Cindy Watson is the first blind person to lead SA Lighthouse for the Blind


About half of the 450 workers at a San Antonio manufacturing plant that produces everything from office supplies to airplane floors are blind or visually impaired.

This year he added one more – right at the top.

In June, the San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired appointed Cindy Watson to lead the local branch of the national non-profit organization that provides one-stop services and jobs to the blind in Bexar County.

Watson is the first blind person in the association’s 88-year history to be named CEO – and the first woman.

Selected following a nationwide search that yielded 200 applicants, Watson, who was previously CEO of Seattle’s Lighthouse, began her new role in August. As CEO of the San Antonio Lighthouse, that also means overseeing one of Texas’ largest military clothing manufacturing operations.

Watson replaces CEO Mike Gilliam, who ran the $ 120 million company for 16 years.

The board had no intention of hiring someone who is legally blind, but that was a plus, said John Garcia, Lighthouse board member and chair of the selection committee.

“We wanted the best candidates, and what we were looking for was someone who had a lot of business experience… and a heart – because not only is our business important, but our mission is even more important,” said Garcia said. “She’s off to a good start.”

Board members aren’t the only ones who think Watson is right for the job. During his early days at the lighthouse, Watson received hands-on training at the organization’s 140,000 square foot factory on Roosevelt Avenue, including working on a sewing machine to assemble the helmet chin straps that the lighthouse produces. for the army.

“Basically they tested me to show me what it’s like to train,” Watson said. “They had a lot of fun with it… and said I was successful and was ‘recommended’ for a job.”

Cindy Watson walks through the San Antonio Lighthouse Manufacturing Plant for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The Lighthouse is one of the largest military clothing manufacturing plants in Texas. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Watson was diagnosed at the age of 9 with a genetic eye disease that progressed throughout her teenage years and young adulthood. Although she has some functional vision, like many Lighthouse employees, she cannot read print and relies on assistive technology on her phone and computer. When Watson is walking, she uses a white cane to help perceive depth and enlists ridesharing services to get from home to work and back.

Watson grew up in Houston, excelling in school despite his vision loss. “I think initially a lot of what I accomplished was proving to everyone that I could,” she said. But this desire to win is not unique to him.

“I think we all come up against people’s expectations and limitations, how other people perceive you based on who you are – your gender, your education, your disability, all of those things,” Watson said. “And I think I just had this little advantage of proving everyone wrong at first.”

After graduating from the University of Houston, she went to work for the state’s vocational rehabilitation program, helping people at home cope with vision loss, a “problem-solving” job. which she performed for eight years.

The need to prove herself eventually gave way to a desire to give back, so she pursued a master’s degree and participated in a nonprofit leadership development program that took her to Corpus Christi Lighthouse organizations in Alexandria, Virginia and Las Vegas.

“So when I finished the two-year program, I had met all of the CEOs of Lighthouses across the country… and it was very empowering,” she said.

She worked for Winston-Salem Industries for the Blind for eight years before joining the staff of the American Foundation for the Blind in Dallas. From there, she was hired as senior vice president and ultimately CEO of the Seattle Lighthouse.

Her husband and two children now in college have followed her to each new position. “I don’t know if I would have had the courage to take it up and do it again so many times without this support,” she said.

Watson’s limited free time is mostly spent with family time: watching her 11-year-old son play baseball and training with her husband. Beach destinations are their favorite getaway. “We like to stay active,” she said.

Like any good business leader, Watson has a vision for the Lighthouse based on a long-term guarantee. the future of the organization, which may include the diversification of the current product line. To do so, she is preparing to launch a strategic planning process next month.

But she is also focused on a goal that is close to her heart.

“When I think of our employees and our workforce, I think of upward mobility, career paths and training programs, to create careers beyond employment opportunities,” he said. she declared. “I am never satisfied in this regard. I guess that’s why I do what I do.

Carlos Mata works in the mechanical pencil and clam clamps department of the SA Lighthouse manufacturing plant.
Carlos Mata works in the mechanical pencil and clam tongs department. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

In addition to jobs, the Lighthouse also offers vocational rehabilitation and independent living programs to help people who are blind or visually impaired to gain independence. Their youngest client for these services is 10 months old and the oldest is 103. Watson said their goal this year is to serve 7,000 people – and the need grows as the US population ages.

For the day-to-day management of the Lighthouse, Watson relies on Microsoft voice technology and keyboard controls rather than a computer mouse. There is no paper in his office. She listens to emails, voicemails and texts on her phone with 80% reading, so fast that it is almost inaudible to most listeners. She compares it to skim reading.

“It’s pretty cool, though, to see that at one time everything was ‘special technology’ for people with disabilities, and now there’s this movement to have that inclusion built in by design,” Watson said. “I can’t wait to see where this all goes in the future. “

One recent afternoon, Watson was standing in the cafeteria chatting with Lighthouse employees who had just finished a shift and eagerly waiting for the bus to get home. As a blind person, it is clear that she has a relationship with workers that goes beyond being the boss. But she does not assume anything.

“Within our workforce, everyone has their own unique life path and life experience that they bring to the table,” Watson said. But “I think there’s a trust there that our employees have, and they’re just excited that it’s someone who’s blind.

“Blind and female – I don’t know which they are the most excited about.”


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