Base Express Store: Supply warehouse helps Airmen, blind employees

MCCHORD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. --  Express Store employee Zeljka Harmon, who is legally blind, checks out a customer on April 16 using a product designed to enlarge printed material for people who have low vision and can no longer comfortably use glasses or special lenses to read regular size print. (U.S. Air Force photo/Abner Guzman)

MCCHORD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- Express Store employee Zeljka Harmon, who is legally blind, checks out a customer on April 16 using a product designed to enlarge printed material for people who have low vision and can no longer comfortably use glasses or special lenses to read regular size print. (U.S. Air Force photo/Abner Guzman)

MCCHORD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- With the help of a closed-captioned television that magnifies each tiny letter on the purchase receipt and projects it onto a 14-inch screen, Express Store assistant manager Zeljka Harmon is able to see which items were bought when she helps Airmen with returns.

Ms. Harmon is one of three legally blind employees working at the 62nd Logistics Readiness Squadron's Express Store.

The store, located at the south end of Bldg. 576 and its satellite location in Bldg. 100 sell office supplies, combat readiness gear and even knives and generators to government purchase card holders.

Some of the products the Express Store carries, such as hydropacks and canteens, are also made by blind workers at Seattle Lighthouse, a private, not-for-profit agency that provides employment, support and training opportunities for disabled people, said Express Store manager Annvetta Hansen, 62nd LRS.

Through a government contract with Seattle Lighthouse, Ms. Harmon has a chance to do everything that an employee would do at a normal retail store, Ms. Hansen said.

With the aid of specialized equipment, legally blind employees stock shelves, keep inventory, receive shipments and work as sales clerks.

"It's a great program that keeps the blind employed because they are able to work and do a good job at it," she said.

Many of the customers who come into the store don't even know who is blind and who isn't, Ms. Hansen said.

Most of the blind employees who work or have worked in the Express Store were not born blind, but became blind later in life, she said.

"[By slowly losing their vision] they've gone through a huge transition in life, so they still have to train and learn new things," Ms. Hansen said.

The fact that military installations such as McChord give the blind an opportunity to acquire new skills is comforting to Ms. Harmon, she said.

"Seventy percent of legally blind people can't find jobs," Ms. Harmon said. "I'm very fortunate to have this opportunity. It's a new opportunity for me to work with others and have access to equipment to help me see."