As part of AFB’s commitment to changing the way employers see job seekers and employees who are blind or have low vision, AFB's Public Policy and Research Center conducted a literature review on employment and workers with disabilities.
The following key takeaways provide insights into the larger picture of employment in the U.S. for people who are blind or visually impaired and the current barriers to upward mobility, as well as the factors that lead to success. Finally, we review the areas that merit further study.
A Quick Overview of Employment Statistics for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
According to the American Community Survey (ACS), the majority of working-age people who are blind or visually impaired are out of the labor force.i
- Over half of working-age people who are blind or visually impaired are not in the labor market, meaning they are not working and not seeking work, compared with fewer than a quarter of people without disabilities.
- Only 44 percent of people who are blind or visually impaired are employed, compared with 79 percent of those without disabilities.
The high percentage of people not participating in the labor force may represent people who feel they cannot work because of their disability, who choose not to work for fear of losing benefits, or who are discouraged workers who have given up on finding a job.ii
- Workers who are blind or visually impaired were more likely to be employed part-time or for only part of the year than those with no disability.
- Among workers who are blind or visually impaired, 32 percent worked either part time or only part of the year in 2016, compared with 25 percent of those without a disability.iii
This disparity is attributed to two factors; some of these workers may choose to work part-time to retain their SSI or SSDI benefits and others wish to work full-time but have difficulty finding full-time work.
Tracking the Statistics Over the Past 10 Years
The percentage of people with disabilities who are working, including those who are blind, has fluctuated over the past nine years since the ACS began including a question that allows researchers to consistently identify the blind or visually impaired population. The employment rate of people with vision loss dropped from 43 percent in 2008 to a low of 37 percent during the recession, then recovered and steadily rose to about 44 percent in 2017. This is higher than the rate of the broader disability population at 37 percent but still 35 percentage points lower than the employment rate of those with no disability.
Table: Employment Rates of the Working-age Population (18-64) 2008-2017 by Disability Status
or have serious difficulty seeing, even when wearing glasses
Source: ACS as reported by Cornell University, Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability.
People with visual impairments and other disabilities have historically fared poorly in both educational attainment and labor market participation relative to people without disabilities. Using the definition, “blind or have difficulty seeing, even when wearing glasses,” 15 percent of people with vision loss had a college degree or higher compared with 30 percent of people with no disability.iv Because employment is positively correlated with higher education levels, we would expect that those with higher levels of education would be more likely to have jobs. While people who are blind or visually impaired who also have a bachelor’s degree or higher are more likely to be employed than those with less than a high school education (65 percent compared with 24 percent), they are less likely to be employed than people with no disability who have a bachelor’s degree or higher (84 percent). Regardless of educational attainment, there is a significant employment gap between those with a visual impairment or blindness and those with no disability (Table below).
Table: Percentage Employed by Educational Attainment and Disability Status, Age 18-64
or have serious difficulty seeing, even when wearing glasses
than High School
degree or higher
Source: Author’s Analysis of the 2017 ACS Public Use Microdata.
Wages and Occupational Industries
Compared with people without disabilities, the earnings of people with disabilities who work are lower than those without disabilities. (This is also true of people who are blind or visually impaired, although the earnings of these workers are a bit higher than workers with other disabilities.) In large part this is because the population of people with disabilities as a whole tends to be older, have higher numbers of minorities, and have lower levels of education. Even so, we would expect that full-time workers with disabilities who have the same amount of education as their non-disabled peers would have, on average, equal earnings,v but the disparity in earnings between the two groups is over $17,000.
Advances in technology should have greatly expanded opportunities for individuals with blindness or visual impairments and offer them greater parity with their non-disabled peers in the workplace.vi However, the earnings disparities persist even when comparing those with equal levels of education. Among individuals with any education level, the wage variance between people who are blind or visually impaired and who have no disability is over $13,000. Notably, the variance between wages of people with visual impairments and no disability with a bachelor’s degree or higher is $14,727; this is the largest earnings difference among workers in all educational levels (Table below).
Average (Mean) Wage of Working-age Population by Educational Attainment and Disability StatusBlind or have serious difficulty seeing, even when wearing glasses Any Disability No Disability All Education Levels $37,195 $35,306 $50,337 Less than High School $23,871 $22,197 $27,089 High School Graduate/GED $28,276 $26,755 $33,878 Some college/Associates $33,404 $32,487 $38,589 Bachelor's degree or higher $64,134 $61,049 $78,861
Source: Author’s Analysis of the 2017 ACS Public Use Microdata.
For more detailed statistical data, please review our regularly updated Key Employment Statistics for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired.
