Assembling Bandolier bags for the military

123,000 square feet of buildings between West and Mill streets can be deceiving. So can the people behind those walls. “You probably had no idea when you drove up how much goes on here,” our guide says. True enough, it’s amazing to learn about the Mississippi Industries for the Blind (MIB) – located in Fondren.

Mississippi Industries For The Blind provides training and employment for individuals who are blind or visually impaired and facilitates independence and self-reliance in all aspects of their lives. If you go beyond that mission  statement, you’d be surprised at just what independence looks like.

Employing 110 people through the U.S. Government program Ability One (celebrating its 75th year in 2013), MIB produces goods and provides services on procurement and contract for Uncle Sam. From barracks bags to mattresses and cargo nets to sponges, MIB has been creating products for 70 years, all in the same facility.

Executive Director Michael Chew and Americorps VISTA Volunteer Kelsey Marx guided us through their sprawling facility and helped us realize the ability of visually impaired workers here. Our first stop showed military green, draw string sacks being sewn together, grommeted, stamped and packaged for delivery. This sack is issued to every enlisted recruit in all branches of the U.S. military. MIB is the sole provider – and has been since the 50’s. “There are a lot of neat little stories like that,” Chew says.

Take, for example, the manufacturing process of their LLC, or, low cost container, used by the military to drop pallets of supplies to soldiers in the field or humanitarian relief. The polypropylene netting requires 120 different sewing operations. “And these are sighted workers?” we inquired. Chew laughed. “You had to ask because you couldn’t tell,” he said. “And that’s the amazing thing,”he adds. Indeed, workers here are as able and capable as their sighted counterparts, thanks in part to pattern tacking sewing machines that ease the process for anyone who uses it.

Mississippi Industries For The Blind must maintain a 75% visually impaired workforce to retain contracts that are part of Ability One (also known as the Javitz-Wagner-O’Day Act). Those workers make mattresses, sponges, mop heads and Postal Service shoring straps. “As long as they (the government) need these items, they have to buy from us,” Chew told us.

The newest areas of MIB’s operations include a document imaging center (scanning nearly 15 million documents to date for state agencies) and a call center. That division is run by Joe Spicer, a Michigan transplant who is visually impaired and uses reverse contrast to see a screen. Spicer says the job is a learning experience.

A low vision center and store is opening, with products like large button phones, canes and magnifiers. Marx visits health fairs and senior days to tout the local availability of these much needed items.

Future developments at MIB center around their Mississippi Industries for the Blind Foundation, formed in 2010. As a state agency, the foundation makes a way for contributors to partner with the organization to expand their work. Chew said he wants the foundation to “be in your giving thoughts.”

MIB leaves us with another thought, one that Chew reiterates: “We’re blind, but we’re not incapable,” he told us. “We’ve lost our sight, but can still do what most people do. We can be productive. If you look around, there are a lot of jobs many wouldn’t think a visually impaired person could do. We don’t have sight, but we have plenty of ability.”

Visit to learn more.

Piecing together the LLC