Musings: Bleak, Bleaker, Bleakest

by Paul Edwards

In 2007, before the crash, there was a general belief that the unemployment rate of people who are blind remained at the same level it has been at for two decades. Seven out of every 10 blind people were alleged not to be working. Then came the crash. Suddenly huge numbers of people with no disabilities were out of work and were now competing with people who are blind in a job market with fewer and fewer jobs. Though I have not seen statistics, I would expect that jobs are harder to find if you do not have experience or if you have a disability. Soon after the crash came the disturbing news that the federal government was not doing a good job of employing people with disabilities. In fact, statistics suggest that the feds are or, at least, were doing worse than they were 20 years ago.
What is true at the federal level is likely to be true at the state level as well. One of the most usual ways of employing people with disabilities at the federal level involves the use of schedule A employment. This allowed agencies to hire people with disabilities who might not meet all the criteria for a job. Such "employees" were placed in a probationary status that often lasted for two years. I have again not seen statistics but there is certainly a lot of discussion that suggests that many of these schedule A probationers are let go before their probation is up. I hope that the federal government will explore this contention. It is ridiculously easy to dismiss probationary employees and most have very little recourse. All too often, a dismissal, whether justified or not, makes employment at the federal level in the future impossible.
And then came sequestration! Suddenly, people who were blind who had hitherto been exempt from inclusion in the ranks of the threatened, now found themselves seriously affected. These are people who work in industries programs. These programs depend on federal contracts and, as a result of sequestration, these contracts are just not available. Suddenly programs all over the country do not have enough work for those blind people who work there. Most programs are trying to survive by offering blind people fewer hours. However, unless sequestration goes away or contracts with industry programs are exempted, there is a real question as to how long these outfits can stay open.
And then came the federal shutdown. Now another group becomes disadvantaged. Vendors in federal buildings are not federal employees. However, when buildings are closed, vending facilities are closed too! The shutdown is over now, but perhaps only for a few months!
So, as 2014 arrives, we are probably worse off than we have been for years. And, as if that were not bad enough, we are faced with bills in the House and the Senate that contemplate making changes in the way that rehabilitation services are delivered. Of particular concern is the idea that RSA should be broken up and moved to other agencies. ACB is working actively on all these issues, but I am not sure that it is likely to have much impact. The truth is that I am beginning to think that we need to make changes that are even more far-reaching than those that are already happening if we are to succeed in making much of a dent in employment levels of people who are blind.
Why do I feel this way? First, more and more people who are blind have secondary disabilities. Because of mainstreaming, I would argue that more and more people who are just blind are coming out of high school less able to be placed in a job. I think this is particularly true because most blind youngsters don't have nearly enough contact with other blind people. That, in itself, may be the subject of another whole article. For now, though, I want to look at another issue. More than a decade ago I saw a statistic that was both interesting and frightening. It suggested that a huge percentage of blind people who were let go before they completed their probationary period were absolutely capable of doing the job for which they were hired. Instead, other factors beyond pure job performance were responsible for them losing their jobs. Sometimes it appears that blind employees do not know how to behave on the job. Sometimes blind people are not comfortable living on their own. What these realities suggest is that rehabilitation may be focusing too narrowly on job training and not paying enough attention to broader issues that may be far more responsible for failure.
The whole point of this rehearsal of how bad things are is to suggest that it is time for us to try thinking out of the box about employment. Do we need to look at changing what we do for blind job seekers? Should rehab be doing more about assuring that people who are blind are truly adjusted to the community as well as job-ready? Should we look at changing post-employment services so that cases can be reopened more easily? Should more attention be paid to adjustment in post-employment services? Is there a role for organizations like ACB at the local level in helping rehab do a better job?
I don't pretend to have all the answers! I may not even have all the questions! The issue that we need to face squarely is that things are as bad as they have been for decades in terms of employment. Those who supervise rehabilitation are looking at making changes because they know as we do that we are not doing any better with employment than we were 20 years ago. I absolutely know that nobody will continue to support programs where only three people out of every 10 are successful! Somehow we must work with rehab to make things better!
We also have to work with blind people. If we are honest, we know that a lot of people who keep going back to rehab are doing so for all the wrong reasons. There are lots of people who go back for what they can get and have very little intention of truly going back to work. There are others who want to put in enough quarters to qualify for SSDI and then are quite content to quit and live for the rest of their lives on us. That has to change too! There are hard questions that we as leaders of the blind community must face. The truth is, though, that only 10 percent of the people who are blind have chosen to join consumer organizations. So the question that we need to ask more urgently than any other is how do we change people who are blind who have no intention of becoming members of ACB?