Rationale for Specialized Employment Services for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
Who needs specialized employment services?
In the United States today, there are approximately four million working-age adults who report some form of uncorrectable vision loss. Among those working-age adults who are totally blind or have severe visual impairments, 74% are not employed (McNeil, 1993). Specialized services--which provide specific employment-related skills--make a critical difference in a blind or visually impaired adult's ability to compete successfully for a job, remain employed, and advance in the workplace.
What specialized services do working-age visually impaired adults need?
Specialized employment services teach blind and visually impaired people how to access printed materials or information on computer screens, move about a place of employment freely and safely, use public transportation to get to and from work, and perform any other tasks associated with their job responsibilities.
Visually impaired people acquire the skills necessary for successful employment from specially trained rehabilitation professionals. These specialists include rehabilitation counselors who can address specific needs related to vision loss; rehabilitation teachers; orientation and mobility specialists; low-vision specialists; and experts in technology adapted for visually impaired people. The services these specialists provide include:
- Independent living skills--using specialized adaptive devices and techniques for personal management at home and at work.
- Communication skills--using adaptive computer equipment to read information on computer screens or on the printed page, and using braille and other methods to take notes and maintain files.
- Mobility skills--using specific orientation and mobility techniques, long canes, and other mobility tools for safe and independent travel.
- Low-vision services--using special low-vision optical and adaptive devices.
Where and how are specialized employment services provided?
Both state vocational rehabilitation agencies and private organizations have been specifically established to counsel visually impaired people and teach the skills they need to compete in the workplace. Unfortunately, in some states, blind people only have access to general rehabilitation agencies, which serve people with a variety of disabilities. In these cases, specialized services for visually impaired people are not always available. People who are blind or visually impaired have consistently stated that general rehabilitation agencies do not provide the quality of service they need to be successful in employment situations, and research bears this out. Specialized service providers have better job placement results than general rehabilitation programs, enabling adults who are blind or visually impaired to achieve a higher standard of living (Cavenaugh and Pierce, 1998; NAC, 1997; Florida Department of Education, 1994). It has also been demonstrated that separate agencies for blind people have achieved successful vocational rehabilitation placements at lower average costs than general rehabilitation agencies (Florida Department of Education, 1994).
Specialized employment services provide a wide range of training and job placement options. This affords visually impaired people the opportunity to make informed choices regarding their vocational goals, the type and location of vocational training they seek, and the equipment they need for successful employment. These options include:
- Training and placement in "mainstream" employment settings.
- Specialized employment provided by organizations serving blind people--formerly known as workshops.
- Training and employment in independently operated retail and vending operations in government and private buildings.
What are the challenges facing specialized employment services?
To cut costs, more and more states are threatening to dissolve--or already have dissolved--their separate agencies for visually impaired people. This short-term budget decision results in a "one size fits all" approach to employment services that overlooks the proven benefits of specialized programs and services. Although large, all-purpose disability and health service organizations claim to serve blind people as successfully as blindness agencies do, many blind and visually impaired people fall through the cracks when they don't have access to specialized services.
Specialized employment programs operated by blindness organizations have also been criticized as a vocational alternative. Ending these programs would deny consumers a right as assured by the U.S. Congress in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended (34 CFR 361.52, The State Vocational Rehabilitation Services Program; Final Rule).
Specialized services that provide assistive technology--such as computers with speech or braille output and large-print displays--are consistently underfunded, and yet these services have clearly demonstrated a positive impact on employment. Forty percent of severely visually impaired people who are employed use computers to do their jobs (Kirchner, Johnson, & Harkins, 1997).
What can you do to protect specialized employment services?
- Support funding for separate state or private rehabilitation agencies for blind people in each state.
- Provide sufficient funding for university-level programs in rehabilitation teaching, orientation and mobility, and low-vision services to assure adequate numbers of specially trained professionals.
- Assure adequate funding for assistive technology devices and services.
- Support specialized employment programs operated by blindness organizations for visually impaired people who are not interested in or do not have access to "mainstream" employment settings.
Cavenaugh, Brenda S., Giesen, J. Martin, & Pierce, Steven J. "Blindness Rehabilitation in Separate and Combined Agencies." Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness ( in press).
Cavenaugh, Brenda S., & Pierce, Steven J. "Characteristics, Services, and Outcomes of Rehabilitation Consumers Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Served in Separate and General Agencies." Mississippi State, Mississippi: Mississippi State University Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision. 1998.
Florida Department of Education, Division of Blind Services. Report to the Governor, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Minority Leaders of the Senate, and the House of Representatives, the State Board of Education, and the Commissioner of Education (Report from the Commission to Study the Delivery of Services to the Blind). Tallahassee, Florida: Author, 1994.
Kirchner, C., Johnson, G., & Harkins, D. "Research to Improve Vocational Rehabilitation: Employment Barriers and Strategies for Clients Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired." Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, July-August 1997, pp. 377-392.
McNeil, J.M. Americans with Disabilities 1991-2, U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, P70-33. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993.
National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC). Outcomes Achieved by Consumers with Vision Loss Served by Specialized and General State VR Agencies, FY '94: Review of Selected Variables. New York: NAC, 1997.