Guest Blogger Elizabeth Hassett Schmidt, M.S., is Director, Workforce Development at VIA. Elizabeth oversees the programs and staff in VIA’s workforce development department in collaboration with our local, state and national partners.
Guest blogger views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of CharityLogic and iCarol.
Since 1907, VIA, formerly the Olmsted Center for Sight, has remained the leading organization providing comprehensive vision rehabilitation, education, and employment services to individuals of all ages throughout the eight-county region of Upstate New York.
Our Mission: To help people who are blind or visually impaired achieve their highest level of independence.
Our vision is to be recognized as the Center for Excellence for blind and visually impaired (B/VI) children and adults by promoting independence, empowerment, inclusion, and hope. Each year, over 2,500 people benefit from vision rehabilitation, education, and employment services provided by VIA. We are the only Western NY organization providing a full spectrum of services with trained/certified vision rehabilitation professionals. We are located on part of the larger Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, a 120-acre world-class collaboration of medical providers existing to better the community we live in.
Our vocational training and workforce development programs have a statewide and national reach supporting students from over thirty-seven states who seek our training for employment. Our hospitality curriculum was the only program of its kind at inception in 1998, and today we remain a leader in vocational programs for the blind and visually impaired with curriculums ranging from Telecommunications, Customer Service, Office Software, Transcription, to Food Service Preparation. In 2017, VIA invested in, developed and implemented a distance learning platform to allow potential candidates the ability to participate from anywhere in the country. This interactive platform now houses all of our traditional in-house training to offer more flexibility for clients especially those in rural areas and to graduate more employees to meet workforce demands.
The purpose of VIA’s “Breaking Employment Barriers” initiative is to convey to employers the benefits of hiring people who are B/VI not solely to celebrate diversity and inclusion, but because it makes sense to their companies’ bottom line.
The 2019, State of the Workforce, Labor Market Snapshot provided by NYATEP (New York Association of Training and Employment Professionals), examined workforce needs and training/educational output to understand who is working and who isn’t and the “number of potential workers produced by New York’s education and training systems.”1
Among the key findings of this report were:
- New York must grow its labor force by maximizing underutilized labor such as young adults and persons with disabilities.
- Workforce development is a core aspect of the State’s economic development and programs that promote education and skills development directly correlate to wages and therefore an increase in skilled labor directly affects the overall incomes of New Yorkers.
Nationwide, individuals with disabilities have an unemployment rate of 67.9%2 and individuals with blindness or vision loss have an unemployment rate of 63%3, yet we know that with education and skills training, the complete inverse of these numbers is possible. In fact, OCS boasts a placement rate for graduates of our vocational programs of 82% employment in competitive, integrated employment in New York State and 77% employment in competitive, integrated employment for graduates nationally. We know from experience that the complete inverse of employability is possible when skills training occurs and when employers are knowledgeable about the B/VI population as an underutilized workforce. In New York State alone, the population of working-age persons who report significant vision loss or blindness is 410,103, with the number of working-age B/VI persons between the transitioning ages (10-18) group and 18-64 years old group at 19,6704. These numbers do not even include already employed workers who may be experiencing significant vision loss on the job with no knowledge of how to stay employed and an employer who may not know what simple accommodations could retain an already trained employee. We believe those numbers to be significant.
In order to address the need for a skilled, trained workforce, VIA seeks to match employers to this underutilized, able workforce by breaking barriers of common misconceptions or lack of knowledge of what it means to “hire blind”.
We understand that most hiring managers are not aware of the abilities of people who are blind or visually impaired because they simply have had no exposure in their own workplace or careers. The occurrence of blindness and visual impairment among people of typical working age is approximately 1.1%5 with extremely low employment presence in the general labor force.
However, the lack of blind and visually impaired in the workplace has nothing to do with talent, skill or ability – more so, it’s a reflection on the difficulty associated with finding employment and eliminating the barriers of an employer’s lack of exposure and knowledge.
The BEB focuses on answering typical questions about hiring the blind and visually impaired such as:
- How does a blind person use the computer?
- How do they get to work on time?
- How do they find their desk or the breakroom?
- What will my staff say?
- How much will it cost me to hire someone who is blind?
- WHY should I hire someone who is blind?
In reality, there are very few jobs that are not able to be accommodated for a blind or low vision person— simple accommodations such as screen reading software, magnification, color contrast, lighting, and other adaptations can open up the door to a pool of potential employees with natural skill set that in some ways outperform sighted counterparts.
For example, a skilled screen reader user may navigate digital content with higher speed and accuracy due to the ability to use keyboard commands to search and answer specific content areas and, because the auditory skill allows a screen reader user to access a greatly increased speech rate thus cutting down on listening and response time in a call center — allowing for higher productivity and performing rates. The use of dual headset technology- screen reader in one ear and caller in the other – is something that most call center hiring managers have never seen in action and when they witness the speed, accuracy, and performance of a blind CSR agent, their understanding of labor market is never the same again!
There are different assistive technology tools that B/VI might use in the workplace. Assistive technology (AT) refers to hardware and software that enable people with disabilities to perform the essential functions of the job. For those who are blind, the main AT are screen readers, screen magnifiers, braille displays, and speech recognition software.
A screen reader is a program that analyzes the layout and content of a website and provides a text to speech translation. The playback speed rate can be set by the user and keyboard commands allow them to skip from heading to heading, click links, and complete other important tasks on the computer. Much like how a sighted person can visually skim a website to find the section they want to read, a person who is blind can do the same with their screen reader—as long as the content has been coded properly.
