Editor's note: The majority of the content in this article was published in the October 2018 issue of AccessWorld in an article written by Aaron Preece. It has been updated for 2019 and edited for this publication by the author.
October is Disability Employment Awareness Month. Each year, we at AccessWorld strive to bring you the most comprehensive and current employment resources and information for people with visual impairments. Whether you are just beginning your employment journey or have been on the job for many years, we hope you will find the resources detailed here useful and informative.
Through the Vocational Rehabilitation Act, each state provides employment resources to those with vision loss through vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies specifically for individuals with blindness or low vision as well as general VR agencies. Services are provided based on a principle called "Informed Choice" and on an evidenced-based assessment of each individual's abilities and desires, outlined in an Individual Plan for Employment (IPE).
Services provided by a VR agency can vary widely but generally fall into three categories: guidance, training, and resources.
Rehabilitation counselors can provide counseling and guidance as well as case management. Often, a VR agency can also provide daily living, orientation and mobility, and assistive technology skills training either through a traveling/local professional or through a residential training center. Lastly, VR can often provide tangible resources to aid a client in reaching their employment goal. The most common forms of physical resources provide are funding for education or funding for specific assistive technologies needed to accomplish the individual's chosen career.
You can find contact information for your state's VR department in the VisionAware directory of services.
Useful Technology for Employment
Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology is incredibly useful for performing a variety of work-related tasks, from checking the label on a box to reading a memo at a meeting. There are a number of desktop OCR solutions, several of which are designed specifically for use by those with vision loss. The most common of these are Openbook, KNFB Reader for Windows 10, and Kurzweil 1000. Some popular mainstream options include ABBYY Fine Reader and Omni Page. Also note that Windows 10 contains its own built-in OCR component that can be used with the NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA) screen reader.
There are also many OCR and object recognition apps available for the iOS and Android platform. The most popular for people with vision loss are discussed below.
The KNFB Reader app for iOS and Android offers access at a cost, but it's a useful app for people who are blind. The app provides the ability to access print documents, menus, and much more in everyday life and employment settings through a portable OCR solution. People use the KNFB Reader to independently access printed material, and the developers continue to add new features. It is also possible to import PDF documents or images containing text and have them converted into readable text with the KNFB Reader.
Microsoft's free Seeing AI app provides recognition of text, products, and people. Each distinct feature in the app is referred to as a "Channel." The app has two OCR channels. One that could be particularly useful in the workplace is called "short text." This feature uses the camera to constantly scan for legible text and upon detection read it automatically. This feature is useful in many situations, from reading error messages on a computer screen in real time to sorting printed documents. The other OCR channel aims to capture an entire document. More recently, a channel has been added to the app that aims to recognize handwriting, a feature also shared by the very similar Envision AI, also available on Android. Seeing AI and Envision AI were recently compared in AccessWorld.
Voice Dream Scanner, from the developer of the popular Voice Dream Reader and Writer apps, is a new accessible OCR app that can be purchased at a modest cost. The app uses several different OCR engines to produce its results and has been found to be quite accurate. We have reviewed Voice Dream Scanner in AccessWorld.
The Speak! app is an OCR app for android and has been built to be accessible to people with vision loss. The app can be downloaded for free and uses an onboard OCR engine, meaning it can be used when offline. AccessWorld reviewed the Speak! app in August of this year.
The Be My Eyes app is a free app that allows people to volunteer to video chat in order to provide visual assistance to people with visual impairments. You can use this app for access to all kinds of information ranging from captchas to thermostats in hotels. Originally only available on iOS, the app is now available on Android as well.
Aira is a service that allows someone with a visual impairment to request visual assistance from someone who has been professionally trained to provide assistance to people with visual impairments. We have reviewed Aira across two articles. The first article was published in the September 2017 issue of AccessWorld. Part 2 was published in the October 2017 issue. More recently, we have published a review of Aira's new Horizon smart glasses. Aira now also provides free minutes for users when their inquiries relate to job-seeking tasks. Further details on this program can be found here. In addition, any Aira call under 5 minutes is now free.
