Bringing the Blind into the Workplace


By Suzanne Robitaille For a person with a visual disability, finding a job takes a lot of resilience. Even a job application can bruise his or her self-confidence -- few forms have a Braille alternative. An employer, not wishing to patronize the candidate, may fumble over certain tasks -- like forgetting to ask the blind person if they need assistance to the elevator.

While blind and visually impaired people can do everything that that those with full vision can do -- and you'll find many of them in a variety of jobs -- statistics show that they're still having a much harder time getting a job. Only 30% -- or some 160,000 -- of legally blind working-age people are employed in the U.S., according to the latest Census Bureau data. Legal blindness means a person's visual acuity is 20/200 or less in the better eye when using the best correction that can be provided by ordinary eyeglasses. The definition also includes people with a visual field of 20 degrees or less.

Assistive technology has been the cornerstone for pulling the blind and visually impaired into the job market, allowing them to overcome many obstacles, such as using computers -- a key piece of technology for the 21st century workplace. Employers are taking note that workers with impairments tend to be more loyal as they become familiar with their surroundings and the technology provided for them.

EASING CONFUSION. Barry Honig, head of executive-placement outfit Riskon, located in New York City, is particularly committed to helping people with disabilities find jobs because he's blind. He specializes in consulting with clients who are looking to hire people with disabilities -- especially visual ones -- but who may feel confused about their role as an employer. Assistive technology isn't the only thing needed in a workplace -- the right mindset is also essential, he says.

For employers, the key is to ask -- but not insist -- on helping a blind person during an interview. An employer who invites a blind person to an interview should be aware that he or she is in unfamiliar surroundings and should ask if they would like the interviewer to extend an arm on the way around the office.

If a blind person has a seeing-eye dog, an employer should avoid petting or distracting the dog. Moreover, the dog is a guide, not an extension of the individual. Honig says he once heard a woman at an office, who was preparing to give him a voucher for a hired car, say to another co-worker, "Should I give [the voucher] to the dog?" She might have been joking, or she might have been serious, but it was unacceptable in such a setting.

RECEPTIVE SECTORS. Job applicants must remember that it's their role to make a strong, positive first impression, Honig says. "Be upfront, and be comfortable about your disability," he says. "Ask the question: 'How am I going to do my job?' And be very honest with that answer."

Having worked on Wall Street for several years, Honig says the financial-services industry is one of the more tolerant places to work. "It's rough and tumble, especially on Wall Street, but people have no problem hiring the disabled as long as they help the company make money."

Another fertile ground for disabled job hunters is technology because people in the sector are more experienced with tech as a "barrier-breaking" tool. Visually impaired couple Margaret Redman and her husband, David, both have worked at Earthlink for more than four years in technology support. David was the first visually impaired person to join the company. "My husband and I showed them that a blind person could be a tech [support assistant] on the phones, so they hired more blind people who we both trained," Margaret Redman says.

HIGH AND LOW TECH. Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act 11 years ago in an effort to bring more disabled people into the workforce. The law requires that employers make "reasonable accommodations" in the workplace to allow a qualified person with a disability to be gainfully employed.

Assistive technology is the key to helping the legally blind to obtain employment and can be the tiebreaker that decides whether they're qualified for a job. Two kinds of equipment are available: Low technology, which is more of a morale booster and helps enhance productivity, and high technology, which allows the user to read electronic documents, surf the Internet, and check e-mail, the basic abilities needed in today's office job.

Low tech includes productivity enhancers, which don't have to be fancy or expensive. Some examples: A dot of silicon on a knob, switch, or button that tells a blind person which position is "on." A wide, felt-tip marker may make file-folder labels readable. Also, Braille labels on vending machines ensure equal access to flavor choice.

High tech modifies computers to provide enlarged screen display, synthesized voice, or Braille output. Optical scanners, also known as reading machines, scan printed material and transfer it to a computer or voice synthesizer. Some scanners require only an added a computer card and an external monitor.

WINDOWS WORLD. Adaptive software is making tremendous strides from its previous incarnation as DOS-based applications. GW Micro now sells Window-Eyes, a Windows 2000-based screen reader that has grown to be one of the top products in its category. JAWS (Job Access with Speech) for Windows from Freedom Scientific speaks the letters as a blind person types on the computer keyboard.

Both products also do more than just echo what has been typed. As new information appears on the monitor, screen readers can read it aloud with the help text-to-speech processors, which are generally clear and easy to understand. The program helps to perform functions such as word processing, calculating spreadsheets, composing Web pages, and surfing the Internet.

These products range from inexpensive to pricey. Text enlargement gear sells for $500 to $600, while speech-output devices cost some $800 to $1,800. Braille scanners and printers run about $500 for an economy model, to $15,000 for the most advanced. Honig says companies want to do the right thing, and sometimes they need that extra push, which he tries to provide in consulting to his clients about the benefits of diversity.

Sometimes, just getting a chance is all a disabled worker needs to prove his or her value to a company. "I know having a disability is a life of being told what are your limits by employers and co-workers, but my husband and I have been working to push the limits people and companies think of," Margaret Redman says. And for those with visual disabilities who are willing to go the extra mile, a rewarding job makes it all worthwhile. Robitaille writes Assistive Technology, only for BW Online


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