There’s never been a better time to be blind, or so I’ve heard. And I have to ask: How low have we dropped the bar?
I was recently chatting with a friend. I forget exactly how the subject came up, but we found ourselves discussing blind people and entry level jobs. I expressed frustration at the blindness consumer groups for not doing a better job of partnering with national chains to employ blind people.
If the unemployment rate among the blind persists deep into double digits, why would we not fight to change the landscape?
The number of jobs that ask for a high school education or jobs that do not require formal education to fulfill are growing at the slowest rate compared to other trends. Blind people should be prepared for the inevitability of automation, but in the meantime, it does not seem reasonable that blind people should be kept out of the jobs in retail, hospitality, and recreation so common to Americans as early as adolescence.
In 2021, Amazons announcement to make more opportunities available for the blind should not have been newsworthy. It should have been commonplace. Why are we not demanding more companies follow Amazon’s example of opening their industry to blind workers? It’s fine for diversity campaigns to be inclusive of all genders, ethnicities, age, and religions, but if companies are not stretching themselves to accommodate disabilities, they are still blocking the doorway to equality.
And then my friend said something that stopped my rant in its tracks. She said that maybe it was because blind people were not ready for those jobs…
I’ve prepared a few thoughts on the steps the up and coming generation of blind individuals should follow as they prepare to meet the real world. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do claim to be successful. These are just one guy’s personal opinions, and hey, if you disagree, you know where to leave your comments.
Accept the World for What It Is
I accept technology has dramatically changed the way blind people interact with the world. However, it is important to recognize the world will always be designed for the sighted. It has nothing to do with malice and likely everything to do with numbers. Blind people do not command enough of a market share to justify the sort of widespread innovation required to make our daily existence truly equal. If you need evidence, look no further than the assistive technology industry where, in some quarters, the prices are exorbitant by any measure.
How do we move the needle from a position of neglect to at least a position of neutrality?
We normalize blindness.
Apple has taken positive steps in normalizing blindness by featuring blind people in their advertisements. Yet, we should not be satisfied to promote someone else’s list of product benefits.
Instead of adding to a news item, blind people need to become the news item. Not everyone wants, or needs, to become famous, but it will be easier for us to lead innovation campaigns the more of us build influence across the arts, government, corporate, STEM, and other sectors. If you doubt the power of a popular platform, consider Beyoncé’s Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, Terry Crews’ advocacy for male victims of sexual assault, and Chance the Rapper’s contributions to Chicago public schools, to name a few.
What, you think you don’t have it in you to exercise influence? Stop thinking. Start acting.
In the meantime, start local. Become actively involved in social issues unrelated to blindness. The decade I spent away from the National Federation of the Blind involved in anti-human trafficking, refugee transition, foster care advocacy, animal rescue, and youth service taught me more about the world than I thought possible. The world will not learn to value our contributions if we keep our best efforts locked up in the blindness community.
I challenge you to take a year-long sabbatical from blindness advocacy. If we can agree blindness does not define a person, allow yourself to find a social justice issue that resonates with you and devote your spare time to help amplify the cause. We cannot claim to live the life we want if most of our life is spent working for the blind. Idealist is as good at identifying jobs as it is at connecting you with volunteer opportunities. If your job is in the blindness field, use your time outside of work to kindle a new passion. I know working more outside of work sounds exhausting, but I promise it will never feel like work if you are having a blast doing what you’re doing.
At the end of your sabbatical, if you decide your heart truly resides in blindness advocacy, you will come back with a more well-rounded perspective and make you that much more potent in your efforts.
And, for the love of all that is good,, don’t carry a grudge against sighted people. I’m not interested in excusing people who grab, dismiss, or speak down to you on account of being blind, but I am also not interested in justifying rigid positions that reinforce a mentality of us versus them. Both positions are poison.
If you genuinely feel sighted people don’t get it, do your part to educate them. Sometimes, it really is as simple as saying hello when you walk by. Do your part to tear down the barriers.
Learn Your Technology
There’s no getting around the need to master technology. And, I don’t mean consumer tasks. I’m proud of you for keeping on top of all the ways you can stream movies, play music, order food, and call a ride. However, I’m referring to productivity tasks that will make you marketable in today’s technologically driven society.
First, make intelligent investments on assistive technology. I was excited to learn of the new Braille Sense 6 from HIMS, but at nearly $6000, those of us who cannot count on an employer or government agency to make the purchase will have to think long and hard about spending so much money on a device whose operating system could likely be outdated this time next year.
Instead, consider spending your money on a Braille display that may not serve as a fully equipped note-taking device but that is likely to follow you over the next several years. Yes, I am making an assumption you read Braille, but you’ve already read my thoughts on the need for this important medium. Orbit Research and American Printing House have excellent options that will not completely break the bank.