Barriers to Upward Mobility for Workers Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
Literature on upward mobility for employees identifies education, networking, mentorship, personal competencies, work commitment, autonomy, and the ability to successfully navigate career-related challenges as factors that enable them to advance in their careers.vii Two of these factors may create special barriers to job promotion and upward mobility for people with blindness or low vision.
First, social and interpersonal communication challenges can impede access to employment and may create a barrier to advancement for blind or visually impaired employees. The inability to communicate nonverbally with others can be perceived as a social failure and, as a result, blind or visually impaired employees may not fit into the workplace culture. Socializing with sighted peers is important for job retention and being perceived as an effective employee.viii
Second, employees who have a college level education are more likely to be employed in positions that foster the autonomy linked with job satisfaction and upward mobility. However, employees with blindness or low vision are less likely to have a higher education and among those who do, employees with disabilities, including those with blindness or low vision, tend to be working in lower level jobs that don’t match their skill level.ix
Employer attitudes also may create barriers to upward mobility for blind or visually impaired employees that others may not experience. According to the NIB survey of hiring managers, almost half of those surveyed said there were few jobs within their company that blind or low vision workers could do, and many said that such workers would be best suited for customer service work.x Blind or visually impaired workers tend to be hired for a specific job and managers may not see them as potential candidates for promotion.
Lack of Transportation
People who are blind or visually impaired and state vocational rehabilitation (VR) counselors often cite transportation as an employment barrier. A survey of people with blindness or low vision revealed that 38 percent had turned down a job because of transportation concerns. Among respondents who were not employed, 29 percent believed transportation was the reason they were not working, although many respondents also cited other factors such as loss of disability benefits, poor health, multiple disabilities, or difficulty with travel skills.xi Controlling for age and vision, youth with high ratings on community travel skills were significantly more likely to be employed up to six years after high school.xii
VR counselors or orientation and mobility specialists sometimes discuss transportation to work with blind or visually impaired clients, including the use of public transit and completing applications for paratransit services, but they do not typically focus on identifying and negotiating employment-related transportation. In the survey, only one-quarter of VR users reported receiving assistance from rehabilitation agencies in locating transportation to and from work. xiii
These data confirm that survey respondents do experience transportation issues that affect their employment, but the magnitude of the impact of transportation on employment remains unclear. However, VR agencies could help job seekers with blindness or vision loss in their efforts to locate employment-related transportation as well as transportation for other life activities. They could provide clients with information about transit systems and other transportation services, evaluate their ability to engage in tasks associated with finding and accessing transportation, and engage them in problem-solving discussions to generate transportation options.xiv
Accessibility of Online Applications
Most candidates must fill out an online application. Research shows that many online employment websites are inaccessible to users with blindness or low vision, preventing these individuals from even applying for jobs online. In one study, 16 blind screen-reader users attempted to apply for jobs online and found that only one-quarter of applications could be completed without any sighted assistance.xv
Indicators of Successful Work Experiences
People who accept their visual impairment and build on their strengths and abilities are more likely to get a job and keep it, according to one study. Those who were open to discussions with employers about their visual impairment and accommodation needs were more likely to be successful.xvi
Employers report that employees being comfortable with their disability, being an ambassador for blindness by eliminating awkwardness in relationships, and insisting on being held to the same standards as coworkers are important factors in a successful employment relationship.xvii
Facilitators to Finding and Keeping Employment
The probability of having a job and higher wages for workers increases with the level of education. For example, people with a postsecondary degree were twice as likely to be employed as those without a degree and their wages were over twice as high.14xviii This positive relationship between education, employment rate, and wages is also present in the general population.
