Agency offers lifeline for the visually impaired

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Evelyn Nickel operates a sewing machine to stitch the corner sections of bedsheets.

It's not a difficult job for the Swissvale resident, although she is legally blind.

"I am able to perform the work by also using my hands to touch the material, despite not having peripheral vision and being hearing impaired," said Nickel, 65, an employee of the growing Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh where she, and primarily legally blind workers, works.

For the past 28 years, she has worked at the service's Manchester location, which she reaches by taking two buses and the T to the site at 1204 Western Ave., using her white cane for support.

"She is one of 17 workers we employ in our PBA Industries section, who also make all the metal and aluminum road signs for PennDOT; build charcoal air filters for the nation's submarines; make bedsheets, pillow cases, towels and other linen items, plus aprons for the military," said Erika Arbogast, the agency's president. The agency employs 83, and the industries division has operated for 104 years, started by the Pittsburgh Blind Association in 1910.

Donald Thorne of Manchester and Larry Sell of Lawrenceville make signs for PennDOT. The men, legally blind, efficiently assemble the signs and get them ready for highway use.

Thorne, 63, who has worked at PBA Industries for nearly 30 years, said if it wasn't for the agency, he's not sure what job he could do.

The agency may soon begin making a new product, which could increase jobs.

"We will be the only distributor to similar-type agencies like us of Crypton fabrics," said Tera Zimmerman, director of PBA Industries.

Crypton is water-resistant, bedbug proof, does not collect bacteria and is stain- and spill-resistant, she said.

The soft fabric can be used to make bed sheets and pillows, products that hospitals can use to avoid infections to bed-ridden patients, she said.

Commercial sales of the product, manufactured by Crypton at its North Carolina plant, will be handled by other companies.

The Pittsburgh organization's other location is in Homestead, home to its administrative office and training facilities.

"We are looking forward to combining the two offices into one building, which we recently purchased at 1819 Boulevard of the Allies in the city's Uptown area," she said.

It will take about a year to get the building ready, she said. But once the agency moves in, it will be able to provide nine "sleeping" rooms for individuals who travel throughout the nation to receive specialized training to make them self-sufficient to live independently in a home or apartment. Two training rooms will be used. Now, the agency places them in dorms outside their building.

In addition to having the administration offices on the fifth floor, where about 5,000 square feet will be open for lease, a staff low-vision optometrist will be on the third floor to assist those with vision problems, Arbogast said.

"We plan to have a roof garden atop the building, which we will use, but also open it to the neighborhood for meetings or social events," she said.

The five-story building and parking lot was purchased from Dale and Rachel Middleman for $2.5 million.

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com

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