By Martha Frase
After Kathleen Gallagher collected her master’s degree in counseling and psychology, it took her more than three years to land her first professional position. Blind since childhood, she says, “I went through my entire schooling in mainstream society and never felt discriminated against—until I was looking for employment.”
Although employers have been hiring more workers with disabilities since the advent of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, the blind and visually impaired are still shut out of the workforce in astonishing numbers.
According to the National Federation of the Blind, a Baltimore-based advocacy and educational organization, 70 percent to 75 percent of working-age blind adults—as distinct from the visually impaired—are unemployed or underemployed, even though they tend to be at least as educated and technically proficient as sighted counterparts.
An estimated 10 million Americans are legally blind or visually impaired, according to the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), a New York-based organization specializing in technology, employment, literacy and independent living for people with vision loss. In the mid-1990s—when federal statistics were compiled—about 1.3 million were considered legally blind, while the rest were visually impaired.
At that time, the AFB says on its web site, about 46 percent of adults ages 18 to 69 who were visually impaired were employed and about 32 percent of legally blind working-age adults were employed.
Understandably, many employers are not familiar with this potential workforce and its capabilities. Blindness remains a relatively rare disability affecting less than 1 percent of the population, says Karen Wolffe, Ph.D., AFB’s director of professional development. “We can preserve sight and treat eye conditions better than ever, but this also means that for an employer, it is a rare day they have a candidate like this. So, when one shows up, they don’t know what to do.”
Gallagher says that in job interviews, employers couldn’t seem to get beyond the question of how a blind person could do a particular job. “They project themselves into the situation of being blind and can’t see themselves capable,” she says.
That approach and other obstacles to hiring the blind can be overcome with training and information, many experts say. Varied resources help employers:
In the end, experts add, employers will discover that blind workers can be capable, adaptable and loyal.
Who Are the Blind?
The ADA recognizes as blind those with corrected vision of 20/200 or less or a field of vision of less than 20 degrees. But vision problems cannot be described simply by the numbers; some people can see better than others having the same visual acuity.
There are differences, too, between those blind from birth or early childhood and those who lose vision later. “Generally, people blind from birth or childhood find it easier to adapt to the workplace,” says Barry Honig, president of executive recruitment and management consulting firm Honig International in New York. “They have learned to cope with just about everything throughout life. Those who’ve lost their sight as adults sometimes have a bigger challenge readapting not just to work but to life in general. But most have the advantage of having been in the workplace and developed a set of job skills and competencies.”
Honig, blind since early childhood, has succeeded on Wall Street, as a finance professor at New York University and as a part-time political talk-radio host. Although his firm does not specialize in placing candidates who are visually impaired, he provides advice to companies looking to tap that wellspring of potential talent.
According to Honig, two-thirds of blind or visually impaired people are over 55, and most became impaired as adults. Some people in the workforce who begin to experience vision loss become reluctant to request even simple accommodations for fear of losing their jobs. Others, lacking encouragement from their employers, retire early. Employers should try hard to retain and accommodate these workers; otherwise, talent and institutional knowledge walk out the door. Often, accommodations involve minor adjustments or inexpensive aids, and “It’s worth every penny if it means restoring a valued worker to full productivity,” he says.
Leveling the Field
Advances in technology expand opportunities for the blind. “Now there are countless job functions that were unavailable to us 20 to 30 years ago,” says Kirk Adams, president of the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind, a nonprofit that provides manufacturing jobs and training, primarily in the aerospace industry. “A receptionist who is blind doesn’t have to be able to read the mail that comes in—he or she can scan it into a machine that reads it aloud. Machine shops now use pushbutton systems for setting up jobs.”
Adams, who lost his vision when he was 5, uses a screen-reading program called JAWS that speaks text from his computer screen and also converts it to Braille. A portable Windows-based PC that he uses in meetings, PAC Mate, has voice and Braille display, and he has a Braille embosser that prints Braille using a text translator.
Wolffe cites studies showing that in general, qualified employees who are blind stay longer and work harder than the typical worker. In her considerable personal experience with such workers, “They tend to be highly focused, with remarkable attention to detail.”
There are, as the AFB notes on its web site for employers, visually impaired accountants, artists, clerks, computer programmers, cooks, customer service representatives, day care workers, factory workers, food service workers, financial analysts, lawyers, personal trainers, medical transcriptionists, salespeople, secretaries, social workers, teachers and more.
Although not all jobs can be done by blind people, the exceptions are few and obvious—no driving, for example. But any job that requires a technical interface, such as a computer or a phone, or that relies primarily on intellect can be done by a blind person with adaptive technology, Honig says.
Adaptive technology helps blind or visually impaired people read, write or access electronic information. Functions include magnification, speech or Braille conversion. Equipment can be software- or hardware-based and can utilize mainstream computers or stand alone.
Breaking Through Barriers
Gallagher finally landed her first job organizing support groups for blind and visually impaired people, and she became passionate about helping them find careers. She went on to get PHR certification and is now senior human resource specialist for the National Industries for the Blind (NIB) in Alexandria, Va. The NIB operates under AbilityOne, a federal purchasing program that helps blind people develop careers in companies providing all types of products and services—from surgical gloves to database management—to federal and nongovernment customers.
