October 2011 Issue  Volume 12  Number 10

Employment Issues

The Current State of Employment for People with Vision Loss: National and State Perspectives

In a tougher economy with tighter federal and local budgets, non-profits and national and state agencies must get creative in order to provide sustained service levels. Here's a look at how select agencies around the country are

National Perspective

Kathy Martinez, The Assistant Secretary of the United States Department of Labor, is a great resource for getting the national perspective on employment for people with vision loss. Assistant Secretary Martinez is a strong advocate for all people with disabilities, and, as someone with a visual impairment herself, she's also a great role model.

Over the past several years, Assistant Secretary Martinez has contributed to a number of projects that have had a positive impact on employment for people with disabilities. Among these efforts are: the American Heroes project, which deals specifically with employment for wounded veterans; initiatives that focus on small business hiring and incentives for employing people with disabilities, and the development of a soft skills curriculum through the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). In addition, Assistant Secretary Martinez's own department took on its own initiative. "The Department of Labor hired a human resources manager who will specifically oversee the hiring of persons with disabilities and their needs," she explained.

Among successful awareness campaigns, the "What can you do" campaign, which promotes the awareness of people with disabilities, was featured in AMC theatres. "Employers and the public are starting to get the message and realize how valuable persons with disabilities are in the workforce," says Secretary Martinez. She shared with us these additional accomplishments and initiatives, which you are encouraged to explore:

Department of Labor's ODEP websites.

Disability Employment Initiative—major grant initiative in One Stops implemented jointly with the Employment & Training Administration (ETA) to build capacity in that system to effectively serve people with disabilities.

Several joint policy guidance issuances (with Jane Oates from ETA) directed to the One Stops on serving people with disabilities.

Policy recommendations developed for reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act

Green Jobs Roundtable and action plan to include people with disabilities in the emerging green jobs arena.

Integrated employment toolkit to be released by September 30th—moving people with the most significant disabilities into integrated employment and at least minimum wage jobs.

Partnership with the Womens Bureau to advance understanding and use of Workplace Flexibility by employers.

Aging and Disability Roundtable and action plan.

We are truly grateful for Kathy Martinez's work and the effort she puts forth on behalf of all people with disabilities.

Hadley School for the Blind

The Hadley School for the Blind has many exciting and innovative training opportunities for people who are blind or visually impaired. Hadley recently introduced the Forsythe Center for Entrepreneurship, a unique program that trains individuals who are visually impaired in entrepreneurship. Before launching the Forsythe Center, Hadley offers a course on how to become self-employed with a start-up cost of $5,000 or less. In addition, Hadley continues to offer courses that prepare students for employment and the job search, and they provide a number of employment related webinars on their website.

National Industries for the Blind

National Industries for the Blind (NIB) continues to offer a variety of opportunities for employment and employment training. NIB's contract analyst program continues to thrive, along with their Washington, DC networking group, which launched a year ago and is steadily growing. The group, made up of professionals who are blind or visually impaired, meets quarterly and maintains contact and shares resources through a Yahoo group. NIB would like these groups to spring up in other metropolitan areas in the near future. People typically find their next job opportunity through networking, so don't be left out!

The State Perspective

Each state has different economic battles to fight, but overall everyone is struggling with a tighter economy. State funding is being questioned across the nation, but often it's this money that funds the services that help people get employed. State programs truly give back to the economy by creating more taxpayers and moving people off government subsidies and into the workforce. When it comes to funding vocational rehabilitation programs, the federal government usually matches state funding at a rate close to 3.8 times. This structure means the strain on the states' budgets is truly minimal, though state dollars must be provided in order to receive the federal match. Programs for children and older citizens, on the other hand, typically rely more heavily on state funds. Here is a look at what's going on in disability employment in a few select states around the country.


The Alabama Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services (ADRS) and their partners have a highly collaborative and unique delivery system. ADRS works closely in conjunction with the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind (AIDB), which has five regional centers in the state.

