by Emily Stenberg Brown
Individuals with a visual impairment from North and South Dakota share their experiences looking for and maintaining employment in a world that often discriminates against them and is uneducated about their needs and abilities.
When Lexee Steffen graduated from Dickinson State University (North Dakota) in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish, she felt prepared for the real world and an independent life. “I had a degree and learned a lot during classes and felt I had plenty of experience working with a variety of people and advocating for my needs,” Lexee says, reflecting on her optimism post-college graduation. “I thought I would work in my hometown for a year or two to get my feet wet in the workforce and then move to a bigger city to work using my Spanish skills as an interpreter or in a bilingual setting and possibly get my master’s.” Unfortunately, things haven’t worked out as she planned. She has kept busy with part-time work and volunteering, which has helped her maintain her computer skills and allowed her to gain experience in different work settings. But she has yet to find full-time consistent employment. “I think employers sometimes see us as a liability,” Lexee says. “I think they are worried about things going wrong because of us or that something might happen in the workplace that is discriminatory and that we would use that against the company.”
The “us” Lexee is referring to are individuals like herself who have a visual impairment or are blind. Lexee, who has retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), is not alone in her inability to find full-time employment. According to research by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), only 44% of people who are blind or visually impaired are employed. And those who are employed are often underemployed, meaning they work part-time or only part of the year (Disability Employment Research: Key Takeaways, 2020). With assistive technology available to level the playing field and public schools and colleges and universities being held to the standards set forth by the ADA, the fact that more than half the blind and visually impaired population is unemployed is surprising and disappointing. But there are other factors at play that affect individuals’ rights and opportunities, and, ultimately, their employment.
Less vision, more obstacles
Cole Roberts also felt ready for the real world when he graduated from Bismarck State College (North Dakota) in 2016. “I felt ready and comfortable to enter the work force and live on my own, thanks to the support and encouragement of North Dakota Vision Services and my family,” Cole says. And he has. He has successfully lived on his own since the fall of 2017 and currently works for New Song Church as the director of elderly ministry. But even with a degree, determination, a job, and support from family, he still faces a major obstacle in his day-to-day life. “I have faced discrimination at every stage of my work experience,” says Cole.
Like many individuals who are visually impaired, Cole feels he has faced extra obstacles in the workplace and is often left out of activities. During a cleaning project, for example, he was never given a task, and, without visual cues, Cole was unsure what needed to be done. So, he started moving boxes on his own and asking what he could do with them to help. His help was dismissed, and he felt that the rest of the group was not giving him a fair chance to contribute. These little hurdles can add up over time and hurt the employee who is visually impaired and impede the entire team. “[Employers] doubt our capabilities,” Lexee explains. “They might not understand that sometimes the accommodation might be as simple as a label on a button,” she continues, or, in Cole’s case, taking the time to explain a task and give the person “trust and a chance,” Cole adds.
Accessibility and assistive technology
Research by AFB has shown that many factors affect a person’s ability to find and maintain employment. Education, family support, early work experience, access to assistive technology, access to mentoring, access to vocational rehabilitation (VR) services, and networking all positively correlate to a person’s employment status. But even if all of these factors have been addressed, an employer still needs to hire that person, and that’s often where the problem lies. “I think that many employers have a hard time getting past the blindness factor,” Lexee says. “I think they look at the disability and cannot look past that to see the abilities that an applicant with a visual impairment can offer. They are also baffled by the fact that there is software out there, such as JAWS, that will make a computer accessible.”
Nick Pavel also sees accessibility as a problem. “I think the big issue is most companies use computer systems that are not accessible with assistive technology,” Nick explains. “I know I ran into that problem multiple times. As a matter of fact, one of my jobs ended due to the company switching to a system that was not accessible.” Nick, who has Leber’s disease, lives and works in Sioux Falls, S.D., at Valentus, a company that sells health products. “Before I found my current job, I went through a lot of interviews,” Nick says. “I honestly lost count how many I went through. It took me almost 5 years to find the job I am currently at now.” But when he found his current job, it just clicked. “I filled out an application and went in to check it out and pretty much got hired. They did an assessment on the computer system to see if my screen reader would be accessible, and it worked very well, and I am still with the same employer to this day,” he says.
