in November. Audio voting systems are crucial because they:
On May 25, Thomas joined John Thompson, president of Lighthouse for the Blind-Saint Louis and, Jill Kluesner, vice-president-finance, to meet with U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (R-Mo) and six other Missouri congressional leaders in Washington, D.C., to lobby for policy changes to help people who are blind be more independent.
"An active advocate is someone who speaks about an issue to someone who can make or support the changes that are desired. Similarly, an active advocate can be someone who works directly with a specific group to help successfully achieve their goals," says Thomas.
"This requires empathy; an ability to understand the various perceptions of different groups around an issue, then choosing a side based on aligned ideology. The issue that I actively advocate for is to how best solve the problem of the 70 percent blind unemployment rate."
"My passion for advocacy comes from reflecting on my life and identifying various groups that have provided opportunities for me growing up. At Missouri School for the Blind (which Thomas attended as a teenager) we had a sports program, a space camp program and job training programs that were privately funded, in some cases by Lighthouse for the Blind-Saint Louis. I feel fortunate to have a job at LHB Industries because we develop and sell products whose revenues are used for programs that help blind children in the same way as I was helped. It's giving back to the system that helped me out."
"I am an advocate in two ways," Thomas continues. "First is by supporting or opposing legislation depending on how it will affect blind folks. Contacting legislators, or meeting with them directly, does this. For instance, in 2012 Missouri School for the Blind was at risk for losing state funding and having to close the school. I and others contacted members of the Missouri House Budget Committee and the Missouri Senate Appropriations Committee and urged them to maintain the funding. Today, the school is still helping blind children learn and succeed.
"The other side of active advocacy is communicating to the advocacy group being represented. At LHB and among my peers, I provide information about current events and data related to blind issues. Also, as part of LHB's mission and my own personal mission, I encourage my peers to become as independent as possible - because when legislators see that a program like the federal AbilityOne® job support program is working well, they are more inclined to keep or even expand the program. And the AbilityOne program needs expanding in order to help blind folks become more independent, depend less on government assistance and to become a working class of taxpayers."
One major issue that Thomas and other advocates for the blind support is to remove the SSDI "Cash Cliff" barrier.
"The SSDI 'cash cliff' is a term meaning that if an SSDI recipient earns just one dollar over the specified cap (currently $1,820 per month), then he or she will lose all SSDI benefits," says Thomas. "We know that some people who are blind working at agencies across the nation are rejecting pay raises, promotions, and in some cases quitting their jobs, because they fear losing SSDI. If Congress would remove the 'cash cliff,' then it would make our mission easier in helping blind folks become more independent," he said.
In addition, Thomas believes the SSDI system could save more than $23.5 million annually - perhaps a great deal more - if more people who are blind are hired to work in federal Ability One agencies nationwide. "If this occurred, we could see many millions in savings of federal dollars and more expansion of our mission," he says.
If he were not busy enough with his work at LHB and his advocacy activities, Thomas, who has been married to his wife Martha since 2006, has been studying to earn a B.A. degree in Organizational Management from Ashford University. He will graduate this summer and, after that, he hopes to enroll in an MBA program.
"I am a 'take action' type of person, yet, also like to think things through critically. I absolutely love my job at LHB Industries, and I will continue and try to be more effective. With a good education, I believe that I can help LHB become even greater."
Lighthouse for the Blind-Saint Louis is a non-profit 501(c)3 enterprise that helps children and adults who are visually impaired maintain dignity and independence by offering employment, education and support services. National Industries for the Blind and its network of associated nonprofit agencies, including LHB, comprise the nation's largest employer of people who are blind through sale of products and services enabled by the federal AbilityOne program.
The Lighthouse has two plants in St. Louis, and employs 48 people who are legally blind to assemble, pack and ship a variety of products to government, commercial and retail customers nationwide. LHB employees sell many high-quality products including first aid kits, medical kits, catheters, aerosol and liquid paints, aerosol and liquid cleaning products, eco-friendly products and many others, including Quake Kare emergency survival kit products and Tear Mender adhesive products.
For information, contact Brittney Smithers, Marketing Manager, at 800.542.3697 or 314.423.4333, or see the websites www.lhbindustries.com, www.quakekare.com or www.tearmender.com.