I’ll start this post off with a couple of links. First, check out an interview that the author of Adventures In Low Vision conducted with me, a Quick Q&A, as she calls it. It was fun.
Second, if you haven’t, read last year’s post for National White Cane Safety Day, which was October 15th.
A Big Piece of Freedom
I suppose most of that content is still relevant.
And now on to today’s main topic: the second E, Employment. I’m probably not the only one who used to dream that I would have some kind of meaningful job that paid enough for me to get by and met all of my other needs as well. What that would look like, I wasn’t certain. Counselor? Teacher? (I did dabble in education for a really short time when starting my undergraduate career, but only had to think to come to my senses with regards to the feasibility of that for me.) Perhaps some kind of writing?
As so many seem to, I completed my Bachelor’s in Psychology with a minor in Communication studies, figuring that I could somehow go into that particular field. And then, life happened.
My main concern once I gained the age of adulthood, which in my case wasn’t really till I turned 23 or so, was wanting to be independent. To that end, I scoured the Internet, worked with Job Placement Specialists employed by the North Carolina Division of Services for the Blind, and took other actions to try and find something that would fit my many and varied interests. Sadly though, I encountered discrimination and an unwillingness by most to accept the idea that though my eyeballs may not function, I could still bring a lot to any organization.
Finally, as so many of us are driven to do, I took a position with one of the National Industries for the Blind (NIB) -affiliated agencies. These and the NISH, once known as the National Industries for the Severely Handicapped but no longer so known as that terminology is outdated, were some of the first organizations to allow persons with disabilities to do something other than perhaps just sitting at home all day.
Aside from a first attempt at graduate school that lasted from August of 2009 till December of 2011 (at UNC, MS in Rehabilitation Counseling and Psychology), I have been within the realm of the NIB for all of my working career. I was from 2003 till 09 at Lions Services of Charlotte, and since January of 2013 I have been at Durham’s LC Industries.
While I long to do something more fulfilling someday, I also acknowledge that I am fortunate to be working at all. According to a page via AFB Career Connect, which has what they admit is older information by now but which I’d be surprised if it has changed much, only about 30% of legally blind individuals of working age are employed. The percentage jumps to 45 if you have enough vision to be classified as not legally blind but are still of low vision. I do not know for certain, but would venture to say that a majority of us work in sheltered, noncompetitive positions such as what I do now. The really good stuff is so rare for us that I probably know many of the people who are out working within the regular workforce.
With that said though, I think we are in a more hopeful time than ever. The technology exists that can connect us in such a way that most people on the other side of the screen don’t notice a difference. With the proper training, we can reach a level that in some cases exceeds that of our sighted peers. For instance, some blind folks are able to read documents really quickly by setting their screen-reader of choice to 100%, and to actually understand the material as it flies by. I’ll admit that I’m not one of that club, but I can certainly take it in quickly either via synthetic speech or in Braille with my electronic display.
To that last part, the ability to read Braille, it does seem to be a major component for those who do get better positions. It is not the only indicator, and also is not strictly required for one to experience success, as some have demonstrated. But just as with a sighted person, being able to actually read the material oneself rather than simply perceiving it in audio helps with spelling and comprehension. It also would be of use if in, say, a call center. Should I become a writer, as I hope to someday, I plan to acquire an even better Braille display than I currently possess.
The era of the sheltered workshop has been since approximately 1935, about 80 years. For various reasons, these agencies are likely to be phased out over the coming years. It is my ardent hope then that all who are able and wish to seek competitive, rewarding work will find a more welcoming environment over the next 80 years. This is helped by constantly working to change perceptions of what we can do in the eyes of the public, which I would say is my main mission.