“And she’s buying an accessible ramp to Heaven…”

Did that fall a little flat? I am not a natural musician, so I will stick to writing blogs and leave the song lyrics to Led Zeppelin and other sharp musical types. And on that note, welcome to another edition of Cass’s contemplations! This post is going to have a serious tone again, but I plan to bring you more Cora tales in the post that follows (a bit of Cora is always the key).

In my last post, I shared that the level of unemployment among people who are blind is four times that of the national average according to Blind Citizens Australia. I also shared that I believe there is a myriad of reasons for this discrepancy. In this post, I am going to explore the challenges and suggest some strategies to overcome them. I am also going to include some snippets of my friend’s story as she has struggled to find meaningful employment due to some of the challenges I will identify. If this post seems irrelevant to you, I still encourage you to read on as I think there may be some surprising and thought-provoking revelations to follow.

In Australia, legislation at both the Federal and State-level protects people with disability from discrimination, including in the workplace. In addition, it is now common for organisations to have diversity and inclusion values and policies. While the concepts of “diversity” and “inclusion” are often mentioned in conjunction, they have different meanings in practice. To put it simply, “diversity” involves welcoming a mix of people into the workplace regardless of their ethnicity, culture, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, and so on. “Inclusion” involves inviting these diverse people to the table, making sure their voices are heard and ensuring that they feel they are making a meaningful contribution. But as you will soon realise, legislation and well-rounded organisational policies aren’t enough to break down some of the barriers.

The decision of whether to disclose your disability during the job application process is often debated. The pros of disclosure include coming into the process armed with solutions, presenting as honest, self-aware, and proactive and calling out the elephant in the room. But the cons are you might be treated differently and you might be overlooked. In reality, if your disability is going to affect your performance in a role, then you are legally bound to share this during the recruitment process. This feels daunting though, largely because of the following ten barriers to employment:

1. Attitudes and awareness

As I shared in my last post, many people underestimate the abilities of people who are blind. This will often feed into doubt regarding our capacity to perform the role. It can also lead to employers questioning our ability to move safely around the workplace.

2. Lack of suitable jobs

Many people who are blind often find themselves in highly specialised roles, such as assistive technology training, teaching braille or disability advocacy, because the number of mainstream jobs we can perform is so restricted. Duffy and Dik state in their 2009 paper, “individuals with a disability may be forced to choose jobs and careers that best fit with their disability rather than with their personalities or goals”.

3. Lack of quality career advice

Career advisors in high school and post-secondary institutions can restrict career options for students based on their own misconceptions and biases. Blind Citizens Australia reported that several students who are blind have been discouraged from pursuing career interests because “blind people can’t do that job”.

4. Lack of work experience

A job seeker with well-rounded skills and experience has become the benchmark for many positions, including entry-level positions. While many teenagers gain experience in retail or hospitality jobs, most teenagers who are blind cannot perform these roles. You are highly unlikely to see someone who is blind assembling your next Big Mac, for example.

5. Limited success of Disability Employment Services

I may be calling out the elephant in the room here, but these service providers are often unsuccessful at securing employment for their clients. In fact, a survey conducted by Blind Citizens Australia found that only 35% of respondents had been successful in gaining employment through a Disability Employment Service. The study revealed that they often have little understanding of how to best support a person who is blind to secure a job. So how can they possibly advocate for us? My friend tried three different Disability Employment Services between 2013-19, including one that specialised in assisting people who are blind. She told me that only one consultant in that time actively sought out opportunities for her. Ultimately, she found her current job herself.

6. Inaccessibility

There are many ways a workplace can be inaccessible for people who are blind. Barriers within the recruitment process may include inaccessible online applications and interview systems. It is also common for job descriptions to list a current driver’s license as a requirement (even though the job may involve very little travel). Barriers within the organisation’s internal systems may include the use of inaccessible databases and software.

7. Community barriers that limit access

People who are blind need to be able to physically access and move around the workplace. This means that it probably needs to be accessible via public transport, and infrastructure (such as elevators) need to be accessible.

8. Reluctance to hire someone who is blind

Many employers are concerned about the time, effort and money it will cost to make a workplace accessible, especially the cost of assistive technology. If you think about it, someone with equal qualifications but who is not blind could walk in the door tomorrow and start their job without any modifications. How can we compete with that?

9. Inefficiency

Sometimes, the unfortunate reality is that someone who is using assistive technology cannot be as efficient as their sighted counterparts. My friend knows the person who runs an employment program for people with disability at a large organisation. When she approached him to discuss the possibility of getting a job, he explained that his manager had specifically told him not to hire any more employees who use screen-reading technology because they can’t complete enough of the required tasks.

10. Non-24-Hour Sleep-Wake Disorder

This is a very common challenge for people who are totally blind because of their inability to see light, which regulates the circadian rhythm. This means that their body clock is often out of whack. My friend sometimes only gets one or two hours’ sleep at night, leaving her exhausted during the day. She admits that this makes it difficult to hold down a full-time job.

