by Paul Edwards
I have been involved at the state level of ACB since 1977 and have worked as a rehab teacher and a rehab counselor with the Division of Blind Services in Florida.
Before I retired I worked for 27 years as Director of Services to Students with Disabilities at one of the campuses of the largest community college in the country. This means that I was around when Section 504 was passed and then finally implemented. It seemed like a huge step forward to us then despite its limited coverage.
I lived through the euphoria surrounding the passage and signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and have lived through its emasculation by journalists and conservative legislators. For virtually all of that time, there is one statistic that has remained constant. For people who are blind, the unemployment rate is always pegged at 70 percent.
Anyone who has tried to keep up with unemployment statistics will know that there are lots of people who question the validity of the 70 percent claim. Nevertheless, it keeps appearing as gospel truth and, perhaps more importantly, it has remained unchanged for the last 30 years.
The first time I saw this figure was in a set of statistics published by the American Foundation for the Blind in 1994 and, since I just looked at them again, I should say that the 70 percent applies to people who are legally blind. I could write another whole article on the inadequacy of blindness statistics, and maybe I will. Every time we seem to take a step forward, there is something else wrong with the way data is collected about people who are blind. For a while blind people were counted with deaf people, and it was impossible to separate the two groups. Then the Department of Labor decided that the only people who should count in unemployment stats were those who were actually and demonstrably seeking work during the period being surveyed. The net result is that all I am sure of is that I have never seen statistics which don’t put blind folks far ahead of everybody else in terms of the percentage of us who can’t get jobs.
For every other minority in the country things have improved during the last generation. Even for people with other disabilities, the employment outcomes have improved. Why have statistics remained so stubbornly horrid for people who are blind or have low vision? I don’t claim to know for sure what the reasons are for its failure to change. I do know that, unless we do something to at least come to terms with the whys, we aren’t likely to be able to alter it. So, for the next little while, let’s explore what some possible hypotheses might be for the ongoing intransigence of the unemployment rate.
I believe that a major factor that limits employment is that too many blind people seek employment without the computer competency needed to succeed. There is some training that is made available in every state, but it usually involves rudimentary screen reader or magnifier software use and little more. I also believe that, with the full-on advent of mainstreaming, most blind kids don’t spend enough time with other blind people and thus often lack the kind of networking with successful visually impaired folks that is essential if youngsters are to be successful. I think many parents don’t want their little blind kids to associate with other little blind kids. I continue to believe that, while in school, visually impaired students don’t get the same access to vocational exploration as do their non-disabled peers. Too few kids get any work experience while in school. I think that, since state schools for the blind became primarily schools for multiply disabled blind children, there is not the same opportunity for socialization among blind youngsters that creates a sense of self that often doesn’t exist for kids coming out of high school now.
Fewer people who are blind seem to be going into rehab work these days. That means there are not as many role models who are blind that become a part of the rehab process for blind people seeking jobs. Perhaps we can work with school districts to do a job fair event once a year where our members who are working will come and talk to students about the jobs we do. I think that school and college both encourage dependence rather than independence because young blind students who have come through mainstreaming expect people to tell them what they need to do.
I think it is important to recognize that blind people have never had it so good in terms of access to information and technology. As interfaces have become more graphical, many databases and web sites used by state and local governments and by private companies have become inaccessible. In Florida we tried to negotiate with the state to make things better and, despite our best efforts, our only recourse was to file a complaint with the Department of Justice. It is worth noting that three years or more later we have received no indication that DOJ plans to do anything. Clearly another issue is the failure of the federal government to enforce the laws it passes! So, sure, there are web sites that are not accessible but, with proper training, I don’t think that blind people are at nearly such a disadvantage technologically as they were a generation ago. Failure to assure proper training must be laid at the doors of education and rehab alike and, for rehab, the problem doesn’t stop there.
Counselors don’t know nearly as much about blindness as they should. Now that separate state agencies are becoming fewer, there just isn’t the infrastructure of understanding about what blind people need that gets us past the expectation of quick and dirty closures in jobs that will never be seen by the client as a viable career. There is incontrovertible evidence that knowing and using braille substantially improves the likelihood of success for blind job seekers. The most direct study to demonstrate the relationship was done by Ruby Ryles in Louisiana and published in the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness several years ago. We don’t really need studies, though. Braille circulation at NLS is down. We have all seen how many blind people choose to opt for speech when braille is a viable option because speech is easier to learn and less expensive to get. Yet, in state after state and in agency after agency, braille is dismissed as too time-consuming to learn and not essential for placement. Even more appalling is the fact that too many students in school are being persuaded to forego braille since speech on computers makes braille redundant. We have passed braille bills in virtually every state, but we are not doing a good enough job of holding education’s feet to the fire on this issue.
