My wonderful friend Meagan has a terrific way of putting things into words as to be classy, confident, and even humorous as the situation calls for it. Unfortunately, she recently ran in to a situation that could have nearly changed the course of her college degree and, ultimately, her career path. Luckily for her, she was able to work around it, but the whole situation was based on one professor’s perception of course materials and Meagan’s ability to complete the coursework only in the manner in which it was being taught.
Sadly, this situation is far from unique. After 30+ years as a blind person on this planet, I would like to think that I am used to having to educate the public on etiquette, access concerns, manners, and simply acting around me as they would anybody else. Unfortunately, in areas of employment and education, there are still many obstacles to overcome. Blind people have made leaps and bounds in the professional world, leaving their mark as lawyers, researchers, athletes, translators, business owners, and many others; yet a vast number of us are under- or unemployed.
The year I graduated from high school, I decided to take a one-year college certificate program. I had even visited the program before applying, and the computer program in use at the time was completely accessible with JAWS, the screen reader software I used in order to use a computer. One component of the class was a 2-week practicum placement in April. A month before class started in September, I got a letter from the program coordinator, signed by the Disability Services office, stating (paraphrasing) that since I was blind and unlikely to find employment in this field of work, I would have to find my practicum placement before beginning classes in September. This was a qualification for me only – my classmates were scrambling in February to find theirs – but lucky for me, my mother had contacts in the field. I could have fought it, yelled and screamed and made a big stink, but instead we sent in eight letters from organizations across Alberta, BC, and the USA stating that they would be willing to accept me as a practicum student in April. I was ultimately able to take the class and completed my practicum by doing actual work, rather than just sitting there and job-shadowing like my classmates.
Unfortunately, the disability services coordinator was right. I applied for any local job I could get in that field, and as soon as it came out that I was blind, the door would just slam in my face. It didn’t matter that I had gone through rigorous training and had the skills and aptitude for the job; it only mattered that I didn’t have two working eyeballs and needed a piece of software to be loaded on to their computers for access. This all came to a head when I applied to a federal agency for a job across the country and requested permission to do the pre-employment testing locally. This agency basically said that because I was blind, there was no way I could perform the duties of the position; one of their many reasons – some legitimate though not insurmountable concerns – was because I couldn’t read body language of coworkers to know that something was going on in an emergency situation (don’t get me started on my opinions on that). I let it go, moved to Alberta, and tried again for the same job in Edmonton. They called me in for testing, and I was told that because I was blind, they were sorry, they couldn’t possibly hire me for this job.
My friends and family told me that I had a legitimate Human Rights complaint, but I was 20 years old and simply wanted to work, period. I’d hit that point where I didn’t care what kind of work I did so long as I got my foot in the door somewhere and gained the self-respect of working for my pay check. Looking back, I think perhaps I could and should have pursued it, but I still question the wisdom of taking on a federal government agency.
Fast forward several years, and I was once again back on the job market. I had been steadily employed for more than seven years in a variety of jobs (the most recent of which had been for five years), and I was sending out resumes as fast as I could. In this province, we have a shortage of workers; I would say that my callbacks to resumes was about 50% (incredibly high). Over more than 50 interviews later – some good, some ok, and some terrible – I was still unemployed. There was the security company that said that I couldn’t possibly be fast enough on a computer to respond to an urgent situation, and no amount of explanation or even demonstration would change her mind. I had one positive interview with a company that was super excited to go paperless and was even willing to train me in basic accounting, but ended up hiring someone with accounting experience (I do NOT fault them here, as they stated up front that they were backlogged three months). One company all but told me I could do the job, they would seriously consider my application, and then spent two weeks dodging my follow-up phone calls and then leaving a curt message on my voicemail stating that they had hired someone else… All of this, and many shades in between. Thankfully, after five months of unemployment, I wound up at an unglamorous call centre for a pizza place who treated me well and enabled me to train with my guide dog and still remain employed by changing my hours around training. Once I got bored of that job, I sent out one single resume, figuring that I could be picky about where I applied… and after a 1.5-hour-long interview, I am now employed where I am now. I work terrific hours, love my job, and my coworkers are fantastic. My boss went to school with someone who is visually impaired, so he at the very least had some idea of the capabilities of someone who cannot see. If something isn’t accessible, we brainstorm ways to make it so, or my boss changes the project to something that is accessible. I am truly blessed indeed.
Sadly, many blind people are not employed as I am – happily, or at all – largely due to lack of experience, due to the perception that we cannot do certain activities (use a computer, keep workspaces tidy, proofread reports). it is often customary for the blind job applicant to prove they have the skills before being hired – something that is rarely if ever required of a sighted job applicant. We can dress ourselves up, have the perfect resume, nail the interview with confidence, class and grace… and yet…
I don’t have any easy answers. Someone, somewhere, has to be brave enough to take a chance. Many blind people spend years of schooling and thousands of dollars on education and still cannot get a job for which they are qualified. While I know this is not unique to the visually impaired, statistics show that we are critically under-employed or unemployed (anywhere from 60-75% unemployed, many not even considered as part of the labor force). We can push and shove and try and legislate, but the truth still remains that if there is a sighted job applicant in the running alongside a visually impaired one, there doesn’t have to be a good reason that the blind applicant does not get that job.
Where do we go from here? I think it’s up to us to be productive members of society at any cost. Live a well-rounded life with friends, family, pets, activities, volunteer work, hobbies, etc. I cannot tell you how many people – sighted and blind – don’t have any real-world interests outside of the virtual worlds of computers and cell phones. This can only serve to hurt us, and perpetuate the idea that blind people are just too different to fit in. While some of us like to think that how we portray ourselves doesn’t matter, it definitely does. If one comes across as ungroomed, socially awkward, and having very few interests and goals, does that not perpetuate the very perception we are trying to overcome?