Living, and working, with loss of vision
Waterloo Region Record - December 1, 2016 -
By Chelsea E. Mohler -
December 3 marks International Day of Persons with Disabilities. As job seekers and employees who are blind, we are more than our blindness and we would like to be viewed, first and foremost, as persons who have the skills and desire to work and succeed. Yet, people with vision loss experience barriers to finding and keeping meaningful employment.
Sixty-two per cent of the working-aged, blind and partially sighted population is not employed, compared to 27 per cent of the sighted population. For the sighted population, we know that the "unemployment rate" (people who are actively looking for work) is approximately seven per cent and the remaining 20 per cent are not looking for work for a variety of reasons (stay-at-home parent, student, ETC.). For the blind and partially sighted population, we do not have an accurate unemployment rate because many people have given up looking for work even though they would like to be employed. As a result, approximately half of Canadians who are blind or partially sighted are living on low incomes, making $20,000 a year or less.
Employers and co-workers often have reservations about how people with vision loss will perform the necessary requirements of the job. This "gatekeeping" function has impacted me negatively throughout my career.
I have applied for many jobs where I have the skills, qualifications, and experience, but there is an inherent belief that, due to my vision loss, I am not able to do the work. This belief is often grounded in misinformation and lack of awareness/education. Too often, we, as individuals living with vision loss, are encouraged to enter into careers based on our disability and what is perceived to be the easiest to accommodate, rather than our strengths and diverse abilities.
A lot of companies and organizations are afraid to hire individuals with vision loss because they are unsure of what will be required. With the appropriate accommodations and supports, individuals with vision loss fully participate in the workplace. For example, I use screen-reading software (about $1,500) called JAWS ("Job Access with Speech") for Windows. JAWS reads the text on the screen, and interprets it into a voice output. I also use a braille display that transfers written words on the screen into braille. When I am in a new or unfamiliar environment, I access orientation and mobility training from CNIB to assist me in learning my new surroundings. This support enables me to receive specific instruction to safely navigate the environment independently.
Employers often report that providing accommodations results in benefits such as retaining valuable employees, improving productivity and morale, reducing workers' compensation and training costs, and improving company diversity.
I believe in showcasing my disability as a positive asset; that, because of my disability, I am creative, flexible, and an excellent problem-solver. When disclosing my visual disability, I do so upfront in my job applications, and demonstrate how my disability is an asset. I envision my disability as a part of my personal brand, as it informs the work I do, and my lived experience has informed the career choices I have made. I am a firm believer in the "strengths-based" approach to language around disclosure, and I aim to shift the culture of thinking around disability from one of limitations and barriers to one of strengths and empowerment.
Today, there is increased dialogue concerning the value of diversity and inclusion that's beginning to open doors and create opportunities for job seekers who are blind. Living with vision loss often requires individuals to develop invaluable life skills (flexibility, well-organized, detail-orientated, exceptional problem solving) that are required for meaningful employment. We have training, education and expertise equal to our sighted peers, and overcome unique challenges in a visual world every day. Whether it's learning more about inclusive recruiting practices, tips for interviewing a candidate with vision loss or making simple accommodations for an employee who is blind or partially sighted, CNIB's Employability website (cnib.ca/employability) is a great resource for employers who believe in diversity and innovation in the workforce. Employers are also encouraged to reach out to CNIB for one-on-one support.
Chelsea E. Mohler M.SC is a research consultant with the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS)