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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Front & Center: Greg Szabo seeks to illuminate opportunities for visually impaired

Spokane resident Greg Szabo is dedicated to expanding employment opportunities for blind and visually impaired workers.

Szabo was diagnosed at 3 with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition that caused him to slowly lose vision over time.

Szabo was hired as a production worker at the Lighthouse for the Blind Inc.’s Spokane facility in 2011.

“I feel like I’m definitely growing in my position,” he said.

He also held jobs as a senior machinist and setup specialist before rising through the ranks to become the organization’s director of public relations and development in 2016.

The Lighthouse for the Blind is a nonprofit headquartered in Seattle that creates and enhances employment opportunities for those who are visually impaired and blind.

The organization makes plastic injection molding and parts for aerospace manufacturers, in addition to office products and hydration equipment that’s sold to the federal government and U.S. military.

Szabo is passionate about his involvement in the National Industries for the Blind’s Advocates for Leadership and Employment program.

This year, he was part of NIB’s public policy team, which traveled to Capitol Hill and met with members of Congress to discuss the importance of expanding employment to visually impaired and blind people.

Szabo also advocates for legislation that positively impacts the blind and low-vision community.

“I never would have thought 10 years ago that I would be setting up meetings with Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and getting to know their staff,” Szabo said. “I never thought I’d be working in public policy. I really love it and I’m glad that’s what I do.”

Production worker to speaker

Szabo grew up in the Chicago area and graduated from Waubonsee Community College in 2005 with an associate degree in journalism.

He fell in love with the Pacific Northwest during a trip to Portland to meet and train with his former guide dog, Finn. While living in Portland, however, Szabo encountered difficulty with finding employment.

Szabo learned of the Lighthouse for the Blind’s Spokane facility from a friend. He was hired as a production worker and relocated to Spokane in 2011.

“I never thought I would visit Spokane and definitely never thought I would move here,” he said. “But I came to the Lighthouse and was just kind of blown away by the manufacturing capabilities that they had going on for people who are blind or low-vision.”

As a production worker at the organization, Szabo assembled and packaged products, including wallboards, office equipment and entrenching tools used by the military.

“I was working on machines that I never thought I would run, like punch presses, panel saws and aluminum frame saws,” he said. “It was definitely work I never thought I would do, but I loved it.”

While growing up, Szabo was inspired by his grandfather, whom he described as a hardworking factory supervisor.

After Szabo got a job with Lighthouse for the Blind, he bonded with his grandfather over discussions about production and manufacturing.

“He knew pieces of equipment that I worked on and he was amazed,” Szabo said. “He never thought that his blind grandson would be running a punch press. I think my grandpa kind of showed me how to be a hard worker and I definitely took from that.”

Szabo was promoted to senior machinist and setup specialist at the organization.

He enrolled in the Lighthouse’s internal classes, certification and training programs.

Szabo also expanded his leadership and public speaking skills via the organization’s Toastmaster’s Club.

“Most of my life, I’ve been super shy,” he said. “When I got my first dog, that definitely opened the world up to me. When I was on the bus, I started to communicate with more people.

“Then, I always enjoyed telling people about the Lighthouse, even when I was on the manufacturing floor and giving tours.”

Szabo was hired as the organization’s director of public relations and development in 2016 and earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from Eastern Washington University.

“I just felt like with my experience at the Lighthouse in manufacturing and taking advantage of all the opportunities out there, it was a good position for me to be able to tell the Lighthouse story to the public,” Szabo said.

Becoming an advocate

In 2017, Szabo joined the National Industries for the Blind’s Advocates for Leadership and Employment program, which provides two years of intensive training to blind and visually impaired folks interested in learning about public policy.

Advocates represent the interests of NIB, its associated agencies at the local, state and national level. They monitor legislation and engage policymakers on issues that impact blind and visually impaired people.

“For me, it’s an opportunity to be a voice for people who are blind or low-vision, not only with employment, but transportation and social security issues,” Szabo said. “It really means a lot to me that I’m out representing people who are in the same boat as me.”

The unemployment rate for blind and visually impaired people is more than 70%, which could be due in part by societal fears in relation to blindness, Szabo said.

Organizations such as Lighthouse and NIB are working to reduce that number through advocacy and creating job opportunities, he added.

“When I got this job 11 years ago and was able to work every day, give back to society and not just collect social security – that’s the great thing,” he said. “For me, personally, it made me just appreciate what the Lighthouse and NIB are out there doing.”

Szabo encourages community members wanting to learn more about the Lighthouse for the Blind to sign up for a tour of the Spokane facility.

“It’s a really great opportunity for people to learn about the capabilities of people who are blind, and that with maybe just this minimal fix or accommodation to a machine, a person who is blind can build and run the same kind of equipment as a person with sight,” he said.

This month, Szabo will be hosting tours for elected officials at the Lighthouse for the Blind’s Seattle facility.

He’ll also be training employees to eventually become part of NIB’s advocates program and conducting a survey to gain insight on how to meet transportation needs for workers.

“We can then work with the state and local elected folks to improve transportation,” he said.

Szabo aims to continue working with Congress on transforming the U.S. AbilityOne Commission’s AbilityOne Program, which is one of the largest sources of employment in the nation for people with disabilities as well as visually-impaired and blind workers.

“Having a good job is really important to everybody. People who are blind want to have a job,” he said. “They want to have the opportunity to be part of the community and give back.

“It really means a lot to a person when they’re blind to realize, ‘I can work. There’s jobs out there for me.’ ”