The Bureau of Labor Statistics issued its report recently, and it’s clear that would-be American workers are still in distress. If, however, you find a 7.7 percent unemployment rate disturbing, try multiplying that figure by ten. For adults with impaired vision, the unemployment rate is between 70 and 80 percent — 10 times the national rate. If the general populace faced such circumstances, our economy would collapse.
More than 16 million working-age Americans are living with vision loss; three-quarters of them are currently out of work, dependent on government assistance. The positive social and economic impact of putting those people to work would be profound. Businesses and government can open the door to employment for people with impaired vision.
People who are blind ask only for the opportunity to be equal and the right to be different. In the workplace, this means some appropriate accommodation and training so a person who is visually impaired, blind or deafblind can contribute in a job or profession that suits his or her talents and career goals.
About 30 employers participated in a recent Massachusetts Disability Job Fair attended by nearly 100 well-prepared, motivated job candidates who are visually impaired. Job seekers got information about potential positions and many employers were impressed to learn about this unusual pool of candidates. They also learned that creating a friendly, accessible work environment for a person with a visual impairment is quite easy and relatively inexpensive. Most buildings and many computer systems are already adapted for people of all abilities.
Organizations and agencies such as Perkins School for the Blind, The Carroll Center for the Blind, MAB Community Services, National Braille Press and the Patrick-Murray Administration’s Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB) can offer concrete, expert advice to employers, even as we support consumers who are visually impaired to become job-ready. At the Commission for the Blind over the past nine years, the MCB Internship Program has created more than 700 internship opportunities for consumers who are in college or seeking employment.
Technology plays a critical role. Workers must be adept at using a broad array of business software and equipment. Many companies that make these tools now build in accessibility for people with disabilities. The doorway to career achievement has never been wider for those with visual impairments thanks to cutting edge assistive devices, apps and other technologies that allow people who are blind or deafblind to navigate, communicate, calculate, and produce in the new digital workplace.
What successful business person doesn’t recall his or her very first job? The company that hires a promising intern or part-time worker offers a person with a disability an invaluable stepping-stone in getting that first full-time job. Endorsements from previous managers greatly reassure prospective employers. Hiring managers may find it is hard to visualize what student interns or new graduates with vision impairments can do in the workplace. One look at Nick and Megan, two Perkins students working as brand attendants at Target in Watertown, and the picture is clear: they are punctual, hardworking and great team players. Being deafblind has not stood in their way. Another Perkins student has just started work at CVS in Watertown.
The federal government leads by example. More than 200,000 people with disabilities now work for the federal government. The rate of new hires with disabilities is now 14.7 percent. Those are the highest numbers in 20 years. We urge public and private employers in the Commonwealth to follow suit.
A good place to begin is to identify positions within a company or organization that could be readily adapted for workers with visual impairments or other disabilities. Many Massachusetts employers including hospitals, universities, supermarkets, retailers, tourist destinations and others have already established successful co-op relationships with Perkins, the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, and other schools and centers that can offer advice and introduce them to strong candidates for employment as well.
We appeal to employers to look deeper than the jobs report in the headlines to tap the resources of workers with disabilities whose talents and commitment can enrich the Commonwealth. Together, education, technology and business leadership can create an environment where every worker is valued equally because of, not in spite of, being different.
Greg Bialecki is state secretary of housing and economic development. Steven M. Rothstein is president of Perkins School for the Blind.