Disability Inclusion In The Workplace: Virginia Jacko of the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired On How Businesses Make Accommodations For Customers and Employees Who Have A Disability

An Interview With Eric Pines

Eric L. Pines
Authority Magazine
12 min readJun 15, 2022


The key words in my principles spell the word RANK and coincidentally, I learned to continuously rank my self on these principles. Reaching out aggressively refers to “touching others,” which is important to me as a CEO continuously communicating with key constituents. “Acting on opportunities” also requires me to “never let fear win.”

As we all know, over the past several years there has been a great deal of discussion about inclusion and diversity in the workplace. One aspect of inclusion that is not discussed enough, is how businesses can be inclusive of people with disabilities. We know that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. What exactly does this look like in practice? What exactly are reasonable accommodations? Aside from what is legally required, what are some best practices that can make a business place feel more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities? To address these questions, we are talking to successful business leaders who can share stories and insights from their experience about the “How Businesses Make Accommodations For Customers and Employees Who Are Disabled “.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Virginia Jacko.

Virginia Jacko serves as the President and CEO of Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired,Inc. as well as its two subsidiaries, the Florida Heiken Children’s Vision Program, LLC and the Miami Lighthouse Academy, LLC. where she oversees vision rehabilitation, education, eye-health and research programs that provide independence, confidence, and hope to people living with vision impairment in the Miami-Dade Area and the State of Florida. Under her leadership, the number of Miami lighthouse program participants has increased from 500 to more than 25,000 annually, and these programs transforms the lives of nearly 90,000 individuals annually, from blind babies to seniors and their families. She is a national expert on the issue of website and distance learning accessibility for people with vision impairment, having been quoted by The Wall Street Journal, TIME, NPR, and Forbes.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you ended up where you are?

20 years ago, I was working as a successful financial executive at Purdue University, when I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. I was told there was no cure, and that I would be completely blind.

At the time, there were so little job preparedness resources for people in my situation. I thought that my best professional days were behind me. My daughter, who was living in Miami at the time, encouraged me to go to the Miami Lighthouse and become a client. It was there that I saw people integrating into mainstream employment and learning to live independently and thrive despite having visual impairments.

I fell in love with the Miami Lighthouse mission and began serving as a volunteer board member before I was asked to be treasurer because of my strong financial and nonprofit administrative background. In 2005, I became President and CEO, and ever since, I’ve had the privilege of leading an extraordinary team of more than 100 employees that has transformed the lives of 90,000 people living with visual impairment, ranging from blind babies to seniors and their families, annually.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

First and most importantly, I’m mission-driven, which is essential for anyone leading nonprofit work. I like to tell my colleagues that even though I am totally blind, my vision is better than ever, because I have a mission I believe in and firsthand knowledge of its importance. I’m continually inspired by how love of mission guides our employees, who help our clients gain vital independence, whether it’s students learning Braille for the first time or seniors newly coping with vision loss.

My work as a leader and advocate also requires me to be collaborative. At the Lighthouse, we not only have a variety of clients, but also a variety of professionals who help us get the work done, including educators, ophthalmologists, and optometrists. When you have 105 employees, not even counting our summer-seasonal staff, you must be open to teamwork and recognize that it requires a lot of perspectives to get the job done. The knowledge and collaboration of our outstanding team was proven by the recent launch of our Cortical Visual Impairment Collaborative Center with partners Nicklaus Children’s Hospital Brain Institute and the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute. It is the first collaboration between educators, medical professionals, researchers, and service providers in the state of Florida responding exclusively to CVI, which is the leading cause of pediatric visual impairment in the developed world.

Finally, I’m flexible. As a leader, I understand everyone has a different personality, work style, and reason for showing up every day. I subscribe to the ‘platinum rule,’ which is “treat others the way they need to be treated.”

Can you share a story about one of your greatest work-related struggles? Can you share what you did to overcome it?

As a totally blind President and CEO, I constantly struggle with being overlooked and discounted by the sighted community.

