President's Message: Employment of the Blind Today and Tomorrow, Part I

by Mitch Pomerantz

This President's Column is the first of a two-part look at employment challenges facing blind and visually impaired people now, and down the road a few years, and what we can do to address those challenges.  My reason for making this a two-fer is that as I kept writing, I realized I had a lot to say on the subject.  So, you've been warned!

As a longtime observer of the American political scene, a 50-plus year reader of speculative/science fiction, and as the elected leader of a major national consumer advocacy organization of blind and visually impaired people, I determined that it was time to do a bit of speculating regarding the future of employment for those of you who are, or will be, venturing out into the labor market.  Overall, I believe we're going to be in for what an old Chinese curse refers to as "interesting times."  The United States is struggling out of the "Great Recession"; unfortunately, the recovery we're experiencing doesn't involve creation of sufficient well-paying jobs to meet the demand.  More on that shortly.

My parents' generation has been dubbed "The Greatest Generation."  The blind men and women of that "Greatest Generation" successfully advocated for white cane laws throughout the nation.  They fought for the right of blind people to teach sighted children in public schools and a whole host of other rights that, in my view, too many of us these days take largely for granted.  If we're not to be cursed with those interesting times, we must begin thinking and acting very differently from how we've thought and acted for the past generation or so.

Since perhaps the early 1990s, there has been a rapidly accelerating trend toward globalization.  For the U.S. this has meant that hundreds of thousands of jobs have migrated overseas to where labor costs are far less and profit margins are far higher.  Many of those jobs, including manufacturing and call-center jobs, were formerly held by blind and low-vision individuals.  While a few widely publicized companies have chosen to bring those jobs back home, they are still the exception rather than the rule.  Those jobs are gone forever!

Then there is the fact that with the pervasive use of technology in the workplace, businesses are able to be more productive with fewer employees.  The driving paradigm of our age - and for the foreseeable future - is, will be, competition; survival of the fittest business or corporation, regardless of whether there are five employees or 5,000.

Beyond this, where are all the blind teachers?  Are there as many visually impaired attorneys today as there seemed to be 20 years ago?  What about blind chiropractors?  All of these careers still exist, so where are the blind and visually impaired people to assume those jobs?

The next question to be asked and answered is: can we compete given current and future trends?  Yes, if we're truly willing to make the effort.  There are things we as individuals and as an organization must do to give us a fighting chance to be as competitive as our sighted peers.

First, what blind and low-vision job seekers need to consider.  (Next time I'll outline what ACB as an organization is and should be doing.)  A growing number of today's blind and visually impaired students graduate high school without having learned braille.  We can attribute this sad fact to the misguided notion among a majority of so-called education professionals that accessible technology such as iPads and iPhones make braille an archaic and unnecessary communications tool.  As an aside, Apple's January announcement that it will be marketing an app for textbooks will only further promote this harmful notion.  Parents of blind and visually impaired children must insist, no, demand that braille instruction be an integral part of the child's IEP (Individualized Education Plan).  And for those of you who are actively looking for work and don't know braille: Please learn it!  I cannot imagine working for nearly 34 years in local government without the ability to take braille, not taped or computerized notes.

Having said that - while I can't conceive of anyone under 40 not being at least somewhat computer-savvy - it is essential to be comfortable with technology; all types of technology.  Even if you work in a warehouse filling orders, you'll probably be using a computerized inventory tracking system.

Beyond the aforementioned skills, there is the matter of attitude.  An entire column could easily be devoted to one's attitude and outlook during the job search, but I want to focus on one aspect in particular.  Although we're seeing a growing trend toward distributed workforces, virtual offices and working-from-home - with all the office towers and industrial parks dotting almost every midsized and major U.S. city - serious current and future job seekers had better be prepared to relocate to where these employment magnets are located.  Don't want to move away from your childhood hometown, your "comfort zone"?  Whether you like it or not, you'll likely remain unemployed.  The watchword here is flexibility.

There are surely many other things I've failed to mention insofar as what we can do as individuals to be more competitive, but you get the idea.  Until April, take care.