It may be like walking into any office supply store, but at the Industries for the Blind Base Supply Store at Hill Air Force Base, every product has been touched by someone who is blind or visually impaired.
The program gives meaningful employment to the blind and visually impaired, and recently celebrated 20 years of base supply center stores being located on military bases. Hill AFB’s supply store has operated for nine years. Base supply stores provide office supplies, furniture, electronics and clothing on base — anything marked with the Skilcraft or AbilityOne logos.
Hill AFB Base Supply Store Manager Crystal Bates-Bouy admitted being unprepared for how the job would affect her. “I applied for the position thinking it was just a job, but then I came to work and saw how much good this company provides,” Bates-Bouy said. “There are a lot of people I have met who said nobody thought they could do anything, but came to this company, which was very empowering.
“These are all very educated, intelligent people, many who have lost their sight and were suddenly unemployed. Here, we don’t see it as a disability, but as a strength because they just adapt and do what they need to do.”
In the beginning, Bates-Bouy wondered how she was going to help train employees with limited sight. “I wish I could say I was the one who helped them, but it has been all them. I have seen them step up to things that I thought were impossible. They never cease to amaze me.”
Processes are set up in the store to assist employees, including a program on their computers and registers that recites back what keys they have entered. Bates-Bouy is impressed with the skills of those using the program, admitting it is a bit confusing to her.
Many of the employees who are visually impaired work at the National Industries for the Blind headquarters in Wisconsin, but several have also worked at Hill AFB. Recently one long-time employee retired after working at the store when she began losing her sight to a degenerative disease.
“She was my main cashier and always happy with the customers. She had a cane to get around the store and memorized where things were located. By feeling across the shelves, she could make sure everything was facing forward,” Bates-Bouy said. “If a package was the same size as something else, she would scan them to hear the differences. It was amazing to me the steps she would take to adapt.”
Brenda Malliot began working at the store seven years ago after learning she had retinitis pigmentosa. Though she had trouble with vision most of her life, she didn’t realize she was losing her sight as part of the disease until her 20s.
“It was always scary telling somebody in a job interview that you have a vision problem because they would look at you like you have leprosy, but they didn’t even ask me that famous question in the interview for this job,” Malliot said, who hasn’t lost all of her eyesight yet. “They are very cooperative here and help when I can’t see something. It’s been a really fulfilling job opportunity for me.”
When Malliot works in the fulfillment department, she uses magnifying glasses or a magnifying application on her phone to help her read the orders. “All my life, even as a little kid, when I couldn’t see something, I’ve always been able to figure stuff out.”
Having a store on base is also critical for having supplies readily available for base employees.
“We provide mission-critical items to the base so that all of their men and women can deploy with the correct gear,” Senior Director Store Operations Base Supply Centers Todd Hobart said. “Also, our wounded warriors that are coming back, we look to employ within our stores. This past war has created more vision injuries than any other war since the Civil War.”