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AFB Research Navigator—Inaugural Edition: Employment of People with Vision Loss

Introducing AFB's Research Navigator

A Quarterly Series on Research in Blindness and Visual Impairment from the AFB Public Policy Center

Welcome to this first edition of AFB's Research Navigator. This is a quarterly series of the AFB Public Policy Center and DirectConnect newsletter. The purpose of this series is to keep you informed of user-friendly facts and figures and the latest research pertaining to people with vision loss. The series will also include the necessary background information so you may use the information most accurately. Have an idea for a Research Navigator topic? Want to know more about a particular statistic or line of research? Send your thoughts to AFB's Senior Policy Researcher, Rebecca Sheffield.

Readers are also encouraged to check out AFB's Statistical Snapshots on a regular basis.

This webpage is regularly updated with a wide variety of information and tools that address commonly asked questions about people with vision loss. In recognition of October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month, our first topic for AFB's Research Navigator is:

The Current State of Employment among Individuals who are Blind or Visually Impaired

Introduction to the Topic

It is no secret that individuals who are blind or visually impaired have far lower employment rates and labor force participation rates than the general population. Certainly, it is a topic of much discussion in this field. For example, the November - December 2013 volume of the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (JVIB November—December 2013, volume 107, number 6) was a special issue dedicated to transition and employment, not to mention the numerous articles that have been published in other volumes of JVIB.

Joe Strechay of AFB CareerConnect frequently blogs about the topic. Get more information on the CareerConnect blog.

AFB's annual Leadership Conference often has a number of sessions on the topic, and the list goes on.

Yet, among the general population, employment rates among people with vision loss, indeed, employment rates among people with disabilities is not commonly a hot topic of conversation. To be sure, the bleak employment numbers have been acknowledged—and these numbers have been acknowledged worldwide—but outside the field, little action has been taken.

The Numbers

First, some definitions. When discussing employment, there are three key figures: unemployment rate, labor force participation rate, and percentage not in the labor force. The unemployment rate, as calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), is the percentage of the total labor force that is unemployed but actively seeking employment and willing to work.

The unemployment rate does not count individuals who are not looking for work, whether this is because a decision has been made to leave the workforce or those who have dropped out of the workforce as a result of long-term unemployment. The labor force participation, as defined by BLS, is "the subset of Americans who have jobs or are seeking a job, are at least 16 years old, are not serving in the military and are not institutionalized." The percentage not in labor force accounts for both, those counted in the unemployment number and those that have either dropped out of the labor force or did not enter it. This number, the percentage not in labor force, is always higher than the unemployment rate and provides a more accurate picture of the proportion of people who are not employed. This number seeks to represent all Americans who are eligible to work in the everyday U.S. economy. All these figures are representative of the civilian labor force.

Now, the numbers. First, let us look at the numbers for "working-age" (i.e., 16 to 64 years of age) individuals who are blind or visually impaired. In December 2013, this subset of the population had a 36 percent labor force participation rate, 64 percent not in the labor force, and 15 percent unemployment rate (American Foundation for the Blind [AFB], 2014). That means that an alarming 64 percent of individuals who are blind or visually impaired 16 to 64 years of age were not working! But to fully understand the gravity of this number, let us take a moment to look at the same figures for the general working-age population (i.e. individuals 16 to 64 years of age) during the same month, December 2013. The labor force participation rate was 72 percent, percent not in labor force was 28, and the unemployment rate was 7 percent (BLS, 2013). To reiterate, the labor force participation rate among the general working-age population, 16 and to 64 years of age was exactly two times (72 percent) that of the labor force participation rate among individuals who are blind or visually impaired (36 percent).

December 2013 was not a unique month. Indeed, individuals with vision loss continually have far lower labor force participation rates than their counterparts in the general population. Between 2009 and 2012, the yearly average labor force participation rate for all working-age individuals ranged from 75 percent in 2009 to 73 percent in 2012. For that same time period and age group, the yearly average for individuals with vision loss ranged from 40 percent in 2009 to 36 percent in 2012 (Kelly, 2013). And, for those individuals with vision loss who are employed, this group has lower median monthly earnings: $2,281 person with vision loss versus $2,724 for an individual with no disability (Brault, 2013).

