Blind job Seekers Face Hurdles in Pursuit of Work

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — The Associated Press
Published Monday, Nov. 04 2013, 7:00 PM EST

Back in the late 1980s, when Maura Mazzocca was a human resources administrator with a Boston-area firm, a blind man showed up to apply for a job. Today, she remembers the encounter ruefully.

“What I kept thinking about was, ‘How can this man work in a manufacturing company?’” Ms. Mazzocca recalled, saying she looked past his abilities and saw only his disability.

“I wish now I’d given him a chance.”

That reflectiveness is heartfelt. Ms. Mazzocca lost her own eyesight in 1994 through complications related to diabetes. Now as a job seeker herself, she knows first-hand the many hurdles the blind must overcome in pursuit of full-time work.

At a job fair last month for blind and low-vision people, she was going table to table, with a sighted volunteer by her side. Some of the other 80 job seekers carried white canes, a few had guide dogs.

Like the rest, Ms. Mazzocca was greeted with firm handshakes and encouraging words — but none of the employers she spoke with had job openings matching her interests and qualifications.

The venue was the former Radcliffe College gymnasium where Helen Keller exercised en route to becoming the first deaf/blind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree in 1904. Over the ensuing decades, Ms. Keller helped increase public awareness of blindness and empathy for those affected by it.

Yet blind people remain largely unwanted in the U.S. workplace, despite technological advances that dramatically boost their capabilities. Only about 24 per cent of working-age Americans with visual disabilities had full-time jobs as of 2011, according to Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute.

“There’s a lot of stigma, a lot of obstacles,” said Ms. Mazzocca, 51. “It comes down to educating employers. …It’s going to take a really long time, if ever, for them to see us for who we are and what we bring to the table.”

What they bring, according to national advocates for the blind, is a strong work ethic, plus deeper-than-average loyalty to their employers. That’s in addition to whatever talents and training they bring, just like any other applicant.

In the current economy, good jobs are hard to come by for anyone, even the sighted. But the blind face added challenges. Even employers professing interest in hiring blind people often don’t follow through out of concern that they might be a bit slower with key tasks or require assistance that could be burdensome.

In some cases, said Ms. Mazzocca, who has held professional jobs since she lost her sight, “They’re thinking, ‘What if I have to fire them? Will they sue me?’”

Many national and local organizations are working hard to change the equation, through a mix of outreach to employers, training and counselling for job seekers, and support for technological development. Though sometimes costly, there are now myriad devices and technologies that can convert computer text or printed pages into Braille or spoken words.

Still, the steadiest sources of jobs for many blind people are non-profit organizations with missions related to blindness and other disabilities.

Among them is National Industries for the Blind, a network of 91 non-profit agencies which collectively employ about 6,000 blind people. It recently conducted a survey of 400 hiring managers and human resource executives across the United States.

The survey found 54 per cent of hiring managers said there were few jobs at their company that blind employees could perform, 45 per cent said accommodating such workers would require “considerable expense,” 42 per cent said blind employees would need someone to help them on the job, and 34 per cent said they were more likely to have work-related accidents than sighted employees.

“We’re having to deal with lots of misconceptions and myths,” said Kevin Lynch, CEO of National Industries for the Blind. “From that standpoint, the study was clearly disappointing, but it gives us the opportunity to find a way forward.”

CareerConnect, launched by the American Foundation for the Blind, offers an array of resources and advice for blind job seekers, including a mentorship program to connect them with blind people working in the professions they aspire to.

Joe Strechay, program manager for CareerConnect, said visually impaired people tend to be dedicated workers – less likely than others to miss a shift or quit the job, and no more likely than others to sue in the event of dismissal.

Among those featured on CareerConnect’s website is Jay Blake, a race car mechanic and pit crew chief. Other role models include Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to climb Mount Everest, and the late Richard Casey, the first blind federal trial judge.

Yet a glance through listings of prominent blind people conveys some of the challenges faced by job seekers. There are many famous blind musicians, such as Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, but a dearth of notables in many other fields. In the U.S. Congress, for example, there have been several blind members – but none since 1941.

At the recent job fair, 32-year-old Jeff Paquette, who graduated in 2011 from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., is seeking work in the tourism/hospitality industry.

Declared legally blind in 2006, he has limited vision that prevents him from driving but enables him to use public transportation on his own and to read, sometimes with the help of a magnification option on his computer.

“I honestly don’t know from employer to employer what their perceptions of someone like me will be,” said Mr. Paquette, who carries a white cane when he’s out and about. “I have to be honest with them. I will need some accommodation – but I’m fully capable.”

At the job fair, the only employer from the hospitality sector was Hyatt Hotels. Their representative told Mr. Paquette to keep checking on the company’s jobs website.

Among the 29 employers at the job fair were Toronto-Dominion Bank, retailer T.J. Maxx, and several branches of Harvard University, including the job fair’s host — the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Its human resources director, Charles Curti, said the institute has no full-time blind employees at present but was pleased by the outcome of two recent summer internships for students from the Perkins School for the Blind.

In the course of his work, Mr. Curti has learned about evolving technologies now available to boost blind workers’ capabilities. “It’s an awakening experience,” he said, a reason for optimism that the bias faced by blind job seekers will gradually fade.

“Fifteen years ago, when I’d talk about hiring blind people, I was stonewalled by human-resource colleagues,” he said. “Now it’s a completely different conversation. They’re sold on the idea — they just need to know how to make it work.”

Behind another table was Richard Curtis, a vice-president of State Street Corp., a Boston-based financial services company. He said State Street, with a global work force of many thousands, believes that openness toward hiring people with disabilities will help it stay ahead of the competition.

Last summer, Mr. Curtis arranged internships for two visually impaired young men – part of an effort to learn what accommodations would be needed and what challenges might arise for any blind employees hired in the future. Using Excel spreadsheets and other data-retrieval systems, the interns did research and helped provide information for company reports.

“We tried to push them and they loved that. …They don’t want to be coddled,” Mr. Curtis said. “Once they’re trained, for the roles we had them do, they’d be equal in speed or accuracy to any other employee.”

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