People with any disability have an unemployment rate more than twice that of those without a disability. Only around one-third of working-age adults with significant vision loss is employed between the ages of 21 and 64, according to the EEOC.
“The largest barrier is societal/employer attitudes and misconceptions about the capabilities of individuals who are blind or DeafBlind,” says George Abbott, CEO and president at The Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc., the single largest U.S. employer of DeafBlind employees and the largest employer west of the Mississippi of people who are blind.
Blindness doesn’t limit employability — only access to visual information resulting from damage to the eye, age- or disease-related degeneration, or the brain’s inability to interpret messages sent from the eyes. According to the EEOC, between 6.6 and 10 million people are blind or visually impaired. DeafBlindness is a combination of hearing and vision loss.
The DeafBlind community prefers this capitalization usage.”DeafBlind is its own cultural subgroup, even within the Deaf community,” explains Employee and Community Services Vice President Amy Koehl. “That’s why there is not a hyphen because it is one element, not two separate things…it’s bigger than the sum of its parts.”
The Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc. creates increased diverse, sustainable, and meaningful employment opportunities for people who are blind, DeafBlind and blind with other disabilities in the Puget Sound region and over a dozen other locations served. The Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc. employs more than 70 machinists who are blind and DeafBlind to produce parts for various aerospace manufacturers. The organization also creates office products, hydration equipment and other products for the federal government and U.S. military.
Recent government contracts awarded to The Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc. allowed the organization to expand to six new locations on military bases where they sell their manufactured products, in addition to thousands of other products; two stores sell transportation products and services and the remaining four offer office and other workplace supplies. Store positions are fully accessible to people with disabilities — for example, providing access to screen magnification and screen-reading software.
Large monitors, speech output and refreshable braille displays help employees who are blind and DeafBlind independently operate machines to produce precision aerospace parts. People with low vision or using a cane can navigate production workspace floors by following clearly defined pathways created from raised, high-contrast lines.
More job opportunities open up if employers make accommodations relying on often-simple changes and assistive devices. “Some hiring managers assume a blind person may require expensive accommodations,” Abbott says. “This is rarely the case.”
Abbott notes that workplace accommodations or necessary equipment depend on the individual’s needs, work environment, and job responsibilities. A few examples:
- A small gooseneck lamp to focus light on the user’s task.
- A larger computer monitor or screen-magnification software.
- Screen-reader software so the user can hear computer text aloud.
- Raised dots or pieces of tape on a copy machine, printer or microwave to locate important buttons by touch.
More digital and wireless technology devices are becoming available to help people communicate and participate in the workplace.
“Braille translation software along with braille embossers allow the conversion of text from documents and spreadsheets into hardcopy braille,” Abbott says. “There are so many wonderful tools to meet just about any need,” he says.
Everyday devices can also be crucial for the blind and DeafBlind. “The smartphone and a wide number of apps have become extremely helpful tools for researching information, using rideshare services, identifying currency, planning and monitoring walking and public transit routes, and so much more,” Abbott notes.
The Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc. has helped many employers bump up their accessibility game, ranging from large corporations to smaller businesses. Guidance offered included blindness awareness training, creating a more-accessible cafeteria layout, providing website usability feedback, getting braille on signage and assessing the best access technology for computer installation.
The Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc. also offers employable skills through its Computer Training Program and introduction to assistive technology. The program teaches eight different courses, including basic keyboarding skills, Microsoft Office, iPhone with VoiceOver/Siri, and refreshable braille displays.
“It might be hard to imagine that people with visual impairments can perform in the workplace like anyone else,” Abbott says. “But this is because hiring managers do not understand the techniques, adaptations and technologies that are available.”
The Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc. empowers people who are blind, DeafBlind and blind with other disabilities by creating diverse, sustainable and meaningful employment opportunities. Visit our website to learn about how people who are blind power everything we do.