If you want to purchase some of the more expensive toys out there, consider preowned products listed on sources like Top Tech Tidbits, Blind Bargains, or Blind Ads. The folks on Blind Ads work hard at spotlighting sellers with reliable reputations, but always do your due diligence before sending your money to a stranger.
For people who rely on screen readers, like it or not, JAWS remains the standard in the workplace. Security-minded employers will not be so welcoming of open source options. Learn the screen reader well. No matter how much you think you know about driving the product, I assure you there is a lot more you can do with it. Pay to keep it updated, and take time to work new features into your workflow. You will find even the most trivial feature will make your life a little easier.
Second, find the time to learn the nuances of those applications most common to the workplace. Become proficient at Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, and Edge. When I say “learn,” I mean doing more than just the basics. Learn how to use the Google equivalents, and when you encounter the inevitable accessibility glitch, learn how to communicate the problem to the respective accessibility departments.
The problem with learning technology is not that it’s too hard. The challenge is breaking tasks into smaller pieces to make learning manageable. Regardless of how you equip yourself, understand technology is essential to life across all your personal, educational, and professional endeavors. You will never be barred from a seat at the table if you learn how to leverage technology to get your point across.
Yes, the accessibility issues are real. Some days you will feel irritated that a sighted person can do in five minutes what it takes you half an hour. Take a moment to feel the feelings. Ask for help when necessary, and move on. These hurdles are rarely solved overnight. Don’t become complacent with the status quo, but don’t let the status quo hold you back. A week from now you will have likely forgotten what irritated you about this website or that application.
Own Your Financial Base
One of the hardest realizations that dawned on me as a young adult was the simple truth that the world does not care about you as an individual. It’s almost laughable considering how many of us move through life wondering what people will think. Those who bother to notice will quickly be distracted by the next tweet, the next date, the next errand, the next campaign.
Listen, I am not suggesting people are incapable of empathy. I hope you’ve had the privilege of meeting one of the many people in the world who are generous with their time and wallet, but get comfortable with the reality that no one will ever be a bigger champion for your needs than you. That includes your family.
In fact, one of the hardest things my father ever told me as a child was to prepare myself, because one day he would die. I would need to learn how to make it without him. As a kid, I thought his words rather dismal. Now, I am grateful.
After high school, it’s every person for themselves. Some of you probably grew up in a broken home and likely grew up even faster. As a blind person, the uphill climb will be steeper than most.
By now you’re probably wondering if I suffer from manic depression. … I don’t.
Do I hate the world? … I can’t.
But let me frame it for you this way. If I were to lose my job tomorrow, I can’t venture out and work cash registers, drive Ubers, or make deliveries to make up for the sudden deficit the way my sighted peers can. I could flip burgers, wash dishes, pour coffee, clean bathrooms, and make beds with the best of them, but until blindness is normalized, I would find it hard to get a quick job.
Because to the employer, I am a liability.
I’m not suggesting blind people have never worked in the service industry. But, let’s keep it real. A person with low vision who can still easily distinguish currency is going to have an easier time than someone who is totally blind.
I’m also not suggesting it is impossible. If my family depended on my bringing money home, and if I indeed lost my job, you bet I would be hitting the streets looking for a way to legally provide for my family.
Too many blind people feel ashamed of working in the so-called blindness field. There are facilities that have unfairly earned a negative connotation, not just in the general public, but among the blindness community itself. If you have children, your first responsibility is providing for them. You might need to spend time at a job you don’t care for. You won’t be the first to make such a sacrifice, and this job does not have to be your last. If you live in the United States, consider yourself fortunate there is a job for you at all. There are countries where, as a blind person, you would be lucky to be an afterthought.
I am proud of the thousands of blind people who are earning a paycheck. I am adamantly opposed to sweatshops that pay subminimum wages to persons with disabilities, but if you are earning a fair wage and contributing your share of taxes, don’t let anyone make you feel like less of a person. You are working too hard to have your dignity questioned by someone who isn’t paying your bills.
Yes, one day I want to see you running the facility. Never stop educating yourself. Use resources like Hadley and Khan Academy to grow your skill set. I always want to hear about my fellow blind brothers and sisters pushing the conventional envelope, but my ambition is not your ambition. I do care that you are controlling your own direction. If you are content to stay where you are for the rest of your life, more power to you, but let this decision be your choice, not your surrender.
Regardless of the size of your paycheck, it is imperative you set up an emergency fund. Financial education is important for everyone, but until the job market dramatically changes, it is especially important for blind people to learn to become financially independent. I don’t want you to feel stranded if you were to lose your job. We cannot count on social services to provide a safety net forever, and even now these services may not be enough to see you through.
If you live in the United States, live on a fixed income, and need to save money without penalty, consider looking into Able accounts to build up your emergency fund.
