Vol. 45, No. 12
With minor accomodations, visually impaired workers can become productive, loyal, and enthusiastic members of the team.
Joe Steinkamp is bright, witty and assertive. He also is legally blind. He jokes as he describes his last job: "I sold televisions to people. How many blind people do you know could have sold TVs?"
That was the easy part; getting the job was more difficult. Steinkamp filled out the application at home and went through three interviews in one day. He was told that he was "in" and just had to take the pre-employment tests as a formality. He brought in his print-magnification equipment.
"You have to do the tests in two hours, which is hard for someone who is visually impaired," he says. "We need more time to read. The first one was [a circle the answer] multiple choice, which was easy. But the second was a Scantron. I hurried through it, trying to show that I could do the work. Well, it was an integrity test." In his haste, Steinkamp skipped a line, skewing all of his answers. "I answered that stealing was OK."
A group of managers descended upon him, asking questions like, "How much is OK to steal?" Steinkamp was flabbergasted and confused. Luckily, the managers figured out what had happened and hired him, anyway, but that misunderstanding could have meant the difference between landing the job and losing it.
The term "blind" encompasses a wide range of visual acuity—from someone who cannot discern the difference between light and dark to one whose sight is akin to viewing the world through two soda straws. An individual is considered legally blind if his vision meets at least one of two criteria—either a visual acuity of 20/200 with the best correction or a field of vision of 20 degrees or less, which is sometimes called tunnel vision.
"Visually impaired job applicants fall into two categories—those with partial sight who use magnification devices to read, and those who have no functional vision," explains John Silver, career services coordinator for the Braille Institute of America in Los Angeles. "Typically, those who are totally blind are Braille readers and make up only a small percentage of the total blind population."
About 1.6 million blind people live in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Of those, the National Federation of the Blind and the Braille Institute of America estimate that 70 percent are unemployed. "There is virtually no other group of individuals in our society that experiences that type of employment discrimination or lack of opportunity," says Mark Lohman, president of Bartimaeus Group in McLean, Va., which creates access solutions for blind individuals.
For example, when Steinkamp’s employer was acquired and he was downsized, it took him 13 months of aggressive searching to find his current job as an employment assistant specialist for the Houston regional office for the Texas Commission for the Blind.
A Gold Mine of Untapped Labor
What jobs can blind or low vision workers do? More than you may imagine. "Twenty or even 10 years ago, people with limited sight could not perform the types of jobs they are able to do today," says Silver. "This is, in part, due to adaptive equipment and technology as well as the training that is now available through blind service agencies."
"Don’t consider any job ‘off limits’ to a visually impaired person," says Sharon Spencer, vice president of sales and marketing for Freedom Scientific’s blind/low vision group, a company that develops assistive technology products in St. Petersburg, Fla. Nearly one-third of the company’s employees are visually impaired.
If you want to know what a blind applicant can or can’t do, ask. "Don’t assume," says Charles Young, an administrator for the Oregon Commission for the Blind in Portland. Employers sometimes fear they will hurt the feelings of a blind applicant, he explains. But, "Often the blind person can suggest the simplest, least costly way of doing something." And, he adds, "Don’t be afraid to use the ‘B’ word."
Steinkamp agrees. "If you go out of your way to be politically correct, you alienate the person," he says.
Accommodating the Visually Impaired
In terms of accommodations, they are "remarkably fewer than one would initially assume," says Anthony Cobb, director of job opportunities for the blind for the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore, Md. Most deal with providing assistive technology, such as screen reading software programs.
For example, Marriott Worldwide Reservations, a division of Marriott International Inc. in Omaha, Neb., offers a variety of accommodations. "For associates that have some vision but are unable to read our normal computer screen, we have provided larger monitors as well as screen magnifiers," says vice president L. Kaye Dengel, whose division employs 50 visually impaired workers.
"We offer the MAGic software program, which allows the associates to select a portion of the screen to magnify to the level at which they can read. And associates that have no vision are able to use the JAWS [Job Access With Speech] software, which uses a voice synthesizer to ‘read’ the selected field of the computer screen."
Cost of the equipment depends on what is required. "Most employers are very surprised to find out how little it can cost to employ visually impaired people," says Spencer. "It can be as low as $300 or as high as several thousand dollars, depending upon the job."
Costs for text-enlargement software are around $600; speech-output devices range between $800 and $1,800; and Braille printers run from $2,000 to $5,000. However, many state vocational rehabilitation agencies will provide funds or equipment to offset much, if not all, of the employer’s initial costs.
When should you approach an applicant about accommodation? Millie DesBiens, program manager of global workforce diversity for IBM in Pomona, N.Y., recommends accommodation of assistive technology be discussed "once the person has accepted the offer." Then, you should "have it ready for them when they start. That gives them the opportunity to show their full potential right away. As one employee said, ‘Getting me assistive technology I need is like breathing for you. I can’t survive without this. If you get it for me, I will be able to do what I need to do.’"
