Over the last few years, we have seen the highest levels of unemployment since the great depression. However, the numbers that are reported only tell one part of the story. The media often reports that the unemployment figures do not include those who have given up looking for work, and yet that information still misses a story of an even greater need.
The National Federation of the Blind determined that the unemployment rate of the Blind and Visually Impaired was 62.3 percent, meaning only 37.7 percent were employed. Add to that number the impact of the economic downturn since that data was published, and the number of returning veterans with new blindness and visual impairment, and that can could be far higher.
There seems to be a reluctance on the part of employers to higher this population, and those that do have greatly underestimated the knowledge, skills and abilities of the blind. Many governmental and non-profit vocational rehabilitation agencies still offer visually impaired or blind individuals piece-meal jobs, such as assembling braille key-chains, necklaces and charm bracelets or binding braille books, for far less than minimum wage. One gentlemen that I encountered had recently been a vice president at a New York bank before he lost his eyesight and his job, only to be offered a position selling braille greeting cards at a kiosk. My dear wife, who lost her eyesight only a few years ago after working as a teacher, a writer and journalist, was offered a jewelry-making job that would earn $3,000 per year, or was told to take a similar job where an agency would pitch in $5,000 if the employer would pay the other $5,000. However she would lose her Social Security, which was $8,500 per year, giving her a net increase of $1,500 per year, doing a job that was more depressing than uplifting.
There are several problems that need to be overcome, along with the mindset that I mentioned above. Adaptive technology has, in the recent past, been slow to develop and unaffordable for this often unemployed population, but that has been changing, in part due to technology developed, not for the blind, but for the facility of the general population craving for new voice-activated applications. The other problem is a major one for the blind -- transportation. Even the physically disabled have far more opportunities to be able to drive a car than the blind.
My organization, Health Equity Connections, has developed a telecommuter model to employ this group, utilizing laptops in the employee's home with bio-metric scanners for secure log in that evaluate the blood vessels in the thumb that give rise to the fingerprint. This offers a level of security necessary when the employee uses sensitive data, such as HIPAA information. Webcams at the top of the laptop allow employers to ensure accountability. Apple programs, such as voice-over allow audible verification of keystrokes and screen-reading, and Windows computers can use programs such as JAWS (Job Applications with Speech) which uses key-strokes for all functions, eliminating the need for mouse or touch-screen. Group meetings can be handled by webinar, eliminating the cost and logistics for daily or weekly face-to-face meetings.
This group of individuals, along with other physically disabled job-seekers, are highly motivated, and highly capable of professional work that can pay a good living wage, and so many deserve the type of income that they were earning before losing their eyesight. The possibilities are endless, including customer services, sales, data-entry professional writing and editing, contract management and a host of other positions. They should not be ignored, underestimated or set aside.