Overcoming Workplace Barriers: A Hard Truth About Blind Professionals

close up photo of person using braille

Feature Photo by Eren Li on Pexels.com

Discover how blind professionals are overcoming workplace barriers and defying statistics. Learn how to create your own career-building strategies.

by Anneliese Knop

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“Seven out of ten blind people are unemployed.”

Source Unknown

As dismal as that statistic is, it isn’t hard to believe that it reflects reality. Blind millennials like myself heard that number from guidance counselors, rehabilitation instructors, and other disability support staff throughout primary and secondary school. We may have heard from teachers and parents that we could grow up to be anything we wanted, but that message always nested inside that statistic.

In preparation for this article I spent a week searching for the source of that number in order to properly cite it and…I could not find it anywhere.

As far as I can tell, that number floated out of thin air and into disability culture. Yet it has shaped the employment expectations of at least the two most recent generations of blind and visually impaired youth. I am forced to conclude, therefore, that one of the greatest barriers we the blind face when it comes to entering the workforce is a narrative of unemployment by association .

Tiny fractions of your tax dollars are spent on local, state, and federal programs created to support blind and visually impaired Americans by providing improved access to education, transportation, assistive technology, independent living skills necessary for inhabiting inaccessible spaces, and employment. Many of you may have even donated extra dollars to non-profit organizations with similar aims. You have a stake in the products these organizations create.

You also have a stake in the quality of the American workforce, and this demoralizing, defeatist mentality has joined forces with familiar culprits like discrimination and ableism to deprive your workplaces, civil services, and commerce of vital variety and insight.

That figure proclaiming a high likelihood of failure hangs like a banner over the heads of young people whose minds should be teeming with ambition and curiosity. Instead of being given mentors and role models to aspire to, or taught how to arrange informational interviews and job shadowing, they hear over and over again how unlikely their dreams are to be fulfilled.

In preparation for my next few articles, which will focus on how blind people have broken into and succeeded in various industries through their own ingenuity and unique qualifications, I spoke to dozens of blind professionals from around the country working in a wide variety of fields. Healthcare workers, researchers, customer service agents, technology specialists, small business owners, freelancers and content creators shared their experiences with having to break free of a scarcity mindset in order to find the motivation they needed to teach themselves career advancement skills like negotiation and networking. In most cases, they taught themselves because not one of the professional disability support specialists ever thought to provide such valuable training.

As I spoke to vision rehabilitation specialists, career counselors, and other blind members of the workforce I have come to believe that no one offered this training because it does not exist. No one knew of existing resources describing professional networking for those who can’t make eye contact, see name tags, or comfortably drift through crowds in search of conversation.

Were these skills never developed because no one ever expected us to need them?

I first became interested in career-building skills during my post-graduate internship, a requirement for licensure in the field of mental health counseling. As I worked with different professionals and listened to them talk about conferences, continuing education, and advanced certifications I realized that licensure was really the first step, not the finish-line, of my chosen industry. I tried to imagine myself attending seminars and giving keynote presentations at conferences, running into well-known psychologists and getting to pick their brains about their most recent research projects, and found myself itemizing the kinds of social skills which were hardest for me to use because they all revolved around using one’s eyes to communicate. My vision of my professional future began to narrow.

Then I read Matthew Pollard’s book The Introvert’s Edge to Networking. Pollard described several strategies for surviving and thriving  in the overwhelming social contexts which introverted professionals like me find so distasteful.  I realized that several of them could be adapted for blind workers, too. But not all of them. My list of  barriers was shorter, but still daunting.

But Pollard’s book had had another effect on me, one which I have found present in all the blind professionals who are focused on career-building rather than merely staying employed. He introduced me to the idea that there was room for inventing my own career-building strategies. Just because sighted people relied on eye-contact to initiate conversations with interesting people, recognize industry celebrities, and lubricate cold conversations didn’t mean I couldn’t find ways to do all of these things without my eyes.

And what about negotiation? What about continuing education, and other forms of professional development? Just because no one had ever thought that I, or the blind network administrator or the blind marketing operations manager or the blind optical physicist working for NASA or the blind high school teacher or the blind makeup tutor would need these skills doesn’t mean we can’t create them for ourselves. In doing so, we might just stumble upon powerful business strategies that would never occur to light-dependent people.

The fact that any of us reach such break-throughs is surprising, given that all our education pre-disposes us to assume simply landing a job will be next to impossible, let alone building a career. Such short-sightedness among those who dedicate their lives to helping level the playing field for blind adults has held far too many of us hostage to low expectations.

Without tackling pervasive attitudes of discrimination and ableism head-on, we as a culture can still make progress toward a fully inclusive workforce by rejecting this message. But if we don’t believe we are invaluable assets to the American workforce, then it’s no wonder other people fail to see that, too.

But let me be clear: this is not a matter of mindset purely internal to the blind professionals community. The majority of people providing employment and education-related services to the blind, and quoting this statistic and its disheartening implications are sighted. This is an example of internalized ableism, where those with disabilities have come to believe negatively about themselves because of the ablist mindset of outsiders.  

So what are the actual employment rates among the blind and visually impaired? You can look up the statistics here. I could report them, but I would rather use this digital space to encourage you to reflect on how fragments of data can create cultural expectations. Sighted children aren’t quoted their future job prospects in numerical terms, so why is this burden placed on children who already know that life will offer them more challenges than their peers? Grim statistics rarely motivate any but the most obstinate people. However, abundant research has shown how encouragement and optimism produces positive, tangible results in everything from academic performance to career satisfaction. 

Speaking as one of those statistic-breaking blind professionals, I fervently hope that the next generation of braille and dog guide users can count on an equal measure of confidence from their teachers, parents, and supporters as is received by their sighted peers. True integration within our culture comes from relationships, not numbers.

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