Seventy percent? Many folks gasp or give some other audible show of surprise when we let them know that’s the unemployment rate among people who are blind or visually impaired. Even with the Americans with Disabilities Act turning 32 years old and the advancements in audio technology, statistics remain the same as they has for decades.
It’s so easy to point a finger at mainstream society and yell: “Don’t you get it?” Instead of this pugnacity, we who advocate for our employment rights have better approaches to take. I’ll admit I draw from a lot of perspectives while adding my own experiences here.
A Matter of Presuppositions
Any of us who’ve ventured into public and needed assistance from a passer-by, a bus driver, or office secretary have heard the whole range of well-intended compliments: “You’re so brave….” “I couldn’t do what you do if I were in your shoes….” “You’re so smart. I hope you’ll be able to find work soon.” You can probably think of off-the-cuff platitudes or, if sighted, you may have said them yourself. No offense taken here. Simply put, many people who’ve never or rarely known someone who’s blind don’t know what words to say. When it comes to the workplace, that’s even more true.
I remember an interview I attended where the HR specialist looked at my prior work and, fumbling for words, simply said, “Good job.” Before launching into a couple of the compliments I listed a moment ago.
Because of the endemic perceptions-either caught or taught-about people who have disabilities, many employers feel either scared to push any buttons when showing their unwilful naivete or become afraid to upset our feelings. That latter response has always baffled me since they are there to ask us tough questions. Okay, in a job interview I anticipate squirming a bit under the HR representatives scrutiny. We’ll cover more on that in a moment.
A further presupposition that many sighted employers have is that hiring a blind or partially sighted worker will upset the team dynamics. Will production go down? Will their new employee have to ask for others’ help too much, taking folks away from their work stations? And what happens if the blind person’s adaptive technology crashes? You can’t put him or her at a random computer and expect them to log in….Or can you?
Let’s handle that last question first since it’s surprisingly easiest to solve thanks to the ability to work remote with JAWS by importing the settings from the computer where it is originally installed or by downloading freeware such as NVDA. Since these adaptive programs are installed over the office network’s other components, they will not damage them or automatically import some destructive virus. Instead, screen reading software interfaces with the platform on which the network is built. Of course, some platforms such as thin clients don’t support screen reading applications. Most of the time, the sighted manager or HR specialist will need to give the potential blind employee the opportunity to test the system in a limited capacity prior to being hired. With the help of advocates from a local center for independent living or Vocational Rehabilitation, this can turn the hiring process into a total team effort instead of a quagmire of bruised emotions or misunderstandings.
AS for training a blind employee to do a job, having an adaptive technology specialist on hand by phone or in person can provide someone to whom both a manager and an employee may turn when difficulties arise. Maybe, the person who’s blind or visually impaired knows the ins and outs of the job responsibilities but has trouble grasping the company’s web interface. A qualified job coach’s responsibilities include expanding that employee’s skills to master the work environment including, if necessary, some work-arounds. The job coach won’t be around forever, just long enough for someone to get familiar with the workplace’s systems and to give further resources that may be helpful when problems arise.
Notice, I said when problems arise. After all, everyone in an office setting, blind or sighted, runs into difficulties. Most of the time, the blind worker will know if the issue is on him or if it’s systemic-namely, one that would hamper anyone who’s using the same adaptive or company-specific software.
Once when I had a computer malfunction that affected how I took incoming calls, another of the blind employees who was known as an expert computer user came to my desk and tested my terminal based on criteria which he knew better than I did. When he finished, he recommended we replace my computer with a new one. It took a few days to get the terminal where I usually worked back up to snuff. In the meantime, I relocated to a station that the company had set up in the event one of us who were blind could go and perform our normal workload.
Now back to the interview, the laws on paper remind a hiring manager that she can’t discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, creed, or disability. That’s all fine and good, but laws don’t change endemic perceptions. If skeptical of a potential employee’s ability to handle the job responsibilities, a nervous hiring manager may come across as betraying a hint of suspicion in her tone of voice or the forcefulness which she asks important questions. At the same time, the blind interviewee may perceive casual conversation style for something more intrusive on his personal space or identity.
With that said, managers need not shy away from asking questions of their future employees about how they handle situations being blind. Rather than being gotcha questions, they open up further time to clarify matters about adjusting assistive technology or mobility around the office.
I’ll be honest. Acquiring a lack of shame regarding my blindness took years for me to achieve. For a while, the fact that my blindness is the first thing most people notice scared me away from many interviews. Yet, as I’ve grown, I’ve appreciated the years of being comfortable in my own skin. That means I’ll go into an interview prepared and confident, ready to talk about the screen readers or braille displays I use. After all, adaptations are just part of my daily experience. I have nothing of which to be ashamed when demonstrating the software or telling about paratransit services by which I will travel to and from work.
Checking Our Own Presuppositions At The Door
Per my above comments about the job interview, I go in expecting tough questions. Yet, that doesn’t mean that doesn’t justify my thinking the boss is out to get me. If anything vetting questions mean the hiring manager has an interest in me based on my resume and cover letter.
How, then, do we dispel the ripple effect of fear that makes us who are blind squeamish when approaching the job interview and working itself? Let me propose a few simple but not-so-easily achieved solutions.
- Rather than approaching each other with jaded notions of searching for work, we do better to encourage one another. Sure, that means calling bad social skills for what they are but doing it with respect and cordiality. Unfortunately, we who have faced discrimination have heard the belittling remarks or condescending voice tones from others. Those of us who have better mobility skills or more college experience can quickly fall into the trap of using a similar posture with each other. That’s practicing as much ableism within our own community as we despise coming from others.
- Note that one size rarely fits all situations. If you’re going into a job with a factory, you’re not going to prepare the same way as you would entering a downtown lawyer’s office. You’ll need to present your know-how of skills in manual labor. Of course, some expectations across the board will apply-a record of timeliness in showing up for work, attentiveness to detail, and handling manager/employer relationships.
- Because there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, many of us will do blindness in public differently. Some of us handle guide dogs, others use cane, and still others of us get around by echolocation. Each way of mobility is equal with the others. There’s no better or worse among each way of getting around. It’s not our responsibility, if in the same workplace as each other to convince our supervisors or HR personnel to favor one manner of orientation and mobility over another. If we’re going to curry favors for advancement or special assignment, let your work do the talking. Let your expertise in doing blindness encourage others to follow in your train instead of running them over.
- When asked for recommendation about where to apply for work or which companies have a good track record in hiring people with disabilities, be positive. We’re so accustomed to being jaded, telling the horror stories of past experiences or how tough work is that we neglect to rejoice in the benefit that real challenges present. Instead, we have the tools at our disposal to prepare each other with best practices in presenting our abilities without being conceited. To prevent a further ripple effect of negativity, we who are blind have every cause to exude a can-do posture toward each other as we desire to show toward those who have rarely seen us in public.
For further help in hiring people who are blind, HR personnel and managers can reference websites and books that approach the legal rights and liberties afforded to people with disabilities. It behooves us who are blind to familiarize ourselves with them as well. Here are a couple links to that effect:
A recent episode of Eyes On Success podcast features an interview with Welby Broaddus who himself is blind and a successful entrepreneur. http://podcast.eyesonsuccess.net/eos_2210-benefits-of-hiring-the-blind-and-visually-impaired-mar-9-2022_podcast.mp3
You can also check out Welby Broaddus’s book, Leading The Blind Without Vision here:
https://www.amazon.com › Welby-Broaddus