President's Message

Employment of the Blind Today and Tomorrow, Part II

by Mitch Pomerantz

This President's Column will be the second installment of my thoughts regarding current and future employment challenges facing blind and visually impaired people, and what job seekers, along with the American Council of the Blind, can and should consider doing to address those challenges.  Last month I focused on three areas that blind people looking for work over the next several years should seriously think about: learning to read and write braille effectively; becoming proficient with access technology and the software programs typically used by employers; and being flexible insofar as considering relocating in order to expand your job options.

This month I want to suggest some things which ACB needs to do to assure that there will be sufficient employment opportunities for blind and visually impaired people.  A couple of these ideas reflect longstanding ACB policy directives, but the other two I'll mention may be unfamiliar to most members.  So, here goes!

ACB must re-emphasize its support for the Randolph-Sheppard Vending Program with the understanding that some modest modifications may be necessary in order to streamline and modernize this most valuable employment option.  With only a handful of exceptions in a very few states, the number of vending facilities and blind vendors themselves have dropped precipitously.  Here in California, the Business Enterprise Program (as it is known here) has suffered from benign neglect for more years than I can recall.  Rehab administrators don't aggressively pursue viable new locations and counselors don't "talk up" the program to prospective candidates.  This absolutely has to change; otherwise, there may not be a vending program in a decade.

ACB will continue supporting the activities and facilities overseen by National Industries for the Blind (NIB) under the federal Ability One Program.  As I mentioned last month, tens of thousands of manufacturing and call-center jobs have gone abroad, most likely forever.  NIB is developing and offering minimum wage-plus jobs throughout the country.  Critics argue that those jobs are "segregated" - that only blind people work in NIB facilities - and the private sector will somehow hire all blind workers currently employed by NIB.  My response to the first argument is to ask if staying home collecting SSI is more acceptable and less stigmatizing than working at a so-called segregated workshop.  My response to the second argument is to inquire in what alternate reality are you residing.  Personally, I'd rather work!

Around 1983, several of us in the California Council of the Blind (CCB) had the notion that we should be assisting blind people who needed equipment in order to obtain or retain employment.  One couldn't go to the bank and tell the loan officer that you needed a personal $5,000 loan to purchase a VersaBraille, at least not without risking the old "bum's rush."  I drafted the policies and procedures for the Committee on Employment Assistance Equipment Revolving Loan Fund.  I also wrote three successful grant applications totaling approximately $35,000 and the program was launched.

Time passes and the fund has been successful in helping perhaps two score blind and visually impaired Californians achieve employment.  Nearly 30 years later I agreed to once again oversee the work of the committee.  The CCB president can be most persuasive when she puts her mind to it.

I believe it's now time to seriously look into establishing such a fund nationally, perhaps under the auspices of ACB's Employment Issues Committee.  The California fund no longer charges interest and a national loan program might well adopt a similar policy.  Regardless of program specifics, I believe ACB should provide more direct assistance to blind people in need of equipment in order to work competitively.

As someone who spent many years as a disability-awareness trainer, I am acutely aware of the fact that public attitudes toward people who are blind or visually impaired are predicated on the age-old myths and stereotypes with which we're all too familiar.  Naturally, employers being members of the public hold those same stereotypic notions about blindness.  ACB should give serious consideration to developing blindness-specific training materials to make available to employers.  For example, the issue of accommodating blind and visually impaired people is one which continues to baffle human resource professionals and line supervisors: the overall cost and who is responsible for it; potential problems interfacing access technology with the existing I.T. infrastructure; the need to adapt proprietary software; all are valid concerns that are uppermost in the minds of today's cost-conscious, performance-driven corporate professionals.  We need a high-quality, no-nonsense video with accompanying study materials which can be readily accessed via the Internet.  Perhaps more work for our employment committee.

There you have it; my current thoughts and ideas about our employment prospects for the near-term and what our organization might do to improve those prospects.  You may agree, you may not.  The point is that the American Council of the Blind must do far more in this area if we are to have any chance for a reduction in our unconscionably high rate of unemployment.  We must certainly give it ACB's best effort!