No, I'm not referring to the economy, although the current economic state of this nation significantly affects the "E"-word I have in mind. Recently, the subject of employment of blind and visually impaired people, or lack thereof, again became a topic of conversation among the ACB membership. The discussion resulted from what will amount to a monthly reporting of unemployment statistics for this population by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). And while it is long past time that such data is gathered and analyzed, the average non-statistician (most of us) will have difficulty deciphering this data, at least for now.
Nonetheless, the BLS announcement has reopened that old question of just how many of us are working. Is it somewhere around 30 percent, as common wisdom has it? Is the percentage of employed blind and visually impaired people we accept and quote as gospel too low, or too high? I suspect that we won't have definitive data to resolve this question for some time to come. I can say with absolute certainty, however, that our jobless rate is three to four times higher than it is for any other group tracked by the BLS.
Rather than focusing on how many of us do or don't work, I'd prefer to offer some thoughts relative to what we might do to see more of our colleagues employed during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. As I write this, mid-March, the national unemployment rate is fast approaching 10 percent, a figure which has already been exceeded here in California. The most optimistic projections are that the economy could begin turning around by late summer or early fall. Hence, those of you who are in the market looking for work, and those of you who are paid to assist in the job-finding process, definitely have your work cut out for you. Clearly then, 2009 is an extremely difficult time to be seeking employment. Not only are blind and visually impaired people looking for work when jobs are being cut by the tens of thousands, but we are competing for those scarce jobs against people who have been laid off or terminated.
It has always been my view that, for better or worse, blind and visually impaired job seekers need to be more qualified than our sighted peers in order to be truly competitive. Many would argue that thanks to the advent of the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA, this is no longer the case. I respectfully disagree. Given the present climate, I submit that we need to have especially saleable job skills, an absolute determination to succeed, and a positive attitude, so as to convince would-be human resource professionals of the benefits of hiring us.
Beyond this, we are still having to deal with those age-old myths, misconceptions and stereotypes concerning blindness which I wrote about in my column, "Image and Perception" (Nov. 2007). Despite the fact that the law is on our side, we continue to hear those questions which, by their mere asking, tell us we haven't a snowball's chance in Phoenix of being hired: How did you get here? Did someone drive you? You can't really use a computer, can you? How can you possibly operate a (fill in the type of equipment or machinery)?
So, whose responsibility is it for preparing blind people to compete and to counter those negative attitudes? To my way of thinking, that responsibility must be shared equally between the blind job seeker and rehabilitation professional. Those of you in the former group must be ready to do whatever it takes in order to work. Your written, verbal and computer skills must be far more than just adequate for the position being sought, and your appearance and grooming must be good. Additionally, it might be useful to demonstrate a willingness to accept a somewhat lower level position than the one you were seeking so as to get a foot in the door. (After graduating with a master's degree, my first full-time job was as an administrative assistant, read "secretary," at a university.) We must also be prepared to calmly and intelligently respond to those aforementioned questions which every one of us has heard at one time or another during a job interview.
Those of you in the latter group, rehabilitation professionals, need to instill these values or ideas as part of your work as counselors. You must also do something else which I believe to be critical: be a role model for your clients. To me, a rehab counselor or teacher who has good orientation and mobility skills, is groomed and well-spoken, shows by example how to be fully prepared to find and obtain a job. Sadly, I have met more than a few so-called rehabilitation professionals who fall far short of these very reachable expectations.
Let me wrap up by stating unequivocally ACB's strong and continued support for two entities that are responsible for employing thousands of blind men and women: the Randolph-Sheppard Vending Program and National Industries for the Blind. So long as there are barriers -- institutional and attitudinal -- limiting our employment options, the American Council of the Blind will do everything possible to maintain and strengthen both of these outstanding vehicles for economic independence for blind and visually impaired people.
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