I’m here today to recognize October as the latest observance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month. This month highlights the value of employees with disabilities. It is a time to take steps toward disability inclusion, especially regarding hiring practices.
In this article, we’ll discuss barriers and statistics related to employment for the blind and visually impaired. I’ll also share some tips on hiring talented blind and low-vision employees.
National Disability Employment Awareness Month
Every October, we observe National Disability Employment Awareness Month. It celebrates the contributions of workers with disabilities and renews the commitment to inclusion in the workplace.
The history of this awareness month reminds us how far we’ve come in disability rights and hiring practices. Yet, also, how far we still need to go to ensure fair treatment and equal employment opportunities.
Barriers to the Employment of Blind and Visually Impaired
There is a mismatch between the unemployment rate and employers struggling to find talented candidates.
One key statistic that always surprises – the unemployment rate for the blind and visually impaired is often cited as hovering around 70%! And this figure is from before the pandemic, business shutdowns, furloughs, and the like!
At the same time, I speak with business leaders who bemoan the difficulty of finding enough well-qualified candidates to hire.
What a strange contradiction! On one hand, we have businesses struggling to find enough well-qualified candidates to hire. On the other, there is a significant pool of talent where more than 7 in 10 people is unemployed!
That’s just plain crazy!
Lack of awareness and misconceptions are the main barriers to employment for individuals with disabilities. This includes those who are blind or visually impaired. Our society often has stereotypes about the capabilities and productivity of workers with disabilities. This leads to discrimination in the hiring process.
Here are a few common barriers specifically faced by the blind and visually impaired community:
Ignorance of the Capacity of the Blind
A lot of employers simply don’t understand the full capabilities of blind individuals. They incorrectly assume these people can’t perform the required job duties. However, blind employees can excel at many roles with the right support.
Like many of you, in my line of work, I speak with people all day long. During conversations with other businesses about hiring the blind and visually impaired I consistently hear, ‘I understand, but my business is different’; I couldn’t hire a blind or visually impaired person here because – I don’t know if they could perform the job; my worksite is too dangerous for someone who can’t see; I would have to make too many changes; It would be too risky; I don’t know if they would fit in; What if I hire someone and they don’t work out – I wouldn’t be able to get rid of them; and on and on.
My response is always the same because I’ve heard all of the excuses way too many times! ”Tell me, wouldn’t that mean your worksite could be too unsafe for others as well?” or ”Tell me, do you ask yourself these same questions when you hire someone who is sighted?” If not, I suggest you start!
I also hear how businesses would ”LOVE” to hire a blind or visually impaired candidate! But, they simply couldn’t because they are in a manufacturing business. Or because they need very specialized or targeted talent; Perhaps they believe their work is too technical. The list of excuses is endless!
Lack of accessible public transportation can make it tough for blind folks to get to workplaces, not nearby bus or metro routes. Since most cannot drive, transportation barriers can shrink their job prospects.
Technology in the Workplace
Some workplaces don’t even have assistive technologies or accessible software. Blind employees need these to access information and perform essential functions. Fixing these tech gaps enables more hiring opportunities. For example, if a company’s website is not accessible to screen readers, it can exclude blind candidates from applying for jobs.
I’ve seen employers hesitate to make needed accommodations like Braille signage, task lighting, and modified workstations. Reasonable accommodations are what allow blind staff to thrive. Similarly, the actual work area should be accessible. That means it is free of tripping hazards and with pathways wide enough for guide dogs.
Discriminatory attitudes among hiring managers and supervisors can negatively impact recruitment, hiring, and promotion of qualified blind applicants. Naturally, unconscious bias training helps curb these attitudes. Employers who’ve completed such training often report a more dynamic and inclusive workplace.
Lack of Training
Coworkers often need more disability awareness and etiquette training. Only then can they properly welcome and integrate blind employees.
Support in the Workplace
A lack of mentoring, coaching, and inclusion programs can isolate blind staff and limit professional development. Providing support is a great way to channel retention.
Unemployment Statistics for the Disabled
The employment rate for individuals with disabilities increased to 21.3% in 2022, up from 19.1% in 2021. In contrast, the employment rate for individuals without disabilities rose to 65.4% in 2022, compared to 63.7% in the previous year.
