October 2011 Issue  Volume 12  Number 10

Employment Issues

Employment for People with Vision Loss: A Brighter Forecast

I can't believe it's National Disability Employment Awareness Month again! Though the current employment picture is not particularly positive, there are many signs that point to better times ahead for job seekers with vision loss.

In 2010, Congress passed the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which promises more equality and accessibility to communications for people with disabilities. I am personally extremely grateful for, and optimistic about, the opportunities that will be prompted by this legislation. That said, a tighter economy means that people with disabilities must be more diligent, and better prepared and trained, in order to find and maintain employment. Job seekers who are willing to work harder and more creatively at finding employment will have a better chance at success.

The challenging unemployment rate and weak economy give us an opportunity to be more creative in many areas of our lives. Creativity will come in the form of new efforts to provide training for persons with disabilities. Organizations must find ways to provide better quality training with fewer resources. In the past twelve months, organizations have reinvented past programs to provide useful employment training for persons with disabilities. Non-profits have opened stores with the mission of providing people with disabilities training in transferable job skills. In addition, corporations across the country opened their doors to mentoring and training programs in areas ranging from culinary skills to traditional office jobs.

2011 has also seen an emphasis on promoting education for students with visual impairments in the STEM subject areas (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), which traditionally haven't been encouraged areas of study for this student population. Tara Annis wrote a great piece on STEM education for students with vision loss in the July 2011 issue of AccessWorld. With advances in mainstream and adaptive technologies, student and future scientists can independently pursue study and research in STEM subjects. This coming year, we hope to look forward to a national and international effort to promote these areas as viable academic and career possibilities for students with vision loss.

Apple continues to push other developers to include quality accessibility features in their products. Lexmark, one of the organizations honored by AFB with a 2011 Access Award, continues to provide improved access to their printers, copiers, and scanners. Read more about the start of the successful Lexmark accessibility program in Lexmark Marks a Path Towards Accessibility: A New Solution for Multifunction Document Centers, from the AccessWorld archives.

Though cell phone accessibility remains a hurdle for workers with vision loss, new smartphone apps are being introduced every day that expand the functionality of these devices in all sorts of ways. There are apps that read the bar codes on products, label objects, and identify money. Not all apps are accessible, but it is amazing how many are at this point. Developers are having some success working on optical character recognition within apps—with some practice, these types of apps can be used in a work atmosphere to access the content of a document.

The world of assistive technology had its own innovations this year, not the least of which was the development of more options for quality screen reading software, including Web-based versions that allow users to access computers besides their own. Scanning and optical character recognition has become available in more portable devices, and with faster processing. These types of technology advances mean people with visual impairments can have more and better access to printed materials in the workplace. Video magnifiers have improved in flexibility, variety, and portability. Hand-held video magnifiers have become smaller, lighter, and better. Check out Ike Presley's AccessWorld article on camera-model video magnifiers for more information.

Technology helps me accomplish things in life and at work that others may take for granted. As more and more job tasks depend on the use of a computer, I find the employment playing field is becoming more level. There may always be accessibility issues, but I find that these days more things are accessible then not. I'm truly thankful for the manufacturers and developers who make their products accessible from the get-go, and appreciate those who speak out for the rights of people with disabilities and take action to make sure our voices are being heard. The more that manufacturers and developers think about accessibility from the start, the fewer barriers we'll have to equal employment.

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