Climbing the Career Ladder: Co-Director of Georgia Industries for the Blind, Luis Narimatsu, Shares His Employment Story
When Luis Narimatsu was a child, he never dreamed that one day he would lose his vision, leave his home in Panama, or work for the Georgia Industries for the Blind. But interestingly enough, all three things happened, and his life’s journey has been a remarkable one ever since.
Growing Up in Panama
“Growing up in the tropical paradise of Panama was awesome. Surrounded by two oceans, rivers, lakes, and beaches,” Luis remembered, “it was easy to grow up a beach bum.” But that didn’t happen because of the strong work ethic Luis’ father instilled in him and his four siblings. As a youngster, Luis worked with his dad repairing cars and doing odd jobs around town. Raking leaves, mowing lawns, and washing cars were ways he made extra spending money.
His father worked for the Department of Defense in the region as a civilian. Luis and his siblings went to Canal Zone and Department of Defense schools in the area. He remembers that the school supplies—paper, pencils, pens, and notebooks—had the Skilcraft® logo on them. This logo meant that the items were provided by the Industries for the Blind, a company that employs blind and visually impaired people.
Luis remembers the Skilcraft ink pens with the metal tips that his dad would carry in his pocket the most. “My dad would punch holes in the tops of those military C-Rations until they popped open, then pull out a piece of paper and show that the pen could still write.” At the time, Luis never imagined blind people produced his school supplies, or that as an adult, he would be blind and directly involved in the production of Skilcraft products.
Running a Successful Business
By the time he graduated from high school, Luis was already running a successful entertainment business and working for the Department of Defense (DOD). “I was on top of the world,” he said. “I was making good money with the government and in my business. However, I knew it was important to further my education, something none of my siblings had been able to do.”
Attending College and Getting a Diagnosis
Luis attended Panama Canal College where he graduated with a dual degree in Accounting and Business Administration. It was also during this time he began to have severe headaches and problems with driving at night. He saw eye doctors both in Panama and in the United States. The doctors diagnosed juvenile acute closed-angle glaucoma and gave him medication to control optical pressure. However, the damage to the optic nerve was severe, and the doctor made it clear that Luis would eventually go blind.
“Can you imagine, what a chilling thing to hear; the doctor tells me: get ready, prepare yourself because in five, maybe 10 years, it all depends, but you will go blind.”
At first, Luis shut down and withdrew. He stopped going out and traveling to public places like nightclubs and restaurants. He had to stop driving and lost friendships. He became very depressed. “I couldn’t drive anymore. I had two cars sitting in my driveway, and all I could do was sit inside of them and listen to their engine run,” he said. “I lost my business because I couldn’t get around managing it. The majority of my so-called friends got tired of carrying me around, so I ended up withdrawing into a dark and lonely world.”
Steps Toward Regaining Independence
Over time and with the help of some great people, including his future wife, Luis took a major step on his road to regaining his life. He attended a vision rehabilitation facility where he learned braille, orientation and mobility, and independent living skills. The intriguing part about Luis’ rehabilitation is how he started computer technology training. Luis’ brother had given him a computer because he had a background in computer programming, but the new computer was not accessible. It sat around until one day when Luis’ sister came up with a solution.
While living in the United States, Luis’ sister visited a library where she saw a blind man using a computer. Eager to find out how he was able to make it accessible, she asked him for help, and he connected Luis with a computer engineer named Ted Henter. Mr. Henter, also blind, owned a small assistive technology software company in St. Petersburg, Florida, called Henter/Joyce®. He invented the screen reader JAWS and the screen magnifier Magic that give people who are blind or have low vision the ability to use a computer.
As a native of Panama, Mr. Henter was excited to help Luis. He supplied the JAWS software, hardware, and the training materials at no charge. He told Luis, “These are just nuts and bolts that if you learn how to use properly, will open doors where ever you go.” These are words Luis has never forgotten.
In less than a year, Luis was proficient with his computer, landing a job as a tactical switchboard, 911, and 411 operator with the 106 signal brigade, 56th battalion, 94th signal company. There were challenges with accommodations and blending in with coworkers, but after seven years, Luis received commendations for humanitarian actions and a nomination for DOD employee of the year.
A Career Change
In 1999, the United States turned over the Panama Canal to the Republic of Panama and closed all military defense sites. Luis and his wife decided to relocate to the United States for more job opportunities. “It was really tough for me to leave; everything I knew at home was coming to an end. However, for my wife, it was even more difficult, having to leave all her family behind,” he explained. Initially, they stayed in Warner Robins, Georgia, where Luis wanted to find a job. The job hunt was hard and sluggish. Luis submitted numerous applications and secured a few job interviews, but none led to a permanent full-time job. Then, after eight years of marriage, his wife became pregnant. He remembers the emotional roller coaster during that time. “Imagine no medical coverage, no money, and no work, and to top it off, we were dealing with a high-risk pregnancy,” Luis reminisced. “Yes, talk about being happy and scared at the same time.”
One day, his vocational counselor told him about an organization that provided employment opportunities for people who were blind. The organization was called Georgia Industries for the Blind (GIB) and had a plant located in a small town called Bainbridge. He jumped at the opportunity and visited the plant. He interviewed and landed a sewing machine operator position. “The only thing I knew about sewing was watching my mom sew clothes for my sisters,” he said. “Yet, the folks at GIB were confident I could be trained and that meant the world to me.”
While Luis had concerns about his lack of experience, the benefits of a stable work environment, competitive wages, medical coverage for his family, and career advancement opportunities outshined his fears. So, on a rainy Thanksgiving Day in 2000, with the assistance from two vocational rehabilitation staff members, Luis and his wife moved to Bainbridge.
Working for the Georgia Industries for the Blind
Since that day, Luis has been employed with Georgia Industries for the Blind, Bainbridge Plant. In his early professional development at GIB, he exceeded expectations in various positions on the production floor like Sewing Machine Operator and File Folder Assembler. Something that Luis noticed about GIB was the lack of assistive technology in the plant. He was selected to set up a Learning Center where employees could get needed computer skills. He became the driving force behind GIB’s technology training in all plants and taught over 120 blind and sighted employees computer and assistive technology skills.
“You know, learning assistive technology and computers can be challenging, especially to an older person, and most of my students were folks who had been working production and had never been exposed to technology,” he said. “There came that moment when I could tell they were finally grasping the basics. Then, I knew it would be a matter of time before doors of opportunities would soon be open for them.” Some of Luis’ former students are now supervisors, managers, and customer service agents.
Luis continued to excel in other positions at GIB such as public relations officer and recruiter. Today, he is a co-director. His daily duties are to help secure service contracts for GIB. He works closely with the very organization that helped him get his job—vocational rehabilitation services. GIB has a call center, and one of their contracts is with them. During his work day, he uses a braille notetaker, white cane, and a screen reader. He also has an assistant to help with administrative work and travel when he has to visit another plant or go out of town for business trips.
Advice for Job Seekers with Vision Loss
Luis’ words of wisdom for blind and visually impaired job seekers is to use your strengths to leverage weaknesses into assets. He uses his vision loss as a prime example. “People think I am crazy when I tell them losing my sight was a blessing in disguise,” he explained. “Before I would see people with my eyes and make initial assumptions and judgments based on what I saw. Since losing my eyesight, I have learned to view life in general with my heart. This allows me to remain positive in the most difficult situations or when dealing with challenges.”