Blind World Magazine

Employers' eyes are closed to the abilities of the blind.

November 04, 2005.
Globe and Mail, Canada.

Every morning, Geoff Eden heads from his home in Welland, Ont., to the bus station for the two-hour ride into Toronto. There, he jumps off the bus and onto the subway, and takes a short walk to work.

Once he arrives at his office at City Hall, he clicks on the computer and checks e-mail and phone messages.

Mr. Eden is a typical commuter, except that he is blind. While being blind doesn't impair his ability to do the job, it does making getting work a lot harder. Despite a university degree and 18 years experience in the employment field, his blindness was an impediment to many potential employers.

"I put out at least 200 résumés for jobs I was qualified for and I got three responses," Mr. Eden said. "I guess the problem is that, like a damn fool, I told the truth and said I was blind."

A new report, prepared for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, shows that Mr. Eden's story is shockingly common -- except for the happy ending of decent employment. The first survey of Canada's blind in nearly three decades reveals that only one in four people suffering from visual impairment is employed. At the same time, the blind are very well-educated, with 25 per cent having graduated from university -- the same number as in the general population.

"The shocking thing to me is the disconnect between education and employment," said Laurie Beachell, national co-ordinator of the Council of Canadians With Disabilities. Dr. Deborah Gold, director of social research at the CNIB and principal author of the report titled An Unequal Playing Field, agreed. "The most common barrier to employment is the attitude of employers," she said. An unwillingness to make accommodations -- such as visual aids -- is also a barrier, she said, as is the lack of public transportation, particularly outside big cities.

Dr. Gold said the difficulty the blind have finding work means most live in poverty. The research showed that half of blind Canadians have an income of less than $20,000, including one in five who earn less than $10,000 annually.

"The plight of blind Canadians living in poverty must be brought to the attention of Canadians," she said.

John Rae, president of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, said the new study is a "real indictment of the whole social services system for blind Canadians. The report provides up-to-date information about the extent of our exclusion, poverty, discrimination and lack of opportunity," he said.

According to Statistics Canada, there were, in 2001, about 610,000 Canadians with "seeing disabilities." According to the CNIB, by 65, about one in four Canadians will experience vision loss that cannot be corrected with normal lenses.

Mr. Rae said the most troubling aspect of the new report is that it shows how little the situation has changed in the 30 years since the last survey of the blind community.

Mr. Beachell said the central question is: "Who pays for accommodation that allows people to have gainful employment?"

Currently, programs vary widely from province to province and it is the blind who end up paying the price because they are excluded.

Mr. Eden, for his part, said the key is public education, and that attitudes change very quickly once blind people are actually integrated into the workplace.

"You've got to get your foot in the door to teach people and you have to teach people to get in the door, so there's a chicken-and-egg thing we have to resolve."

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