Have you ever pinched to zoom on a touchscreen device? If the answer is yes, you have used a small part of assistive technology. For individuals with low vision, it is helpful to magnify a section of the screen so that they can read easily.
Screen magnification can happen by using in-page controls, system setup tools, and accessible level zooms.
Refreshable braille displays
A braille display is a flat keyboard-like device that translates text into braille and enables blind individuals to interact with digital platforms using only their fingers.
Dictation software allows a user to navigate, type, and interact with digital content using their voice.
WHY should I hire someone who is blind?
Because it makes smart business sense and there are no additional costs to hiring a B/VI person versus a sighted person. Blind and Visually Impaired employees have: Low attrition rates. Hiring blind employees can actually improve staff stability for your company. Because hiring barriers are so difficult for a blind person to overcome in the first place, blind persons tend to be “company people” in that they are very loyal and tend to be long term employees with very low attrition rates and very low absenteeism.
Creativity/Problem-Solving – The world in which we operate is a visual world- this puts those with vision loss at a disadvantage. In order to overcome daily obstacles and challenges, the blind and visually impaired have to problem solve and create workaround solutions to encumbrances they face every day. This type of problem-solving and the ability not to get “ruffled” is a huge asset when looking for behavioral-based responses in screening potential employees.
For Federal Contractors – it’s the law – Section 503 of the 2014 Rehabilitation Act6, applies to all federal contractors and established a 7% hiring goals for companies to hire persons with disabilities and data collection on the number of persons with disabilities who apply for hire. Hiring blind or visually impaired can help federal contractors meet this requirement.
Tax Credits – the Federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit provides a tax credit for each new employee hired who was referred by their state vocational rehabilitation agency- this arm of each state government exists to provide employment services to people with disabilities. Most states have additional tax incentives for hiring persons with disabilities. Working with your state’s VR agency that serves the blind and visually impaired can introduce your company to a host of different training and try-out incentives to support the hiring of that individual including salary compensation during the try-out.
Customer service/Conflict management – It is true; when one sense is impaired the other senses are heightened in skill. For blind and visually impaired, this can mean an increase in auditory skills— not just the speed at which a BVI person can listen to screen reading materials but also the ability to really listen and pick up on personality and emotions expressed by a customer. Often times, in the areas of customer service and conflict resolution, the blind are quickly able to pick up on a caller or customer’s tone and quickly diffuse a potential conflict.
Increase your Consumer Market – Businesses that are in tune with diversity and inclusivity are not only opening the door to a potential workforce but also opening the door to a new population of customers. Once a company has the barrier of accessibility within their purview of hiring, they open up the door to attracting a consumer base that is able to access digital media and interact with the company which will grow the customer base. Find out about the demand occupations in New York State and how you may need needs by hiring diverse by accessing the NYS Department of labor site here: https://labor.ny.gov/workforcenypartners/lwda/lwda-occs.shtm
So, how do I go about finding potential employees who are Blind or Visually Impaired in my state and what supports are available to me?
By contacting your state VR agency. Under the Federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), state VR agencies are required to provide services to businesses in addition to the services they provide to persons with disabilities. This is meant to bridge the gap between participant and employer at no cost to an employer. In this way, your state VR agency can learn more about what your workforce needs are and provide qualified applicants. In addition to this, the VR agency can assist with:
- Work Try-Outs, On the Job Training Support, Internships at no cost to an employer
- Disability awareness/sensitivity training/etiquette in the workplace for staff
- Jobsite assessments for accessibility
- Job analysis of skills required for potential referrals
- Education about financial incentives for hiring BVI
- Assistance with accommodations for a new hire
- Assistive technology evaluations to determine what software may be used to accommodate for a new hire
- Post-hire follow up and ongoing employer relationship to a pipeline of talent
In NY State, you can contact the New York State Commission for the Blind- https://ocfs.ny.gov/main/cb/employers.asp
In other states, you can find your state’s VR agency listed here7: www.ntac.blind.msstate.edu/information-and-resources/ncsab/
And, of course, you can contact non- profit agencies such as the VIA (www.olmstedcenter.org) to ask about our free Breaking Employment Barriers initiative and our trained graduates who can meet your company’s needs.
The Breaking Employment Barriers initiative will:
- Make you aware of the advantages that hiring B/VI bring to the organization
- Show you how BVI perform customer service-based jobs as any other person
- Challenge myths about B/VI by answering questions you may have
Learn more about our Breaking Down Employment Barriers by clicking here: https://olmstedcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/BEB-Pamphelt.pdf
To Contact VIA or to arrange a BEB, please email us at Breakingbarriers@olmstedcenter.org or call us at 716-878-0543.
1 NYATEP.org; State of the Workforce- A labor Market Snapshot for New York;2019
2 Mississippi State University; National Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision; blind.msstate.edu; “Blind People Can’t Perform This Job…Or Can They?”
4 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2016) (Unpublished data tables of specific disability questions in Current Population Survey, 2015 Annual Averages). Washington., DC
5 Mississippi State University; National Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision; blind.msstate.edu; “Blind People Can’t Perform This Job…Or Can They?”
6 US Dept. of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (2014) ; Section 503
7 Mississippi State University; National Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision;blind.msstate.edu;”blind People Can’t Perform This Job…Or Can They?”