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Wary employers thwart prospects for visually impaired job seekers

Published: Mon, November 4, 2013 @ 12:15 a.m.


Maura Mazzocca attends a job fair for the visually impaired with the aid of volunteer guide Kate Loosian, left, at Radcliffe Yard in Cambridge, Mass., recently. The blind must overcome many hurdles in pursuit of full-time work.

Associated Press


Back in the late 1980s, when Maura Mazzocca was a human-resources administrator with a Boston-area firm, a blind man showed up to apply for a job. Today, she remembers the encounter ruefully.

“What I kept thinking about was, ‘How can this man work in a manufacturing company?’” Mazzocca recalled, saying she looked past his abilities and saw only his disability.

“I wish now I’d given him a chance.”

That reflectiveness is heartfelt. Mazzocca lost her own eyesight in 1994 through complications related to diabetes. Now as a job seeker herself, she knows firsthand the many hurdles the blind must overcome in pursuit of full-time work.

At a job fair last month for blind and low-vision people, she was going table to table, with a sighted volunteer by her side. Some of the other 80 job seekers carried white canes; a few had guide dogs.

Like the rest, Mazzocca was greeted with firm handshakes and encouraging words — but none of the employers she spoke with had job openings matching her interests and qualifications.

The venue was the former Radcliffe College gymnasium where Helen Keller exercised en route to becoming the first deaf/blind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree in 1904. Over the ensuing decades, Keller helped increase public awareness of blindness and empathy for those affected by it.

Yet blind people remain largely unwanted in the U.S. workplace, despite technological advances that dramatically boost their capabilities. Only about 24 percent of working-age Americans with visual disabilities had full-time jobs as of 2011, according to Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute.

“There’s a lot of stigma, a lot of obstacles,” said Mazzocca, 51. “It comes down to educating employers. ... It’s going to take a really long time, if ever, for them to see us for who we are and what we bring to the table.”

What they bring, according to national advocates for the blind, is a strong work ethic, plus deeper-than-average loyalty to their employers. That’s in addition to whatever talents and training they bring, just like any other applicant.

In the current economy, good jobs are hard to come by for anyone, even the sighted. But the blind face added challenges. Even employers professing interest in hiring blind people often don’t follow through out of concern that they might be a bit slower with key tasks or require assistance that could be burdensome.

In some cases, said Mazzocca, who has held professional jobs since she lost her sight, “They’re thinking, ‘What if I have to fire them? Will they sue me?’”

Many national and local organizations are working hard to change the equation, through a mix of outreach to employers, training and counseling for job seekers, and support for technological development. Though sometimes costly, there now are myriad devices and technologies that can convert computer text or printed pages into Braille or spoken words.

Still, the steadiest sources of jobs for many blind people are nonprofit organizations with missions related to blindness and other disabilities.

Among them is National Industries for the Blind, a network of 91 nonprofit agencies that collectively employ about 6,000 blind people. It recently conducted a survey of 400 hiring managers and human resource executives across the U.S.

The survey found 54 percent of hiring managers said there were few jobs at their company that blind employees could perform, 45 percent said accommodating such workers would require “considerable expense,” 42 percent said blind employees would need someone to help them on the job, and 34 percent said they were more likely to have work-related accidents than sighted employees.

“We’re having to deal with lots of misconceptions and myths,” said Kevin Lynch, CEO of National Industries for the Blind. “From that standpoint, the study was clearly disappointing, but it gives us the opportunity to find a way forward.”


1prescript2003(1 comment)posted 2 years, 7 months ago

As some of you look at my prescript 2003 profile, you will see what I had been doing. What we need to strive for is the instigmatation of blindness, because blindness is not a bad thing. It is of nature's choosing. We should also strive for more disability awareness education in the mainstream public schools and colleges on all levels.

We should be advocating for medical benefits for our assistive technology so that we have it in advance to educate our potential employers that we are in fact job worthy. We should also make sure that we are getting the appropriate rehabilitation services and the appropriate education services when one comes to the high school age, and that includes work experience, just as any other high school student, 16-years of age or older gets. And that also includes special needs schools and rehabilitation agencies working in collaboration with computer programmers and engineers to build universal designed features in things like newer model points of sales stations to allow for a blind person to work in a transaction at let's say, for instance, a supermarket or a major chain store like Target's, Wal Green's or Wal Mart.

Our legislators need to on the other hand make it perfectly clear that a disabled person just as well as any other person on a job can be fired if they are not performing the job as is directed or are engaging in unacceptable behavior, such as constantly looking up someone's clothing for example, or habitually physically touching some's body parts.

We also need to stride for more and better and reliable public transportation in our areas to get to and from work, schools and medical appointments. With that, entertainment will fall into place on its own, but, first we as a blind community must stand up for our rights to advocate for the most important things, such as access to medication labeling, just like anyone else, more efficient transportation, insurance benefits for our assistive technology to ease the burden off of our potential employers, medical transportation to get to and from medical appointments, as Para-Transit does not cut the mustard for medical appointments, because healthcare providers can and do run into emergencies, even during your appointment. I had had that happen. And with Para-Transit, one has to schedule times in advance as to when they need to picked up and dropped off, and with medical appointments, that does not always work and taxis can be very expensive.

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