There are a number of GPS apps designed for people with visual impairments. These include BlindSquare, Nearby Explorer, Seeing Eye GPS, and Microsoft Soundscape. Beacon technology has revolutionized the development of indoor navigation solutions for people with visual impairments. There are many apps available that take advantage of this technology to provide step-by-step directions or the equivalent of accessible signs indoors. Some of these include BlindSquare, Right-Hear, Aware, and APH Indoor Explorer. Recognizing the potential in indoor wayfinding technologies, APH recently created a company specifically for exploring this aspect of the industry. For more information, see this AccessWorld article on Access Explorer.
Keep in mind that an app does not replace the use of proper orientation and mobility skills with a white cane or dog guide.
Ride sharing apps such as Uber and Lyft have become popular transportation options for those with vision loss, due to their relative affordability and convenience. Uber has an accessibility page where you can learn about the company's approach. Though I have not found a specific accessibility page for Lyft, the company has taken steps to make their service accessible and usable to people with vision loss. Most recently, the company has been testing the accessibility of their autonomous vehicles with passengers with vision loss. AccessWorld has discussed the benefits of ride sharing apps previously.
Disability:IN, Formerly USBLN
Disability:IN, formerly the United States Business Leadership Network (USBLN), is a nationwide organization that seeks to assist businesses in improving disability inclusion across the board, from hiring to product development. Disability:IN contains a network of businesses across the United States organized into local affiliates that share strategies and best practices for disability inclusion. Membership also serves the purpose of identifying a business as an entity that believes in disability inclusion and seeks to improve it in its organization.
In partnership with the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), Disability:IN has produced the Disability Equality index, a method for quantifying the level of disability inclusion present in a business. The organization also produces monthly webinars on disability with recordings made available to members afterward. Through the Next Gen Leaders Initiatives, Disability:IN connects college students and college graduates with businesses for mentorships and for assistance advancing their careers. Program participants are brought to the Disability:IN annual conference where they devise a product to solve an issue. In addition, the conference serves as an excellent place for the participants to network and many are hired or begin the interview process with companies who attend the conference.
Career Training and Workplace Experience Resources
In addition to traditional rehabilitation programs, there are several organizations that aim to assist people with visual impairments in finding jobs. Most programs provide a combination of general guidance as well as resources for connecting with employers, gaining work experience, or gaining training for a specific field.
The Blind Institute of Technology (BIT) works with job seekers and employers to connect people with vision loss with careers in the field of technology. For job seekers, BIT offers training programs as well as instructional videos on access topics. In addition, BIT can provide individuals with guidance on the interview process and has partnered with Uber to provide transportation assistance for those with vision loss. For employers, BIT provides disability inclusion workshops, accessibility consulting, and can connect employers with qualified prospective employees with vision loss.
Project Starfish America aims to work with individuals who belong to minority populations (including people with vision loss) to launch or relaunch their career. Project Starfish was inspired by the low employment rate among those who are blind or have low vision, so the vision loss community is a key population served by the program. The program provides training on skills needed in the workplace and connects individuals with short-term work through startup businesses. Starfish has begun to work with students through an internship program that aims to provide experiences geared to entering an Ivy League university.
The Lighthouse of Houston offers training in office skills, telecommunications, customer service, and medical transcription at its campus. Due to the success of the medical transcription program, the organization now offers medical transcription online training for those with vision loss. Courses range in length from 6 months for the office skills course to 18 months for the online or in-person medical transcription training program. The World Services for the Blind, a residential training center for visual impairment skills in Arkansas, partners with the IRS to provide training for various entry-level positions in the IRS. Once trained, individuals are then placed with the agency. The IRS relates a story in which an individual was trained, entered the IRS workforce, and has since been promoted on several occasions after beginning work with the IRS.
