Braille Monitor               October 2022

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The Elephant in the Room: Where the Blind Work

by Maurice Peret

Maurice PeretFrom the Editor: Maurice is enthusiastic about many things but none more so than helping blind people get good jobs. When he is passionate about something and decides to write about it, we are the beneficiaries. Here is what he has to say:

As we celebrate Blind Equality Achievement Month in October, I would like to highlight the Where the Blind Work series from our Center of Employment Opportunities (CEO), one of our Blindness Initiatives programs. You can read more about it at https://nfb.org/index.php/programs-services/employment.

This is an ongoing opportunity for us to hear from blind and low-vision workers and professionals performing in a wide range of jobs and careers. As we get the word out about this program, it may contribute to helping to change perceptions and attitudes of employers and of ourselves about what we can do by hearing from blind people doing them.

As of this writing, we have heard from blind people performing in professions such as:

And Educators,

With over twenty years of professional experience in the field of work with the blind, I have been employed in a variety of private, integrated and non-integrated, and nonprofit work environments that ranged from newspaper delivery and subscription sales to telemarketing and fund-raising, industrial assembly work, teaching cane travel and coordinating rehabilitation projects, talent recruiting and human resources, and, presently, coordinating the National Federation of the Blind Career Mentoring and Employment Programs. One might surmise that if I can claim expertise in anything based upon how much time I spent doing it, it might be in searching for jobs. On this journey, I have directly confronted public misconceptions and addressed employer inquiries about blindness. Probably the most common curiosity that I have either implicitly or explicitly encountered from employers, the proverbial elephant in the room, has been what can a blind employee actually do, and what will the cost be to the organization? If there is one thing that I have learned well in my many years as a job seeker, it has been the internalization of my responsibility to successfully demonstrate an ability to perform the essential functions of the job and to sufficiently articulate what adaptations are needed to ensure success.

I cannot resist sharing a story that illustrates problem-solving and quick thinking on my feet. During a stint of unemployment while living in West Virginia, I received a phone call from the local employment office asking if I was still interested in working. I was rather taken aback since I could not recall ever having gotten a call like this from what has become known today as the American Job Center or AJC. The person on the other line informed me that the employer would be outside the mall where a Walmart was being set up, and workers were needed to unload tractor trailers. I vividly remember asking, “Do you know who you are speaking with?” I found it hard to believe that they were contacting me in the first place, let alone whether they were aware that I was blind. The caller clearly did not know me, but I quickly answered that I would show up at the designated spot. So, the next day off I went with my long white cane to find a few men standing around waiting for the trucks to arrive. After figuring out who the boss was, I announced that I was here to work. After a few awkward silent moments, he asked, “Can you see?” I answered frankly, “No.” Then came the negotiation. Since this was not, by far, the first time I would encounter a sense of surprise and even shock at my determination as a blind person to perform the job as advertised, I was prepared to answer his objection. I told him that I had a friend, a big guy who stood six foot five, who just happened to be laid off from the railroad and who would be willing to join me and provide whatever assistance it was thought might be needed. The boss muttered something to the effect of “I don’t have time to babysit you, but if you can come up with someone who you can work with, fine.” With this opportunity on the line, I called my friend and got his voicemail box, and I left a detailed message about the worksite. I quickly called up another friend, a man of more wiry and diminutive stature. He stood five foot six and was laid off from his regular job in the coal mines. He answered and ultimately showed up for the job. Eventually, my story was verified when the original friend that I had described and with whom I had left a message came out and put in a couple of days work along with the rest of us.

Although we began working together on the same truck, as the day progressed, my ability to work swiftly and independently became clear, and we each migrated to different trucks for the duration of the job. The boss made a point at the end to tell me that, despite his earlier doubts, he was convinced that I was perfectly capable of pulling my own weight and performing equally with my workmates.

In my present-day capacity as a blindness professional helping to prepare job seekers for success, the key elements I emphasize to blind job candidates include problem-solving skills, ability to navigate safely and independently in both familiar and unfamiliar environments, and an ability to adapt and learn new technologies. Outside of these blindness-specific elements, the expectations must be the same, e.g., strong resume, including educational and training background, effective oral and written communication skills, good work habits, etc. The National Federation of the Blind has a full complement of programs necessary to prepare blind employees to be successful, including comprehensive blindness emersion, confidence building, and academic and technical skills training.

The NFB’s Where the Blind Work series is designed to demonstrate the breadth and variety of jobs and careers performed by individuals who are blind or have low vision. Just as with everything we do as a people’s movement of the blind, this effort requires your help and support. If you or someone you know who is blind or has low vision is working in an interesting job or career, we need to hear from you! For the eighty years of our collective existence, we in the Federation have known that, given proper training and opportunity, we as blind people can and do compete on terms of absolute equality. The way we perform tasks might not always look the same, but we know how to get the job done effectively and efficiently. Through strategic partnerships between employers and the National Federation of the Blind, together we can ensure that opportunities for success begin to bridge the gap of societal inequality that stubbornly persists today.

Who will we hear from next in our Where the Blind Work series? You may hold the answer. For more information or to tell us about your interesting or unique job, contact Maurice Peret, Coordinator of Career Mentoring and Employment Programs at 410-659-9314, extension 2350 or [email protected].

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