Much of what has been said so far applies to people who were born blind. For those who lose their sight later, the situation is even more difficult. Adjustment to blindness is neither easy or quick. There are a range of skills that have to be learned. For many newly blinded folks, time is necessary both to learn the specific skills needed to be successful and to learn to feel comfortable as a person who can’t see. Homemaker closures and other similar options represented a plateau where people who were adjusting to blindness could pause while they acquired more skills and became more comfortable as well. These closures are no longer permitted under the new rehab law. Far too often now, counselors work for a quick closure that requires little training, so the blind person is frequently out there on the job without the skills needed to keep the job and without the environmental readiness to be a fully functional blind person. All too frequently blind people lose jobs not because they can’t do them but because their circumstances change. A living situation changes. Transportation goes away. A program used on the job changes and there isn’t time to find a way around the access that has gone away.
There are new measures that will now be used to judge the effectiveness of rehab programs. I am not sure whether these new indicators will be better or worse for blind clients or for agencies serving them. Only time will tell us! I am sure that we as people who are blind and as members of ACB can do some things that will make a difference.
First, we need to be far more pushy with local school districts about creating a relationship between our local chapters and youngsters in school. They need us more than we need them, but they don’t know it. Offer to be at sports day events! Offer to tutor in braille! Hold game days or nights for youngsters! Perhaps we should also think about holding training sessions for teachers. We know more about being blind than most of them do! The NFB is taking the bull by the horns and operates “BELL” programs in many states. They have an active parents program and, for older kids, offer youth programs, space camps and STEM-encouragement programs. We may not be able to emulate what you do and perhaps shouldn’t anyway! However, it is ludicrous for us to just sit back and do nothing!
Many of our affiliates give scholarships to students, and we want them to be at our events. Perhaps we need to turn it around and ask to present our scholarships at school assemblies or on college campuses so that people get a better idea of who we are and what we can do! I think every local chapter should meet at least twice a year with the local office of the rehab agency, with representatives of the school system and with the local private rehab agency if there is one. It is up to blind people to monitor the kind of service these agencies provide and to ask to be involved in what they are doing. At least one advantage of this kind of regular gathering would be to keep track of the kind of training blind people are getting. Also, public agencies should be prepared to tell us what jobs blind people are being hired to do. If we recruit more members while they are being served by agencies, we will know more about what agencies are doing well and where they need our help and advice so they can do better. Here is one way we can sell ourselves to agencies. After training, people who are blind go back to their home environment. Often that means they go back to a situation where they are not encouraged to use the skills they have learned from the agency or at school. What if we could persuade agencies to work with us to work with their clients so they didn’t lose their edge? Coming to meetings and going on outings with local chapters forces folks to use the skills they have been trained to use.
What applies at the local level applies at the state and national levels as well. We are organizations of blind people who have a right to understand what is being done to our brothers and sisters seeking employment. ACB has passed resolutions that make clear that training is insufficient in technology and braille. If we can’t persuade agencies to do more, we may need to look directly to federal funding for the training blind people need to be successfully placed in careers.
We have to continue to object to changes in the law that make it harder to place blind people. We have to work to make consumer choice real rather than the sham it is in the current law. ACB has an employment issues task force and a rehab task force. Both these groups should be working to answer the question this article has tried to address. I think we can change the 70 percent statistic, but only if we recognize that employment is the business of every blind person, not just of those seeking jobs. We also have to understand that ACB and our state and special-interest affiliates must accept that it is our responsibility to accept that the unemployment statistics will not change unless we make them change by taking a hard look at the infrastructure of services and demanding to be a part of changing them for the better!
There is one other area that must be discussed. A significant portion of that 70 percent statistic is caused by discrimination. Many employers remain unwilling to believe that people who are blind can fit in regardless of their qualifications or their experience. ACB has to work to change this ongoing disgrace. There are three things we can do. First, we can and should be sure that blind people know what their rights are to file complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Second, we must partner with rehab agencies to work at the state and local levels to let employers see our members who are already successfully doing comparable jobs to those that clients are seeking. Third, we must persuade rehab agencies to support discrimination cases their clients want to file. Filing complaints is a scary thing; having the support of a state agency makes this process much easier.
Enabling people who are blind to become all that they can be is what ACB is all about. If seven out of every 10 blind people who want to work are not able to do that, we have work to do. We have to change the attitudes that many blind job seekers have as much as we have to change agencies and employers’ values. We have had a huge impact in so many areas as an organization. It’s time for ACB to work on this issue now. Change can happen, but only if we make it happen!
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