Sunday, August 17, 2008

Initiative earmarks businesses to be run by blind people

From The New York Times August 17:

Inside the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse, a mural of a blindfolded Lady Justice presides over the fluorescent plexiglass of J’s Candy Stand, which offers pretzels, newspapers, coffee cake and bottles of Pepto-Bismol.

Lawyers, jurors and litigants, after passing through a maze of security checks, often pause at the stand for a snack. Ramiro Gonzalez, 72, the soft-spoken man behind the counter, retrieves packs of gum and cans of soda, palming the bills he is paid and holding them up to his left eye for
identification. “Most people see me working and they don’t know,” said Mr. Gonzalez, who has operated the stand for nearly 16 years: He is legally blind.

Mr. Gonzalez, who lives in Bay Shore, on Long Island, developed cataracts while in his 50s and, because of complications, had to have his right eye removed. With limited sight in his left eye, he has to use a magnifying glass for close vision.

He used to operate a bodega and drive a Mister Softee truck. When he lost much of his vision, he said, “I didn’t just want to pass the time, I wanted to still work and make a living.”

He is one of the beneficiaries of the Business Enterprise Program run by the state’s Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped, which has helped establish concession stands and cafes operated by the blind in state and federal buildings across New York. Federal and state legislation gives the blind preference in operating these businesses in government buildings.

Owen Myrie (pictured above), 45, has spent the last 13 years working nine hours a day, five days a week, behind a worn stand at the top of a marble staircase in the building that houses the Summons Part of New York City’s Criminal Court, on Broadway north of City Hall.

“I wouldn’t give this away for anything,” he said.

Mr. Myrie, who is from Jamaica, lost his vision to glaucoma when he was 14, and as he got older, he struggled to find work. “I could feel the stares of some of the people,” said Mr. Myrie, reflecting, behind dark glasses, on his experience during job interviews. After completing the state’s training course, which included food safety and math, Mr. Myrie received a grant to operate his business. (The program now provides loans, rather than grants.)