Graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor of arts degree in economics from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., in 1983, Kirk Adams expected to find a bright future awaiting him. The recession of the preceding years was quickly becoming a distant memory and the bright, articulate young man was eager to make his mark on the world.
However, Adams found employment offers elusive. Prospective employers responded enthusiastically to his applications and phone interviews went well, but once they met him in person, employers quickly lost interest. It was pretty clear what was giving them pause: Adams is blind.
Realizing that hiring managers were taken aback by his white cane and use of Braille, Adams adopted a new tactic. He included the fact that he had been blind since age 5 in his cover letters, then went on to explain the tools he uses and how they would enable him to do the job. The requests for phone interviews stopped altogether. After several more months of frustration, Adams was able to secure a job at a small brokerage firm where a fellow Whitman College economics alum was sales manager.
Since 2016, Adams has served as president and CEO of the Arlington, Va.-based American Foundation for the Blind. His primary goal is to ensure that today’s young blind people don’t face the same challenges as they attempt to enter the world of work. Unfortunately, he says, nearly 35 years since he graduated from college, things haven’t changed all that much. Only 35% of working-age blind adults are in the workforce, either employed or seeking employment. The rest have given up.
“Employers don’t have the basic exposure to know that blind people have been taught specialized skills and there are specialized technologies that allow them to function in today’s workplace as efficiently and effectively as a sighted person,” says Adams. “Among those who do find employment, it’s typically at the lower end of the salary range. As a result, one-third of blind people live in poverty, and their rate of homeownership is just one-tenth that of the general population.”
The rapid advancement of assistive technologies has “leveled the playing field” for people who are blind, allowing them to “seamlessly perform most jobs as well as a sighted person,” according to Kevin Lynch, president and CEO of the National Industries for the Blind in Arlington, Va. However, employers often assume such technologies are prohibitively expensive, when the cost is often nominal, he says.
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For Alphapointe, a Kansas City, Mo.-based nonprofit specializing in providing services and employment to the blind, adaptive technologies enable its more than 200 blind employees to perform tasks in manufacturing, assembly, warehousing and product fulfillment that many people would never think possible. According to Amy Campbell, vice president of human resources, there’s a need to eliminate assumptions about blind people in the workplace.
“A lot of people think, ‘These poor blind people … ’ ” she explains. “They are not poor blind people unless that’s the way you treat them.”
Aside from providing them with the necessary adaptive equipment, Alphapointe treats its blind employees the same as its sighted ones. Independence is key.
“We don’t provide transportation or anything that any other employer would or wouldn’t provide for our blind employees,” says Campbell. “This is a real job. You’ve got to come to work on time and do your job every day. If you don’t, you risk losing your job, just like anywhere else.”
The fear of litigation over firing a blind employee is another reason employers can be hesitant to bring them on board, says Adams. However, organizations are often surprised to find that blind employees bring unique skills and perspectives to the workplace, perform equal to or better than their sighted counterparts and help create a positive working environment with improved morale among co-workers and customers, he says.
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From their first day on the job, Alphapointe strives to help the sighted portion of its workforce relate to their blind colleagues. During new-hire orientation, they watch a video on how to interact with blind people, stressing things like not grabbing a blind person by the arm, but respecting their personal space. Each of Alphapointe’s 160 sighted employees has also gone through sensitivity training that shows them what it’s like to be visually impaired.
“We have different goggles that show them what it’s like to have glaucoma or retinitis pigmentosa or other visual impairments,” says Campbell. “We put sleep shades on to navigate the workplace and then we go outside and cross the street in front of our building. It allows people to get a real perspective of what some folks do every day.”
As the shortage of talent continues, Lynch urges employers to take a second look at blind and visually impaired individuals. Not only are they just as qualified as sighted people, he says, but they positively impact the workplace in different ways. “Hiring people with visual impairments increases overall workforce diversity and offers new and different perspectives on business challenges and opportunities.”