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Teamster Becomes an Inventor After Losing His Sight

United Airlines Mechanic Teams Up With Students

Jimmy Uharriet, a Teamster mechanic at United Airlines in San Francisco, was left totally blind after an accident in 2016.

“I decided not to look back, but to move forward,” Uharriet said. “I had to be retaught everything. There was a point when I wanted to give up, but I decided success was my only option, failure was not.”

A few months after his accident, Uharriet went to the Vista Center, a nonprofit that teaches blind or visually impaired individuals orientation and mobility skills, among other things. The staff noticed how motivated he was to relearn and regain his independence and they put him in contact with Project Invent at the Nueva School, a private school in San Mateo. Part of the goal of Project Invent is to help high school students invent technologies to solve real-world problems.

Students at the Nueva School wanted to develop a belt that would help prevent blind people from veering—an issue Uharriet understood very well.

“I used to walk to my local grocery store and barber shop, which were three blocks away from my house,” Uharriet said. “I want to be independent, but as a blind person I can’t walk a straight line and doctors say veering can’t be fixed.”

Uharriet worked with the students at the Vista Center to create the Stria Belt, which Uharriet wears every day.

“There’s a zipper on the belt with motors on each side that vibrate,” Uharriet said. “I switch the belt on and the two motors vibrate and set the straight pattern. The second I begin to veer, the belt vibrates on one side until I stop veering.”

The Stria Belt recently won the top prize at South by Southwest’s Student Startup competition.

After their success at the Nueva School, Uharriet worked with Project Invent founder, Connie Lu, at a camp for students at East Palo Alto Academy. Uharriet talked to the kids about the problems he had with his walking stick and together, they developed a prototype of a walking stick that uses LED lights, tactile feedback and shock absorbance to help users navigate safely and painlessly.

On top of all this, Uharriet was also focused on getting back to work. The Teamster contract with United Airlines provided Uharriet time to prove he could perform his work as a mechanic.

“I did the evaluation and even shocked myself,” said Uharriet, who was able to return to work last June. “If you’d asked me a year and a half ago if I thought I’d be back at work, I would have said no.”

Before losing his sight, Uharriet worked on jet bridges, ground power and locksmith work.

“Now I do benchwork,” he explained. “I am brought electric motors, clutch brakes, and gearbox reducers for the back system to rebuild and overhaul.”

For Uharriet, transitioning to this new phase in his life has been about not allowing the smallest or the biggest things to bring him down.

“I know this won’t be my hardest battle,” he said about being blind. “I also know I want to build something that will last forever. I think that’s why I’m here.”