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Bosses’ wariness can thwart blind job seekers

Just 24% of those of working age have full-time jobs

Job seekers and volunteer guides attended a recent job fair for the visually impaired in Cambridge.

Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

Job seekers and volunteer guides attended a recent job fair for the visually impaired in Cambridge.

CAMBRIDGE — 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. She remembers the encounter ruefully.

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

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That reflectiveness is heartfelt. Mazzocca lost her own eyesight in 1994 through complications related to diabetes. Now, as a job seeker herself, she knows firsthand 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, and a few had guide dogs.

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 gym where Helen Keller exercised on her way to becoming the first deaf and blind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree, in 1904. Over the ensuing decades, Keller helped increase public awareness of blindness.

Yet blind people remain largely unwanted in the workplace, despite technological advances that dramatically boost their capabilities. Only about 24 percent 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 Mazzocca, 51. “It comes down to educating employers.”

What the blind bring, say national advocates, is a strong work ethic plus a deeper-than-average loyalty to employers. That’s in addition to whatever talents and training they already possess.

In the current economy, good jobs are hard to come by for anyone, but the blind face added challenges. Employers often don’t follow through out of concern the blind might be a bit slower with key tasks or require assistance that could be burdensome.

In some cases, said 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 organizations are working hard to change the equation, through outreach to employers, training and counseling for job seekers, and support for technological development.

Myriad devices and technologies can convert computer text or printed pages into Braille or spoken words.

Still, the steadiest sources of jobs for many blind people are nonprofit organizations with missions related to disabilities. Among them is National Industries for the Blind, a network of 91 nonprofit agencies that collectively employ about 6,000 blind people. It recently conducted a survey of 400 hiring managers and human resource executives across the nation.

The survey found that 54 percent of hiring managers said there were few jobs at their company that blind employees could perform, 45 percent said accommodating such workers would require “considerable expense,” 42 percent said blind employees would need someone to help them on the job, and 34 percent 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”

Lynch and his colleagues take heart from federal initiatives that have expanded hiring of blind people by government agencies and federal contractors. They also are encouraged by efforts of the US Business Leadership Network, a coalition led by several dozen major corporations seeking to boost employment of people with disabilities.

An initiative called CareerConnect, launched by the American Foundation for the Blind, offers resources and advice for blind job seekers, including a mentoring program.

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.

Numerous blind Americans have built successful careers as advocates of the visually impaired, but the pathway often is difficult.

Frederic Schroeder, who served as commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration under President Bill Clinton, recalls sending out 35 job applications after earning his master’s degree in special education — and getting not a single offer in reply.

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