Mavericks and Lucky Breaks

This is a blog about two truly remarkable blind people. The first is a friend in Maryland who has taught high school for thirty years. Gary is one of those rare people who just radiates class. He is the kind of teacher that every parent hopes for their child and the kind of person every student wants to have as their instructor.

When he won an award as one of the outstanding teachers in his county, his principal said, “My son will tell you today that in his high school career and undergraduate work he never had a teacher he admired more. Gary knew his students as individuals and cared about them as individuals. He knew what their interests were and kept them highly motivated.” He added, “Latin is not usually a popular course, but it is because of Gary.”

With a master’s degree in Classics from Penn. State, Gary has primarily taught French and Latin and even tutored a few students in classic Greek. Since his “retirement,” he has been asked to teach some introductory Spanish and Russian at a local college.

I’m telling this story because, although I’ve known Gary for almost thirty years, I only recently learned he had been unemployed for the first two years after graduation. Even then, full-time employment came about as the result of what Gary describes as “a lucky break, a school needing to fill a position at the last-minute and being desperate enough to take a chance on him.” This is an exceptionally accomplished man who came perilously close to being chronically unemployed for life.

Sadly, this is far from an uncommon story for a great many blind and visually impaired adults.

A few statistics will serve to illustrate.
* The commonly accepted unemployment figure for people who meet the legal definition of blindness is 70%. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, the majority of people included in this definition can see something; society typically thinks of them as just having really poor vision, however. The 70% figure does not include people who have become discouraged from finding employment and stopped looking, and the 30% employment figure includes a large number of people who are only employed part-time. The number of people who are part-time and would like full-time employment is almost certainly far greater than in the general population.
* By comparison, the unemployment rate at the depth of the 2007-09 “great recession” was 10%.
* Contrast this with the average unemployment rate during the Great Depression, the worst economic period in American history, of 17.1%.

There are several reasons accounting for the discrepancies in these rates.
* The unemployment rates are probably always going to be higher for the blind population simply because there are a significant number of potential jobs that just require vision. There’s no way around it. There will never be much demand for blind surgeons or airplane pilots.
* A large percentage of jobs take it for granted that transportation to and from the job is not an issue. Being able to get back and forth to work for someone who is blind is, however, a very big deal. Probably, only one job in a hundred is even feasible to get to for a blind person. If this seems like an exaggeration, calculate how many job postings you could economically access without a car.
* Lack of entry-level experience is a barrier to the job market. Working as a sales clerk or delivering pizzas allows you to learn valuable job skills that you can then draw on while working your way up the employment ladder. It is extremely rare for the blind teen-ager or college student to have comparable opportunities.
* Like any other group in the job market, some people simply aren’t qualified. To be frank, there are visually impaired people who don’t have a good work ethic, lack the requisite job skills, or have a poor attitude.
* Discrimination. Someone somewhere along the way has to be willing to give you an opportunity. Such opportunities, sadly, are rare. When you meet someone who is “successful,” to be sure, they have done a lot of things themselves to enable that to happen, but it’s also almost certain that they’ve been lucky. As I remember someone saying years ago, “I’m sick of people telling me how ‘amazing’ or ‘inspirational’ I am. If I’m truly amazing and inspirational, give me the opportunity to prove it with a job.”

Let me conclude by talking about that other remarkable person I promised when I began. Kathy is not reluctant to talk about her struggles when she began as a new high-school teacher. Students took advantage of her blindness. Classroom discipline was frequently a problem, her classroom was often chaotic, and she wondered if she were even qualified to teach. However, she stuck with it, changing those things she needed to change and learning to have confidence in those things she was good at. Two years ago, she was selected the Indiana teacher of the year and one of the four finalists for the national teacher of the year award. As she is quick to say, none of this would have been possible if her principal weren’t a “maverick” and willing to give a chance to a blind applicant.

These are heart-warming stories, but ones that leaves you wondering how many Garys and Kathys there are who have never been given the opportunity by being fortunate enough to encounter a potential employer who was a maverick willing to give them a lucky break. They were not asking for equality, only opportunity.

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