In today's competitive labor market, many employers are working to expand who and where they recruit from, going as far as to remove location or college degree requirements. And yet, disabled populations, like those who are blind or visually impaired, are still vastly underemployed.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 70 percent of working-age Americans who are blind are not employed. Meanwhile, 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs in March of this year alone. The Great Resignation is still alive and well-meaning U.S. employers cannot afford to overlook or exclude talent on the basis of disability, says Kevin Lynch, president and CEO of National Industries for the Blind (NIB), an employment resource for the blind and visually impaired.
"One of the most difficult challenges facing job seekers who are blind is the misconception that they can't do the same work as a person who is sighted, but nothing could be further from the truth," says Lynch. "Employers across the country are seeing record-breaking turnover rates, but here's some good news: People who are blind are a largely untapped resource of talented, capable employees with unlimited potential."
NIB trains blind workers for careers in technology, manufacturing and administration, and works with other nonprofit agencies to employ blind talent in federal and commercial companies. Last year, NIB and its associated agencies employed nearly 5,000 people who are blind. Although, the average hourly wage for said workers hovered at $13.08, which comes out to an annual salary of $26,160 — more than $30,000 below the national average.
Elton Thomas, who is legally blind and a production manager for Lighthouse for the Blind in St. Louis, a nonprofit agency that works with NIB and develops cleaning and paint products, knows just how difficult it is to pursue economic independence in a professional world that is not made for him.
"The world wasn't prepared to employ me, so I had to prepare myself to become employable in this world," says Thomas. "It takes a lot of work and it's definitely a challenge. We have to go through many more steps just to fill out a job application."
Lynch notes that many companies' websites where potential candidates can learn more about its mission, opportunities and culture are not accessible to blind talent. And while many people who are blind use text-to-speech software online, many websites are not screen reader-friendly. For example, websites should provide descriptions of non-text content. If it doesn't, the screen reader will simply say "image" and move on. Websites should also have plenty of headings and describe each section of the site so blind users can actually skim the content. Plus, the more accessible a company is, the easier it is to hire and retain talent across various backgrounds, explains Lynch.
"Inaccessible websites often discourage or even preclude people who are blind from applying for a position where they could be a perfect fit," says Lynch. "Make sure that documents, web pages and social media content are just as accessible to a new employee who is blind as it is to a new employee who is sighted."
Lynch encourages employers to provide candidates and employees with access to screen readers like JAWS and screen magnification software like ZoomText. Beyond technological adaptations, Lynch believes employers can retain their blind employees just like they would retain their sighted employees, by listening to them and valuing them.
For Eric Warnhoff, who is president and CEO of St. Louis Lighthouse for the Blind and is visually impaired, that's why it's essential for company leaders to cultivate an open, honest culture where employees feel safe to speak up about their needs.
"I was always told in the past growing up that you don't talk about 'it,' " says Warnhoff. "We have to create a culture for them to feel comfortable identifying what they need."
Warnhoff is now very open about his disability and hopes that encourages other workers to feel comfortable disclosing the challenges they face due to blindness or visual impairment. Thomas recalls how Warnhoff helped him get on a leadership path at Lighthouse, which motivated him to go back to college and get a master's of business administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
"When I was younger, I thought college wasn't a reality. I tried going and started flunking out," says Thomas. "With the support of Eric, who introduced me to a business management program at Lighthouse, that really opened my eyes to what I am capable of."
Warnhoff notes there is a stigma surrounding blind and visually impaired people that enforces the notion that they are not capable of the same success as their abled peers—and it's a stigma that employers and blind talent can find themselves unconsciously affirming. But stigmas do not equate to reality.
"People with disabilities do not want handouts. We don't want people to feel sorry for us," says Warnhoff. "We want the opportunity to demonstrate that we can be successful and we can contribute in a high capacity."
After nearly two decades with the Lighthouse, Thomas now supervises 20 employees and is responsible for safety initiatives, training, preventative maintenance and quality control. He is also a member of the board of directors at Paraquad, a non-profit organization that works to increase the independence of people with disabilities.
"It was a stressful journey, and you have good days and bad days," says Thomas. "But I like coming to work, I like what I do and I like the mission."
This article was written by Deanna Cuadra from Employee Benefit News and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive Content Marketplace. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.