American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: The World of Work      A LETTER FROM THE EDITOR

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Stories and Statistics

by Deborah Kent Stein

Deborah Kent SteinIn 1918 a blind educator named Kate M. Foley gave a lecture about the education of blind children. She anticipated a time when blind people would be integrated fully into society. Many blind women and men would attend college and enter the professions. Those who did not pursue higher education would train to work in "electric wiring, pipe fitting, screw fitting, bolt nutting, assembling of chandeliers and telephone parts, [and would] be trained as a plumber's helper, and taught to read gas and electric meters by passing the fingers over the dial." Since Foley's time, blind individuals have indeed entered nearly every profession and trade. There are blind lawyers, blind therapists, blind doctors, blind teachers, and blind scientists. There have been blind chefs, electricians, carpenters, and auto mechanics.

Despite the proven capability of blind people, however, the employment statistics are grim. According to survey after survey, nearly 70 percent of blind people of working age are unemployed or underemployed. Despite antidiscrimination laws such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, these disheartening figures have barely budged.

The roots of the problem are tangled and complex. Employers' negative attitudes and liability concerns are a significant part of the picture. Today many online job applications require proof of a driver's license, even when the job has nothing to do with driving a vehicle. Inaccessible technology puts many jobs out of reach for blind applicants. The National Federation of the Blind and other advocacy groups are working hard to break down these barriers to employment.

Other factors also contribute to the unemployment and underemployment of blind people today. Unfortunately, many blind people grow up without some of the basic skills that would help them be employable. Braille literacy, the ability to use technology, and strong orientation and mobility skills can be key to finding and holding a job. Good social skills—the ability to relate to others comfortably and put them at ease—also play a part. Blind people who see themselves as active participants at home and in the community are best equipped to enter the workplace.

This issue of Future Reflections examines some of the complex issues around the employment of blind people. Carla McQuillan points out the importance of early experiences for blind children, how helping with chores at home prepares them to become active and assertive in the wider world. Anil Lewis warns against the common practice of lightening school assignments for blind students, and Michal Nowicki writes about his decision to pursue training in blindness skills before he entered college. Jacki Bruce describes Project RISE, a mentoring program designed to prepare blind teens for the world of work.

The experiences of people employed in a variety of settings show how blind people prepare for and find work today. Karolline Austen shares how her work as an interpreter helped her step into a managerial position. Kayde Rieken describes her training and work as a court reporter, and Mausam Mehta explains how she meets the challenges of her position with American Express. Chemical biologist Mona Minkara shows that blind people have unique contributions to make in the sciences. Prosecuting attorney Yusef Dale gives tips on how a blind person can gain the respect of colleagues and hold onto a job once hired.

The employment possibilities for blind people are varied and vast. Upcoming issues of Future Reflections will include more stories of blind people who are working in a wide range of occupations. We will continue to promote programs and activities that help prepare blind children to become active participants in the workforce and in society at large.

The world that Kate Foley predicted more than a century ago is still possible. With love, hope, and determination, we can make it a reality. The National Federation of the Blind is committed to overturning the dismal unemployment figures that have persisted for so long and proving that, as blind people, we truly can live the lives we want.

You can read Kate Foley's article at https://nfb.org/sites/nfb.org/files/images/nfb/publications/fr/fr28/fr2/fr280206.htm.

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