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News / Business / Columnists

Brunell: Adams taking his skills to the Big Apple

By Don Brunell
Published: April 26, 2016, 6:00am

Kirk Adams has earned the reputation as a visionary leader who gets things done for people with disabilities. Those qualities coupled with hard work and determination rewarded him with the nation’s top job advocating for the blind.

In May, Adams, who grew up in Snohomish, becomes the sixth American Foundation for the Blind president since the nonprofit was formed in 1921. It is the organization where Helen Keller’s archives reside.

Carl R. Augusto, retiring AFB president, calls Adams “a brilliant strategist” and someone he has admired over his 25 years as CEO.

So the Adams family is moving to New York City.

Following in the footsteps of longtime successful CEOs is not new for Adams, who has been blind since he was 5 years old. In 2008, the Seattle-based Lighthouse for the Blind reached into its own ranks and selected Adams to succeed George Jacobson, who retired after 29 years as CEO.

In eight years, Adams expanded Lighthouse services to 11 locations across America, along with Seattle and Spokane. Lighthouse focuses on providing jobs, skills training and self-sufficiency for the blind, people with severe visual impairments, and those who are deaf and blind.

Finding work for people with disabilities is a challenge. In September, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that of the nearly 4 million people who reported blindness or serious difficulty seeing, approximately 3 million were identified as “not in the labor force.”  This means that approximately 75 percent of people who are blind or whose vision is impaired even when wearing glasses were not counted in the jobless statistics and do not receive jobless benefits.

The problem is more acute for people who are deaf and blind. That worries Adams, whose goal is to provide employment through on-the-job training programs that help the blind obtain outside employment so they can live self-sufficient and productive lives.

Lighthouse pays competitive wages, based on annual surveys of pay rates throughout the Puget Sound for similar jobs. The good news is each worker earns a comparable rate to what someone in the same position earns at another company or nonprofit.

You may be surprised to learn what people who are blind — or blind and deaf — accomplish.

For example, Lighthouse has been a Boeing parts supplier since 1951. Today, its machinists use a wide variety of accessible technology: 3-D blueprints, digital gauges, adaptive technology and voice-interactive machines, digital screen-reading software and digital displays, to make sophisticated parts for Boeing.

Under Adams’ leadership, Lighthouse became an AS9100- and ISO 2001:9000-certified manufacturer, qualifying its machinists to attract highly technical and precision manufacturing product contracts. Lighthouse workers are highly trained, extremely productive, and can compete with the best. The Association of Washington Business honored Lighthouse with the 2015 Manufacturer of the Year for Operational Excellence. As an aerospace and military supplier, its products have a 99.95 percent quality acceptance rating and a 99.76 percent on-time delivery rating.

Adams inherits a much larger organization. The American Foundation for the Blind is a leader in expanding opportunities and breaking down barriers for the more than 20 million Americans living with vision loss.

Adams is highly motivated, determined and smart. Any blind person who can climb Mt. Rainier with the legendary Jim Whittaker, make the high school wrestling team, ski, and is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate in economics from Whitman College has what it takes to overcome any challenge.

Kirk Adams is a caring and engaging leader with very special talents. We’ll miss him.

Don Brunell, retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, is a business analyst, writer, and columnist. He lives in Vancouver and can be contacted at TheBrunells@msn.com.