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Why The Blind Don't Have Proper Jobs

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Sara Bennett has recently graduated from a Rehabilitation Teacher training program at Mohawk College. She lives in Brampton, and writes poetry, fiction and blindness-related articles.

"Why do none of your blind friends have proper jobs?"

My reaction was probably very similar to yours when someone recently asked me that very question. My inquirer was sighted, and he had asked me that before. What was his point? That I don't have a proper job? That I have lazy, underachieving friends? Or was it something more political, like trying to get at the root societal cause for unemployment among people who are blind?

My concern was twofold--separating my friends who are blind from those who are sighted, and how my inquirer was defining a "proper job." My investigation into these matters led me to write this article. When I told my inquirer that the unemployment rate for the blind hovers around 70%, he was flabbergasted. Did he think that only my friends were under- or unemployed?

When I outlined the jobs of my acquaintances (computer programming, piano tuning, office work, rehabilitation, and massage therapy among them), these were discounted as stereotypical employment for the blind. They weren't proper jobs. I suppose that means that stereotypical jobs held by others also amount to improper employment. I know of some vision-impaired people who are unstereotypically occupied as lawyers, doctors, teachers etc., but not within my immediate group of friends. Besides, they're few and far between, according to my inquirer. I was starting to feel frustrated. Apparently, musicians and writers don't count either.

A "proper job", according to my inquirer, is one that is non-stereotypical, steady (forty hours per week, year in and year out), well-paying (income exceeds expenses by an undefined but wide margin), and promising in terms of advancement. Well, I thought, that rules out many jobs held by the sighted. Those that are part-time, contract, minimum wage and/or dead-end shouldn't count either. It seems, however, that they do in my inquirer's view.

Non-disabled students, furthermore, were excused from being under- or unemployed, but legally blind students were accused of studying impractical and irrelevant courses, or of intentionally avoiding employment by pursuing education. Do you sense the double standards here?

By talking discreetly with friends and through my rehabilitation teacher training, I discovered some of the following factors that contribute to our occupational circumstances

Health Increasingly, conditions like cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and diabetes are accompanied by vision loss, and employment may be impractical or undesirable. Certain eye conditions and functional vision ability may preclude working in particular environments because of lighting, colour contrast, clutter, etc.

Practical Concerns Here, I include the basics: orientation and mobility, transportation, adaptive equipment, the acquisition of requisite skills/education, etc. Cost, time, availability and even confidence are issues here.

Experience I'm not just talking about job experience here, although that is important. We hear often of people in the general public who cannot acquire work due to inexperience. More basic here is concept development and variety of experience, especially in younger years. Not "seeing" others at work or working oneself can mean unfamiliarity with job categories, required qualifications and strategies to search for, acquire and retain employment. If one has minimal volunteer or part-time work experience when young, one also tends to lack concrete knowledge of one's own skills, talents, interests, etc.

Barriers I include here attitudinal, psychological and systemic disincentives. Over the years we've heard about societal and employer concerns about integrating people with disabilities. Cost and ignorance are often the issue. Disability benefits may also be a disincentive to work if it means lower income and loss of drug/dental coverage.

Receiving less airplay are the barriers erected, intentionally or unintentionally, by family, friends and persons with a vision impairment themselves. "Superman" and "loser" views of people who are blind exist. By overprotecting or pushing people to almost overachieve, we continue to foster unrealistic perceptions of who individuals with a vision impairment are or what they can and can not do.

There are confidence and self-esteem issues. Depression and fear of the unknown are sometimes disabling. Also, a sort of learned helplessness may set in when a vision-impaired person has tried to do something and failed. This is true, of course, for other people too.

Like other people, some people who are blind don't want to work. That is more their personality than their disability.

Considering the factors above, some people find possible employment a hassle.

Employment Market Sometimes economic factors are a hindrance to employment, just as they are for the general public. I know of individuals who have been laid off, who are qualified but cannot find work because employers are not hiring in their field.

I have discovered after reflecting hard on the employment issue that the interplay between underlying factors is complicated and difficult to deconstruct. It's too easy to give up when things don't work out or when we feel like we're banging our heads against the proverbial wall. If we do throw up our hands, however, who will educate society (and ourselves) about our potential and competence? Who will dismantle the prejudice and double standards? Education through integration, mixed with a strong dose of motivation and persistence, seem to be the way to go. I don't have a simple answer for the high unemployment rate within the blind community, but I can say to my inquirer and others that many do have jobs, "proper" or not, and that is a start. Our achievements and willingness to confront challenges should be acknowledged and commended, whether they result in employment or not. Getting "out there," whenever and wherever possible, using adaptive techniques when necessary, may open society's eyes and confirm to ourselves that we can find a niche and that we do belong. Perhaps then employment rates will rise.

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