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Do You Work?

People who study this sort of thing report that the most important question and the one that is most frequently asked when people first meet is “What do you do?” This is useful information when trying to quickly decide if this is someone you want to know better or whether you need to start thinking of a tactful excuse to get away from this loser. There are other cultures where asking this when first meeting is considered extremely rude; however, in the U.S. this is part of the getting-to-know-you ritual.

If you’re meeting someone who is blind for the first time, interestingly enough, employment is not one of the first questions you are likely to ask. However, if the conversation progresses, long enough for the topic of employment to come up, it would not be unusual for the question to be phrased a bit differently: “Do you work?”

Every time this happens to me, I wince involuntarily and then remind myself that, for most people, this is not an unreasonable question. After all, a large majority of people who are blind don’t work.

The Department of Labor estimates that the unemployment rate for people who “report that they are blind or have serious difficulty seeing even when wearing glasses” is about 13%. This, however, doesn’t count all of those people who are unemployed and not looking for work. This is about 30% for the general population but almost 80% for people who are blind or visually impaired. Both the 30% and 80% figures include people who are in school, retired, caring for children at home, or, and this is the important part, discouraged from looking for a job. Expert believe that the majority of the blind and visually impaired population has simply given up looking.

It’s impossible to know for certain why so few blind people have jobs, but these are some of the reasons at the top of the list:

Difficulty locating job announcements. Because newspapers, web sites, and placement services primarily rely on getting the word out about jobs through visual media, it is frequently challenging to even know that a job is available. Computerization is a mixed blessing, sometimes making it easier to learn of job opportunities but, just as often, making it even more difficult than before. You can’t apply for what you don’t know about.

Transportation. The number of job opportunities, even if you knew about all of them, shrinks because you can only apply for positions you can get to. You might be lucky enough to get a ride with a co-worker, but that’s something of a long-shot and not something you can count on. Usually, it only makes sense to apply for a job you can walk to or get to by public transportation, again greatly limiting the pool of possibilities.

Limited work history. It’s the rare blind student who graduates with anything like a work history to match sighted peers. Most of the work experiences high-school and college students normally get to introduced them to the world of work (think restaurant servers, delivery, landscaping, etc.) are pretty much off limits to someone with little or no vision. Consequently, when it’s time to apply for a “real job,” the blind or visually impaired applicant frequently lacks a comparable work history and employment experiences.

Employer expectations. Awareness of the ADA and fear of the potential for the additional costs that might be associated with hiring a blind applicant are often the elephant in the room. All too frequently, otherwise well-meaning employers, having only a vague understanding of what the laws are and greatly overestimating the likelihood for litigation and additional expense to their business, opt to play it safe by not seriously considering the applicant who is blind or visually impaired.

All of this having been said, the pool of blind and visually impaired applicants probably contains at least as many people who aren’t suited for the job, don’t really want to work, or, alternatively, would make great employees but are simply passed over.


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