On the surface, it looks just like any other office or factory. As you enter Outlook Nebraska Inc. (ONI), you’re greeted by a friendly front desk attendant and led past a perfectly ordinary-looking workspace. Entering their factory where they manufacture such paper products as rolls of hand towels, you wouldn’t suspect that it is different from any other assembly line.
But explore a little deeper.
Walking past one office, you might see a man typing away on a keyboard, his laptop closed in front of him. He doesn’t need it open to know what he’s typing. He’s visually impaired and utilizing computer software that reads the words aloud as he types.
On the factory floor, raised edges guard the walkway so sightless employees can feel their way around. Over on the assembly line, visually impaired workers can use a computer screen to zoom in on the product at various stages of production to assess the process.
ONI is a non-profit organization whose mission is to enhance the life of the blind and visually impaired, through employment opportunities and training. Almost all the employees at ONI are blind or visually impaired, from factory workers to IT professionals. Some were born blind, others lost their sight later in life. ONI aims to help them all re-enter the workforce in a meaningful way.
“They get used to being on their feet,” says ONI CEO Eric Stueckrath. “We offer jobs for [people with] entry-level skill sets and all of the positions are at or above minimum wage. We give them the tools to help build those skill sets.”
ONI also offers personalized life-skills training geared to what’s important to the individual, from personal banking to cooking to operating a computer.
The American Foundation for the Blind estimates that as many as 70 percent of blind adults in the U.S. are unemployed. As the largest employer of the blind in the Omaha metro area, ONI is working to make an impact.
“We work with organizations that are committed to hiring the visually impaired,” Stuekrath says. “Advocacy is definitely part of what we do.”
ONI is currently in the midst of a $2 million capital campaign that will allow them to complete a large-scale renovation project at their facility. The renovation will create more space for the general public and give them the ability to offer additional training programs.
In addition to working with adults, blind and visually-impaired youth are a primary focus for Stuekrath and ONI.
“My heart really gravitates toward them,” Stuekrath says.
ONI partners with youth organizations on a number of initiatives, including a sports camp for visually-impaired youth called Camp Abilities Nebraska. Attendees can try archery, swimming, bowling, track and field, and more as a means to build confidence.
“They don’t need to be coddled,” Stuekrath says, adding that he often tells parents of blind children, “Your kid needs to get out there and bump his head and experience life.”
At ONI, everything comes back to the organization’s mission, Stuekrath says.
“We give them the tools they need to gain greater independence.”