Disabled not making gains they should

Unemployment remains high despite tight labor market

THE SIGNS BROADCAST from storefronts: HELP WANTED.  The federal government says we have achieved “full employment,” that there are currently more jobs than people.  The news media reports on particular segments of the economy where a shortage of workers is threatening price stability and further economic growth.

These should be banner days for those in the business of helping people with disabilities achieve independence through employment.

They’re not.

People with disabilities are experiencing only slight gains in employment from the depths of the Great Recession.  Only 28 percent of people with vision loss who are of working age were actually working in 2015, according to the National Federation of the Blind.

The reason for the chronic unemployment situation for these individuals is not because they do not want to work, because they are, in fact, very eager to work.

It is not because they are unable to work.  Technology has blown the door wide open on the types of jobs that individuals who are blind are capable of holding.  New iPhone applications and broader web accessibility are providing the opportunities for people with blindness to return to work in large numbers.

The greatest barrier is that many organizations have not fully embraced hiring people with disabilities.  They fear such hires will come with a costly bevy of accommodations and that integrating such individuals into their workforce will be difficult.

Our experience in providing vocational support shows quite the opposite.  Often the accommodations are minor or have minimal costs.  Most buildings today meet the Americans with Disabilities Act standards and do not require retrofitting.  Software to make computers usable by those with a visual impairment are inexpensive as well.

We see time and again that people with disabilities turn out to be the best workers in their cohort.  They are conscientious and strive to succeed, because they know they are appreciative to have a position and because expectations will be heightened as some may question their ability to work.

Timothy Vernon, for example, doesn’t let blindness interfere with his career.  As one of the top customer service representatives for Eversource, the regional energy provider, Tim credits his success with a belief in hard work, perseverance, and the orientation and mobility training he received from the Carroll Center.  He learned to use JAWS (Job Access With Speech), a computer screen reader program for Microsoft Windows.  On his desk he keeps a binder of prepared scripts in braille to use when responding to customers’ concerns, and he totes a braille note taker to meetings.  For its part, Eversource provided additional training for Tim so that he is on an equal playing field with his colleagues.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month – the perfect time for CEOs and HR directors to review their policies to ensure that they are fostering inclusion in the workplace.

Tough questions need to be asked, such as: “Why are we employing so few people with disabilities?” “What can we do to change our policies so that they promote inclusion?”

When adults receive a diagnosis informing them that they are losing their vision, it can be devastating news.  Many become depressed and feel isolated and helpless.  This is due in large part to the fact that employment options for persons who are visually impaired traditionally have been so limited.

If we were still struggling with unemployment in the high single digits, then employment for people with disabilities would naturally become – as it has in the past – a backburner issue.

The White House announced earlier this month that unemployment hit its lowest rate in nearly 50 years.  This pronouncement should serve as a motivation for business owners and hiring managers to embrace a more inclusive approach toward recruitment of persons with disabilities.

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities can no longer be justified.  We have the technology and the jobs to lower it.  And we have a corps of eager, hardworking individuals ready for the chance to work.

Meet the Author

Greg Donnelly

President and CEO, Carroll Center for the Blind, Newton
Let’s do it now.

Greg Donnelly is president and CEO of The Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton.  The nonprofit organization – along with the Perkins School for the Blind, the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, and the National Braille Press – will co-sponsor the 8th annual Job Fair for Individuals with Visual Impairments on Oct. 17 at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.  For more information, visit this web page.