Job Search Tools
A key method for finding employment opportunities is the use of job listing websites. The most popular sites currently operating are Indeed, Glassdoor, ZipRecruiter, and Monster. All these sites function similarly. You can search for a job by keyword or location and filter for conditions such as salary and experience level. Indeed includes a remote jobs filter, which might be particularly useful for someone with visual impairments. In 2019, AccessWorld published articles on the accessibility of several different job listing sites. Part 1 is here and part 2 is here
In addition to traditional job listing sites, employers are increasingly listing positions on social media sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook. Both LinkedIn and Facebook have dedicated accessibility teams, so can be relied on to be fairly accessible using assistive technology, though due to the frequent changes such sites experience, accessibility may fluctuate. We reviewed LinkedIn in the October 2015 issue of AccessWorld, which may be helpful if you are not familiar with the site (the accessibility of the site may have changed since the article's publication). We briefly detailed navigating Facebook in this 2013 article, though, again, due to the rapid evolution of the site much of the navigation details and access claims in that article are outdated. That being said, if you are unfamiliar with Facebook or other social networks, you may find the more broadly applicable aspects of the article helpful.
In addition to social media and mainstream job search sites, organizations that serve the vision loss community also provide job listings. The National Federation of the Blind provides job listings from CareerBuilder and USAJobs on its Newsline service. The Newsline service provides access to newspapers and magazines as well as other information through a standard telephone or in other accessible formats. For information on the service and the job listings feature, visit the Newsline site. The American Council of the Blind offers ACB Job Connection, a site where job openings from across the United States are posted.
Information and Guidance for Job Seekers that are Visually Impaired
Several organizations provide information and guidance for job seekers who are visually impaired. You may be familiar with CareerConnect, a site that provides extensive resources and guidance for job seekers who are visually impaired. In addition to informational resources, CareerConnect also includes interactive career building tools and a database of mentors who are visually impaired and employed in many different fields. CareerConnect also has a series of articles profiling successful employed individuals with vision loss, which contain extensive information on the individual's career and the accommodations they use. CareerConnect was transferred from AFB to the American Printing House for the Blind as of July 2018.
The National Federation of the Blind provides a series of profiles of successfully employed blind individuals in their Where the Blind Work series. The organization also publishes employment-related material in its varying publications and information sources across the website. The Perkins School for the Blind has also created a site to assist job seekers who are blind or visually impaired. The site also contains information for employers who wish to provide an optimal work environment for those with vision loss.
AccessWorld Employment Content
Even though October is AccessWorld's employment-focused issue, we are increasingly publishing material of interest to job seekers throughout the year. One prominent addition to the AccessWorld lineup is our "Employment Matters" series. In this series, Deborah Kendrick interviews people with vision loss who are successfully and meaningfully employed. The goal is to give these professionals a chance to describe the skills and attributes they believe helped them find and maintain their career paths. The articles also explore actionable and relevant information for job seekers. We published the first Employment Matters article in February of 2019 and the most recent article in September.
We have also begun to focus our August issue on articles of interest to blind entrepreneurs. You can find the August issue here.
I had the privilege of attending the 2019 Disability:IN conference. Thousands of people from numerous corporations attended with the aim of improving their accessibility, from their consumer products to the experiences of their disabled employees. Rapid advances in technology in the last decade have made it possible for people with visual impairments to compete at the same level as their sighted counterparts in more career fields than ever. Employer attitude might be the last major barrier to employment for those with vision loss. It is heartening to see so many businesses earnestly seeking to improve access to their companies. Hopefully, this will signal a shift in how prospective employees with vision loss are perceived, lowering this final major barrier to meaningful employment.
As each October issue is dedicated to employment here at AccessWorld I highly recommend reviewing past issues as the resources and information provided there can still be pertinent and useful. Also be sure to check the "Related Articles" section at the bottom of this article, as other employment articles will be located there. We hope these resources serve you well on your employment journey.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
- 2018 AccessWorld Employment Resources for People with Visual Impairments by Aaron Preece
- AFB Is Taking Bold Action to Significantly Increase Employment of People with Visual Impairments in the Workforce of Tomorrow by Lee Huffman
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