According to the 2017 Current Population Survey, about 2 million working-age Americans (ages 16-64) reported being blind or having trouble seeing. Of these 2 million Americans, only 35% had a job, compared with 70% of working-age Americans without disabilities. Even more concerning, only 39% of the blind Americans were in the labor force at all-meaning they were either employed or looking for work-compared with 73% of the working-age Americans without disabilities. So, a huge chunk of the blind working-age population in this country is not only unemployed, but also not looking for work. These numbers have changed little in response to the passage of laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the proliferation of accessible computers allowing blind people to perform many more jobs independently.
My colleagues, Edward Bell and Mary Ann Mendez from Louisiana Tech, and I wanted to investigate the employment experiences of blind Americans from all three camps: those who are working, those who are looking for jobs, and those who are out of the workforce. We wanted to find out what helped the successfully employed workers find their jobs. We also wanted to find out what factors are keeping so many blind Americans unemployed or completely out of the workforce.
We sent an online survey to 559 Americans who are legally blind and at least 18 years old. I will say up-front that this was not a representative sample. Most of the respondents came from email listservs sponsored by blindness consumer organizations or other blindness-related networks. The people in these online networks tend to be more educated than the population as a whole; in our sample, 68% had at least a bachelor’s degree, and 36% had at least a master’s degree. This sample also consisted of individuals who had been blind for a relatively long period of their lives and who were well-connected with services and organizations. Despite the differences between our sample and the blind population as a whole, our sample gives us a look at some of the barriers that still affect blind people who have had a high level of education and training.
On the survey, we asked the participants if they were either (1) working for pay currently; (2) looking for a job; or (3) out of the labor force. We then asked each group different follow-up questions to learn more about their experiences. For the participants who were working, we asked them to describe their jobs and what resources helped them obtain their jobs. For the participants who were looking for a job, we asked them how long they had been looking, what resources they were using, and whether they had encountered discriminatory treatment recently in their job search. For the participants who were not in the labor force, we asked them why they were not looking for a job. The participants answered a combination of multiple-choice and short-answer questions to share their experiences with us. I will describe some of our most interesting findings here.
First, about half of the participants said they had a job of some sort-either full-time, part-time, or self-employment. Overall, the participants were fairly happy with their jobs and described getting good pay, benefits, and opportunities for promotion. The biggest factor that helped these participants find their jobs was networking: 40% found their job through networking with professional colleagues; 36% through networking with relatives or friends, and 20% through networking with previous colleagues, for example. (Participants could choose more than one resource). In addition, 20% said that a vocational rehabilitation (VR) professional helped them find their current job. Relatively smaller numbers of participants reported using traditional job-searching resources like job boards or recruiters to find their current job.
Second, about one-fourth of the participants were looking for work. The participants had been looking for an average of 18 months, and on average, they reported applying for about 5 jobs per month, but receiving less than one interview per month. Many of the participants described difficulties obtaining job offers, which were directly related to their blindness. For example, about one-third of the jobseekers said that they had to forgo a recent job opportunity because the posting required a driver’s license (even though the job itself did not require driving as a job duty) or because they didn’t have transportation to get to the job site. Others described strange reactions from interviewers; for example, an interviewer being enthusiastic toward them over the phone, and then acting awkward and distant when the applicant arrived in-person with their white cane. Another participant said they met with a recruiter who kept going on about how blind people have great “intuitive senses” and suggested taking classes to become a psychic. The participant wrote, “He spent more time talking to me about psychics than about a job. I found this very demeaning.”
Third, about one-fourth of the participants said they were not working and not looking for work-in other words, they were out of the labor force. Of course, some of these participants were retired or in school (as in the general population). However, others reported not looking for work because of transportation barriers where they live, because of health issues in addition to blindness, or because they were worried about losing disability benefits if they worked part-time.
Finally, we asked all the participants (even the retired ones) to reflect on various resources throughout their working lives, and to tell us how much each resource helped them with employment. They also rated how much a series of barriers interfered with their employment. The participants rated assistive technology, comprehensive blindness training, and resume/cover letter training as the three most helpful resources; traditional resources like recruiters, job developers, and career fairs were rated as relatively unhelpful. The top three barriers were transportation, trouble finding jobs in one’s area of expertise, and inaccessible job applications or screenings.
There are a few important takeaways from these data. On the positive side, networking is a powerful tool that can help individuals overcome employment barriers. Networking is important for jobseekers more generally; however, it may be especially vital for blind jobseekers. Colleagues who know the person’s strengths can help advocate for their potential and overcome employers’ doubts about hiring a blind person. Networking was more effective than conventional job-search resources in helping people secure good jobs. VR is also a valuable resource, but its impact seems to come from indirect supports (purchasing technology or funding training) rather than from direct job placement. VR programs may wish to focus more heavily on assisting clients with building up their professional networks.
Furthermore, transportation is a huge problem. A lack of affordable, efficient transportation limits blind jobseekers’ options and can lead to discouragement and withdrawal from the workforce. We live in a very car-centric country, where public transportation may not be efficient, accessible, or available at times when workers need it. Research is ongoing to develop individualized programs that can help blind jobseekers make transportation plans to get to and from work. However, to really solve this problem, we need to work with our local and state governments and private transportation companies (like ridesharing companies) to make non-driving options available to every American at an acceptable pricepoint. Other barriers include employer ignorance about blindness, inaccessible job applications, and discriminatory job posting wording, such as job postings asking for a driver’s license. There is a need for better training and enforcement to ensure that job postings are written to truly welcome all qualified applicants. These barriers can challenge jobseekers who are highly educated and well-connected, as in our sample. It will be important to conduct further research to learn about the experiences of blind people from other demographic groups, particularly those who are newly blind.
Overall, we know that good employment is attainable for blind people in this country. But right now, it’s not yet available to every blind American. Let’s work together to open up the possibilities.
Citation: Silverman, A. M., Bell, E. C., & Mendez, M. A. (2019). Understanding the employment experiences of Americans who are legally blind. Journal of Rehabilitation, 85:1, 44-52.