Braille Monitor                                                    February 2008

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The 70 Percent Solution
Employment Preparation in a Center Environment

by Dick Davis

Dick DavisFrom Dan Frye: Dick Davis, assistant director of BLIND, Incorporated, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, delivered a reflective yet practical presentation on the topic of preparing students in a center-based environment for work during the Employment breakout session held on Wednesday afternoon, December 5, 2007. He previously administered the Minnesota rehabilitation unit serving blind people and worked as a manager at the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. Over the course of his varied career, Dick has generated and cultivated a variety of innovative solutions to address the challenge of the unemployment and underemployment of blind people. The text of his address follows:

What makes a prevocational training center for the blind different from an independent living one? It’s not the skills taught--most centers teach Braille, cane travel (O&M), computers, home and personal management, and some form of industrial or manual arts. It has little to do with the qualifications of a center’s staff, its building design, or the fact that it may be part of a vocational rehabilitation agency.
The main difference is its focus. A prevocational training center is focused on employment, on getting its graduates good jobs. That’s the case whether they go directly into employment after graduation or go on into mainstream higher education or job training and from there into employment. The problem is that most training centers don’t know how to be prevocational centers, and because of that fact their students fail to get jobs.

A recent survey of graduates of the three training centers in our state produced some interesting results. Initially the response rate of BLIND, Inc.’s, graduates was very low in comparison to that of the other two centers. However, when the survey team started calling our graduates in the evening, their response rate shot up dramatically, meeting or exceeding the others’. Our graduates were working, looking for work, or going to college or technical school, not sitting at home.

Here are some ideas to consider and actions you can take if you want to make your program a prevocational center. The list is intended to give you the broad framework you need to start down that path. I know that the suggestions work because I used them myself to transform the New Mexico Orientation Center into a prevocational center, and we use them at BLIND, Inc., our NFB training center in Minneapolis.

Think jobs, and think of center training as a job. Everything we do at BLIND, Inc., has a career focus. Our curricula are designed to provide our students with the skills and self-confidence they need to compete with their sighted peers in today’s labor market, and our instructors emphasize careers in everything they teach. We set consistently high expectations for our students’ performance. Since we try to run our center the same way employers run their places of employment, we expect our students to be in class and on time. If they aren’t, we dock their monthly maintenance payments for tardiness or absenteeism. Is that cruel? Not really--in the real world they’d lose their jobs instead.
Proposed action: Consider the ways in which you can develop a career focus in all of your classes, and find ways to run your center like a place of employment. Have consistently high expectations, and make sure students experience the real-world consequences of their positive or negative behavior.

Don’t protect students: it weakens them and makes them more likely to fail. A major problem in many training programs for the blind is that their staff members reinforce the stereotype that students are fragile and need protection from real life. That might be expected, given the number of nurturing people in work with the blind; but, well intentioned or not, such protective behavior turns out to be a curse. A protected person becomes fragile, and a fragile person is poorly prepared for a competitive work environment. As a result, such a person is far more likely to fail. Instead of protecting our students, we use the structured discovery learning method to help them take on greater and greater challenges. They start out doing simple things with lots of instructor supervision and gradually increase their skills and self-confidence until they are doing complex things with no need for instructor supervision. In our classes, recreational activities, and everything we say and do, we communicate our belief in our students’ ability to meet the challenges and rewards that lie ahead of them.

Proposed action: Work to eliminate the subtle ways your center may be protecting students, and find ways to challenge them instead.

Don’t teach your students that the world owes them a living–it doesn’t. Another major blindness stereotype, and a curse for many centers, is the belief that it is the role of sighted people to take care of the blind. That may work for SSI and other entitlement programs, but it has no place in the world of work. Employers don’t want to know what they can do for a blind job applicant?they want to know what the applicant can do for them. They can’t afford someone who takes up the time of other workers. Anyone who wants to get or keep a job must learn to put the employer’s needs first. At our center we spend a great deal of time working to eliminate dependency in our students and replace it with more positive, employer-focused behavior.

