WINSTON-SALEM, NC—From the time he was young, Dan Kelly knew that blindness would be part of his life. Kelly was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye disease, that gradually weakened his vision until he became completely blind at the age of 13.

But that was just the beginning of his story, not the end. Kelly became a top international swimmer and was selected to the 1992 US Paralympic Team. He ended up winning a total of 17 medals—including five gold—in his Paralympic swimming career and swam competitively against sighted swimmers in college.

Now, Kelly puts his skills to work for others as COO of IFB Solutions and on Oct. 30, he spoke to Womble Bond Dickinson about his current role and his personal journey as part of the firm’s Diversity Speaker Series. His presentation took place in the firm’s Winston-Salem office and was broadcast to the firm’s other US offices.

IFB Solutions is the largest employer of people who are blind or visually impaired in the country. The company includes multiple business lines that employ 1,000 workers in 14 states.

Such efforts are particularly important, given than 70 percent of blind Americans are unemployed, Kelly said. Thirty percent live in poverty.

“That’s the reason we’ve existed at IFB Solutions for 83 years,” Kelly said. “Our focus is teaching people how to fish.”

In addition to providing jobs, IFB Solutions provides solutions that help the blind overcome barriers to employment. IFB Solutions provides job placement with assistive tech support, for example. For their own workers, they provide transportation, meals, on-site medical care and other services that help people hold down a job.

Kelly is able to draw from his personal experience when working with blind employees. His father also was blind, yet worked as a private school teacher for 26 years. After losing his job in a downsizing, Kelly’s father retrained and had a second career as a computer instructor.

“That resonated with me—never give up,” Kelly said.

Family support has been critical in Kelly’s success. He thinks back to an uncle who, when Kelly was a child, first encouraged him to try competitive swimming.

“It takes somebody who has a fundamental belief in your abilities,” he said. And at IFB Solutions, that is exactly what Kelly and his team strive to provide to their employees.

Womble Bond Dickinson attorneys Lawrence Matthews and David Broughton introduced Kelly, whose discussion was presented by the firm’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee.

Dan Kelly