Family and Peer support
Families, advisors and peers play a key role in sustaining effective employment and independent living outcomes. Parents can provide emotional support, serve as advocates, and encourage independence. More directly related to employment, many job seekers, especially youth, use friend and family networks to find jobs. Blind or visually impaired youth whose parents had higher expectations regarding their participation in activities of daily living while they were growing up were more likely to be employed.xix
However, family support is not universal. Many individuals who are blind tell of families who were over-protective, of communities that restricted their activities, and of support groups that promoted unemployment and dependence on public benefits. Future research should tease out how families and communities can have higher expectations of blind children to facilitate independence and promote greater growth and evolution.xx
Early Work Experience
Early work experience is an important correlate of employment for youth with blindness or low vision. Youth who are blind or low vision who had at least two work experiences while in high school are almost twice as likely to be employed as adults as those with no work experiences.xxi Several other studies have found that the number of jobs held and recent work experience for youth in transition to adulthood are positively associated with their work participation. Work experience acquired during adolescence, whether mowing the lawn, shoveling snow or babysitting, allows students to prepare for more demanding jobs. Even volunteer work helps them graduate to a paid job. It may be that early work experience helps the youth develop a stronger network of people who can assist them with finding a job later or that those who are motivated to pursue early work experiences are also motivated to find employment as adults.xxii
Access to Assistive Technology and AT training
The ability to use information and communication technology increases the likelihood of having a job. One study of youth who participated in a VR program found that 91 percent of participants who used technological aids held a job after graduating from the program. Only 25 percent of graduates who did not use them found jobs.xxiii
A study of transition age youth found those with a high self-perceived level of computer competence were significantly more likely to have paid jobs than those with low self-perceived computer competence when gender, severity of vision loss, and multiple disability status were held constant. Although the study did not examine how youth used their computer skills, the authors theorize that, apart from the fact that most jobs now require computer skills, information and communication technologies can also help overcome some of the barriers to work participation. They can, for example, allow users to organize transportation and travel, read printed material, obtain information about job opportunities, and fill out job application forms.xxiv
Access to Mentoring
Evidence suggests that career-mentoring programs may assist students with blindness or low vision to overcome existing barriers to employment. One study found that guidance from mentors helped mentees to gain the confidence or skills needed to ask about job opportunities on their own and to become more self-sufficient in finding a job rather than relying solely on VR counselors.xxv
Access to Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Services
VR agencies provide or fund blindness skills training from vision rehabilitation therapists, orientation and mobility instructors, assistive technology specialists, and others. VR provides employment-related training, job-related technology and tools, placement services, and, if needed, postemployment services. Children and adolescents who are blind or visually impaired need specialized training to help them develop the skills necessary to work and to function independently. Early intervention and comprehensive blindness skills training with adults is also critical to their employment.
The Power of Networking
Research suggests that developing long-term relationships with business helps consumers with blindness or low vision obtain employment. In recent years, rehabilitation agencies have expanded their mission to engage employers and develop long-term relationships with them. This “dual customer approach,” or the “business relations model,” gives counselors the opportunity to educate employers about the blind and visually impaired population.xxvi State VR agencies are increasing their efforts to work with employers, but officials said they could use more guidance from the Rehabilitation Services Administration on how to track and measure the effectiveness of this approach.xxvii
A survey of 382 employers found that employers with contact and ongoing relationships with VR agency staff that had communicated specifically about the population were more likely to have a positive attitude toward blind or visually impaired workers and to hire someone with blindness or low vision. Employers said they were most likely to hire someone who is blind or visually impaired because they were qualified for the position or were the best candidate, whether they had contact with a VR agency or not. Those who had ongoing contact talking about people who are blind or visually impaired had the most positive attitudes about this population.
However, more than one-fifth of those with a VR contact said they were likely to hire because of empathy or compassion for the blind or visually impaired jobseeker while none of the employers without VR contact gave this as their reason. Some also said they wanted to provide equal opportunity and did not discriminate in hiring based on disability.xxviii But the fact that almost 20 percent gave empathy or compassion as a reason for hiring is troubling. If employers hire people with disabilities for this reason, their expectation may be that the person with a disability cannot truly provide value to that employer, other than to show that the employer is charitable.
Areas Needing Further Study
Characteristics of Employers that Hire Blind or Visually Impaired Workers
Research is limited regarding the characteristics of employers who hire jobseekers with blindness or low vision. Based on a survey of almost 200 employees in hiring positions, McDonnall and her associates found that whether the employer had communicated with a VR agency, whether they had previously hired a blind or visually impaired person, and their awareness of how a person with blindness or low vision can perform certain tasks such as accessing printed material, using the internet or using standard industrial equipment, predicted more positive attitudes about blind or visually impaired workers, although over two-thirds did not know how a blind person would accomplish these tasks. The size of the company, being in a human resources position, and the hiring manager having a personal relationship with someone with blindness or low vision did not affect hiring.xxix While we were unable to identify employers’ best practices in hiring blind or visually impaired workers, researchers have identified effective practices in hiring and retaining workers with disabilities. Case studies on the effects of corporate culture on the employment experiences of people with disabilities found strong evidence that managers play a major role in disability inclusion, the perceived organizational climate is critical, and visible organizational commitment to disability recruitment issues is essential.xxx
i U.S. Census Bureau, 2017 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, Table B18120: Employment Status by Disability Status and Type
ii American Foundation for the Blind, (2018). Research Navigator: Putting Data to Work-Reinforcing Labor Force Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.afb.org/research-and-initiatives/statistics/key-employment-statistics
iii Erickson, W., Lee, C., & Von Schrader, S., (2017). Disability Statistics from the American Community Survey (ACS). Cornell University Yang-Tan Institute (YTI). Retrieved from http://www.disabilitystatistics.org
iv U.S. Census Bureau, 2017 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, Author’s Analysis
v Yin, M., Shaewitz, D., & Megra, M., (2014). An Unequal Playing Field: The Lack of Equal Pay for People with Disabilities. American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from https://www.air.org/sites/default/files/Lack%20of%20Equal%20Pay%20for%20People%20with%20Disabilities_Dec%2014.pdf.
