Employers are not social workers



Self-esteem is tied very deeply to seeking employment. You already know that 70% of all people with vision impairments in this country are either under-employed or unemployed. Since higher education and/or technical training is provided to almost all adults with vision loss the high rate of unemployment is not due to the lack of qualifications. To talk about employment and people with visual impairments we have to think of it like the petals of a flower. There are several different issues (like the petals) which are separate, but connected to one stem. All the petals relate to the self-esteem of the blind person.

In order to give you a feeling for what happens when a person with a visual impairment looks for work I am going to share a personal story which happened a while ago. In this situation I am the employer, not the employee. I am giving you a reverse mirror so you can feel this from the side of the employer as well as the employee.

I joined the fitness center here on campus. One of the services it offers is access to a personal fitness trainer at a low cost. The price is low because we are hiring college students who are training to become fitness trainers as part of an undergraduate degree. I filled out my paperwork and paid my fees.

After a significant amount of time had gone by I inquired why I hadn't heard anything since I was told this program would begin the third week of the semester. The person I communicated with contacted the head of the program and what I found out is that no one was assigned to me. The reason no one was assigned to me is because it was determined that I would be more of a challenge to work with since I don't see. The interesting part of this is that the information was not communicated to me directly. It came to me through a very circuitous route.

Now remember that in this story I am the employer, not the employee. Finding out that I am regarded to be too much of a risk to work with a student pulled me right into feeling rejected and angry. Once again I am being told that it takes more effort to accommodate me than anyone else who signed up for this program.

Let's go through this step by step. I signed up and paid my money. The initial contact I spoke to had no issue with me requesting this service. My paperwork (with the information on it that I am blind) went to the head of the trainer program who has never spoken to me.Based on his or her own nervousness about my possible liability the program director chose to do nothing at all. The director did not send back my paperwork or my check, just simply ignored the whole situation. This leaves me in the position of having to make a choice to either push this a bit or let it go while still having unresolved feelings of rejection.

What I just described is a very common scenario in employment. Before we move to unpack this setup some more I want to show you how I resolved it for myself. First I will ask for my check back to make sure this event is complete. The trickier piece is to address the feelings of rejection. If I don't complete them somehow the next time something like this crops up another layer of self-rejection will be heaped on top of this one and I will just feel worse.

What I did was chart my way through my feelings and make sure there isn't anything more to this that I should notice. Once I was sure I knew how I felt I made a conscious decision to let the feelings of rejection go because I know that this episode brought up some older stuff in addition to the fresh feelings. After that I made a final conclusion about this event. My conclusion was that I don't need the services of a personal fitness trainer right now. The exercising I am doing is enough and if I do want to work with a trainer in the future I will attract someone who will be ready to work with me. As we have said before building self-esteem is a lifelong activity. It plays out the most obviously in the search for employment, but it is on-going for all of us.

Employment and the Americans with Disabilities Act

You may have noticed in the news that more and more decisions are being challenged on how the Americans with Disabilities Act is to function in the United States. I think this is happening because the American view of what a disability consists of is shifting a lot right now. The main shift we can contribute to in the vision profession is to complete the view that people's experience of vision loss is a lifelong problem. To assist blind people in resolving the feelings that there is something wrong with them and that people have to go an extra mile to make sure that their survival is in place is a major gift to everyone involved in the vision profession.

There is much technology and many techniques, which support the full inclusion of people with visual impairments now available, and a lot of their impact has already worked their way into mainstream society. To implement services from the perspective that vision loss can be adjusted to and incorporated into a person's well-being could create a new way of operating in the rehabilitation system.

To get back to my story you can see that the seeds of how an employer feels about hiring people with disabilities are present here. You may know that employers are offered incentives for hiring people with disabilities as employees. Also, at least in our field, employers do not have to provide too much in the way of accommodation at the work site because the local commission will usually do an assessment and provide training and technology to insure the person's success on the job.

Employers are not social workers

One thing that many younger blind people don't seem to realize is that employers are not social workers. Because most of us enter the rehabilitation system fairly early we grow used to communicating in the style of the social service model. This can be emphasized even more when an employment counselor works with us to find employment. Because younger blind people are used to communicating with social service people they often don't realize that employers are out there to earn money and they want to hire people to assist with that pursuit. Blind people may approach employers thinking that the person who is hiring would be happy to rearrange their work space to accommodate them. It's understandable since that is what most people with visual impairments are used to having done in a medical or academic setting.

From the employer's side of life they often feel they give enough to charity and that there is no need to take a risk on hiring a blind person when there are so many other people looking for work which won't require any form of accommodation or take up any of the employer's attention.

Employers are just like the person in my story who decided not to assign me a trainer because of his or her own nervousness about my capacity to work with a student. People's imagination can go wild in these situations and some times it is just not possible to make a change even if you challenge someone in a positive way.

Disclosing our disability to an employer

Since people with visual impairments have to deal with the social aspects of job seeking we talk among ourselves about when to tell a potential employer that we don't see well. I used to tell the recruiter in my cover letter. This didn't work very well and I finally realized that I was setting myself up with the expectation that I was going to be rejected so I wanted to get it out of the way immediately. Most blind people wait until they are called for the initial interview to let the employer know their situation. I drop it in when I find a good opening. Some blind people never tell the interviewer anything before they arrive for the interview.

I asked a friend of mine who is an employment recruiter in the computer industry how she felt about people mentioning their disability in the cover letter. She said that she would rather not be told the person has a disability in a cover letter because it lowers the risk of being accused of discriminating against the individual. This shows you that there is a streak of fear all the way around.

Another petal for us to consider is that many blind people don't have much awareness of what normal experience is in seeking employment. Since it gets reinforced that our life experience is very different from the people around us we often never learn that everyone gets frustrated by the job search and many of the feelings that blind people have are the same as everyone else's.

I present workshops on developing social skills for employment training. I do them for the Perkins Outreach Program every year or so. I offer these trainings because I feel that one of the main reasons people with visual impairments aren't more successful in finding work is because they don't have very well developed social skills. Since having self-esteem contributes significantly to one's social skills and the social skills help create good self-esteem, they are very integral to everyone's success in life.

The main thing I talk about is how to handle the conversation about an individualís level of sight. Many people with visual impairments are conditioned into answering all kinds of personal questions about their level of vision. This comes both from the medical model if their vision loss has medical consequences and from the people around them who ask intrusive questions.

Employers are not allowed to ask anything about how a person became blind, but they can ask how a blind person will be able to do the job they are applying for if vision is needed to accomplish it. It is much better to get the conversation about your vision out on the table and how you will handle the work load. Partly because you will feel more in charge of the conversation if you set the boundaries on what will be discussed regarding your blindness and also because a lot of employers donít know the rules about discussing a disability. By bringing up your vision loss at the right time you can demonstrate your willingness to communicate about your life circumstances as well as show the perspective employer that you have thought about the position and can address his or her questions.

The other thing I recommend to an individual with vision loss is to comment on some of the assets the person has gained from his or her experience of being blind and how she or he will apply those useful skills to the job. This re-shapes the experience of blindness for the individual and presents the employer with some new information to consider when hiring the person.