Alabama's Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services offers technology exhibitions that are open to staff, consumers, and the public. These events highlight the latest technology available for getting an edge in life and the work force. Alabama has always been known for being strong assisting in the transition from school to work, and the state continues to host a national conference on this area.

Recently, Alabama has begun working with partners, including the Alabama chapters of the American Council of the Blind and National Federation of the Blind, to create a statewide mentoring database. This effort is a part of an employment mentoring program that will help provide support to people seeking employment. The state conducted a mentor training for about 70 people who are blind or visually impaired. The mentor program is another way that the state of Alabama continues to create high quality, thoughtful initiatives.

Rita Houston, Assistant Commissioner for Blind and Deaf Services in Alabama offered this statement:

As Assistant Commissioner of Blind Services for the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services, I am very fortunate to have competent, enthusiastic, and creative staff. Debbie Culver, Coordinator of Blind Services; Curtis Glisson, Administrator; Denise Holmes, Rehabilitation Specialist; Lenore Dillon, Coordinator of Rehabilitation Teaching, and others direct our various programs, which enhance the employability of our consumers.


Here is a direct report from the Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation:

As economic times continue to effect a wide variety of programs both public sector and private sector, in Colorado, there continues to be efforts made towards collaborating with our partners. One program we have restructured is the Business Enterprise Program (Randolph Shepard program.) The restructuring includes intensive training, both hands-on and classroom time. This has resulted in an increase in interested candidates and an increase in referrals to this program from Vocational Rehabilitation Counselors. Candidates will complete the training program with a well-rounded foundation in business practices and food handling skills.

We have also collaborated with the Colorado Center for the Blind on an annual Federal employers' job fair. This includes training Federal Hiring Managers about blindness and accommodations for employees. There is also a time for mock interviews for a limited number of job seekers who are blind/visually impaired who went through a rigorous selection process.

There have been a number of projects involving call centers and addressing access issues. The call centers are newly established employment opportunities for individuals who are blind/visually impaired. The job duties and technical skills needed by the employer vary depending on the call center. The call centers range from scheduling transportation for individuals or providing transportation options to passengers while other call centers are information and referral centers.


Here is a direct report from the Maine Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired (DBVI):

Maine Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired (DBVI), in an attempt to hone job seeking strategies, support the notion of true job readiness, and reduce the "revolving door" of employment and non-employment for consumers (who gain employment, lose employment, gain employment, lose employment), created a program to specifically address these type of issues.

Maine's Employability Skills Program (ESP) was designed to support the efforts of consumers who are "job ready" and seeking employment, and assist consumers who are not quite job ready to figure out a pathway to obtain the necessary skills to be ready to fully engage in job seeking activities. The program provides training to increase blindness-specific competencies, confidence, and focused job seeking strategies.

This five-day program, which was created specifically for Maine by Dr. Karen Wolffe, utilizes an immersion model that uses the power of peer mentoring and self-discovery exercises related to acquiring additional blindness-specific competencies that will enhance one's marketability…. In addition, the program provided: hands-on training in how to use the state's various online employment tools in its one-stop Career Centers, online career exploration instruments, and numerous presentations on specific strategies to make job seeking more effective. Participants had time to interact with employers to learn about what they really look for in employees, as well as with other individuals with visual impairments who are currently working in the competitive labor market. The participants concluded the program with an action plan for how they will approach their job searches, or for acquiring additional competencies needed before they begin actual job seeking activities.

The final component of this program is a follow-along series of telemeetings based on the job club model. These telemeetings provide a mechanism to offer additional structure and encouragement for one's job search activities, peer mentoring for gaining the needed competencies before the consumer begins actual job seeking activities, and an opportunity to evaluate what is working and what still might be needed.

Voice Your Support for Employment of People with Vision Loss

State and national programs are critical resources for employment training, rehabilitation, preparation, and education for people who are blind or visually impaired. Contact your state and national representatives to voice your support for the types of programs discussed in this article, and to thank them for their continued advocacy and attention to preserving these important resources during these tough economic times.

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