SEFFNER — Lou Fioritto lost his sight as a newborn.
But even though he's spent his entire life without his vision, he's never lost sight of his faith.
Fioritto's Christian beliefs stand as a cornerstone in BrailleWorks, his Seffner-based business that provides a variety of products including Braille text, large print documents (for low vision readers) and MP3 audio conversions.
The company motto is "Making the World a More Readable Place."
It's a busy time as evidenced by a recent open house it held to interview perspective new employees.
But they're never too busy for the company's weekly prayer meeting.
"This is a God-based, Christ-centered business and we do lean on him for our leadership." Fioritto said.
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As a newborn, in 1947, the hospital put too much oxygen in Fioritto's incubator and it burned his retinas. But his family never allowed the disability to define him.
"I was expected to help out just like everyone else," Fioritto said.
Fioritto's mother originally learned braille to help him and then later became a certified braillist through the Library of Congress.
"She used to manually hand braille books over the summer and I had to help," Fioritto said. "I painted the backs of the braille pages with shellac to make them hard to the touch. Then bound them into 19 ring binder combs, by hand, without a machine.
"I hated it, I absolutely hated it. I swore I would never, ever have a job doing anything like this … but then God had a different plan."
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Fioritto calls BrailleWorks the brainchild of his wife Joyce, who came up with the idea while they lived in Cleveland.
"We were out to dinner back in early '90s and I was handed a braille menu," Fioritto said. "I had never seen one before and that is when I found out jalapeno was spelled with a "J" and not an "H".
"It was Joyce's idea that maybe we could make this into a business."
The next day Fioritto started researching. He knew nothing about high volume braille, software, embossers, etc. The timing proved perfect. He was a sales consultant between projects.
They launched in 1994.
In April 1996, a competitor interested in acquiring the company invited them to visit him in Stuart. They turned down the offer, but as they sat outside by the pool enjoying the beautiful Florida weather, snowy Cleveland began to lose its appeal.
"We went back home, prayed for guidance, put our house up for sale by owner and it sold for the asking price almost immediately," Fioritto said. "So we moved to Seffner."
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Fast forward 22 years later and you find BrailleWorks tucked away in a rather inconspicuous spot just south of Hillsborough Avenue. They are in the midst of a build-out of their third building. There is also a disaster recovery site in Sarasota, bringing the total head count to more than 110 people.
The beautiful campus is a far cry from the card table and lawn chair they started out with.
"For the longest time it was just me, Joyce and a part-time employee working out of our garage." Fioritto said.
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One of BrailleWorks most popular products is a text to speech (TTS) technology that converts PDF documents into MP3s so the visually-impaired can listen to their documents.
"Our mission is to make documents more readable, user friendly and make sure that people with visual impairments can read their own private information by themselves and understand it," said operations director Denise Prophet said. "It's why banking and health care is one of our main focuses."
Meanwhile, Schubert said, teaching braille remains imperative to help the visually impaired remain literate.
"If they can't read for themselves they can easily be misled," marketing vice president Glenn Schubert said. "This is especially true for a blind person."
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Along with the noble mission of helping people without sight, Fioritto says the faith component of BrailleWorks remains vital.
"It is an important component to this company and is the most important part to me," Fioritto said.
The weekly prayer is held every Thursday morning and lasts for about 20 minutes.
It is totally voluntary, there is no requirement whatsoever. The group takes prayers request, praise reports, break into small groups and try to mix it up as there are people from all different walks of life who are at different stages of their spirituality.
"Just a few weeks ago, we had a young lady on the production side come in and tell us that because of the environment here her faith is renewed," Schubert said. "It was a very emotional and moving moment.
"We even have some self-described nonbelievers who never miss prayer time. They say it is such an amazing experience with so much positive energy.
"They love it."
Contact Karla Gibson at [email protected]