When it comes to life twists, it is rarely a question of “if.” It is a question of “when.” Build yourself up to ride out the storm. As a blind person, the hurdle will feel tougher than most. You are your best resource. Prepare yourself according to your abilities and circumstances. And, whatever you do, do not compare yourself to others. Remember, unless they’re paying for your rent or mortgage, their opinion should rank low on your caring scale.
The Burden of Responsibility
If my friend was right, if blind people are graduating schools with less than adequate preparation, do we blame the blind people? I’m torn on the point. It would be easy to say every person reaches that moment in life when they ought to be able to distinguish between what they are doing and what they could be doing. Also, too often we look past secondary disabilities that compound a person’s challenges. Stumbling down that path leads to too many variables, so for now at least, let’s concentrate on a few common denominators.
It is incumbent on educators to do everything they can to prepare blind students for the rigors of the real world. Yes, this means teaching Braille at an early age. Yes, this means teaching proper orientation and mobility technique. Yes, if the instruction is not being received at home, this means exposing the student to fundamental home management skills, even if it means sending the student to a weekend or summer program designed to deliver these lessons.
I had a teacher in elementary school who would periodically set time aside to teach students how to make basic meals using basic appliances. Teachers who do not go that far are not failures. They barely get paid enough as it is, but teachers who stretch themselves are unsung heroes who will never be properly compensated for the world of good they are bestowing.
It also means teaching the student the most valuable skill of all: self-advocacy. The same teacher who taught me to make a grilled cheese sandwich in the third grade had me ordering my own library books from the state library to complete book reports. It was my responsibility throughout K-12 to ask for materials to be provided in time to have them embossed or have the audio content shipped. I was fortunate to have excellent teachers in my life, men and women who never failed to demonstrate their personal interest in my success, but they were consistently clear that the responsibility of ensuring everyone was talking to each other was squarely on me. These strategies went a long way in preparing me to advocate for myself in college and later in my professional career.
It is important for rehabilitation counselors to demand the best of their clients. I am against consumers receiving equipment or financial assistance for education unless the client can articulate exactly why the service is needed. Hiding behind perpetual education is not unique to the blind, but when most states struggle with limited resources, it is not unreasonable for a person to put skin in the game. This is not only good preparation for the real world; this is one great example of living in it. Sometimes, the answer has to be no.
Mind you, this is no excuse for poor assistance. If the consumer has a valid reason for needing to advance their studies, we should do what we can to support their ambition. There has to be an objective formula for making that determination so that decisions are not based on personal assumptions.
I have a softer spot for parents. Teachers and blindness professionals intentionally choose their profession and receive enough training to know what they’re getting into. Parents don’t get a manual. All they have is a primal instinct to protect their children. I have a sighted daughter and am just as protective of her as I would be of a blind child. Nevertheless, there are things parents of blind children can do to contribute to their preparation.
- Expect them to complete chores the same as sighted children.
- Do not be afraid to keep the bar high.
- Be open to Braille instruction at an early age.
- Accept that alternative techniques can only enhance your child’s self-sufficiency.
- Anticipate a future where your child could lose all their sight and prepare them accordingly.
- Find opportunities for your child to engage with other blind children.
- Find equal opportunities for your child to mingle with sighted peers.
- Take an active role in your child’s individual education plan.
- Do not shelter them from the typical obstacles common to all children and adolescents.
If, as parents, we do what we can to raise informed and well-adjusted blind children, they stand a good chance of making it far in this world.
Finally, as voices for the community, consumer groups have an important role in opening new doors for tomorrow’s blind people. We need to be doing more to integrate our fellow blind people in the general job market, and that does not start with blind driver challenges. Blind people are not exclusively kept out of jobs because they can’t drive themselves there. We’re being kept out of jobs, because the general public still questions whether or not we can do the work. And you know what? Sometimes we can’t.
Accessibility at the consumer end of the spectrum is outpacing accessibility on the productivity front. We need to create partnerships that open internships that lead to full-time job opportunities, but equally important, we need to double up our efforts to engage the major software developers that power the workplace. It’s going to do little good to bring people into job roles they cannot fulfill.
Progress? Sure, we’ve made progress in making it easier for blind people to interact with a world designed for the sighted. Older generations likely shake their heads at how easier it is to get through college as a blind student. I can’t hate the world, because life has gotten a little easier. But the work is far from over.
Until the workplace does a better job of integrating people with disabilities, blind people are not playing on an even field. If blind people cannot enjoy the same employment opportunities, blind people are not enjoying a good quality of life. Being laid off is detrimental to anyone who experiences it, but I am of the opinion that it would hit a blind person harder.
This does not remove the burden of responsibility from blind people to meet the world halfway. There is a lot we cannot control, but our attitudes, our skill set, and entrepreneurial spirits are well within our power to adjust to make the best of a work in progress. There are too many examples of people exceling in a variety of fields to believe their accomplishments are anomalies. The challenge is creating more of these examples so that achievements like gainful employment are the norm, not the exception.