by Stacy Cervenka, AFB Director of Public Policy
Over the past several months, AFB's Public Policy and Research Advisor, Sarah Malaier, and I have researched and analyzed a wide variety of nationally focused employment programs for people with vision loss. The purpose of this project was to understand what types of programs are available to blind and low vision people who are looking to find employment, retain employment, and advance in their chosen career fields. Just as importantly, if not more so, we wanted to identify what services and resources are not available but need to be.
We intend to use this information to guide AFB’s work on employment policy and programs. We also hope that making this information available to other blindness and disability organizations will help them recognize what work is currently not being done, so that they can take this into account when developing their own employment programs. When organizations and agencies are developing employment programs, it is imperative to understand these factors so as not to replicate work that is already being done and to develop programs to meet needs that aren’t currently being met.
Recognizing that we likely wouldn’t be able to identify every program that addresses employment of people who are blind or have low vision, we drew on our own experience and interactions to identify governmental and nonprofit organizations that are widely known to offer employment programs. For example, we examined the programs offered by the Employment Roundtable, a convening of thirteen national organizations with an employment focus. We looked at the programs run by members of the Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities, the largest coalition of national organizations focused on public policy. Other programs were affiliated with state vocational rehabilitation agencies or have collaborated with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.
Because of the scope of the programs that we could identify, we knew we need to narrow our focus. We chose to collect information on national programs serving people with visual impairments, outside of the school system, to advance employment opportunities and skills. Programs available to people with any type of disability were also included; however, programs focused specifically on one disability category other than blindness (such as people with Down syndrome or people with mental illness) were not included. Though we did not report on regional- and state-level programs, we did include such programs that were representative of common models offered on the state and regional level.
Once we identified the organizations and programs that offer employment services to people who are blind, we sorted and categorized them, coming up with 12 groups. With all the programs properly categorized, we were able to identify trends in the resources and services available and also to identify where there are gaps in service delivery.
The 12 Categories of Employment Programs for Americans Who Are Blind or Low Vision
There are few employment programs for adults that focus on both the alternative skills of blindness and employment readiness and job retention. There are many comprehensive blindness rehabilitation programs for adults, but these typically do not have strong or regular employment components. Clients of these programs may be provided with limited group instruction on topics like resume development and job interviewing, but receive no regular individualized career counseling, job placement, or job retention services. This is significant as it relates to supporting older adults with vision loss to remain in the workforce and retain their current positions. Many people who lose vision later in life, or who did not receive adequate skills training early in life, don’t have access to job retention programs that include training on job specific skills and technology and also general transferrable blindness skills, such as mobility and home management.
There are few national programs that introduce adult blind job seekers to successful blind role models in a structured or formalized way. There are no national mentoring programs that exist specifically to assist and empower older adults with vision loss who are looking to find or maintain employment. The absence of nationwide mentoring programs was part of the motivation for AFB initiating the Blind Leaders Development Program. In addition to connecting blind professionals with their peers, we hope this program will shine light on the benefits and opportunities in building quality mentoring initiatives for people who are blind.
There are no nationally available support groups that focus on employment. Many state vocational rehabilitation agencies used to offer “job clubs.” These clubs provided a monthly time and space for VR consumers who were looking for work to support and encourage each other and share resources and strategies. However, due to a variety of factors, the job club trend has mostly passed. In this author’s view, that is unfortunate, because if staffed and resourced properly with the right structure, job clubs could be very powerful tools.
There are no national programs that actually get technology into the hands of blind job seekers or to current employees who are experiencing vision loss. This is significant, because adaptive technology can be very expensive and most people do not have the resources to fund it on their own. Many state vocational rehabilitation agencies have waiting lists for services and it can take up to a year for a person to apply for services, receive an eligibility determination, undergo skills assessments, develop an Individualized Plan for Employment, and undergo technology assessments, before a consumer actually receives the technology they need. Also, due to limited funding for technology and disputes among vocational rehabilitation agencies and employers over who is responsible for paying, many recipients of vocational rehabilitation services who find jobs must wait even longer for adequate access to technology, if they ever receive equipment. Such extended wait periods can jeopardize individuals’ employment acquisition and retention.