AFB’s study found that employers were more likely to hire applicants with blindness or low vision if they had been in touch with a VR agency, if they had previously hired someone who is blind or visually impaired, and if they knew how a person can perform certain tasks using accessible technology. It really comes down to education, Lexee asserts, but in this case, it’s knowledge that the applicant has and that the employer needs to learn. “Education is key to limiting bias in the workforce,” she explains. “It might not seem so, but many employers simply do not know what to do when a person with a visual impairment applies for a job at their company.”
Educating the employer
No doubt, walking into an interview with a cane or a guide dog can surprise an employer, and their lack of knowledge about the capabilities of the visually impaired can quickly become apparent. “It’s more of a vibe,” Lexee explains. “Employers seem really dismissive. They talk down to me in a way. While an employer should not give someone with a visual impairment preferential treatment, they should give a qualified applicant the chance to prove themselves, regardless of the inability to see.”
Of course, this means additional work falls on the applicant who is visually impaired. Not only do they have to answer the interview questions that every applicant is expected to answer, but they also have to be prepared to explain what accommodations they will need to perform the job successfully and where and how the employer can obtain these accommodations. Occasionally this can seem as if they are simply proving why they are at the interview in the first place, and employers need to be reminded that the applicant’s education, skills, and experience already got them in the door. “If employers are constantly focused on the one thing that a candidate cannot do, then they will miss out on their skills and potential,” Lexee explains. “They might be surprised to learn what someone with a visual impairment is capable of if an employer can look beyond the disability.”
Even if an individual gets the job, the work of advocating for themselves and educating others is not done; it’s really just begun. No doubt, advocating for oneself is exhausting, and sometimes it can feel as if an individual who is blind or visually impaired is advocating for the entire blind or visually impaired population. “I feel this all the time,” Lexee says. “I think that sometimes a lot of potential employers have never met someone with a visual impairment before me. I therefore feel like I kind of represent the blind community when I am meeting someone for the first time. I feel on display in this way; it is important that I might help them see past the blindness and learn that blind people are capable.”
And, when she gets the chance, Lexee is able to do just that. “I use a computer and a variety of talking software on a daily basis. I am generally good with people, organized, and will do the best I can to do the job I need to do,” Lexee says. But years of rejection and discrimination is frustrating and “limits us from living independent and successful lives,” explains Cole. With so many people unemployed or underemployed, and with so many stories of employer bias, it can be hard to stay positive when looking for work. “The best thing I can say is to keep on trying,” Nick says. “You will have good days and bad days, but you have to keep on trying.” Cole adds, “Focus on jobs that you know you can do and be successful at, but also know your limitations. Don’t be afraid to speak up or ask for help or to have help with accommodations being provided like technology or labeling. These materials will only help you.” And these materials are a legal right that, in many cases, can be provided by agencies like vocational rehabilitation or North Dakota Vision Services/School for the Blind.
“I want to work. I want to contribute to society,” says Lexee. But she also wants – and needs – a fair opportunity. “Just like the sighted population, we are not all one size fits all; we all have different skill sets,” she says. Unfortunately, not every employer has the same skill set either, including the ability to see all the things that a person who is blind or visually impaired can contribute to an organization. But like Nick and Cole, Lexee is not giving up. “It may seem easier to just give up because it feels like landing a job will never happen,” Lexee says, “but I think it is better to continue searching than it would be to give up completely.”
For more information on AFB’s research on employment of people who are blind or visually impaired, go to https://www.afb.org/research-and-initiatives/employment/reviewing-disability-employment-research-people-blind-visually.