Proposed action: Since many blind people have been conditioned to receive rather than give, you will have to spend a lot of time reversing the effects of this conditioning. Address this issue head on in discussion seminars, and find ways for your students to give back to the community through public service projects or other kinds of volunteerism.

Think of your center as a manufacturing plant and your students as its products. One chapter in the book Don't Send a Resume: And Other Contrarian Rules to Help Land a Great Job by Jeffrey J. Fox is entitled “You Are a Box of Cereal.” It’s the truth–prospective employees are a product, and employers really are shopping for the best they can get. In our center we do everything we can to produce quality products that employers will want to buy. That includes teaching our students the best alternative techniques, building their self-confidence and self-esteem to new highs, and teaching them the most effective strategies to sell themselves to employers. Since we help our students get jobs and follow up afterward, we learn how well our products are performing. The information we gain helps us continually improve to meet students’ and employers’ needs.

Do your graduates have competitive job skills and a high level of confidence in their own abilities? If not, you need to make them that way. To produce a consistently good product, you need a curriculum designed to give your students competitive skills and attitudes. A cafeteria approach, in which they choose what they want to learn, won’t do it. Would you buy a product with missing parts? Employers won’t.
Proposed action: Take a hard look at your graduates. Do they consistently have competitive skills and attitudes? Do they get good jobs? If not, you need to change your training curriculum to achieve that result. If you currently use a cafeteria approach, consider replacing it with something that produces more consistent outcomes.

Encourage your students to choose careers based on what they really want to do, not on what they think a blind person can do. Our students usually reconsider their career choices after they’ve been through about three months of center training. The reason? Increased expectations and self-confidence. It’s the best time for them to do some serious career planning. Many programs try to steer blind people into stereotypical so-called blind occupations (the present one is customer service). However, there is a direct correlation between what a person loves to do and his or her likelihood of success. In our center we encourage all of our students to choose their ideal occupation, and after that we help them figure out how to do it as a blind person. We teach our students that a job’s responsibilities and the way it is done will vary from employer to employer and job to job. We know from networking in the NFB that the job in question is probably already being done by a blind person. Since our students learn to think creatively and believe in themselves, they are likely to be successful in whatever career they pursue.

Proposed action: Encourage your students to reconsider their current career goals. Are their goals based on what they really want to do or on what they think blind people can do? If it’s the latter, help them explore the kinds of careers they’d really like to do. NFB Link, the NFB Jobs listserv, state and private career planning systems, and other resources can help with this process.

Teach your students modern job search methods, and show them how to deal with blindness in the application and interview process. A wealth of information is available about modern job search methods on the Internet, in bookstores, and through state and private employment service offices. State employment agencies often teach creative job search classes using manuals available in Braille, tape, and other accessible formats. It’s impossible in this short presentation to go into any detail on how to handle blindness in the application and interview process, but I can offer you the short version. Mentioning blindness in a resume or cover letter can result in an applicant’s being screened out. If disclosing it won’t definitely help, it’s best not to do so. However, it is essential that a blind applicant discuss blindness early in the job interview to put the employer at ease and encourage questions about alternative techniques and reasonable accommodations.

Proposed action: Explore the many resources for job seekers on the Web and in bookstores. Attend a creative job search class and use some of their ideas with students. Read the Jeffrey Fox book mentioned earlier; it’s available in electronic form on <www.amazon.com>. Check Richard Bolles’ Website, <http://www.jobhuntersbible.com>, and read his book, What Color Is Your Parachute, which contains a section on job seekers with disabilities. With your students listen to the teleconference Bolles did with Chuck Young, president of Hadley School for the Blind. (Go to <http://www.hadley.edu/2_f_past_seminar_hadley.asp>, and scroll down to What Color Is Your Parachute? Recording.) Attend NFB conventions and seminars to meet employed blind people, explore the resources on NFB.org, join the NFB Jobs listserv, and network with people like us who have helped blind people find jobs.

I hope this brief presentation has given you some ideas you’d like to try in your own center. Keep in mind that the most fundamental changes you can make will be in your concepts and attitudes about blindness and in the subtle messages about it that you send to your students. If you make those changes, more will follow, and you will be doing your part to make the 70 percent blind unemployment rate a thing of the past.

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