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Nonprofit Lighthouse of Pinellas eases challenges of visually impaired

Dan Mann, CEO of Lighthouse of Pinellas, shows off the nonprofit agency’s computer lab, whose PCs can magnify print up to 36 times for easier Web navigation. Mann says he feels proud to work at an agency that makes a real difference in people’s lives.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Dan Mann, CEO of Lighthouse of Pinellas, shows off the nonprofit agency’s computer lab, whose PCs can magnify print up to 36 times for easier Web navigation. Mann says he feels proud to work at an agency that makes a real difference in people’s lives.

After a 25-year banking career, Dan Mann took over as president and CEO of Lighthouse of Pinellas, a nonprofit that offers services to about 40,000 residents who are blind or visually impaired.

Tracing its roots back 54 years to an extension of a St. Petersburg Lions Club charity mission, it's one of many agencies around Florida that back up the state government's Division of Blind Services. Lighthouse sells gadgets like high-tech portable magnifiers, equips people with computer skills to read and land jobs, and teaches independent living skills like tagging clothes in closets and cooking without mishap.

Like most nonprofits, Lighthouse is scrambling its business model to meet rising demand during tough times. In a recent interview, Mann, 62, with eight years at Lighthouse, talked about how technology, demographics and the economy are changing how people live with visual loss.

What did a sighted person like you learn about blindness?

Most people think everything goes black. One woman here sees white like a snowstorm. One of our directors can tell in the boardroom when the sun comes out on a cloudy day.

You say technology has made this the best time ever for people living with visual loss. Why?

Computers and other technologies provided so many advances, we offer more hope than ever for independent living and job skills training and placement. We have voice-recognition and scanner training so people can read and respond to mail and e-mail. Magnification is more affordable and portable. GPS headsets for walking can tell you what obstacles are coming and exactly where you are geographically.

What are the challenges?

Technology continues to change so quickly, it's hard for the blind or visually impaired to keep their skills current. When someone comes out with a new operating system or software, the effort to make it accessible comes at the tail end of the development process.

Many of our people rely on braille. Yet smart phones, for example, are shifting navigation to smooth touch screens and getting rid of keyboards. I've seen an e-reader with little rubber pins for braille, but voice recognition is still catching up. About 15 percent of the population is disabled today, but only some IT companies treat it as a viable market segment.

With so many highly skilled IT people out of work in this economy, it's become harder for our folks to compete for jobs and maintain up-to-date skills to keep them.

How will the aging baby boomers moving through retirement years affect the population you serve?

Excluding cataracts, the three leading causes of blindness and vision loss are old-age related. We're one of the nation's retirement capitals. Half our clients are over 70. Florida has been one of the best states for funding our type of services, and we appreciate every penny they provide. But the next few years will be very difficult because of declining state tax revenues.

How do you deal with it?

We reduced staff about 10 percent to 32 full and part time. Next June we lose $116,000 from federal stimulus in our $2 million annual budget that pays for a critical program that teaches people self-sufficiency skills to live independently. We rely on the state for half our budget.

So we must get written into wills and find endowments to reduce our reliance on the state to 20 percent. Otherwise, we will face these problems every downturn.

Why did you switch careers from regional bank president to social agency executive?

I loved banking because you could play a big role creating a better local community. But banks had grown bigger and more interested in investment banking and venture capital than community banking. So I wanted something that re-energized me and helped my local community. Now when I go home every night, I feel proud we made a real difference in people's lives.

Recall an example.

Six months ago, I was in the room when we were training a woman in independent living skills who was severely depressed. About halfway through these classes people overcome by a crisis begin to realize they can do things they thought impossible.

The lady made a joke about her husband's cooking skills. When I glanced over at him, he didn't say a word. But this smile spread across his face as pretty as a Florida sunrise. He realized he witnessed the first sign her personality was returning.

We had given them hope.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Nonprofit Lighthouse of Pinellas eases challenges of visually impaired 09/17/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 21, 2010 4:43pm]
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