Several organizations offer programs that assist employers in providing reasonable accommodations for their employees with disabilities and/or offer them advice and resources for doing so. Although we found these programs to be adequate, we suggest that the organizations that operate them explore ways to increase their dissemination to employers and job seekers, who may benefit from knowing what accommodation strategies are available to them. Blind job seekers need to be able to advocate for their accommodations needs on the job, and knowing what strategies and tools are available is critical.
There are few national programs that actually provide blind job seekers or blind employees with information, resources, technology, or other tools. Most resources are aimed at transition-aged youth or employers. Blind people who are looking for work or who are looking to retain a current job often have no way of taking their job search into their own hands. The only program that most blind people can choose to apply to is their state vocational rehabilitation agency, which may be underfunded, understaffed, or otherwise inadequate in providing intensive, individualized assistance to consumers.
There is such a broad offering of employer resources that there are few gaps in the kinds of resources available. However, though resources targeting employers are abundant, they are not reaching many of the corporations and agencies that could benefit from them.
While there are several programs that provide employment readiness information to families of youth with all kinds of disabilities, there are few resources specifically for families of blind and low vision children that focus on navigating the employment process and preparing blind youth for employment. There are also only a handful of resources for families of adults, most of which are combined with general vision loss resources.
Research on best practices in providing employment services to people who are blind is being conducted by several universities. However, the outcomes and implications of this research often is not communicated meaningfully to education and rehabilitation professionals in the field. Information about best practices and how to implement them needs to be provided to teachers of blind students and rehabilitation counselors in an understandable, accessible way.
While many organizations seek to reach corporate and government leadership by offering awards, rankings, or publicity for companies that improve their disability employment practices, these efforts are unlikely to reach frontline managers and HR professionals at larger corporations and agencies or to reach small- and medium-sized enterprises. Most people don’t interact on a daily basis with the CEO of their company. Their ability to get a job and receive the accommodations they need is much more reliant on the attitudes and knowledge of their immediate supervisor, their coworkers, and human resources staff.
While there are several programs and resources for youth interested in STEM, these programs tend not to cater to professionals older than 24 with new or existing vision loss and who are interested in continuing or starting a STEM-based career. Also, STEM programs offered to blind and low vision youth are commonly week-long programs which aim to pique students’ interest in STEM careers and demonstrate to them that blind people can and do work in these careers. However, there is little to no long-term follow-up to ensure that these students receive the support and accommodations they need when they go back home and enroll in high school or college science, technology, engineering, and math classes.
There are few programs outside of state vocational rehabilitation agencies that match jobseekers with companies advertising positions. There are even fewer programs that blind job seekers can sign up for themselves, as many programs can only be accessed by rehabilitation professionals.
Eight Themes That Emerged
After reviewing the gaps we found across these 12 categories, we identified eight themes that cut across all or most employment program categories:
- The majority of employment programs that target consumers are focused on transition-aged youth. There are few programs that have sufficient resources and scale to help adults who are not in this category gain employment readiness and job-seeking skills or to offer sufficient job placement.
- There are no national employment focused programs that specifically target older adults with disabilities or vision loss.
- There are no nationwide programs that get adaptive technology directly into the homes and hands of people who are blind. While the Assistive Technology Act provides some limited technology exposure, the programs are severely limited. The lack of technology access prohibits many people from being able to conduct job searches, identify transportation, and identify other resources they may need to become employed.
- There are no national support groups that focus on employment or include it as a major component.
- There are few structured mentoring programs that focus meaningfully on employment, especially for adults older than 24.
- While many learning and best practice resources are available online for employers, there are significantly fewer resources targeted at individuals who are blind and their families. This absence is even stronger for adults as they get older.
- There are few programs outside VR that help connect blind adults with employers.
- Support for careers in science is noticeably absent except for a small number of programs that target youth for short-term extracurricular training.
AFB is committed to using the information we have gleaned from this project to ensure that our organization’s public policy, research, and programs reduce or eliminate the significant gaps in services we have identified. The huge unemployment and underemployment rate of blind and low vision Americans is proof positive that the employment programs available today are not meeting all the needs of blind and low vision Americans to find jobs, retain employment, and advance in their careers. We hope that other organizations will join us in developing new and better programs to fill these gaps.