Charles Umo

Meet Charles Umo: Our first staff blind scientist

By Lee Kumutat

Dr. Charles Umo starts his day at 3 a.m. in order to be at LightHouse Industries (LHI) to begin his shift at 6:30. This is a new commute for him as he has only very recently joined the LHI team.

Charles’ path to the LightHouse began with yogurt, yes you read that correctly, yogurt. As a teenager, he became fascinated with the stuff, when he learned it was made from tiny living things we all know to be bacteria. Wanting to learn more about all the forms of microscopic life within and without viruses, bacteria, fungi–he enrolled in a Bachelors’s degree program in Microbiology at Uyo University in his native Nigeria. Clearly, his appetite to learn about bacteria and its role in our food had not been sated, as he went on to complete a Masters in Applied Biology specializing in food, and that still not being enough, studied for his Ph.D. again in microbiology, but this time focusing on its application in public health.

Clinical research in these areas became his passion and sent him working for universities, colleges, clinical research organizations and pharmaceutical companies in South Africa, West Africa, Asia and in the United States. About seven years ago, just after Charles had received a promotion in his job at a clinical research company, his vision started to change and after months of operations and time off work, his level of vision made it impossible for him to continue in that role. He was asked to leave his post due to the amount of time off he had needed, but he feels that it was more than his employer couldn’t conceive how a person with low vision could handle a new role in the company.

Charles’s first connection with the LightHouse was not as an employee, but a student. He signed up to learn how to use technology, to get around using a white cane, to learn to cook his famous spicy oxtail soup again and the tools he would need to become job-ready and confident about being re-employed.

Hiring Dr. Umo is one of the important steps towards expanding LightHouse Industries. Currently, LightHouse Industries staff, many who are blind or have low vision, are working at top speed bottling a full line of environmentally friendly cleaning products and a disinfectant on the Environmental Protection Authority’s list. This operation has grown exponentially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic because of its efficacy against the coronavirus. LHI employees have been essential workers in the supply of government agencies, janitorial companies and prison facilities. Charles has been working with the team to make their work practices even more accessible. His goal is to make employees as independent as possible, even if this includes changing how materials are supplied to the organization.

“For people making boxes,” he says, “If the supplier carves out a little niche on a flat-packed pile of boxes a worker has to assemble, then they don’t need sighted assistance to put the boxes together.”

Implementing methods such as this is just the beginning of the work Dr. Umo will be doing. Next year LHI will be changing locations and to the factory will be added a purpose-built, fully-functioning, state-of-the-art laboratory. This laboratory will begin mixing and blending the products that the factory will then be bottling and shipping. It will eventually be staffed by blind scientists and technicians.

It will also become a training ground for scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians who all just happen to be blind or have low vision.

Dr. Umo admits to being slightly overwhelmed and humbled when he thinks about the job ahead.

“We will be making products that must comply with regulations, have integrity and go through rigorous quality control procedures. And it will be my job to work with the team to devise the methods and practices to maintain the standards but also maintain the accessibility of the work.” It is a challenge he is taking on with his characteristic creativity and ingenuity.

Learn more about LightHouse Industries on our Sirkin Center page.