Intro: Blind Machinist: skilled operator of machine tools. How does one do it? Find out by reading about the success of our latest featured mentor.
The Story: My name is Bernie Vinther and here I am doing work that one would think requires good vision. Good vision is what I once had, but now I am totally blind. I am a self-employed machinist and electronics technical engineer. There is really no support in my area of occupation where I live, otherwise, I would probably be working for someone else, rather than myself. I chose this occupation because it is hard, not easy. However, before I tell you about my job, I feel compelled to tell you that in an odd way blindness was one of the best things that ever happened to me, and I'm not alone with those feelings. Why on earth would anyone feel this way? Well, you see, I like challenges and I've learned to experiment with finding out how much I can do without vision. Most of the challenges of being blind can certainly be very frustrating, but I've found a lot of satisfaction in striving to keep blindness from becoming an obstacle that keeps me from doing all the things I like to do. I just won't take "No" for an answer. Blindness has taught me not to sit in the corner and be passive.
So what do I do? I am a machinist. A typical machinist primarily uses lathes, milling machines, band saws, and grinders to make various geometric shapes out of pieces of metal. This type of work is a bit difficult to describe. One of the machines I use the most is a lathe. A lathe can be used to make a round shaft. It can also make threaded grooves on the outside or inside of a piece of metal. Often a piece of metal has to be cut to a very precise size. This means that if the piece I am working on is supposed to be 2 inches in diameter, if it is larger or smaller than that by one-tenth the thickness of a human hair, it won't fit some other part. The other machine I use a lot is a milling machine. A milling machine is similar to a giant drill press. This machine can drill holes in precise locations, cut slots and grooves in flat or round pieces of metal and make a flat piece of metal nice and smooth with square or rounded corners.
Usually a machinist works on a project independent of other machinists. But sometimes I need the help of other machinists when working with pieces of metal that are large and heavy. Cooperation between myself and other machinists is usually very good. Machinists also look out for one another because this type of work can be very dangerous, so safety around the shop is always top priority.
When I could still see and drive, I was in the industrial communications business. This type of work wasn't just sitting at a work bench servicing a piece of equipment. Some days I had to do a moderate amount of manual labor, which included climbing radio towers and installing or removing equipment. I really enjoyed this type of work because it was different every day. After my eyes began to go bad, I tried staying in some light duty electronics, but doing so meant that I had to stay tied to a work bench and I found that I didn't like it very much because there wasn't enough variety in it. Also, many of the parts I had to work with were becoming too small for me to solder and figure out.
"Well, what to do?" I pondered. I couldn't stand not having something useful to do that I liked. So in 1988 I bought my first computer, an IBM 286 clone. After fighting my way through the learning curve, I began keeping track of some of the electronic and mechanical projects I was working on. Around this same time I rented a booth at an industrial products and business fair in hopes of getting some work designing and prototyping some electronic devices. One gentleman I spoke with was a machinist and he hired me to experiment with a gas bottle warning flasher he invented. This was an easy job and soon I came up with a circuit that did what he wanted.
Although his shop was about 40 miles out of town, I was still able to visit it a few times on the weekends. One day I was brave and asked him if I could use one of his lathes to make a simple project. To my absolute delight, he said, "Ok." I had not used a lathe for a couple of decades and I was pretty worried that I might break something, but I didn't, and my project went very well.
Soon I was using the lathe and his milling machine for more of my projects. In exchange for letting me use his machines, he had me make a lot of identical parts for him. One day after using his milling machine I told him that I'd never used one before using his. He said, "That's ok, before I bought this one, I had never even turned one on!" About 5 years later, I bought my first lathe on a time payment plan, and also got a nice drill press and a large stationary belt sander for free from my uncle's estate.