But few job seekers, blind or sighted, have the patience or persistence to send resumes out for three years without getting an offer, as Gallagher did. Discouragement contributes to the high unemployment rate among the legally blind, a rate that hasn’t changed much since the 1940s, experts say.
Getting a foot in the door of that first job remains a huge challenge, even though 90 percent of children who are blind and visually impaired attend mainstream public or private schools, according to Wolffe. They go to school and college and get good grades in numbers comparable to sighted peers.
Today, children with blindness are encouraged by parents and teachers to do everything their peers do, says Adams. They find ways to play sports, join clubs and go to the mall with friends. But during the middle to late teen years, the social parity starts to change when their friends get their first jobs. “Sighted kids start to wait tables, deliver newspapers, work on farms, be go-fers on construction sites.”
Blind teenagers don’t get those crucial
experiences, says Adams.Wolffe encourages visually impaired students to get
summer and part-time work during high school, “But it takes a lot of courage and
support from the community.”
Adams says he got a break as sports editor of his high-school paper and high-school sports columnist for a weekly paper. Yet after graduating cum laude with a degree in economics, he was still trying to crack the world of work.
His chance came through an alumni connection, and he became a securities broker, but after 10 years, he decided it wasn’t for him. “Being blind, sometimes you have to take whatever job you can get,” he says. Still, he kept moving. He read a Braille copy of Richard Nelson Bolles’ What Color is Your Parachute? (Ten Speed Press, 1970-2008) and determined that he should be in nonprofit leadership. After getting his master’s degree in not-for-profit management, he set off on another arduous job hunt. “It’s difficult to say I was discriminated against, but I got an unusually high rate of ‘you are our second choice’ responses,” he says. That ultimately brought him to the Lighthouse.
What an Employer Can Do
The first question in an interviewer’s mind, of course, is how a blind person could do this job. That shouldn’t be the first question, some say. Initial queries should relate to the candidate’s skills and experiences, Gallagher suggests. Although the ADA restricts employers from asking specific questions about a candidate’s disability, employers may ask the candidate what he or she needs to be able to do the job effectively. Usually, the candidate will volunteer that information early in the interview to get some doubts resolved.
Wolffe says, “Speak directly to the prospect, find out what adaptive technology he or she is using, and how he or she thinks it will work with your technology. Be aware that specialized help may be needed initially setting it up, but it won’t hurt their system and will make it accessible.”
Employers who have never hired a blind worker tend to overestimate the cost and complexity of accommodation. The price for sophisticated adaptive equipment can rise to more than $10,000, but, Honig says, “It’s a few hundred bucks for speech software running on a regular computer. If an employee needs a dictation device, it’s a few hundred more. These are really just small amounts of money, considering the return on the investment.”
State vocational rehabilitation centers often pick up some or all of the costs and help train employees. Gallagher adds, “If a company switches its computer systems and an employee who is blind needs to upgrade his or her adaptive technology alongside, vocational rehab services can help with that, too.”
Employers who hire people with visual disabilities may also be eligible for up to three separate federal tax incentives: the Disabled Access Credit for small businesses, the Architectural and Transportation Barrier Removal deduction, and the Work Opportunity Tax Credit Program. For details, see the online version of this article for a link to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Accommodation Network web page.
Employers may still harbor lingering, gut-level uncertainty about hiring or retaining a person who can’t see well, if at all. Safety concerns are common, but Wolffe calls them “urban myth.” Studies regularly demonstrate that the safety records of visually impaired employees equal or exceed those of sighted workers. Also, insurers may not penalize a company for having employees who are visually impaired.
Managers unfamiliar with the finer points of ADA regulations may worry that they can’t fire or can’t fail to promote an underperforming employee who is blind, fearing a discrimination suit. Gallagher explains, “An employer can’t discriminate against a qualified individual because of a disability, meaning the employee can perform essential functions with or without accommodations. Terminating them is the same process as for any other employee.”
However, reliable transportation represents “one of the greatest barriers workers who are blind face,” Wolffe warns. Most rely on buses or trains affected by weather and other causes of delays.
The Long View
Employers probably will not be able to ignore indefinitely the pool of workers who are blind. As Baby Boomers age, many still-productive employees will lose their vision and require accommodations. As retirees leave gaps in the workforce, “Employers are going to have to dig deeper and be more inclusive,” Adams predicts.
Human resource professionals can get a jump on preparing this workforce by setting up internships and unpaid work experiences for high schoolers who are blind, Wolffe suggests.
Consultant Honig voices frustration that more employers don’t take advantage of this candidate pool. “Even in this economic slowdown, the number of high-tech jobs still outstrips the supply,” he points out. U.S. employers lobby for more H-1Bs—temporary visas for nonimmigrant workers—and outsource jobs overseas, “jobs that blind people can easily do with the right training.” He calls for “corporations to actively recruit blind people and to develop mentorships.”