In 2021, individuals with disabilities experienced an unemployment rate of 10.1%, while those without disabilities had an unemployment rate of 5.1%.
Statistics for the Visually Impaired
Around 12 million individuals over the age of 40 in the U.S. experience some form of disability related to vision, around 1 million of whom are blind. There are also 3 million with impaired vision even after correction. For another 8 million, the disability stems from uncorrected refractive error.
Roughly 44% of the U.S. population with visual impairments has a job. And 10% of blind folks in the workforce are unemployed. The remaining 50.9% aren’t in the labor force at all. These numbers show we have work to do on employing the blind.
Why Hire the Blind or Visually Impaired
There are plenty of reasons to hire visually impaired individuals:
Many businesses enjoy the various tax incentives that exist for employing workers with disabilities. These take the form of programs like the
- Work Opportunity Tax Credit
- Disabled Access Credit
- Barrier Removal Tax Deduction
- There are also State-specific incentives.
Increased Profit Margin
Studies show employing people with disabilities boosts profits. Blind employees perform on par or better than average, so having them on your team is a competitive advantage.
High Retention Rates
Blind employees tend to demonstrate strong loyalty when provided the accommodations and opportunities they need to advance. As we all know, lower employee turnover saves money both in the short and long term.
An Expanded Pool of Talent
Widening your applicant pool to include blind candidates surfaces uniquely skilled folks. They have valuable perspectives, and you can tap into this overlooked potential.
Creative Problem Solvers
Blind individuals often develop innovative strategies to navigate daily tasks. They bring resourcefulness and creative thinking to the team; just look at some of the outbound sales and cold calling results we’ve been able to achieve for our clients.
With assistive tech, blind employees can accomplish tasks very efficiently. They take pride in their work and maintain high accuracy.
Hiring blind staff directly enhances diversity, reflecting the make-up of your customers and community. In today’s business climate, a diverse workplace is essential, and visually impaired individuals bring diversity to the table.
How to Hire Blind and Visually Impaired Employees
Kudos on taking the first step to boost diversity in your workplace. Now, let’s look at some ways you can actively recruit and hire blind and visually impaired individuals.
The ADA and Visual Disabilities in the Workplace
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against blind individuals in hiring, advancement, training, and all aspects of employment. It requires providing reasonable accommodations so blind staff can perform essential job duties. Familiarize yourself with the ADA and its requirements, and ensure your hiring process complies.
Make the Application Process Accessible
When possible, provide application materials in formats accessible to blind candidates like Braille, large print, and compatible electronic docs.
Contact Relevant Organizations
Partnering with disability advocacy groups is a great way to tap into the blind talent pool. They can help source and support qualified blind staff.
Let me give you some background and share some real-world examples where the blind and visually impaired could fit in your organization:
- First, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) – I serve on the Employment Committee at the NFB. In my role, I am actively involved in our Career Fairs with both Employers and Job Seekers. The NFB holds Career Fairs twice a year. Once in February in Washington DC; and again, in the summer, during the NFB’s National Convention. Last year we had over 50 employers and more than 350 job seekers participate. It was a great resource and a big success for both the Employers and Job Seekers who participated. The feedback we received is that they all benefited and gained much from the experience!
- I also serve on the Advisory Council for the Inland Northwest Lighthouse for the Blind. We have 3 locations – in Seattle, Spokane, WA, and Summerville, SC.
- And I serve as the Secretary of the Washington State Chapter of Disability: IN, whose mission is to empower businesses to achieve disability inclusion and equality!
During my involvement with these, and other organizations, I see all job functions being successfully performed by blind or visually impaired employees every day:
The NFB Career Fair
At the NFB’s Career Fair in Las Vegas last year, my contact from the CIA, who also happens to be blind, was extremely excited to have interviewed a gentleman with a PhD in Physics. A position she had been trying to recruit for quite a while. She immediately scheduled this candidate for a follow-up interview. My contact at the FBI was excited to find a couple of candidates who are attorneys.
The Inland Northwest Lighthouse for the Blind
At the Inland Northwest Lighthouse for the Blind, employees manufacture all of the whiteboards, cork boards, glass wall boards, and easels Acco sells in Office Depot and Staples stores.