I remember an audit meeting from earlier on in my career in which the gentleman from the firm only spoke to our CFO. I let it go, but I thought I should ask them difficult questions, so they realize they discounted me because I’m blind despite being well-versed in finance and nonprofit accounting. Now, my reputation stands for itself, and I don’t feel discounted. Ironically, because of the training I’ve personally received, I can read a balance sheet as well as my CFO and tell him where he’s got errors! This firsthand experience is why I’m engaging corporate America to change the misconceptions surrounding employing the blind and visually impaired.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Recently we launched our CVI Collaborative. It’s the first collaboration of its kind responding exclusively to Cortical Visual Impairment in the state of Florida. CVI is the leading cause of pediatric visual impairment in the developed world, and because it is brain-based as opposed to eye-based, it often goes undiagnosed and misdiagnosed in children, leaving many of these children without proper learning assessments and follow-up care.

We are excited to be leading on this issue. Early recognition of CVI and educational interventions, like the ones offered at our Miami Lighthouse, make a real difference in quality of life for kids living with this condition.

Fantastic. Let’s now shift to our discussion about inclusion. Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

Much of my adult life and career revolve around removing barriers to education, jobs, and critical eyecare to unlock opportunities for people who are blind and visually impaired.

A critical piece of this work is accessibility. There is no inclusion without accessibility — and that includes website accessibility.

When I found out the first Democratic presidential debates of the 2020 election cycle were going to be held in my hometown of Miami, I was excited to learn more about the candidates and their policies. However, as I clicked through the candidates’ websites, I realized none of them were fully accessible to voters with a vision impairment. My website accessibility expert team, made up of all-blind and visually impaired IT pros, sprung into action, and we sent letters to the Chief Information Officer of every campaign. Our efforts led to many candidates updating their websites to be accessible, including President Biden’s. The guidance we provided his team are now reflective on the first-ever-accessible WhiteHouse.Gov.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have an inclusive work culture?

Over 1.3 billion people live with some form of disability — that’s 17% of the global population and the largest minority group worldwide. Yet, with every demographic group, the disabled face the worst employment outcomes of all. Removing barriers to employment for people living with disabilities of all kinds creates economic growth and allows millions of disabled workers to bolster their own independence.

Blind and visually impaired people add diversity and social responsibility to business. We offer fresh perspectives and ideas on how to accomplish tasks and implement strategies. We’re also loyal. It’s been well-documented that visually impaired employees experience a lower-than-average rate of turnover. That is no small matter in today’s job market.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what this looks like in practice? What exactly are reasonable accommodations? Can you please share a few examples?

I often say that the lofty ideals of the Americans with Disabilities Act have not kept up with the digital age. It was much easier for able-bodied people to understand accommodations when businesses were strictly brick-and-mortar. If someone in a wheelchair couldn’t access that business, we built ramps. In the digital age, it’s harder for the sighted community to even comprehend that a blind person is a computer user, let alone the software we use.

For employers to be inclusive of blind and visually impaired employees, the number one thing they need to do is ensure that their digital platforms are accessible. Technology can be a visually impaired person’s best friend, so long as it’s properly designed.

I think employers can start by making sure their websites are fully accessible, and there are a few simple steps they can take to start. Most importantly, have a website accessibility statement for which a phone number and email is part of the statement so that any user has a contact if they struggle accessing certain website information. Using headings with HTML tags will help organize documents and web pages, so they’re easily read by accessible software and also help blind users navigate the website more efficiently. All websites should also have alternative text for every image that provides blind website visitors, who can’t see these images, with context. One other simple thing organizations can do is make sure that their website’s links are informative. Describe what will be included in any link on a website so that screen readers can distinguish what they’re clicking.

Aside from what is legally required, what are some best practices that can make a business place feel more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities? If you can, please share a few examples.

Sighted people often feel uncomfortable around blind people, and I think the best way for everyone to get over this discomfort is to create inclusive environments where everyone is learning and working alongside each other. Frequently, our sighted peers learn more from talking with our visually impaired peers than the other way around.

Can you share a few examples of ideas that were implemented at your workplace to help promote disability inclusion? Can you share with us how the work culture was impacted as a result?

We have an internationally recognized inclusive Pre-K program at the Miami Lighthouse. It is the only program in the country where sighted and blind children together interact with the same curriculum. What we found through a study by the University of Miami is a high degree of empathy and interaction far exceeding the national average for traditional classrooms. Many of these children do not realize that some of them are blind and some are sighted — they’re simply peers interacting together.