With my reputation as a "gadget man," sometimes some of my friends would have me make or repair things for them. Finally, I decided that I better learn the correct way to machine things rather than continuing to learn by trial and error. So I signed up for a 2-year machinist program at our local college. What happened when I signed up is a story in itself. In brief, they were worried about safety and tried everything they could think of to keep me out. But when they learned about the negative publicity they were going to get from our TV stations and the local newspaper, they changed their mind and everything was fine after that. Nevertheless, it was very hard work and once in, there were many difficulties I had to overcome and work around. The biggest challenges probably had to do with my own brailling, designing and making my own adaptive aids, and some problems were staff-related. Overall though, staff respect and support was usually quite good, especially from the instructors.
After finishing school I went looking for work. I got some calls to come in for various interviews, but when I walked through the door with a white cane and a guide dog, the interview was over before it could begin. A couple of times they acted insulted that I had the nerve to even come through the door. Being blind, I figured it would be harder to get a job, but not this hard. A few shop owners sounded like they might be willing to hire me, but they would never call me back. In my case, state services for the blind were disappointing by virtue of their lack of support with looking for work, helping with interviews, writing resumes, etc. I'm still not sure they understand what a machinist is, or does, if he is blind.
A couple of years ago I received a small inheritance from my parents' estate and used most of that money to purchase some machinery to start my own business. So far, I've hardly turned a profit and I am looking at new ideas for marketing and promoting myself in order to pick up more customers. Also, I'll be going back to school full-time this January to learn machine programming, to make myself even more marketable. Keep your fingers crossed that it won't be too hard to keep up with both school and work!
The adaptations I use on the job are the same ones I used in college. Mainly, all of the calipers and micrometers I use are adapted for the blind with the use of a voice synthesizer that plugs into them. These measuring instruments and the synthesizer are made by Mitutoyo. Because I'm totally blind, special lighting isn't needed, and since the shop is my own, I don't have to have changes made to my workspace either. For drilling, tapping, and threading tables I use braille. One of the tables I made is over 50 pages of double-sided braille. Everything in these tables are numbers, and I spent hundreds of hours arranging them so they are easy for me to read. I also made some tables for some of the machines so I can set them to the speed and feed rates I need.
With my background in electronics, I invented a measuring instrument that lets me know what's going on with the use of a variable pitch tone. It takes the place of a dial indicator. With it, I can align things as quickly as a sighted machinist can. To let me know where I should stop a machine, I made an adjustable warning beeper, and to help keep my fingers out of trouble, I use thin wooden sticks to tell me what's going on while a machine is running. I also made a raised line drawing kit that has movable lines. (If you want details on how I use these modifications, you can e-mail me.)
I love my job! I feel such a sense of accomplishment because I have to use my brain and my hands to make things. Sometimes I also have to use trigonometry and geometry to do a project and I find that fun. Unfortunately, as with any job, there are days when nothing seems to go right. It is on those days I realize Mr. Murphy and his laws are around screwing things up! [Smile] When he's around, I ruin drills and cutting tools, can't get a part to come out nice and smooth, and sometimes I even have to start a project all over again.
What's great about my job is the satisfaction I get from making and repairing things. The money is nice too, but being successful and having a satisfied customer is what I like the most. The only thing I don't like is when that sneaky Murphy shows up!
Any blind person who thinks they would like this kind of work MUST be mechanically inclined, have a good understanding of geometric shapes and be able to use basic trigonometry. They also have to become skilled at using the required tools and be able to visualize the finished product as well as the steps to make it happen. Although this type of work is much cleaner than automotive work, there is no getting around the fact that you're going to get your hands dirty. Sometimes you're going to get some oil splattered on you, and you can wind up with metal shavings all over you too. Also, most of the larger machine shops don't have good heating and air conditioning. So depending on what part of the country you're in, you'll probably freeze your hands and feet off in the winter, and roast to death in the summer. As for me, I don't mind the heat, but the cold makes it hard to see things with my hands. Fortunately, my shop is small enough that I can keep it warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
The Contact: Bernie R. Vinther