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Learning About The Status of Blind Youth in Canada

Editor's Note: Dr. Deborah Gold is CNIB's Associate Director of Research, Dr. Alexander Shaw Senior Researcher, and Dr. Karen Wolffe is Director of Professional Development and CareerConnect at the American Foundation for the Blind. For further information on this study, visit: http://www.cnib.ca/eng/research/past-projects/youth-study.htm

Funded by CNIB and the Social Development Partnerships Program of Social Development Canada, the Youth Lifestyles Project was a comprehensive nationwide study aimed at learning more about the daily lives of youth who are blind or vision-impaired in the areas of employment, activities of daily living, social life and academics. We hoped that, by learning more about youth within each of these life domains, we could design more relevant services, provide information to government about the needs of blind young people, and provide a foundation for future social research in areas of concern to people who are blind or vision-impaired.

Three hundred and twenty blind or vision-impaired young people (ages 15-30) participated in a survey, consisting of questions tapping into each of the aforementioned domains.

Within the vocational domain, participants were asked questions about their past work history, current employment, work load (if they were currently employed) and the degree and types of assistance they required on the job. Within the social domain, we asked youth to describe their social networks and the kinds of activities they participated in with friends, as well as any obstacles they experienced. They were also asked to indicate their marital status and/or their dating/relationship experiences. In the academic domain, youth indicated their level of education, the type(s) of schools they attended (e.g., residential or non-residential), the degree of assistance they required to do their homework, and how they were faring in their classes. In the daily activities domain, youth reported on the types of activities they were able to perform, the degree of assistance they required for such activities as cooking meals or doing laundry, and whether they used any special adaptations to make this possible. They were also asked to indicate the extent to which their parents expected them to participate in these activities as they were growing up.

While all participants completed one basic type of survey (approximately 45 minutes long), fifty-one (51) participants also completed a long form of the questionnaire (approximately 1.5 hours), which contained additional detailed questions. We also asked some youth in the study to participate in in-depth interviews designed to probe more deeply into issues explored in the general surveys. Also, some youth participated in time diaries, where they were asked to report on the nature and types of activities they had been involved in over the previous day. The purpose of the time diaries was to learn more about how youth spent their time and whether inordinate amounts of time were used in performing particular activities such as travelling.

Two focus groups were held: one to help in the design of questions to be asked in the study, and the second to provide help in interpreting the results. Finally, a number of parents of youth who had participated in the study were asked to complete a survey to provide additional information on the lives of youth with vision impairments and to inquire into their experiences in raising a child with vision impairment.

Vocational Domain: Twenty-nine percent of youth reported that they were currently employed, which is highly consistent with the literature indicating that roughly 70% of vision-impaired persons in the United States are not gainfully employed. Figures for Canada are hard to come by, but appear to be similar. Among the employed participants, those who were partially sighted were more likely than blind participants to have worked for pay and were also more likely to be working for pay presently. This is also consistent with previous findings.

Thirty-seven percent of all the participants who were not currently working were actively looking for employment. However, when they were asked how much time they spent on a daily basis looking for work, 78% stated that they spent one hour or less per day on their job search activities (the lowest choice on the scale presented to them). Although blind and partially sighted participants were equally likely to report themselves as actively looking for work, the former group was more likely to say that they spent only one hour or less per day in their efforts. Participants who were blind were also more likely to report that they had not submitted a single employment application in the previous year and that they had not had an interview in the previous year.

It is interesting that many participants who claimed to be actively looking for work spent such a limited amount of time in job search-related activities, and that many of them had not submitted even a single application in the previous year. Of particular interest is whether youth with vision impairments understand that finding a job involves a number of different tasks including scanning job postings, networking, researching organizations, and further developing skills when necessary. Again, this raises two questions: Are young people aware of the different tasks involved in effectively searching for employment, and are youth adequately prepared for a broad range of employment options? Given that so many youth overall had not filled out an application or attended a job interview in the past year, this is a significant concern for young people and for professionals.

An examination of the types of jobs that participants reported they were pursuing revealed the following sectors: office work; customer service; information technology; retail sales; physical labour; social and educational services; and arts. The most commonly sought positions fell within the office work, customer service and social services/education categories. This finding is consistent with literature in the field, which suggests that youth with vision impairments are offered a limited range of vocational options compared to the real-life options available to them.

The range of employment-related barriers or challenges that participants reported is consistent with those found in previous studies. These include restricted access to adapted materials/equipment and information, negative attitude of employers or potential employers, a need for tolerance of others, public awareness, improved access to transportation, personal problems, and job requirements.

