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Job opportunity in focus

Man overcomes disability to excel in work force

POSTED: January 29, 2013 12:29 a.m.
Autumn Vetter/

Lewis Tankersley works at Briot USA, which makes equipment used by eye doctors to fit lenses inside frames. Tankersley uses tools at work to help overcome a vision problem he has had since birth.

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Lewis Tankersley’s desk looks like those of most people, with the usual telephone, computer and sticky note reminders. But he also has some extra tools.

One is something that resembles a microscope, only wider, called an Examiner. It sends images to a second, smaller computer monitor that can then enlarge them to any size.

Another is something called a Pebble. It looks like a cross between a smart phone and magnifying glass. When laid on a book or other document, it captures the image, which can then be manipulated in a number of ways.

There’s also special software on Tankersley’s computer. With it, any text or image can be magnified and colors of backgrounds can be changed.  

These tools do more than help Tankersley in his work as a customer service representative with Briot USA on Shiloh Road in south Forsyth; without them, he wouldn’t be able to do the job at all.

Tankersley was born with a rare form of albinism in which the pigment cells are very small.

“What that means is the rods and cones didn’t develop in my retinas like they would in a normal person,” he said.

While Tankersley has some vision, he’s basically blind since his natural vision without any corrective lenses is about 20/800. Even with correction, that number goes up to about 20/60. Perfect vision is 20/20.

As a child, his vision without corrective lenses was 2800, he said.

“Legally blind is 2200, so I couldn’t even see the E on the eye chart when I was right in front of it,” Tankersley said.

He said he wore glasses with “Coke bottle” lenses from the time he was about 9 months old until he was 15.

“Corrected, I was able to get my vision somewhere in the neighborhood of 2100, or about 20/80,” he said. “I would literally have to go up to the blackboard, within arm’s length to be able to see what my teacher was writing.”

When he was 15, Tankersley said his life changed when he met a couple of eye doctors who were able to use hard contact lenses to improve his vision and get him out of the “Coke bottle” glasses.

“[They] told my dad they could make it better to the point that they could at least get me seeing well enough to pass the requirements for a driver’s license,” Tankersley said. “Of course at 15 years old, you can imagine how that was for me.”

He said the hard contacts allowed him to get his vision up to around 20/60. It also started a relationship with the doctors that lasted many years.

Tankersley went on to graduate from the University of South Carolina. Shortly after that, the doctors hired him to work in their optical office, where he learned about the field.

“I guess a better job’s never come along,” he said of the vision business.

He went on to become an optician himself and worked many years as a franchise owner of a Pearle Optical location in Stone Mountain.

In 2008, seeking to improve his job skills after a job loss, he went to the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency. The department works with people with various disabilities to help make them more marketable to employers.

“Our job is basically to assist Georgians who have a disability and who desire to go to work or go back to work,” said Jack Glison, supervisor of the the agency’s assistive work technology unit, which helped Tankersley with the tools he needed. “Our job is to put people who have a disability to work.”

While working with Glison and others, Tankersley learned about new technologies that were available to assist him, such as the Examiner and Pebble. He later also took part in specialized training programs through the Center for the Visually Impaired in Atlanta.

Last summer, Tankersley was hired at Briot in Forsyth. With his background in the vision field, he was a perfect fit for the company, which makes equipment eye doctors use to fit lenses inside frames.

“He’s got the technical knowledge,” said Matt Cevasco, president and general manager of Briot. “His visual challenges have all been completely transparent.

“Disability or not, I would highly encourage other business managers to look beyond typical barriers and find people who are committed to your vision and your company.”

Thanks to his tools from Vocational Rehabilitation, Tankersley is able to read fine print in Briot’s catalogs, see tiny serial numbers on parts and complete tasks that would otherwise be impossible. He’s thankful Briot took a chance on him.

“It’s real hard because a lot of employers talk, ‘Yeah we want to [hire people with disabilities]. But when it really gets down to it, they’re scared to death because they’re afraid of the liability that’s involved,” Tankersley said.

“Briot really stepped up and took a chance,” he said.

Glison agreed that companies should consider employees with disabilities since, if given the right tools, they can typically perform as well as anyone else.

“What’s fun is when you see somebody that you helped place in their job and they’re on their second or third promotion,” he said. “That’s really good because that means you’ve made a good match and the employer appreciates what they can do, and they’re saying so by promoting them and that these are not always dead-end, entry-level jobs.”

Tankersley hopes more companies will give people with disabilities a chance.

“What I would like to see is that other companies don’t be quite so shy, talk to these people … they’re just as dedicated and just as determined.”

 

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