Changing the perception of blindness one conversation at a time
By David Steinmetz, Public Relations Manager for Arizona Industries for the Blind
The holiday season is a time to reflect on the past year, identify what we are grateful for and look forward to the new year. For me, I am grateful for my family, my health, and the opportunity to participate in the Great American work experience. You see, I am one of the fortunate few Americans who are blind to be gainfully employed. National statistics indicate 70% of individuals who are blind or have significant disabilities are unemployed.
After receiving my diagnosis of Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative retinal disease that leads to blindness, the Ophthalmologist asked what my career plans were. After I told him that I was studying criminal justice, he responded, “there are no blind cops, you better choose a field more suitable to a blind person”.
I have faced and overcome obstacles, many of which could have led me to become a statistic. Some of these obstacles were self-imposed, but the majority were others’ stereotypes, misconceptions, and generalizations of the capabilities of people who are blind.
As a young man, I was growing personally and professionally. I met and married my wife of now 30 years and was working my way up in a small manufacturing company. Then, like out of the blue, the darkness fell upon me… I had become legally blind. When informing my employer of my situation, as soon as the words left my mouth, the owner of the company saw me as a liability, not an asset.
This trend continued, even after obtaining a Bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University. My new degree and past work experience got me in front of a lot of hiring managers, but unfortunately I was not able to “seal-the-deal”. I truly believe these employers were making a fear-based decision based on my disability. A study conducted by National Industries for the Blind (NIB) indicates that 54% of hiring managers believe that there are zero jobs within their organization that a person who is blind could be successful at.
As the Public Relations Manager at Arizona Industries for the Blind (AIB), I share my story in hopes of, “changing the perception of blindness; one conversation at a time”. I challenge the business community to give people who are blind or visually impaired the opportunity to prove that with the proper training and technology, a person who is blind can compete and be successful in the workplace.
Arizona Industries for the Blind is a role model in the community – hiring people who are blind based on their abilities, not disabilities. From our frontline workers to the Board of Directors, AIB empowers people who are blind to achieve their highest goals and aspirations through meaningful employment.
Technology levels the playing field for people who are blind or visually impaired. Throughout the organization, AIB deploys various assistive technology such as screen magnification (allows user to magnify, change color schemes, etc. of text that appears on the computer monitor), screen readers (turn text to speech for user), Close Circuit Televisions (CCTV) devices and other hand-held magnifying devices.
Alongside the assistive technology, AIB utilizes industry standard applications to manage day to day operations throughout the organization. For example, our Distribution Services Unit (DSU) uses HighJump Advantage to manage the flow of products through the warehouse. Our Material Handlers use Vocollect’s “Talkman” voice-directed, voice recognition technology to fulfill customer orders. In our retail environment, AIB employees who are blind are responsible for interacting with NCR’s Counterpoint Point of Sales (POS) application to service customers, inventory replenishment, perform cycle counts and purchase inventory.
People who are blind or visually impaired add diversity and social responsibility to businesses by offering fresh perspectives and ideas on how to accomplish tasks and implement strategies. And we are loyal. According to a “study of 8,500 persons with disabilities in competitive employment – this group has a nearly 85% job-retention rate after one year as measured by companies like DuPont and Sears who measure retention rates”. (Source: Arizona Department of Economic Security)
So, how can you help move the needle on the 70% unemployment rate among people who are blind or have significant disabilities? As Arizona’s business leaders you can adopt inclusive policies such as:
- Incorporate accessibility into building design plans (i.e., buildings with braille on signs, elevator buttons, etc.)
- Ensure inclusive hiring practices – from accessible websites, job applications, onboarding, and training processes
- Choose an accessible venue for a meeting or event
- Avoid micro-aggressions – these are everyday verbal or behavioral expressions that communicate a negative slight or insult in relation to someone’s gender identity, race, sex, disability, etc. Some examples are:
- Talk directly to the person with a disability.
- Don’t talk to a person with a disability like they are a child.
- “That’s so lame.”
- “That guy is crazy.”
- “It’s like the blind leading the blind.”
- Similarly, don’t accuse people of ‘faking’ their disability.
- Don’t assume you know what someone needs.
- Never touch a person with a disability or their mobility equipment without consent.
- Keep invasive questions to yourself.
- Don’t speak on behalf of someone with a disability unless they explicitly ask you to.
- The most important things to do: make sure people with disabilities are at the table where decisions are being made.
Additionally, look to social enterprise organizations or nonprofits to be a valued partner through the creation of a Community Manufacturing Partnership (CMP) or joint ventures.
Community Manufacturing Partnerships are often used to help create employment opportunities for individuals who experienced a variety of barriers to employment in the community. The basic framework is derived from private companies partnering with social enterprise businesses, and non-profit organizations that are socially minded and funded through revenue generating activities.
As a participant in the CMP, the for-profit company will benefit from: increased capacity and throughput, improved public image, potential to penetrate new markets, and increased sales opportunities. Nonprofit organizations will benefit by increased employment for people who are blind, financial stability, growth in industry knowledge and expertise; and the ability to grow community awareness of its program.
The private-nonprofit CMP participant will have an active operational role in the nonprofit agency, not simply a fee for service transaction.
For more information about our products and services offered, or to learn more about Arizona Industries for the Blind, contact David Steinmetz at 623 233-2337882 or [email protected].
Visit www.aztechcouncil.org/tech-events to view all of the Council’s upcoming virtual tech networking opportunities, engaging virtual tech events and in-person tech events.