vi Victor, C., Thacker, L., Gary, K., Pawluk, D. & Copolillo, A., (2017). Workplace Discrimination and Visual Impairment: A Comparison of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Charges and Resolutions Under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness: 475-482.
vii Kulkarni, M., (2016). Social Networks and Career Advancement for People with Disabilities. Dissertation. Retrieved from http://uir.unisa.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10500/22159/dissertation_ximba_tm.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.
viii Naraine, M., & Lindsay, P., (2011). Social inclusion of employees who are blind or low vision. Disability & Society, 26:4, 389-403.
ix Sundar, V., & Brucker, D., (2018). Personal and Organizational Determinants of Job Satisfaction for Workers With Disabilities. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin. (0):1-10.
x National Industries for the Blind (2018). HIRING MANAGERS SURVEY. https://www.nib.org/sites/default/files/data_statistics/2018_NIB_Hiring_Survey_WEB.pdf
xi Crudden, A., Capella-McDonnall, M, & Hierholzer, A., (2015). Transportation: An Electronic Survey of Persons Who are Blind or Have Low Vision. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness. 109(6):445-456.
xii Cmar, L., (2015). Orientation and Mobility Skills and Outcome Expectations as Predictors of Employment for Young Adults with Visual Impairments. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1114561.pdf.
xiii Crudden, A., Capella-McDonnall, M, & Hierholzer, A., (2015).
xv Lazar, J., Olalere, A., and Wentz, B., (2012). Investigating the Accessibility and Usability of Job Application Web Sites for Blind Users. Journal of Usability Studies. 7(2):68-87. Retrieved from https://uxpa.org/jus/article/investigating-accessibility-and-usability-job-application-web-sites-blind-users.
xvi Duquette, J., & Baril, F., (2013). Factors Influencing Work Participation for People with Visual Impairment l’Institut Nazareth et Louis-Braille. Retrieved from http://www.inlb.qc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Factors-influencing-work-participation-in-persons-with-VI.pdf.
xvii Golub, D., (2006). A Model of Successful Work Experience for Employees Who Are Visually Impaired: The Results of a Study. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, December:715-725.
xviii Bell, E., & Mino, N., (2013). Blind and Visually Impaired Adult Rehabilitation and Employment Survey: Final Results. Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research. 3(1). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/jbir/jbir13/jbir030101.html.
xix Shaw, A., Gold, D. and Wolffe, K., (2007). Employment-related Experience of Youths Who are Visually Impaired. How are These Youths Faring? Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness. January 7-21.
xx Bell, E., & Mino, N., (2015). Employment Outcomes for Blind and Visually Impaired Adults. Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research. 5(2). https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/jbir/jbir15/jbir050202.html.
xxi McDonnall, M.C., (2011). Predictors of Employment for Youths with Visual Impairments: Findings from the Second National Longitudinal Transition Study. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness. August. 453-466.
xxii Duquette, J., & Baril, F., (2013).
xxiii Capella-McDonnall, M., & Crudden, A., (2009). Factors Affecting the Successful Employment of Transition-age Youths with Visual Impairments. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness. June:329-341.
xxiv Zhou, L., Smith, D.W., Parker, A., & Griffin-Shirely., N., (2013). The Relationship Between Perceived Computer Competence and the Employment Outcomes of Transition-aged Youths with Visual Impairments. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness. January-February: 43-53.
xxv O'Mally, J., & Steverson, A., (2017). Reflections on Developing an Employment Mentoring Program for College Students Who Are Blind. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness. 111(3):271-276.
xxvi McDonnall, M., (2017). The Relationship Between Employer Contact with VR and Hiring Decisions About Individuals who are Blind or Visually Impaired. Journal of VR. 83(1): 50-58.
xxvii U.S. Government Accountability Office, (2018). Vocational Rehabilitation: Additional Federal Information Could Help States Serve Employers and Find Jobs for People with Disabilities.18-577. Retrieved from https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/694369.pdf.
xxix McDonnall, M., & Crudden, A., (2018). Predictors of employer attitudes towards blind employees, revisited. Journal of VR. 42(2):221-231. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3233/JVR-180933.
xxx U.S. Department of Labor, (2008). Disability Case Study Research Consortium. Conducting and Benchmarking Inclusive Employment Policies, Practices and Culture. Retrieved from https://www.dol.gov/odep/research/CorporateCultureFinalReport.pdf.