You also may want to consider other accommodations. Marriott has altered schedules to meet transportation needs; put Braille on vending machines and restrooms; and recorded the company’s employee handbook, policies and benefits materials on cassette tape.
But, the most important accommodation, aside from assistive technology, is to consider how you disseminate information. Avoid handwritten notes or flyers on the bulletin board. Instead, use voicemail or e-mail. Says Lohman, "We had a problem with one of our manufacturers that kept faxing us information on prospective customers. The head of our sales department is blind, so the faxes were not helpful. We needed it sent electronically."
"If you put a sign on the bulletin board—‘Meeting at 5 o’clock’—I’m not going to see it," says Steve Hanamura, who is blind. He is president of Hanamura Consulting, a diversity consulting firm in Beaverton, Ore., and author of In Search of Vision (Global Insights, 2000).
Finally, consider sensitivity training for co-workers. Most sighted people have little contact with the visually impaired. "People are fearful they will offend them in some way," says Lohman. "A day’s worth of training will help them overcome that fear." Most blind service organizations offer free sensitivity training.
At IBM, the company’s intranet web site discusses disabilities. "Managers can read success stories of people with disabilities working at IBM, learn how to interview someone with a disability and read about assistive technology, the most frequently used accommodations for blind employees," says DesBiens. Accommodations for disabled IBM workers are paid for at the division level, not the departmental level. The company also has a video available for managers featuring a day in the life of a disabled employee, several programs to assist in the recruitment of blind workers and a networking group for blind employees.
If you are interested in recruiting visually impaired workers, Hanamura recommends altering your "recruiting modalities." Don’t just advertise positions in print. He jokes, "I don’t happen to pick up the Wall Street Journal." Instead, contact the local blind service agency.
"If employers aren’t looking into where they can hire visually impaired employees, they are missing out on a wonderful pool of resources," Spencer adds.
Many employers wonder how a visually impaired applicant will get to work. But, if an employer would not ask this of a sighted employee, he should not worry about a blind employee. "If the company is not on a bus route, I can hire a taxi," says Steinkamp. "Or my wife will drive me. If the employer says, ‘Isn’t that expensive?’ My answer is, ‘You have to spend money to maintain your car; there’s no difference.’"
Many employers also expect that blind employees will require extensive assistance in navigating the workspace. "It’s your responsibility to orient me. After that, I’m on my own," says Hanamura.
Dengel agrees: "Many times an employer’s concerns about hiring the blind worker are concerns about the employee’s safety: ‘What if they fall? How will they find their way around hazards?’ The blind employee is no more likely to have safety concerns than any other employee. Most of the time they are well trained in how to navigate their environment. It hasn’t been any more of a concern that we have blind employees."
Some employers fear that blind workers will be less productive than sighted workers, but that isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, Dengel says, "Two of our visually impaired associates are among our top sales achievers."
And employers also worry about legal problems. "They fear that if the employee doesn’t work out they’ll never be able to fire them [because] they’ll sue," says Cobb. "I would never counsel a blind person who fails at a job to file a frivolous lawsuit under the ADA. If somebody hires a blind person who for some reason doesn’t make it, for goodness sake, let them go. We’ll help do outplacement. Otherwise, that company will never hire another blind person, and we don’t want that."
Hanamura adds, "Blind workers need straight feedback about how they’re doing, particularly something that needs to be corrected."
One of the tangible benefits of hiring blind workers is employer tax credits. The Federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit provides as much as $2,400, according to Cobb. "Some states also have tax credits," he adds. "In Maryland, the credit is equal to 20 percent of the first $6,000 of wages for vocational rehabilitation and Social Security Income recipients."
Blind employees and their employers also are eligible for a wide variety of free training from nonprofit organizations and state and federal agencies that serve the blind community. "We offer training for staff, technical support and independence skills training. We train employees how to use computers with access technology for the blind," says Cobb.
Marriott has worked with several service agencies for the blind, and training "ranges from typing and geography to training on JAWS software so that when they come into our training program, they only must learn our reservation software," explains Dengel.
A less material benefit is that visually impaired employees "add different perspectives and approaches to getting the job done," says Hanamura.
However, the biggest benefit is loyalty. "Employers have told us that the most dedicated, hard-working employees are visually impaired," says Cobb. "When it’s snowing outside, the blind person, who has to make two bus changes and walk, will make it to work and no one else will." That is certainly true at Marriott, adds Dengel. "Their attendance records are among the best, and they have a tendency to stay longer than the average new hire."
Why are blind workers so loyal? "Once you find an employer willing to give you an opportunity to succeed or fail on your merits—not on the basis of a characteristic like blindness—if they treat you well and provide you the same opportunities for upward mobility, you will stay with them," explains Cobb.
Adds Spencer, "They are so excited to be given the opportunity that they are highly motivated, prompt, dedicated and loyal, often going the extra mile to do a good job."
Kathryn Tyler is a Wixom, Mich.-based freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer.