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Dearth of Jobs For The Blind

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Malaysia Star, September 5, 2004.

When he graduated from Universiti Malaya in 1996 with a degree in social management, Rosmadi M. felt that he had the world at his feet. Eight years on, he is simply glad to have a job to go to.

"After I graduated, I registered with the MAB (Malaysian Association for the Blind) under their work placement programme, and this is what they could find for me," says the telephone operator at a local private corporation. "I did not use my degree qualification but my Higher Education Certificate (STPM) instead. Although the company knows about my degree qualification now, they have not approached me about it."

He relates that, although he has applied for the Public Service Certificate or Sijil Perkhidmatan Awam (SPA) for eligibility to enter the civil service, and registered with the Labour Department, nothing has come of it.

"The SPA is only valid for a year and I have been renewing it for years; now I don't even bother, I am very fed-up," he shrugs dejectedly, adding that the dearth of jobs that is commensurate with their qualifications is a common problem for blind graduates.

"That is why many join the teaching profession, even if they are not interested, as they have so few choices. I too have received teaching offers but I am not interested," he says.

According to MAB president, Prof Datuk Dr Ismail Md Salleh, about 50 to 60% of blind graduates in the country end up in menial jobs, while 30% are unemployed.

"Many become masseurs, telephone operators and direct sales people. If they had wanted to do those jobs, they wouldn't have wasted their time going to university."

This, he notes, occurs with the 1% quota of jobs reserved for the disabled as imposed by the government, "but not even 0.5% is filled and the government itself is not committed to it. For example, the Human Resource Ministry does not have many disabled employees. They should hire the disabled so that the department can understand their needs and problems better."

MAB placement officer, Zainuddin Jasmi, concurs.

"About 70% of the job opportunities for the blind are in the private sector, while only 30% are in the government sector," he reveals.

At MAB there is a training centre, and once they finish their training, the association tries to get them a placement and then provide follow-up support. Training ranges from telephonist skills to handiwork and I.T. (information technology) skills.

"The training is specialized; for example, to be a telephonist, you'd need good communication skills and proficiency in English."

But sometimes, the negative perception of employers turns out to be the biggest barrier.

According to Zainuddin, prospective employers worry about matters such as who should provide transport or accommodation for the blind worker, and who will be responsible for safety at work.

Echoing this, Rosmadi shares, "Employers seem to have a stereotype of the blind; they don't look at their hard-earned qualifications. Their idea of empathizing is to close their eyes to get a feel of darkness, and they conclude it must be difficult for the blind to do their work, whereas in reality the darkness experienced by the blind is completely different."

Such discouragement becomes infectious and leads the job seeker to develop an inferiority complex.

Prof Ismail adds that the feeling is more acute in graduates, "A degree is seen as the key to a better life and a lot of expectation and hope is pinned on that, so when that falls through, you can imagine how they feel. It's also a waste of resources for the country as the blind have a lot to contribute."

So concerned is the MAB in helping the situation that it is even willing to underwrite the salary of the blind for six months if people out there are willing to hire them.

"This is the only way to convince the employers that the blind can work and, once they have got used to the idea, perhaps they will not be prejudiced."

Another strategy that MAB is looking into is internship programmes, where MAB pays RM600 to undergraduates to work on an attachment basis in the corporate sector.

Despite such incentives, however, employers are still slow to hire. Says Prof Ismail, "Perhaps it is time for a review; prospective employers could be offered a choice of the stick or the carrot, to ensure the blind get hired."

Exposure is another matter, says Mohd Nizam Baharon, 28, an Economics lecturer at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), who shares that even the university had a problem before hiring him.

"They were clueless as to how I went about living my normal life, and asked how they could meet my needs at work," says the partially blind academic who has been with the university for about two years.

The university has been cooperative though, he adds, as they provide a resource assistant and a voice synthesizer for his computer.

His head of department, Assoc Prof Dr Rokiah Alavi, shares that Mohd Nizam was hired for his academic abilities.

"At the university we do not think that physical disability will be a hindrance to anyone to perform. We hired Mohd Nizam because he is sharp, and the students all love him," she says, adding that the university has not had to spend much to accommodate him.

Zainuddin shares that the MAB is very close to the industry and tries to include industry players in its placement committee.

"This is the best way to expose them to the issue while getting them to commit to the cause. Committee members include representatives from the Human Resources Ministry, the labour department, Education Ministry and corporate members."

MAB also have strong links with the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF).

Nevertheless, he agrees that there is so much more to be done to raise the awareness of employers.

"Many think that they would have to spend millions to make their office blind-friendly, but it depends on the job, and most of the time all they need to spend on is a voice synthesizer or brailler, which comes up to RM3,000 each. There is even an equipment loan scheme for prospective employers."

He admits that there are companies which refuse to even listen to their perspective and give the blind a chance. However, he is also of the opinion that it is the individual's responsibility to improve his or her circumstance. He admits that some of the blind are choosy about what job they accept, or do not push themselves hard enough.

Prof Ismail advises blind students to keep trying.

"It is difficult to penetrate the employment market, even teaching was closed to the blind until the 90's; but they found out that, given the opportunity, the blind can perform extremely well," he said.

As for Rosmadi, he is not one to give up but has more or less accepted his fate, "I've already expected this, so I am not too disappointed. But people have to realize that the blind are independent, and with technology they can do many things."

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