We’re also a leader in website audits, as I mentioned earlier. Whether it’s an airline, a hotel, a restaurant, a school, a political candidate, or a local organization, our team of all blind and visually impaired IT experts help make websites more accessible to all.

This is our signature question that we ask in many of our interviews. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started My Career”?

At the start of my career as President and CEO, I hired a Board Governance Consultant, Doug Eadie. In addition to his advice to our Board Officers, such as, “you have too many Board Committees and some of those Committees are doing what you hired your CEO to perform,” he asked me to join him in writing a book which we titled The Blind Visionary. He asked me what principles I learned along my life’s journey, and I provided him these self-learned lessons: “Reach out aggressively; act on opportunities; never let fear win; keep things in perspective.”

The key words in my principles spell the word RANK and coincidentally, I learned to continuously rank my self on these principles. Reaching out aggressively refers to “touching others,” which is important to me as a CEO continuously communicating with key constituents. “Acting on opportunities” also requires me to “never let fear win.” If, for example, I did not attend a special community event because it was in an unfamiliar location, I would miss an opportunity. On one occasion, I was invited to a Purdue University alumni event held in Miami at what I thought was a strange location and I almost did not go because I was not familiar with the place. I went and I met a Purdue Krannert School of Management Alum, the COO of Baptist Hospital, one of the largest health systems, who offered me a ride home and ultimately became Chairman of my Board of Directors. Finally, keeping things in perspective requires considering the perspective of others when dealing with many personal matters.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story about how that was relevant in your own life?

“Time is short.” This means there is not enough time, and for me, it also means never put things off. Never procrastinate. Prioritize and get it done. Successful nonprofits need to allocate employee effort and at Miami Lighthouse only 15% of our donor, foundation and government support goes to indirect cost; this means 85% goes to program support and that enables us to have significant impact and outcomes that our funders value. As a result the national evaluator Charity Navigator ranks Miami Lighthouse among is most elite nonprofits with a perfect core on its evaluation parameters.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

When most business was conducted from brick-and-mortar structures, we added wheelchair ramps so that disabled people who could not use stairs still had access.

Today’s ramp to digital business activity mandates accessible websites so that people with a vision disability can use screen reading software to access information. It is crucial that all industries have accessible websites and accessible business systems.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Visit our website www.miamilighthouse.org/ and follow us on social media. We are @MiamiLighthouse on Instagram and Twitter. If you would like to personally speak with me about our programs, please email vjacko@miamilighthouse.org.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

About the Interviewer: Eric L. Pines is a nationally recognized federal employment lawyer, mediator, and attorney business coach. He represents federal employees and acts as in-house counsel for over fifty thousand federal employees through his work as a federal employee labor union representative. A formal federal employee himself, Mr. Pines began his federal employment law career as in-house counsel for AFGE Local 1923 which is in Social Security Administration’s headquarters and is the largest federal union local in the world. He presently serves as AFGE 1923’s Chief Counsel as well as in-house counsel for all FEMA bargaining unit employees and numerous Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs unions.

While he and his firm specialize in representing federal employees from all federal agencies and in reference to virtually all federal employee matters, his firm has placed special attention on representing Veteran Affairs doctors and nurses hired under the authority of Title. He and his firm have a particular passion in representing disabled federal employees with their requests for medical and religious reasonable accommodations when those accommodations are warranted under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (ADA). He also represents them with their requests for Federal Employee Disability Retirement (OPM) when an accommodation would not be possible.

Mr. Pines has also served as a mediator for numerous federal agencies including serving a year as the Library of Congress’ in-house EEO Mediator. He has also served as an expert witness in federal court for federal employee matters. He has also worked as an EEO technical writer drafting hundreds of Final Agency Decisions for the federal sector.

Mr. Pines’ firm is headquartered in Houston, Texas and has offices in Baltimore, Maryland and Atlanta, Georgia. His first passion is his wife and five children. He plays classical and rock guitar and enjoys playing ice hockey, running, and biking. Please visit his websites at www.pinesfederal.com and www.toughinjurylawyers.com. He can also be reached at eric@pinesfederal.com.



Eric L. Pines
Authority Magazine

Eric L. Pines is a nationally recognized federal employment lawyer, mediator, and attorney business coach