Only 10% of children who are blind are being taught Braille.
Only 30% of adults who are blind are employed.
85% of adults who are blind and know Braille, are employed.
Let that second statistic sink in. The current unemployment rate as I type this in the U.S. is 6.9%. Even during the current pandemic when people have been filing for unemployment at staggering levels, the highest the unemployment rate reached this year was 14.7%. During the Great Depression, unemployment reached the highest it has ever reached at 25%. For adults who are blind the rate is 70%! SEVENTY PERCENT UNEMPLOYMENT.
The first time I learned this, not long after Finn was born, I was floored. I still am. While there are surely many factors contributing to this horrifying statistic, I have no doubt that the one that looms largest is discrimination. I’ve heard tale after tale from those who are blind of applying for jobs that they are qualified for, often more than qualified for, only to be rejected or passed over for someone else simply because they are lacking vision or have low vision. Employers who encounter a blind applicant may assume things like, “this person isn’t capable of performing the job” or “this person will require adaptations I’m not willing or able to provide” or they may just have implicit biases under the surface that they aren’t even aware are there. As is true for so many people with a disability, the bottom line is blindness continues to be unfairly associated with incompetence. The key word here is unfairly. The fact is, people who are blind can perform most jobs that sighted people can and there is no such thing as a “blind person’s job”. Of course people who are blind can’t perform ALL jobs that sighted people can, but sighted people can’t perform ALL jobs either. There are blind people all over the world successfully working as architects, engineers, designers, physicians, judges, artists and scientists, among many other professions. As a sighted person, I can say with confidence I could not successfully work in most of these fields myself!
Technology has come far in recent decades, opening the doors for more opportunities for the blind community among others, but clearly disability biases remain or this statistic would not. So, what can we do? One misconception I hear a lot is that “there is no point” for those with low or no vision to learn Braille anymore. Yes, screen readers or audio books and other technological advances allow for all of us to “read” without sight, but that is not the same as being literate. And for anyone, being literate correlates with academic success, employment and higher wages. Taking a look back at the statistics I started with, 85% of those who are blind and who know Braille are employed! It is clear that this correlation of literacy and employment doesn’t just apply to print readers. So, it may come as no surprise that I’ve been exposing Finn to Braille since birth. We have tons of books for him that are Brailled and his TVI (Teacher for the Visually Impaired) recently made individual alphabet books for him that are teaching him how to recognize each letter by touch. We’re also working on exposing him to the Braille cell through 6-hole muffin tins that we fill with tennis balls to form different letters. Sloane has taken to both and we expose her to how her brother will learn to read all the time as well. I’ve also just completed a Braille class myself and am now able to Braille books, objects and other items throughout our house on my own using a Brailler (it weighs a ton and looks like a chunky old school typewriter and yet has become one of my most prized possessions). Ensuring my son is literate is the best way I know how to combat the staggering statistics working against him.
As for discrimination, I encourage all who are ever in a position of hiring someone to do your part to combat these statistics too. How? For starters, make sure your company website and hiring sites are all accessible so that those with visual impairments have equal access to job postings. Equal opportunity employment starts with the posting itself. Secondly, educate yourself on the multitude of technologies, adaptations and accessibility tools there are out there to support the visually impaired in completing any task. Adaptations are not hard to provide and are no different than providing an employee with software or a computer to do their job. Simply ask a visually impaired candidate, what tools would you need to effectively do this job? Third, attend White Cane Day events or other opportunities to meet more people in your community who are blind or visually impaired. One of the biggest ways we discriminate is through isolating or ignoring marginalized groups. Assumptions are falsely made when we don’t allow ourselves to observe, interact and learn from others who are different from us. Finally, and most of all, do not discriminate! It’s really that simple. Don’t make assumptions about anyone before you’ve met them or really given them the opportunity to show you who they are what they can do. If you aren’t open to hiring an applicant with a visual impairment, I’d say you are actually the one lacking vision. My bet is, you’ll end up gaining as much, if not more, from hiring the applicant that may require some out of the box thinking on your part than you could ever aim to imagine when writing out that job description!