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Engineer sees opportunity through hard work

By: Nick Mordowanec | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published April 13, 2016

 Renee Arrington-Johnson, a GM industrial engineer who is legally blind, was one of 10 individuals honored by CAREERS & the disABLED Magazine for advocating for people with disabilities.

Renee Arrington-Johnson, a GM industrial engineer who is legally blind, was one of 10 individuals honored by CAREERS & the disABLED Magazine for advocating for people with disabilities.

Photo provided by General Motors

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CLINTON TOWNSHIP — Renee Arrington-Johnson is legally blind, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at her resume.

The General Motors engineer has worked for the company in various capacities for more than 35 years and is now working at the GM Technical Center in Warren.

Recently, she was one of 10 individuals honored by CAREERS & the disABLED Magazine — the nation’s first and only career guidance and recruitment magazine for professionals with disabilities — with an “Employee of the Year” award.

“Each year, we recognize a select group of 10 advocates who make a significant impact on behalf of people with disabilities,” said John R. Miller III, publisher at the magazine. “The impact of (Arrington-Johnson’s) efforts on a company the size and scope of GM is a reminder that an inspired individual can make a difference.”

Arrington-Johnson’s journey has been an adventure. She started as a co-op student at what is now Kettering University, then worked in Dayton, Ohio, before transferring to Syracuse, New York, for about 10 years to work as an industrial engineer and manufacturing engineer.

She moved to Clinton Township in 1993, where she still lives. She is now a corporate ergonomist whose duties include looking at reporting metrics that range from safety to quality to cost — for GM in both North America and on a global scale. She spends time inside and outside plants, identifying patterns of efficiency and aiming to prevent workplace injuries.

She didn’t graduate with the intention of looking at metrics, she said, but her current role allows her to focus on industrial engineering — which she heavily enjoys — while looking at aspects in a broader scope, all while working with individuals in a teamlike format.

When she was 13 years old, she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. That occurs when disease causes retinal degeneration and disallows an individual from capturing images due to the decline of photoreceptor cells. Basically, rods and cones die.

Arrington-Johnson recalls a childhood of tripping over things, running into things and not being able to be part of group activities as well as she hoped. That didn’t stop her, though.

“I was told that I should get a job that I don’t need my eyes to see with, but I didn’t like that diagnosis,” Arrington-Johnson said.

She took heed from her father, who was in the manufacturing industry. She quickly developed an affinity for math and science, and in her later years she became just as passionate about working with others as much as engineering itself.

“The fact (that GM puts) importance on behaviors as they do performance is something I feel is really important for any company,” she said. “Behavior is as important as performance. It builds a culture to be more inclusive and allow different diversity groups to help show where improvements lie and we work on that.

“I work with a great bunch of people. We’ve had great teams I work with and people that are all different from each other and have different opinions, but we still get along.”

She likens her current position to a double-edged sword due to the dichotomy between solitude and working around others. She works from home often in the form of web meetings, phone calls and sharing information locally and globally through the power of the internet. She also visits the plant and meets with individuals in person, though she never goes into the plant alone for safety reasons.

When she has to go work, her husband will drive her or she will catch rides with coworkers. For the woman who possesses less than 5 degrees of peripheral vision and takes time to adjust from light to dark areas, she said it’s never been an issue getting from one place to another.

She uses a cane and has been recently approved to have a guide dog.

Also, she has led GM’s People with Disabilities Employee Resource Group since 2007. She has worked to improve information technology, facilities and product development policies, resulting in improvements that range from human resources-inclusive policies to input into autonomous driving in vehicle technology.

Arrington-Johnson participates in events and groups, like the annual Special Olympics and the Rising Stars Academy — where individuals learn skills like gardening and cooking. She is a charter member of the Clinton Township Cultural Diversity Committee, as well as the vice chairperson of the township’s Civil Service Commission.

GM has been recognized as a top-50 disability-friendly employer by the magazine’s Reader’s Choice Awards.

“For the company it means a lot,” Arrington-Johnson said. “We’ve been working really hard to improve our inclusion of all people. It’s a way of saying our efforts we’ve been putting in are seen by the readers.”

As for her advice for others with disabilities, she said recognition will come with hard work and dedication.

“Never doubt your own abilities and always be your own advocate,” she said.

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