The holiday season is a time to reflect on the past year, identify what we are grateful for and look forward to the new year. For me, I am grateful for my family, my health, and the opportunity to participate in the Great American work experience.
You see, I am one of the fortunate few Americans who are blind to be gainfully employed. National statistics indicate 70% of individuals who are blind or have significant disabilities are unemployed.
After receiving my diagnosis of Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative retinal disease that leads to blindness, the ophthalmologist asked what my career plans were. He said, “There are no blind cops, you better choose a field more suitable to a blind person,” after I told him that I was studying criminal justice.
I have faced and overcome obstacles, many of which could have led me to become a statistic. Some of these obstacles were self-imposed, but the majority were those stereotypes, misconceptions and generalizations of the capabilities of people who are blind, by others.
As a young man, I was growing personally and professionally. I met and married my wife of now 30 years and was working my way up in a small manufacturing company.
Then, like out of the blue, the darkness fell upon me ... I had become legally blind.
When informing my employer of my situation, as soon as the words left my mouth, the owner of the company saw me as a liability, not an asset.
This trend continued, even after obtaining a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University. My new degree and past work experience got me in front of a lot of hiring managers, unfortunately I was not able to “seal the deal.” I truly believe these employers were making a fear-based decision based on my disability.
A study conducted by National Industries for the Blind indicates that 54% of hiring managers believe that there are zero jobs within their organization that a person who is blind could be successful at.
Our perception of the world around us not only comes from our senses, but is also influenced by our expectations. These expectations or “prior beliefs,” are generally derived from family values, cultural norms and our past experiences. So, when a candidate who is blind walks into an interview and the hiring manager has no past experience with blindness, then the expectation is that this person is not qualified.
As the public relations manager at Arizona Industries for the Blind, I share my story in hopes of “changing the perception of blindness; one conversation at a time.” I challenge the business community to give people who are blind or visually impaired the opportunity to prove that with the proper training and technology, a person who is blind can compete and be successful in the workplace.
Arizona Industries for the Blind is a role model in the community — hiring people who are blind based on their abilities, not disabilities. From our frontline workers to the board of directors, AIB empowers people who are blind to achieve their highest goals and aspirations through meaningful employment.
Technology levels the playing field for people who are blind or visually impaired. Throughout the organization AIB deploys various assistive technology such as screen magnification (allows user to magnify, change color schemes, etc. of text that appears on the computer monitor), Screen readers (turn text to speech for user), closed circuit televisions devices and other hand-held magnifying devices.
Alongside the assistive technology, AIB utilizes industry standard applications to manage day to day operations throughout the organization. For example, our Distribution Services Unit uses HighJump Advantage to manage the flow of products through the warehouse.
Our Material Handlers use Vocollect’s “Talkman” voice directed, voice recognition technology to fulfill customer orders. In our retail environment, AIB employees who are blind are responsible for interacting with NCR’s Counterpoint Point of Sales application to service customers, inventory replenishment, perform cycle counts and purchase inventory.
People who are blind or visually impaired add diversity and social responsibility to businesses by offering fresh perspectives and ideas on how to accomplish tasks and implement strategies. And we are loyal: According to a “study of 8,500 persons with disabilities in competitive employment — this group has a nearly 85% job-retention rate after one year as measured by companies like DuPont and Sears who measure retention rates,” according to the Arizona Department of Economic Security.
So, how can you help move the needle on the 70% unemployment rate among people who are blind or have significant disabilities? As Arizona’s business leaders, you can adopt inclusive policies such as:
Some examples are:
Some of the most important things to do include making sure people with disabilities are at the table where decisions are being made.
Additionally, look to social enterprise organizations or nonprofits to be a valued partner through the creation of a community manufacturing partnership or joint ventures.
Community manufacturing partnerships are often used to help create employment opportunities for individuals who experienced a variety of barriers to employment in the community. The basic framework is derived from private companies partnering with social enterprise businesses, and nonprofit organizations that are socially minded and funded through revenue generating activities.
As a participant in the CMP, the for-profit company will benefit from: increased capacity and throughput, improved public image, potential to penetrate new markets, and increased sales opportunities. Nonprofit organizations will benefit by increased employment for people who are blind, financial stability, growth in industry knowledge and expertise; and the ability to grow community awareness of its program.
The private-nonprofit CMP participant will have an active operational role in the nonprofit agency, not simply a fee for service transaction.
Learn more at azfib.com.
Editor’s note: David Steinmetz is public relations manager at Arizona Industries for the Blind.
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