The social model of disability distinguishes between impairment and disability. According to this model, impairment is defined as “a difference or loss of function arising from genetic factors, illness or injury”. On the other hand, disability is defined as “an inability to take part in everyday activities on an equal basis with others due to barriers that exist because of mainstream society”. This model was fundamental because it gave people with disability a framework for recognising that many of the challenges we face rest with the decisions and actions of society, and not with ourselves. In other words, it is society that makes us “disabled”, not our physical, cognitive or sensory impairments. The human rights model of disability extends the social model slightly by acknowledging that mainstream barriers that exist in society are only one part of the puzzle. Even once these barriers are removed, many people with disability will still need a range of disability-related supports to enjoy their rights on an equal basis with others.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. I have come up with some strategies that I believe will help someone who is blind increase their chances of finding employment. I am by no means an expert, but these strategies are my way of synthesising advice I have gained over the years through career advisors, academic literature, personal experience and so on.

1. Know your rights

After disclosing your disability to a prospective employer, the only questions they can legally ask include how you will perform the inherent requirements of the role and whether you will need any workplace adjustments to carry out the role. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there is state and federal legislation that makes discrimination illegal. This can present a new challenge though, as brandishing the legislation during the recruitment process may not make you seem overly attractive to a prospective employer. Knowing our rights is still important though, and there are several ways you can make a complaint or report an organisation if needs be.

On another note, be prepared to discuss flexible work arrangements. Most workplaces should be open to these discussions, especially in a post-pandemic world, and people with a disability are entitled to ask for reasonable accommodations. Flexible arrangements could include things like hours of work (such as changes to start and finish times), patterns of work (such as split shifts or job sharing) and locations of work (such as working from home). In Australia, the Fair Work Commission has more information about this, including how to approach this discussion with your employer.

2. Learn about available supports

If you can quell any concerns prospective employers may have about hiring you, they are more likely to be open-minded about the idea. For example, JobAccess is the national hub for workplace and employment information for people with disability, employers, and service providers. It was created by the Australian government to help people with disability find and keep jobs, get promoted to better jobs and upgrade or expand their workplace skills.

Arguably one of the most useful services offered by JobAccess is the Employment Assistance Fund. This fund will cover the costs of changes that need to occur within the workplace to allow someone with a disability to perform a certain job. It can include buying equipment or funding modifications to the workplace. This means that it will not cost the employer money to hire someone with a disability. There are also service providers out there that can help you prepare a stellar resume and put together the perfect outfit for a job interview. Take advantage of these supports to maximise your chances!

3. Devote time and energy into your own personal development

Making sure you are as confident as you can be with your assistive tech will help you nail your job. Most jobs these days are going to require you to use technology, so if you can be confident in your ability to conquer that tech, you’ll already have a head start. I also think the same goes for O&M (Orientation and Mobility). If you are confident in your skills to get to and around the workplace, it is one less thing that you will need to worry about on your first day. Starting a job is a huge transition, so focusing on your personal development beforehand is a worthwhile investment in my opinion.

4. Network

We have all heard the adage “it’s not what you know – it’s who you know”. This is no less true for people with disability. We need to seek out opportunities wherever we can. Even if you don’t know anyone who has the power to hire you themselves, they might be able to put in a good word for you at their organisation. This personal referral is especially important for us because the personal contact will be able to assure them that we are just as capable. That will help to eliminate those concerns. It may mean that we can be considered on equal grounds as everyone else anyway, rather than finding our way straight to the ‘too hard basket’.

5. Show, don’t tell

Take your assistive technology into your job interviews so you can show the interviewers how you use it. Briefly showing them how you navigate the computer will be more impactful than trying to explain it to them.

6. Focus on the advantages

We all have strengths to offer, but having a disability sometimes gives us an advantage! For example, JobAccess reports that people with a disability are often the most loyal employees. We also tend to be good communicators and problem-solvers which can make us an asset to an organisation.

7. Be resilient

It’s true – it’s probably going to be a rough ride. Therefore, it is so important for us to be resilient and never give up. Request feedback if you are unsuccessful when applying for a job. This will help you improve the next time. And make sure you call on your family and friends for emotional support when needed.

Some advice for employers and other employees

Before I let you get on with the rest of your day, I want to reassure you about something. It is perfectly okay and perfectly natural to be curious about people whose experiences are dissimilar to your own. It is natural to wonder “how did she read and respond to my email?” Or “how does she put on makeup?” As I have mentioned before, humans are innately curious creatures. I think it’s normal to wonder how other people move through their own lives. But as long as you remain open-minded and willing to learn, then we are all good. It is only a problem if people are ignorant and unwilling to expand their horizons.

On that note, a message to any employers out there. If someone with a disability has applied for a role, make sure you spend some time learning about them and their capabilities so you can consider them on an equal level with other applicants. Further to that, take some time to think about your own organisation. Is your organisation placing unnecessary barriers in the road? Do you require a driver’s license in your job descriptions? Are you using an inaccessible job application process? Are you open to flexible working arrangements? Are you aware of the government supports that are available to you as an employer to help make your workforce more diverse? If you would like to find out how you can make your organisation more inclusive, I encourage you to check out Inclusive Australia. They work collaboratively with organisations to achieve behavioural change. Their programs are designed to shift attitudes in order to build more inclusive workplaces.

While this post has been directed mostly towards people who are blind, I hope that everyone reading it has found it impactful on some level. If I make just one person more open-minded about hiring someone who is blind, then I have done my job (no pun intended). I also want to give a quick but super grateful shoutout to my anonymous friend who allowed me to share parts of her story.

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