Riskon in the News

March 14, 2008
A Beacon of Competence
By Tara Weiss

A Beacon of Competence

David Paterson will make history Monday when he becomes New York's first blind governor. (The nation's first legally blind governor, Bob Riley of Arkansas, held the post in his state for 11 days in 1975).

While it's a personal achievement and a tribute to Paterson's skills as a politician, his move to the governor's mansion draws attention to blind people in the workplace.

Despite the technical advances made to help blind employees, there is still a staggering unemployment rate among that population. Several organizations, including the American Foundation for the Blind, put it at 70% among people of employment age, a number that has stayed constant for many years.

"If it were any other constituency with 70% unemployment there would be riots in the street," says Barry Honig, who is blind and president of Honig International, a Manhattan-based executive search and management consulting firm.

Carl Augusto, president of the foundation, acknowledges the large number but points out that, while many blind people are of employment age, they actually lose their site later in life and chose not to go back to work. "It's hard to persuade people who are newly blinded in their 50s and 60s to get back into rehabilitation and training so they can go back to work," he says.

While that may be true, it's still an enormous percentage, and there are several reasons for it, says Steven Rothstein, president of Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts, Helen Keller's alma mater. "The single largest factor is discrimination and bias," he says. "There's a belief among employers that people who are blind can't do jobs."

That's something Al Gayzagian experienced firsthand. It took Gayzagian three years to find a job after graduating from Harvard with a degree in English. This was in the early 1950s; and after a year without any bites from employers, he started applying for anything--even a darkroom technician. He ultimately took a job as a typist transcribing notes at the financial services firm John Hancock.

"Here I was, the Harvard grad, graduating with honors, and the best I could do was an entry-level typist," says Gayzagian, who worked his way up to the senior financial officer level at John Hancock. "Some people figured that's demeaning. In one sense maybe it is. But I figured, if I could get in the door, I could show them what I could do."

He spent his first 25 years there in human resources and the next 14 in financial analysis. Gayzagian's seeing-eye dog guided him throughout the office and helped him during the commute between there and home. In the beginning--before there were computers--he used the typewriter and read documents that were converted into braille. Later he got software installed that enabled his computer to read him documents.

Still, there were obstacles. Several years into his tenure at John Hancock Gayzagian applied for a job in employee compensation that many people figured he would get because of his ability level and experience. But he didn't. "The manager admitted later that he didn't think the company could accept a blind person in such a sensitive job," says Gayzagian.

Another reason for the high unemployment rate among blind workers is the lack of career training in schools and employers' perception that getting appropriate adaptive equipment is expensive and difficult. Honig, the executive recruiter, says the current knowledge-based economy produces exactly the type of jobs blind people are easily able to do. In many cases, it's a matter of getting the software that enables the computer to "speak" to the user.

"With technology today, there is no excuse to not be able to get a job," he says. "We're in a unique time for blind people because employees aren't only laboring with things requiring vision like working with a saw or drill. Most people sit in front of a desk with a computer and a phone."

Honig says software costs about $200. Rothstein, of the Perkins school, says on average it costs $500 for an employer to equip a blind employee's workstation. "Technology today is a great equalizer," says Rothstein.

Paterson has staffers read news accounts to him and he listens to recordings of legislation and policy briefings.

This low level of employment raises the question: What can the Americans with Disabilities Act do to protect the blind population? Very little. Employers are under no requirement to hire a certain number of disabled employees. "Employers are not allowed to check the medical status of a prospective employee until after a job offer has been made," says Ross Andrews, an employment lawyer in Syracuse, N.Y. "But for the people who have an obvious disability like blindness there's less protection. If a job offer wasn't made, the employer can easily say it was for another reason."

Legally, employers are required to provide equipment so the employee can work. But there is a reasonableness standard and an undue hardship standard that relieves an employer of that responsibility if it becomes too expensive. For example, a large company like IBM (nyse: IBM - news - people ) might be able to afford certain equipment that a small, family-owned business might not.

But such an investment is worth it because, anecdotally, blind employees are known for being extremely loyal. "Blind employees often feel like their employer has gone out of their way to accommodate them, and that tends to inspire loyalty," says Honig.

The younger generation of blind workers is different than their older counterparts, says Augusto, of the American Foundation for the Blind. They are employed at the same rate as sighted people. Schools are preparing them better for careers, and they're taking advantage of technology. At Perkins, where students can go to earn their high school diploma until age 22, students learn life skills like online grocery shopping, cooking and career skills.

Teachers help them "dress for success" by developing methods of color coding clothes with safety pins, for example. Another seminar works with students on writing a résumé and cover letter.

But perhaps most valuable, says Rothstein, is the internship program. Students are encouraged to get jobs at restaurants, local stores and on-campus jobs like delivering the mail. It gives students confidence and also shows future prospective employers that they are able.

Honig, the executive recruiter, also has advice for getting a job. "I tell blind people that their objective on job interviews is to make it so people forget you are blind," he says. "What I mean is you need to make people feel comfortable enough in your ability and in the fact that you can get around and function like everyone else, so they don't feel that you're something different."

But sometimes no matter how much the "non-blind" world is educated, there will be bizarre moments. After a late night working at Morgan Stanley (nyse: MS - news - people ), Honig was able to take a company car service home because he had worked past a certain hour. His boss' secretary took the voucher, which had the car's number in the window and put it in front of his seeing-eye dog's face and said, "You see the car number, now go find it," recalls Honig.

"She was serious! And it was completely absurd. They still talk about it there."