Saturday, January 05, 2008

Employers don't recognize the abilites of the visually impaired

Ray Campbell extends his 5-foot cane in front of him, tapping to feel manhole covers, street poles and other familiar landmarks that his fellow commuters speed past.The help desk technician, who has been blind since birth, travels each morning from his suburban Glen Ellyn home, taking a bus and two trains before walking to his Chicago office."It's my responsibility to get up and get to work and do my job to the best of my ability and go home just like anybody else," said Campbell, 42. "So from that perspective, I don't really think my day is a whole lot different."

But there is one thing that sets Campbell apart from most blind Americans: He has a job. Seven in 10 working-age blind people in the United States are unemployed, according to the National Industries for the Blind.Jim Gibbons leads that non-profit group, which helps find jobs for the visually impaired, and says employers don't know and recognize the capabilities of people who are blind.

There are often low expectations of blind people, he says, and opportunities can be limited if, for example, the job requires driving.The jobs that have traditionally been offered to blind people have been in manufacturing or service work. Agencies have provided and trained blind people in jobs making notepads, clocks or clothing.But despite technological advances that enable them to perform much more complicated work, many blind people haven't found employment in the business sector in finance, marketing and management, Gibbons said.

Even after she earned an MBA, Cynthia Watson of Houston had a hard time finding a job in marketing. Watson was diagnosed with juvenile macular degeneration at age 9."I think that one of the big barriers was my blindness," said Watson, 35. "I know it's possible because I have landed jobs before. It just takes more time and more persistence. So, I mean, sure, you get discouraged, but you have to just stay persistent."A properly qualified blind person is capable of doing such white-collar work if given the chance, Gibbons said.

"We missed the boat until recently in terms of recognizing that's where the opportunities are, so that's where we have to go," Gibbons said. "Upwardly mobile careers and jobs with real responsibility and jobs where you really leverage your leadership, your communications, your analytical skills."With his technical skills, Campbell has been able to find jobs. He worked for more than 15 years as a software engineer before he took his current position at The Chicago Lighthouse, an agency that provides services for the blind and visually impaired, answering a technical and computer help line.

In his cubicle, he uses a variety of technical advances that have helped the blind keep pace in a high-tech workplace. His computer can read aloud all the type displayed on his monitor. He wears two sets of headphones, one to hear the computer voice and the other, attached to his phone, to listen to his callers.He also has a printer that produces documents in Braille.Another tool attaches to his keyboard, constantly refreshing in Braille what's on the computer's desktop. Campbell runs his fingers over it to read the information. Two dots on it move up and down to let him know where the cursor is."I read my e-mails," he said.

"I can do Word documents. I use a database for this job. I go in, I keep records in there."Campbell never uses a mouse, but he does scan all of his bills into the computer so they can be read back to him to pay with online banking programs. Otherwise he would have to get outside help."I can do it independently," he said. "I don't want anybody knowing how much I spent on my credit card last month."After work, it's back home again, sometimes stopping for a beer before boarding the trains and bus. Nothing different, he stresses, than any other suburban commuting worker."I think the biggest misconception is that people who are blind, they can't work or they aren't as dependable, aren't able to be as productive," Campbell said.

"That we can't hold down a 9-5 job in a major corporation just like everybody else can -- and we certainly can do that."Gibbons says the high unemployment rate among blind adults can drop if mind-sets can be changed. And that's important because unemployment, as with any person, has a negative affect on the blind."Work is dignity," he said. "It's part of our identity. It's part of our dignity. It's critical."


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