Blind World Magazine

Disability matters in the workforce.

December 1, 2005.
CBC News - Viewpoint: Disability Matters.

Some 20 years later, it still ranks as one of the dumbest comments Iíve ever had to deal with. I was about 18 years old and in search of a part-time job to pay my tuition. A friend of my sisterís suggested that I apply for a job as a typist at the Montreal hospital where she worked, so off I went.

Her boss figured out that I had a visual impairment and asked about it. I explained that Iím nearsighted but able to work just fine with a combination of contact lenses and glasses. I then assured him that I could do the job for which I was applying.

ďWell, if you have to go outside and stand in the sunshine to see well enough to read, you could do the job but it would take a long time,Ē he shot back. Huh? Who said anything about running out into the sunshine clutching a piece of paper? I sure didnít. In fact, the comment was so beyond me that it took me a minute to figure out what he was talking about.

Whenever I need to read anything, including a number in the telephone book, I just park my eyeballs above the page and put them to work. I tried to set my interviewer straight, assuring him that I had absolutely no need to go stand in the sun to read. But he wasnít about to let some young woman with a disability tell him how she sees the world. Not surprisingly, I didnít get the job.

Apparently attitudes towards people with disabilities in the workforce havenít changed much in the past three decades Ė according to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. They released a study in November indicating that many educated people who are blind or have visual impairments are living in poverty because they canít find work. Many of the barriers they faced 30 years ago still exist today.

The report is titled ďAn Unequal Playing Field: Report on the Needs of People Who are Blind or Visually Impaired Living in Canada.Ē It found that only 25 per cent of blind or visually impaired adults aged 21-64 have jobs. This compares with 51 per cent of people with disabilities (aged 25Ė54) and 82 per cent of the general population (aged 25Ė54) who are gainfully employed.

A lack of education doesnít explain why only a quarter of blind or visually impaired adults of working age are bringing home the bacon. Nearly 20 per cent of the people the CNIB interviewed had completed one or more university degrees. In fact, 13 per cent had an undergraduate degree, six per cent had a masterís and 0.5 per cent had a PhD.

Another nearly 18 per cent had successfully completed high school, and 14 per cent had graduated with a community college diploma. While 19.5 per cent of folks with visual impairments have a university degree, so does 25 per cent of the general population.

Therefore, people without disabilities are not significantly more educated than people with visual impairments. So why are the latter having more trouble finding jobs?

One reason is the attitudes of potential employers. Like the man at the Montreal hospital where I had applied for work, some are blinded by the disability. They are unable to see past it. In their eyes, the personís disability overshadows whatever skills and abilities the individual can offer.

Employer attitudes are an obstacle. More than half of working age participants in the CNIB study said that employers donít see the blind applicantís potential and a significant number are even unwilling to hire someone with a visual impairment.

This is likely where having personal connections or contacts becomes even more important for landing a job. Among more than 35 per cent of those in the study who did find work, it was through connections, word of mouth a family connection or friend.

Technology has made it easier for people with visual impairments to get around in a sighted world. I use a monocular (like binoculars but for only one eye) to read street signs and see things that are too far away, allowing me to stretch my minimal eyesight. I also bump up the font on my laptop to ease the strain on my eyeballs.

According to the CNIB study, Iím not alone. About 85 per cent of people they polled use technical aids such as tape recorders (56 per cent), handheld magnifiers (52 per cent), screen readers (36 per cent for working-age adults), closed circuit televisions (15 per cent for working-age adults) and digital book players (29 per cent for working-age adults), among many others.

As the authors of the report state: ďPeople with low vision can independently shop, do their banking, and order food in a restaurant if they have access to the portable magnification devices available to assist them with these activities.Ē

I do all of that Ė and more. When I was 24 I quit my job, filled up my backpack, grabbed my passport and monocular and travelled around Europe on my own for more than six months.

Granted, most people who are blind or have a visual impairment donít do that. But if we can get through a community college or university, surely we can adapt to a workplace. Chances are that we have far more experience adapting and finding creative solutions to challenges than most employers do.

After all, weíve been doing it all of our lives. If I can travel on my own, I think I can I adapt to a workplace Ė rain or shine.

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