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Employment and Technology: Increasing Opportunities, or Merely Reshaping the Landscape?

Editor's Note: Anthony Tibbs is AEBC’s National Treasurer and President of its Montreal, Quebec, Chapter.

For people who are blind and partially sighted, employment prospects can, at times, be very few and far between. Indeed, a 2004 study of approximately 350 Canadians with vision impairments found that only 19% of those aged 21 to 64 (of working age) were employed, and about 32% were “unemployed”--without work but actively looking for a job [1]. It’s likely, however, that many more are also unemployed but not looking for work, largely because they expect it to be futile. Considering Canada's unemployment rate, as a whole, is only around 7%, these numbers are, and should be, shocking. What’s more, the employment figures haven't changed much in the past 30 years, despite a general sense that improvements in computer technology ought to have made this possible. After all, we now have advanced scanning and optical character recognition (OCR) software to convert printed material into electronic text, and screen-reading and magnification technology to provide access to various applications and websites. The "digital age" and the increasing use of electronic information storage and retrieval systems have greatly increased employment opportunities for the blind. Or has it?

People with disabilities, including those who are blind, can and do benefit from assistive technologies that enable access to previously inaccessible information. Even though they do not always provide blind users with a level of access equal to that of their sighted peers, such as in the case of inaccessible websites or proprietary software, these technologies, and the necessary mastery of them, is reported to "open doors to high-tech career fields that were once unavailable to people with disabilities" [2]. This is probably true, but is unhelpful for the majority of people who are blind for three reasons.

First, not everyone is a "techie," with the time and experience necessary to develop a mastery of their access technology to the point where they could script and program enhancements to "make it work" in situations where, out of the box, it otherwise would not. For those who have an aptitude for technical endeavours, such mastery may well help to pave the way to a "high-tech" career, but it is hardly going to help in other fields.

Second, research has shown that educational attainment has an even more significant correlation to employment prospects for people with disabilities than for the non-disabled. What, then, do we make of the fact that only 40% of the 815,000 or so Canadians who have a "seeing limitation" have completed any education beyond high school [3], as compared with more than 50% for the population at large [4]? The "high-tech" careers that technology has enabled generally require a minimum of a bachelor's degree, after all. In fact, in the United States at least, "the employment rate for [people with disabilities] who complete high school is 30.2%; ... and for those with four years of college it is 50.3%" [5], suggesting that even a 10% difference could be very significant to employment rates.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we must consider the net effect of technology on the employability of the blind. In many respects, we may be more employable in certain industries now, thanks to the advances in computer technology. But at the same time, we also become less necessary or employable in other industries that have traditionally been seen, rightly or wrongly, as “more accessible” to the blind (e.g. transcription, social work, piano tuning, piece work, etc.). As such, technology may have merely shifted the available jobs from lower-paying (but ubiquitous) fields to higher-paying (but highly specialized) ones.

University graduates who are blind may have an easier time now securing employment in highly information-based industries than they could in the past, but not everyone is destined to be a lawyer, manager or computer programmer. For real progress to be made on the employment front, opportunities must be created in the middle ground of these extremes. Technology is an enabler, but to the extent that attitudinal barriers continue to exist and new, unconquered technological inventions are created, access technology should not be assumed to be a primary enabler of employment for the blind and partially sighted.

[1] Gold, D. & H. Simson. (2005, Sep.). "Identifying the needs of people in Canada who are blind and visually impaired: Preliminary results of a nation-wide study." Vision 2005 - Proceedings of the International Congress held between 4 and 7 April 2005 in London, UK. International Congress Series, 1282, pp. 139-142.
[2] Burgstahler, S. (n.d.) The role of technology in preparing youth with disabilities for postsecondary education and employment. Bermidji State University, p. 1.
[3] Statistics Canada. (2009). Adult 15 years and older, with a seeing limitation, by highest education level, Canada, Provinces and Territories, 2006. Special tabulation, based on Participation Activity and Limitations Survey (PALS) 2006, Statistics Canada.
[4] Statistics Canada. (2006). Population 15 years and over by highest degree, certificate or diploma (1986 to 2006 Census). Census of Population (2006), Statistics Canada.
[5] Burgstahler, supra note 2 at p. 3.

Photo: Anthony Tibbs, AEBC Treasurer