They also manufacture litters (stretchers); entrenchment tools (the folding military shovels); and hydro packs & canteens for the US Military; and over 187,000 parts per month for the Boeing 737 model and later aircraft.
Let me ask – Do you still think the blind and visually impaired’s potential or job skills are too narrow or limited?!
Leads at Scale
These examples may seem anecdotal, so let me share the reasons we hire the blind and visually impaired at Leads at Scale.
The skill set the blind and visually impaired consistently bring to the table always impresses me!
Their communication skills are wonderful. Their active listening skills are unmatched. The attention to detail always impresses me. They think outside-of-the-box, have a greater sense of empathy, and possess many other transferrable skills we all search for but rarely find at the same level as other candidates.
I learned long ago, that we can teach technical skills. But we need our candidates to bring the appropriate soft skills and a positive attitude! I suspect you are in a similar position. The blind and visually impaired do this consistently!
Further, at Leads at Scale, we have exactly the same expectations of our blind and visually impaired employees and job candidates as we would of a sighted employee! Why? Because at the end of the day, the work still needs to get done for our clients! And, because I’ve learned the blind and visually impaired can do the job just as well, if not better, than a sighted employee!
Given this wide range of skill sets, you may be wondering what roles we’ve hired the blind and visually impaired for. Well, to name just a few – Customer Service; Call Center Agents; Sales (in fact, our top-performing sales agents continue to find success utilizing our 12-step sales process framework) ; Marketing; Quality Assurance; Supervisors; HR – interviewing, hiring and onboarding; Coaching; Client Services; Account Management.; Data Entry. The list is almost endless. When you add backgrounds in manufacturing, logistics, PhDs in Physics, attorneys, accountants, and more the opportunities to fit into your organization grow exponentially!
I wonder – What role couldn’t you match a blind or visually impaired candidate to in your organization?!
Design Your Interviews Carefully
Craft questions highlighting candidates’ qualifications and ability to excel at required tasks. Ask about reasonable accommodation needs. Stay focused on merit, not disability.
Be ready to implement accommodations like screen readers, magnifiers, and task lighting. Reasonable accommodations allow blind employees to maximize productivity.
Expect Talented People
Approach blind applicants as promising candidates – evaluate skills, experience, and attitude. Presume competence and hire based on qualifications. In short, expect equal talent.
The History Behind Our Success: Hiring Visually Impaired
When I started my company, Leads at Scale, in 2013, I initially hired 1 sighted person and 1 blind person.
As background, Leads at Scale provides support services to our client’s businesses in throughout the US and Canada. Inbound & outbound call centers, customer & patient satisfaction surveys, customer retention work, sales support, etc.
The common thread in our business is ‘communication’ and ‘relationship building’. We help our clients connect with their customers at all stages of their customer lifecycle.
As we grew we needed to hire more people. That’s when I realized the skill set being delivered by the blind & visually impaired was much stronger than the skill set we were seeing from other candidates. So, we completely changed our business model.
Now 100% of our employees are either blind or visually impaired. This was a major shift for the company!
At that point, my goals for the company began to center around creating professional employment and advancement opportunities for the blind and visually impaired! And we haven’t looked back – the experience has been fantastic for both my company and for our clients!
Another shift came when we realized we could recruit & hire the best and brightest candidates anywhere in the US if we could offer our employees a remote working model. We undertook this challenge and have been operating in a remote work environment since 2015. Because of this shift, we have been able to hire great candidates we wouldn’t have had access to otherwise!
During the past few months of COVID-19, I like to joke that we were remote before remote was cool! And again, we’ve been able to target and hire the best and brightest candidates across the United States!
Start Hiring the Best and Brightest
Let me close by reiterating that we celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month every October! We should, however, be focused on disability and inclusion within our organizations every month of the year!
All employers face the challenge of recruiting, hiring, and retaining the best and the brightest employees every day! To be successful, you need to have access to every possible pool of talented candidates! To be successful, you should be including blind and visually impaired candidates in your recruiting!
If I can be a resource; answer any questions; act as a sounding board; or help in any way, reach out to me directly! I am happy to speak with you about this journey, how it’s benefited Leads at Scale, and how it will benefit your organization!