Blind workers still face stigma
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Back in the late 1980s, when Maura Mazzocca was a human resources administrator with a Boston-area firm, a blind man showed up to apply for a job. Today, she remembers the encounter ruefully.
“What I kept thinking about was, ‘How can this man work in a manufacturing company?' ” Mazzocca recalled, saying she looked past his abilities and saw only his disability.
“I wish now I'd given him a chance.”
That reflectiveness is heartfelt. Mazzocca lost her own eyesight in 1994 through complications related to diabetes. Now as a jobseeker herself, she knows firsthand the many hurdles the blind must overcome in pursuit of full-time work.
At a job fair last month for blind and low-vision people, there she was going table to table, with a sighted volunteer by her side. Some of the other 80 jobseekers carried white canes, a few had guide dogs.
Like the rest, Mazzocca was greeted with firm handshakes and encouraging words — but none of the employers she spoke with had job openings matching her interests and qualifications.
The venue was the former Radcliffe College gymnasium where Helen Keller exercised en route to becoming the first deaf/blind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree in 1904. Over the ensuing decades, Keller helped increase public awareness of blindness and empathy for those affected by it.
Yet blind people remain largely unwanted in the U.S. workplace, despite technological advances that dramatically boost their capabilities. Only about 24 percent of working-age Americans with visual disabilities had full-time jobs as of 2011, according to Cornell University's Employment and Disability Institute.
“There's a lot of stigma, a lot of obstacles,” said Mazzocca, 51. “It comes down to educating employers. ... It's going to take a really long time, if ever, for them to see us for who we are and what we bring to the table.”
What they bring, according to national advocates for the blind, is a strong work ethic, plus deeper-than-average loyalty to their employers. That's in addition to whatever talents and training they bring, just like any other applicant.
In the current economy, good jobs are hard to come by for anyone, even the sighted. But the blind face added challenges. Even employers professing interest in hiring blind people often don't follow through out of concern that they might be a bit slower with key tasks or require assistance that could be burdensome.
In some cases, said Mazzocca, who has held professional jobs since she lost her sight, “They're thinking, ‘What if I have to fire them? Will they sue me?' ”
Many national and local organizations are working hard to change the equation, through a mix of outreach to employers, training and counseling for jobseekers, and support for technological development. Though sometimes costly, there are now myriad devices and technologies that can convert computer text or printed pages into Braille or spoken words.
Still, the steadiest sources of jobs for many blind people are nonprofit organizations with missions related to blindness and other disabilities.
Among them is National Industries for the Blind, a network of 91 nonprofit agencies which collectively employ about 6,000 blind people. It recently conducted a survey of 400 hiring managers and human resource executives across the United States.
The survey found 54 percent of hiring managers said there were few jobs at their company that blind employees could perform, 45 percent said accommodating such workers would require “considerable expense,” 42 percent said blind employees would need someone to help them on the job, and 34 percent said they were more likely to have work-related accidents than sighted employees.
“We're having to deal with lots of misconceptions and myths,” said Kevin Lynch, CEO of National Industries for the Blind. “From that standpoint, the study was clearly disappointing, but it gives us the opportunity to find a way forward.”
Lynch and his colleagues take heart from federal initiatives that have expanded hiring of blind people by government agencies and federal contractors. They also are encouraged by efforts of the U.S. Business Leadership Network, a coalition led by several dozen major corporations seeking to boost employment of people with disabilities, including blindness.
Another initiative called CareerConnect, started by the American Foundation for the Blind, offers an array of resources and advice for blind jobseekers, including a mentorship program to connect them with blind people working in the professions they aspire to.
Joe Strechay, program manager for CareerConnect, said visually impaired people tend to be dedicated workers — less likely than others to miss a shift or quit the job, and no more likely than others to sue in the event of dismissal.
Among those featured on CareerConnect's website is Jay Blake, a race car mechanic and pit crew chief. Other role models include Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to climb Mount Everest, and the late Richard Casey, the first blind federal trial judge.
Yet a glance through listings of prominent blind people conveys some of the challenges faced by jobseekers. There are many famous blind musicians, such as Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, but a dearth of notables in many other fields. In the U.S. Congress, for example, there have been several blind members — but none since 1941.
Numerous blind Americans have built successful careers as advocates for the visually impaired, but the pathway often is difficult.
Frederic Schroeder, who served as commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration under President Clinton, recalls sending out 35 job applications after earning his master's degree in special education — and getting not a single offer in reply.
Such rejection can be demoralizing, said Schroeder, a professor of vocational rehabilitation with San Diego State University and a vice president of the National Federation of the Blind.
“We need to make sure blind people don't think, ‘Society doesn't want me,' and stop trying,” he said. “If a person gives up hope of finding a suitable job, it's a terrible waste of human resources. It's terrible for people to live in poverty simply because of public misunderstanding.” About 31 percent of working-age people with visual impairments live below the poverty line, roughly double the overall national rate, according to Cornell's Employment and Disability Institute.
At the recent job fair, freelance writer John Christie, 57, said he sometimes struggles to keep up his spirits while pursuing a full-time job.
“When I apply for something, I never hear back,” he said, suggesting that he was disadvantaged by a resume listing numerous articles related to blindness.
“Sometimes I'm optimistic, sometimes I'm frustrated,” he said. “It depends on the day. Sometimes you get burned out.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Conventional gas, oil drillers seek rules differing from shale industry in Pennsylvania
- U.S. Steel considers temporary shutdown of Minn. plant
- Internet gambling results ‘disappointing’ so far
- 6-year stock market rally still going strong, bulls say
- Stocks of Pittsburgh-area companies set record in March
- Japan snubs China investment bank
- Home prices rise as supply still tight
- Corporate missteps hurt reputations, profits, sometimes in long run
- Tourists rush to visit Cuba before American influence felt
- Dominion Resources CEO Farrell made $17.3M in 2014
- Late decline eats into previous day’s stock market gains