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Discover the impact of employment discrimination on blind professionals. Uncover the hidden biases and mindset adjustments needed for a more inclusive workplace.
by Anneliese Knop
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In Star Trek: The Next Generation’s pilot episode, an enthusiastic young lieutenant bursts onto the screen to make his initial report to his commanding officer. He reports his name and his findings, exchanges a few brief comments with his new boss, and is dismissed to carry on his duty. Lt Geordi LaForge next appears on screen undergoing his routine physical exam with the new Chief Medical Officer, and the audience learns that the shiny techno-visor gleaming across Geordi’s eyes is, in fact, assistive technology for a blind Starfleet officer.
Geordi waves aside Dr. Crusher’s over-stated and draining awe and pity, then goes on with his work, and for the rest of the two-part episode his adaptive lifestyle is treated like an asset because of how he integrates it with his education and experience. I, and so many of my peers, would do almost anything to have a workplace experience like that, one without the serious employment discrimination that so many of us go through.
When I interviewed for my first job as a mental health counselor, I was asked three separate times how I would compensate for my inability to see my clients’ body language, physical appearance, and clothing. These are all details counselors can use to infer their clients’ states of mind, personal habits, and lifestyle information. A good counselor might infer self-harm or abuse from a client choosing a turtle-neck in august, or discern between a panic attack starting or a client getting winded by climbing up a flight of stairs because of which vein is throbbing and skin texture.
While studying communication theory in my undergraduate program, I learned that between 70% and 93% of human communication is non-verbal, but somewhere along the line someone in the counseling field decided “non-verbal” meant “visual.” Never mind the fact that I can hear the difference between a congestion headache and a muscle tension headache, or discern the change in body odor from a good workout to a cold sweat of fear.
The Cost of Curiosity
I have always appreciated it when people asked permission to inquire about my assistive technology, cane or dog usage, or how I accomplish certain tasks. For the most part, I hear genuine curiosity about new information in their voices. These are life-long learners who want to understand the world better, become better employees, professionals, and people. These are innovators, even on a small scale, and they see diversity as an opportunity not to be missed.
Then there are those who ask out of disbelief. Their eyes tell them something in front of them doesn’t make sense. “I can’t imagine doing that without sight, so how can it be?” They don’t want to know how something works, they want to know why their world doesn’t make sense, and are asking me, and other members of minority populations, to reassure them that the universe is still governed by familiar rules. It’s subtle, but it is a draining form of employment discrimination that weighs on blind professionals in the workplace.
When women had to put up with remarks about doing things in skirts and heels, or supposedly frequent bathroom trips and tampon interference in offices, laboratories, and job sites, they labeled it harassment. Some men argued that they were legitimate questions, wanting to know that women’s differences wouldn’t slow down production or interfere with a Company’s image of strength and consistency. I’m sure my former boss thought he was just looking out for my potential clients by asking me to justify my existence in his profession, too.
They add up, these micro-aggressions of employment discrimination. When a person has to divert energy to justifying their presence they are left with a second wind that often results in second-rate work, and thus seeming to validate others’ doubts about their abilities. Or, that second wind is funneled entirely into workplace performance, leaving the blind employee exhausted and less able to do more than come home and crash on the couch every night. That’s no way to live, having to choose between work and life.
A blind customer service rep I spoke with described how her boss asked her to take over some training tasks because, during lectures on how to distinguish customer satisfaction on a phone call simply by tone of voice, the blind employee hijacked the conversation to talk about breathing patterns and background environmental noise as indicators of stress levels. These were clues she had always used to identify peoples’ moods, and her boss instantly recognized what the whole team would be missing out on if she didn’t harness this employee’s unique personal experience. Yet later on in that conversation she and I found ourselves commiserating over how often we both had to answer questions like “but how do you read emails?”
Imagine if the hiring manager for that company, having received an electronic job application as is standard these days, saw this woman’s guide dog coming into the interview room and let her surprise transform into doubt. If that hiring manager had lived with a fixed rather than a growth mindset, the company would have remained just as fixed in old and incomplete thought patterns.
But imagine this, too. What if that hiring manager had started off the interview with “but will you be able to use a phone?… There are a lot of stairs in our building…I guess you could use the elevator, would that work?…Will your guide dog, I mean, how will he be able to find his way around the building? Will you need someone to help you find the bathroom or something?” In this scenario, the blind job seeker leaves the interview feeling exhausted, frustrated, and assuming the interview went badly. She doesn’t expect to get an offer, and when she does get it, she has serious second thoughts about working for someone who thinks she can’t use a phone, even though she probably scheduled the interview on one!
Check Your Why
Fortunately this is a simple, if not easy, type of employment discrimination for the average person to help eliminate. It requires some mindset adjustments and attention to one’s own mental health, so everyone can benefit. Among the dozen or so professionals I spoke with when preparing for this article, the most common cause for this behavior posited was “people just don’t think.”
As a counselor, I have observed that when people aren’t thinking it’s because what they are feeling is just strong enough to override cognition for a brief period. This is extremely normal. We’d all like to think that most of our behavior is dictated by our thoughts, but most of it is actually very deeply rooted in emotions. We simply generate thoughts to explain the emotion-behavior connection.
So when you find yourself eagerly, or anxiously, looking for an opportunity to ask your new blind co-worker, manager, or employee about how their life and work differ from yours, check your “why.” Why do you want to know? Do you need to know, or does simply not knowing make you feel uncomfortable? Do you think it shows compassion or respect or interest for you to know? In more emotional terms, does your stomach tighten or your shoulders feel tight when you see them doing things differently? Or do you feel excited by new technology, or learning new skills? Do you want to ask to reassure yourself, or be inspired?
Please do not make the mistake of thinking that you are asking for their sake. They aren’t being paid to make you feel better about their performance potential any more than they’re being paid to make you feel better about your complicated childcare arrangements for this weekend. Your anxiety about them is your burden, not theirs. It’s also a burden you shouldn’t have to bear. If you find you are carrying it, consider that experience as a message from your mind and body that you have the potential for a quieter mind and a lighter heart. By noticing your unnecessary worry about others you can learn to care for yourself better as well as treat others with more respect.
Your co-worker wins by not having to politely enforce the boundary around their value and presence. You win by discovering ways you can heal and grow. Your company benefits by having two more happy, healthy, productive people pulling their weight and pooling their resources.
Rooting out employment discrimination isn’t just about catching out old culprits, punishing out-dated mindsets, and passing new laws. It’s about the potential people have for giving and receiving respect in a powerful circuit that generates the energy communities thrive on.