He's got a real sweet gig at Fannie May

He's got a real sweet gig at Fannie May

CHAMPAIGN — The free chocolate samples of the day were Mint Meltaways, and a smiling Brad Blair held out a tray full of them to his customer on the other side of the counter. Then he filled the order for a pound of assorted creams and offered to gift-wrap the box.

"My running joke for customers is, if a blind man can gift-wrap, no man has an excuse," he said.

The blind guy he's referring to is himself. The 34-year-old Blair has been blind since birth, and he's been working part-time at the Fannie May chocolates shop at 402 S. Neil St. since 2015.

He handles all the same tasks that the store's sighted employees do, with one exception. A co-worker rings up his sales at the cash register.

He also counts himself fortunate to have this job.

Unemployment is disproportionately high among the blind, Blair said, and even with a master's degree and work toward a doctorate, he had a tough time finding work.

Some 70 percent of working-age blind adults are unemployed, according to the National Federation of the Blind. Inaccessible technology is an ever-growing challenge for blind job-seekers, the organization says.

Blair gets to work on the bus and sometimes takes his service dog, Delaney, along with him — though he limits those times for her sake. Delaney needs to stay in the back room when he's working behind the counter, and she's happier when she can see and be near him, he said.

Fannie May's Champaign manager, Lindsey Walden, wasn't put off by the idea of making the job work for somebody who can't see.

She already had experience working with people with disabilities as a volunteer when she was younger. She also knew Blair as a Fannie May customer before he ever sought a job at the shop, she said, "and he was always very friendly, very personable."

"I was, like, you know, I'm going to give him a chance," Walden said.

 

'Hey, whatever works'

Blair was born prematurely, and his blindness resulted from a condition called retinopathy of prematurity. He can detect light through one eye, but can't really see anything in the room.

He grew up in Tennessee and Texas, with his dad in the Army and his mom a former soldier who quit the military after he was born. He started learning braille at age 4, getting his education in public schools until he switched to a school for the blind during his senior year of high school.

Blair got undergraduate and master's degrees in German, and came to Champaign-Urbana to work on a doctorate at the University of Illinois with a hope of teaching German at the college level. But he's since learned he chose a brutally competitive field with few job openings, he said. While Blair enjoys chocolates himself, most of his Fannie May purchases have been gifts for other people, among them his wife, who is also blind. He met her playing a game online.

He first asked about the possibility of working at Fannie May in April 2015, when he came to buy his wife candy for their anniversary.

There weren't any openings then, but he was invited to come back and apply in September, and he did. Two months later, he was working there.

He'll never forget the day Walden told him she was hiring him.

"Lindsey's take on this was, 'OK, how can we do this?'" he recalled.

Blair arrived for work with his own braille label-maker, and together they attached braille labels next to the lettered labels that identify each different pull-out tray of chocolates behind the counter.

The candies are all arranged in a sensible way, though that wasn't done for his sake, Blair said.

"They arranged it this way for them, and I learned it," he said.

After more than two years on the job, he pretty much knows where each of the different chocolates are and runs his fingers over the braille labels to be sure.

There are other tactile cues that help.

The small and larger bags have different textures. One is rough and one is smooth, he said. He distinguishes between the different candy box sizes — half-pound, 1-pound and 2-pound — by the feel of them in his hands.

Weighing the candy on the scale without seeing it was simply a matter of remembering where the scale is and how the buttons on it are arranged. The scale feeds out a paper slip with the candy's weight, which Blair hands to a co-worker at the cash register.

The chocolates on the sample tray change from day to day, and generally a co-worker lets him know what the sample of the day is. If that doesn't happen, he finds out by taking the tray into the back room and eating one of the candies.

"Hey, whatever works," he said.

 

'Incredible conversations'

One of the perks of the job is getting to eat the chocolates, but his favorite part is meeting and talking to the customers. He's even gotten some chances to put his three other languages — German, Spanish and Russian — to use with some non-English-speaking customers.

With all his customers, he introduces himself, asks their names and — as a conversation starter — what kind of work they do.

"I've had some incredible conversations," he said.

Longtime, frequent customer Karen Townsend of Philo said Blair never seems to feel sorry for himself and never gets her orders wrong. And his friendliness makes an excursion for the candy she loves even better.

"I go in and say, 'Hi Brad, I'm Karen, the lemon cream lady,'" she said.

If he could ask other employers to do just one thing for fellow blind folks, Blair said, it would be to give them a chance rather than assume they couldn't do the job.

"It's not as hard to employ us as the stereotype would lead you to believe," he said.

Blair's Fannie May job may be open next fall. He's applied to Northern Illinois University to get a second master's degree, so he can teach blind kids in public schools. He got years' worth of teaching experience as a graduate student, and teaching is still what he most wants to do with his life.

"I love to teach," he said. "It almost doesn't matter what I teach."

Meanwhile, he thinks working in a chocolate shop is pretty cool.

"I will always remember, hey, I got to work in a chocolate store," he said.

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annabellissimo wrote on December 17, 2017 at 11:12 am

LOVE this story! Thank you, News Gazette, for bringing this to the attention of readers who might not have known about it. Love this man's character. Love Fannie May for giving him a chance. I hope he gets the job of his dreams and education because he is clearly a worker anybody would want to have in their employ, but in the meantime, I think we should all go buy some Fannie May candy in support of a terrific story of decency and character - in the midst of everything else in the news that is the exact opposite.