Never one to let his disabilities stop him, Ken Miller celebrates 40 years in the vending machine business
While Ken Miller was studying communications at Moorhead State University in the 1970s, the department chair sat down with him and told him a harsh truth.
He told Miller that he was a great student. He would grow and mature during his time at Moorhead State, but he would have difficulty finding a job because of his disability. Miller was blind from birth.
The reality of those words hit Miller when he graduated and entered the job market. He couldn’t even get an interview. Although he was discouraged, Miller was determined to get a job. After all, he hadn’t let anything else stop him before.
Miller called his counselor with the Minnesota State Services for the Blind. The counselor suggested he try working for himself. He asked Miller if he was interested in a state-sponsored program for blind individuals who wanted to operate their own vending machine business.
“Sign me up,” Miller said.
This year, he celebrated his 40th anniversary as owner of Miller Vending.
To begin his career, Miller went through a six-month training program in the Twin Cities. There he learned to operate, maintain, and stock a variety of vending machines.
Without sight, he learned to service the vending machines purely by touch. Regular pop and candy machines were relatively simple, but coffee vending machines were much more complicated, according to Miller.
Miller and his fellow trainees spent four weeks on the coffee vending machines alone. For the final test, they had to take the machines completely apart and reassemble it in time to give the instructor a cup of coffee when he returned from his lunch break.
After he graduated from the training program, Miller could bid on certain business locations that were available. He started off working at the Ah-Gwah-Ching Nursing Home in Walker, Minn. After a short time, the Itasca Community College location became available, so Miller and his wife Kathy decided to move to Grand Rapids.
Over time, more bids opened at other community colleges in the area and Miller absorbed them into his current business. He expanded his business to Hibbing Community College, Mesabi Community College, Lake Superior College, and Fond du Lac Tribal Community College.
Now, Miller manages the vending business from his home in Cohasset. He hires up to four part-time staffers to help service his vending machines. If they have problems with a machine, they call Miller and he can talk them through a solution.
“I’ve been so fortunate to have good people work for me,” Miller said.
However, life would throw Miller one more curveball. About 10 years ago, he was diagnosed with spinocerebellar ataxia, a condition characterized by progressive problems with movement. Miller’s balance was effectively out of order and deteriorating slowly. Miller went from using a cane, to a walker, to a wheelchair.
You might think it would be extremely difficult to manage a business without sight or the ability to walk, but Miller gets the job done just fine.
Modern technology has made work much more accessible. He uses a screen reading program called JAWS to help him navigate his computer. Modern smartphones and applications help keep him in contact with his employees. Although he could retire any time, he wants to keep working.
Throughout his career, Ken’s wife Kathy has been by his side. They both grew up in Staples and began dating their senior year of high school. They even attended Moorhead State together (now Minnesota State University Moorhead).
Miller also credits his parents for supporting him throughout the years. Being blind presented some major roadblocks in his life, but they always found a way around.
When Miller was a child, he wanted to ride his bike to school like his friends. His parents didn’t think it was a good idea, but they decided to consult his doctor at their next visit to the Mayo Clinic. When they arrived in Rochester, they asked the doctor if it would be OK for Ken to ride a bike. The doctor said, “Well, why not? You can’t keep him in a fishbowl forever.”
The doctor’s words left a deep impression on Miller and his family. Before long, he was riding his bike to school with his friends. He never had any apprehension.
Miller used his hearing to navigate the streets and avoid traffic. He would ride his bike on the back streets and ride in the middle of the road because it was safer. He didn’t want to hit a parked car on the side of the road.
“Cars make noise. Parked cars don’t. They’re more dangerous,” Miller said.
No matter the challenge, Miller took it head-on and often found creative solutions.
Ken and Kathy recalled the time he got lost riding his bike in Moorhead. Since he still had a little bit of vision at the time, he simply climbed to the top of the street sign so he could get close and see the street name written on the sign.
Miller wrote a book about his life experiences and self-published in 2007. The book is titled “Out of the Fishbowl.” He took the title from the words his doctor said to him all those years ago.
“It symbolizes how we as blind people sometimes perceive ourselves,” Miller said. “We might think there are some things we can’t do, but that’s not always the case.”