Dear AccessWorld readers,
Once again, AccessWorld celebrates Disability Employment Awareness Month during the month of October. Employment of people with visual impairments is a major mission of AFB and I personally believe that employment is the key to a full and complete life. If you are not familiar with the history of Disability Employment Awareness Month, My former colleague and AccessWorld Editor, Lee Huffman, explains it well:
The effort to educate the American public about issues related to disability and employment began in 1945 when Congress enacted a law declaring the first week in October as National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week. In 1962, the word "physically" was removed to acknowledge the employment needs and contributions of individuals with all types of disabilities. In 1988, Congress expanded the week to a month and changed the name to National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
I would also like to share with you the wise words of my former colleague, Joe Strechay. Joe operated AFB's former CareerConnect program for many years so had a great deal of experience on the topic of employment for people with vision loss:
Having traveled extensively around the United States and met with professionals, job seekers, teenagers, and adults who are blind or visually impaired, I have had the opportunity to learn about employment issues from all sides. Much of my job pertains to analyzing employment issues and creating resources to assist people with vision loss in becoming career ready.
In that vein, I am often asked the question, "What is the major factor affecting whether or not a person with vision loss is or is not employed?" Too often, I feel, people want to highlight a single reason as the major cause for the differential between being employed or being unemployed. Instead of offering one reason, I assert that the underlying factor is that there is such inconsistency around the United States in the training and preparation of people with vision loss from an early age through adulthood.
Neither public nor private services are created equally, and for that matter, no government or private entity offers those services in the same manner. This issue is larger than just vocational rehabilitation. It includes preparation in schools, nonprofits, various state agencies and services, and other important variables, including family involvement. There are a lot of fantastic programs and services available, but any given region may be strong in one service and lacking in another. I know this is obvious, but it needs to be said openly: our field needs to address our weaknesses and diligently work to make improvements.
Each job seeker with vision loss has his or her own challenges. Unfortunately, I still see a level of learned helplessness among young people with disabilities, even among the brightest. Learned helplessness refers to an individual being taught that things will be done for them, which allows them to not attempt to initiate or do things on their own.
This type of thinking sometimes extends to the perception of job seekers that vocational rehabilitation is designed to find them jobs, but really that is not the purpose. Vocational rehabilitation specialists definitely can help and guide, but they are not job placement professionals. Job placement is an art, a mix of sales, community relations, and having a well-defined pool of applicants.
Job seekers battle the perceptions of employers about vision loss and their own perceptions about navigating the employment process. At the same time, the technology divide between those who have appropriate access and mainstream technology and those who have orientation and mobility training, and those who do not, is apparent. Those with O&M training and technology skills have a better chance at finding, obtaining, and maintaining successful employment. In addition, job seekers are all individuals with strengths, skills, and weaknesses. All individuals have limitations, and not every job seeker is going to be a computer programmer, accountant, teacher, mechanic, or maintenance worker. The common thread typically is they want to be a productive and employed citizen.
Over the past 5 or so years, a new facet of employment, the gig economy, has emerged and risen to prominence. If you are unfamiliar with the gig economy, it is the system of primarily independent contractors or workers who use online job platforms. Think of Lyft, Uber, Instacart, DoorDash/GrubHub/Uber Eats and others. These workers sign up for a work platform and then work when they want, without set hours or a traditional work structure. The examples I gave above are on the visual side as they all require that the gig worker drive as part of their job, but there are other options that are more accessible to people with vision loss. In this month's AccessWorld, J.J. Meddaugh details two of the available online options for gig-based work.
We have been observing Disability Employment Awareness Month for many years now, and I would like to refer you to previous AccessWorld articles that, even though they were published in years past, still offer useful information. From the 2016 issue of AccessWorld comes Employment Perspective: Rethinking the Purpose of Work, by Neva Fairchild, and from October 2010, National Disability Employment Awareness Month: The Employment Process and Insider Tips for Getting the Most from Vocational Rehabilitation, both by Joe Strechay, are full of very helpful guidance, even a decade on from their original publication.
As always, we hope that you enjoy this issue of AccessWorld and find our articles helpful and actionable for you. If you have any comments, questions, or thoughts, you can send them to me by email.
Acting Editor, AccessWorld
American Foundation for the Blind