Note: We use caution about drawing too many conclusions from these data as the margins of error around both the earnings and family income were relatively large. The 90% confidence interval lower bound of the family income estimate for people with disabilities is $2,783 and the upper bound of the family income estimate for people with difficulty seeing is $2,823. This overlap implies that the two may not be statistically significant at the 90 percent confidence level. Nevertheless, these numbers are insightful.

Why This Matters

Employment is far more than a paycheck, which, in and of itself is vitally important. Employment is the economic and social foundation for stability in one's life, the lynchpin for one's independence, an important component of one's self-definition. Employment has traditionally served as an indicator of one's entrance into adulthood (Silva, 2012). Additionally, the negative effects of unemployment on psychological well-being have long been established. Indeed, lack of employment has been shown to correlate with depression, anxiety, and low subjective well-being and self-esteem (Cohn 1978, Paul & Moser, 2009). Other research has focused on the role of joblessness and its negative association to one's social role, meaning that, with a lack of employment comes a questioning of one's role as a friend, spouse, parent, etc. (Price, Friedland, & Vinokur, 1998). These social relationships are fundamental aspects of well-being. Thus, not only does unemployment negatively impact one's earnings, it also negatively affects one's view of self, resulting in low self-esteem, low self-worth, and low self-respect.

Moreover, individuals with vision impairments want to work. RespectAbilityUSA, a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C., recently presented findings on their survey of individuals with disabilities and family members, close friends, professionals, and volunteers in the disability community.

Note: While we find the results of this survey interesting, we are not privy to their exact methodology and are therefore cautious in reporting these numbers. Moreover, we know that their sample includes "the activist people with disabilities community and reflects more women, Democrats, Caucasians, and a more highly educated audience than one might expect within the disability community."

Their survey yielded 3,839 respondents of which 1,969 were individuals with a disability. While this survey was of people with all types of disabilities, individuals with vision loss were part of the sample and the results provide some insight into the issue. Most pertinent among their findings was that 71 percent of people with disabilities said that having a job was more important to them than a government safety net. Additionally, over three-fourths of respondents who had disabilities reported that having a job was "important to their happiness" (RespectAbilityUSA).

Yet, despite the desire for and knowledge of the importance of employment, barriers continue to exist. Past studies have shown that education alone is not enough in helping individuals with visual impairments in gaining higher employment numbers (Kirchner & Smith, 2005). Some of the most common barriers cited in employment literature continue to be out-of-date or inaccessible equipment and materials, inadequate assistive technologies, inadequate compensation, weak job status, discrimination, and limited training opportunities. Included in these barriers is a lack of, what Wolffe (2011) refers to as, employability skills on the part of the individual with vision loss. The skills included in this category are: "organizational and planning skills, working in a team, interacting appropriately with others, and demonstrating a sense of responsibility" (Kaine & Kent, 2013, p. 534)and are vital in both gaining and maintaining employment. Like any other skill set, these must be taught and practiced. And, despite numerous research studies aimed at identifying ways to improve this skill set, there continues to be a need for evidenced-based practices which have successful results (Cavenaugh & Giesen, 2012).


Employment is important to one's social and economic livelihood. The employment numbers for individuals who are blind or visually impaired are bleak. And, important to point out is that certain socio-demographic groups among this population fare worse than others. We know that access to quality vocational rehabilitation (a future topic of AFB's Research Navigator quarterly series), training programs, career counseling and mentoring, and professional resources all have the potential to make a positive difference in employment outcomes. Yet, despite all this significant research, researchers and practitioners alike continue to be faced with the problem of how to increase employability. No doubt, an investment must be made in the aforementioned programs, and they must be made available to all who need them. But this also means that there is a need for more research, both in the areas mentioned above and in others, such as the importance of social networks and various training and development interventions.


Each reference is hyperlinked to a website where you can read the original source. Note that a subscription or fee applies to read some articles in their entirety.

AFB would like to thank Dr. Stacy Kelly, Policy Research Consultant and Assistant Professor in the Northern Illinois University Visual Disabilities Program, for her work on this article.


If you have questions about this edition of the Research Navigator or other research/stats issues related to blindness/visual impairments, please contact AFB's Senior Policy Researcher, Rebecca Sheffield.

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