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Blind are a fighter pilot’s best friend

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When you’re flying an F/A-18 Hornet fighter plane 35,000 feet in the air, the last thing you want to worry about is finding a bathroom. Not to worry. When nature calls, a Brooklyn company has the answer. At the New York City Industries for the Blind’s 143,000-square-foot factory in Borough Park, the solution—tens of thousands of Military Pilot Relief bags—are produced annually by blind workers with a streak of patriotism. The military-grade, spill-proof PVC plastic bags are filled with a non-toxic granular material that quickly absorbs water, turning it into a gel—essential in multi-million-dollar aircraft with sensitive electronics. The bags, designed for use by men and women, are the only urine collection product authorized for purchase by the U.S. Department of Defense for every military pilot, the organization notes. And the relief bag might have applications outside of tactical aircraft. “I keep one in my glove compartment,” said Richard Bland, the president and CEO of New York City Industries for the Blind (NYCIB). “It’s better than exploding,” he added. The bags, originally designed 25 years ago, are available at www.nycib.org and are now being marketed to civilian pilots, and even to those who travel on the ground. They cost under $5 each, and even come with a moist towelette. The not-for-profit 11-year-old company employs about 200 people; 110 are legally blind, Bland said. “Our mission is to provide job opportunities for people who are blind, on site,” he said. Ronnie McNeil, who has worked at the factory, located at 3611 14th Avenue, for just over a year, said when he was laid off from his last job, it was hard finding work. “It was a while before I got it,” he said. McNeil, 50, who is legally blind, works on an array of products at the facility. Factory workers also produce pants for the Army and the Air Force, as well as a broad range of janitorial and sub-contracting supplies. The products are carefully monitored by the Department of Defense’s quality control inspectors, Bland said. “There’s some type of patriotism involved,” McNeil said. “Our blind workers can’t enlist,” Bland said, “But they are proud to support the U.S. military, and are very happy that now general aviation pilots can use their top-quality products, too.” “Our people are keenly aware of the importance of what they’re doing, and they’re making sure it’s done right,” he added. The company is run like any other business, but enjoys ‘preferred source purchasing contracts,’ enabling it to sell its products to government agencies across the country. “We are basically a mandatory source,” he said, stressing that the products must be priced competitively, be equal or better quality to other companies, and be delivered on time. Bland said the factory provides blind Americans with opportunity where it had previously been absent. He said about 70 percent of working-age blind people nationwide are unemployed.

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