Far-Sighted Policy for Visually Impaired

Employment Rate is Unacceptably Low and Could Easily Be Improved With More Leadership From Public Sector

Christine Robbins
The Vancouver Sun, December 29, 2010, page A15.

Imagine a public-policy change that would improve equity among people with disabilities, increase the effective workforce and save the B.C. taxpayer
significant sums. An appropriate policy initiative for people with visual impairments could fulfil all of those goals.

The employment rate for people with visual impairments, at 35 per cent, is much lower than the 56-per-cent rate for people with other disabilities.

This 21-per-cent gap represents 8,600 British Columbians who could be contributing to the provincial economy.

And it costs B.C. taxpayers $15,000 per year to have a visually impaired person not working and to provide the person with support payments. That
totals nearly $130 million per year, including lost taxes on those prospective earnings.

Why do people with visual impairments have such a low employment rate? My research has attempted to answer this question and to formulate the best
policy remedy.

Advances in technology have dramatically expanded the employment opportunities for people with visual impairments. The 2009 B.C. survey of
Labour Market Outcomes of People with Disabilities found that visually impaired people are attaining similar levels of education as those with
other disabilities. Thus, the employment gap cannot be explained by a lack of education.

And the Canadian National Institute for the Blind has programs to improve job-readiness skills for people with visual impairments. So job preparedness
is not the problem either. Given that all of these developments have not resulted in increased employment rates for this group, what could be the
“hidden barrier”?

Past research has found that individuals with vision loss did not believe employers understood their capabilities. Therefore, for my research I interviewed employers to explore their perspectives and perceptions. What factors inhibit employers from hiring people with visual impairments at the
same rates as people with other disabilities?

Employers stated that having a diverse workforce was more important than financial incentives in motivating them to hire people with disabilities. They identified their primary goal in hiring as choosing the applicant with the best skill set to perform the job. These skills included good written,
oral and interpersonal communication skills. The challenge facing employers
is understanding how to evaluate those skills in a person with a visual impairment.

One employer responded, “It’s not necessarily a taboo subject, but it’s the fear of the unknown and, okay, well, that person can’t see. What are they
going to do in meetings if they can’t see the person speaking or have to introduce themselves. What if? What if? What if …?” Other employers made
similar comments.

Current inclusion and diversity programs are not providing the education and resources employers need to evaluate whether a visually impaired person is the best choice. The few employers with exposure to such workers reported that it instantly dissipated their preconceptions about workplace abilities.

The best way for employers to gain the resources to evaluate a job candidate with a visual impairment is by working with such people. My research found that the most effective way to increase their employment rate is through six-month work placements targeted for people with visual impairments.

Private-sector employers are unlikely to pursue such a targeted initiative on their own. The government needs to take a leadership role in increasing
employment for people with visual impairments for two reasons: it supports the public interest and yields a substantial cost savings to the taxpayer.

My analysis evaluated three policy options for addressing this problem: education training workshops targeted at employers in both public and
private sectors, targeted resources for employers in both sectors, and leadership by public-sector agencies in employing the visually impaired.

The last option scored highest on the criteria of both effectiveness and cost-effectiveness.

Leadership by the public sector in employing workers with visual impairments would directly provide employment and also help to overcome stereotypical views by their co-workers and their clients among the general public and
private-sector employers.

It is not often that a public policy simultaneously enhances human equity, contributes to the economy, and saves taxpayers money.

An initiative of public-sector leadership in employing people with visual impairments would be one such policy.

Christine Robbins is a candidate for a Masters of Public Policy in the School of Public Policy, Simon Fraser University.

Reproduced from http://www.vancouversun.com/entertainment/sighted+policy+visually+impaired/4035361/story.html