Despite the fact that participants reported encountering a great number of barriers and challenges to employment, those who reported such barriers also expressed great optimism that they could be overcome. This optimism was particularly strong among the younger participants (15-21 year olds) (100%). However, optimism was also high among the older participants (22-30 year olds) (84%) who presumably have had the experience of dealing first-hand with many employment-related barriers. The optimism of young people is encouraging given the challenges we know lie ahead for many youth with vision impairments. It is noteworthy, however, that parents did not share this optimism. In fact, roughly half of the parents who were interviewed felt that these barriers could not be surmounted. Perhaps it would be helpful if the findings on optimism were shared early on and throughout high school with parents, together with information on career choices and possibilities.

Social Domain: Differences were not found between blind and partially sighted participants in terms of social support or size of social networks; however, an examination of the dating and romantic lives of participants suggests that there are marked differences between the experiences of these groups. Specifically, although participants who were blind and those who were partially sighted were similar in their likelihood to be married, 28% of partially sighted participants and 20% of blind participants reported that they had a boyfriend or girlfriend. Also, 56% of partially sighted youth reported that they were dating as compared with 44% of blind youth.

We asked young people whether they experienced challenges or barriers in their social lives. Although roughly half of the participants reported that they did experience such challenges, this was more likely to be the case for participants who were partially sighted. Specifically, 56% of youth who were partially sighted experienced such barriers as compared with 40% of youth who were blind. Also, 54% of older youth as compared to 45% of younger youth experienced these barriers. Older participants may experience more challenges because they are no longer in school where they are surrounded by peers, and instead must find other social outlets. However, given a number of comments in the qualitative interviews that indicate that social life is actually better than it was in high school, we cannot assume that growing older automatically brings reductions in social opportunities.

Youth who are partially sighted may experience more challenges simply because they are more involved in activities such as dating, and because they are more likely to have sighted friends who involve them in activities that require high levels of vision. Furthermore, youth who are partially sighted are often able to see what they are missing. Previous studies and anecdotal reports indicate that young people with a disability are keenly aware of the stigma associated with their disability, and feel a strong sense of desire to fit in. One example for young people may occur around driving a vehicle. As this is a rite of passage"in North American culture, particularly for young men, it may be a turning point for blind youth as they wish to be fully included and to be fully accepted.

Activities of Daily Living: Within each of the scales of activities of daily living questionnaire (time, money, personal and home management), participants who were blind performed fewer activities than participants who were partially sighted. These findings support the literature, which suggests that lower levels of vision are associated with reduced involvement in performing activities of daily living.

The most straightforward explanation for why having less vision would be associated with performing fewer activities of daily living is that performance of many of these activities requires substantial vision. However, an examination of reports within the blind group reveals great variability among participants in the number and types of activities they performed. They use a number of strategies in order to perform these activities, such as braille labels and adaptive software. This finding suggests that the variability is the result not simply of vision level, but of ones knowledge and use of accommodative strategies to compensate for lack of vision. This may suggest that with exposure and training, many youth, including those with little or no vision, could perform most or all activities of daily life.

We also explored the impact of parental expectations on participants levels of involvement in activities of daily living. The data establishes that the higher the level of parental expectations when participants were children, the greater the extent to which they participated in activities of daily living when they were older. The study establishes that this is the case even after we take into account a number of confounding factors such as age, vision level and level of education.

Furthermore, the higher the parental expectations in the area of activities of daily living when participants were younger, the greater the likelihood that these same youth were currently employed. One possible explanation for these findings is that children who do not perform activities of daily living are less likely to develop the fundamental skills of independent living that they will need later in life to secure and maintain employment. This supports the career education model proposed by Wolffe and Sacks (1997), in which it is suggested that learning and performance of activities of daily living provides a foundation for the acquisition of employment-related skills.

As with sighted children, families will differ in the degree to which they foster independence. It is crucial for parents of blind children, however, to understand fully the implications of teaching adaptive daily living skills at an early age.

Recommendations Three of the recommendations that can be drawn from these findings are: 1. Extensive vocational counselling for blind youth, provided as early in their lives as possible, will enhance employability. 2. Education and information about the importance of early attainment of independence in activities of daily living should be provided to parents and teachers. 3. Teachers and other professionals should be sensitized to the difficulties experienced by youth with vision impairments in activities with sighted peers.

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