Writing Job Descriptions

JOB Employer's Bulletin / 1997

Have you ever read a lawsuit-waiting-to-happen? Recently JOB received a prize example of a job listing that is not in the spirit of the "Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)." Actually, it's the worst we've ever read. Here it is:

CHILD CARE - ASSISTANT SITE LEADER: COMMUNITY EDUCATION "ADVENTURES PLUS" PROGRAM. The performance responsibilities for this position include, but are not limited to, the following:

1) Plan and carry out recreational activities for school-age children in the Adventures Plus Program.
2) Direct supervision of children involved in the program.

PHYSICAL FACTORS include: FREQUENT: standing, walking, sitting, talking, hearing, smelling, and visual accommodation;

OCCASIONAL: reclining, lifting above shoulder, lifting waist to chest, lifting below waist, carrying, pushing, pulling, climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, squatting, crawling, twisting/pivot, reaching, repetitive foot, repetitive arm, simple grasp, firm grasp, fine manipulating, and feeling.


"Partners in educating all learners for a successful future in an ever-changing world."

JOB notes that this school district, in legal language, has a position announcement that would have "a chilling effect" on the application and hiring of blind persons (or persons with other disabilities). Even though it's not a recommended practice in modern childcare facilities, does something in the "Adventures Plus Program" necessitate that childcare workers lift or carry school age children? Why is there such an extraordinary list of "physical factors?" Nothing indicates why the request for a perfect human specimen is warranted. We have to wonder--does this employer misassess the mandate in the "Americans With Disabilities Act" along with the meaning of "Equal Opportunity Employer," or do they badly need to rewrite their job announcements?

ADA or not, can blind employees actually do anything and everything that sighted employees can do? Well, no. It is true that some jobs are actually unsuited to the employment of a legally blind worker, or even illegal. We would not suggest a blind person be hired, for example, as a driver for a pizza outlet, as a school bus driver, a tugboat captain, a pool lifeguard, an ICU nurse, an operating room surgeon, or a professional baseball athlete. These jobs have in common a reliance on hand-eye coordination along with the current impossibility of making their tools and some essential tasks accessible with the use of currently available technology. At present, there are no reliable alternative techniques by which a blind worker can perform 80 percent or more of the job's essential functions.

Unfortunately for job seekers who are blind, few employers have the training to be 100 percent accurate in their assessment of which jobs can and cannot be done by legally blind job applicants. For some jobs, good alternative techniques of blindness are all that is needed. In others, new tools open up new jobs, even as some new tools close off some positions until the equipment is again made accessible. The variables are endless, whether for adaptive aids and techniques or for the skills of the individuals hired.

Therefore, how can a conscientious personnel officer write a job description that will be fair to the employer's need to have the job done well and to a job applicant who is blind?

We suggest you first decide to make it task-based. Mandate the result, not the method. This "Bulletin" will share some reasonable language in actual position announcements along with four true stories about jobs currently held by blind Americans. Let's start with childcare:


Mrs. Carla McQuillan is blind. She is also a Montessori-trained childcare specialist who owns and runs her own Montessori school in Oregon. Children's Choice Montessori has 62 children on a daily basis and a waiting list for any openings. Year around she supervises 4 full-time and 6 part-time workers. These pictures were taken on a typical day at the school.

In the summer, Children's Choice Montessori runs a very successful summer camp for elementary school children that offers a wide range of cultural, artistic, educational, and athletic challenges. In 1996, 28 children attended the camp; this summer, due to parental begging camp capacity will be doubled to serve almost 60 children.

On June 29, 1996, Mrs. McQuillan supervised a successful daylong trip to the Pacific Ocean shoreline via train, with 6 volunteer assistants and 25 children aged 8 to 16 (some of whom have disabilities.) Tidal pools were examined, sand castles were made; the ocean was experienced. It was a lovely and educational day at the beach. Children and their parents are always thoroughly pleased with the many adventurous outings Mrs. McQuillan plans and manages.


The photo (photo unavailable) shows Mrs. Boose and a peregrine falcon which was released by the U.S. Park Service in Isle Royale, a wilderness park near the U.S.-Canadian border. Mrs. Boose was hired by the Service because, she said, "I was in the right place at the right time." She sent the photo and wrote the following description of her job:

[At first] my duties were to monitor and respond to Park radio traffic, to monitor the marine radio and respond to any calls to the Park Service from boaters, put up the flag, and take mail out to the mail boat which came around 3 times per week. This boat also carried passengers around the island. I answered the phones and took messages. If there was a medical emergency I assisted the Park EMTs [emergency medical technicians] by relaying messages and calling doctors. This was the most stressful part of the job. I also kept track of case incident numbers (issuing them to rangers when they needed them) and lost-and-found items.

To do my job I had the following equipment: a computer with voice output, a light sensor which I used for the phones [It beeps when held over a lighted, active line], a tape recorder, a Braille writer, and an Optacon, which I used to fill in print forms until I had them computerized.

One of the biggest challenges was organizing the lost and found. Each item had to be numbered so I made a database on the computer which had everything that is on the actual form for lost and found items. People would call me on park radio. I would give them a number and they would give me most of the information I needed for the computer. Then, I would send them an envelope with a case number in Braille for me and in print for them on the outside. I had them put the form for lost items in the envelope and, if there was a found item, I had them attach the envelope with the form to the item. This way I could handle the lost and found items without needing much assistance from a sighted person. I also made up a Phone Message Form on the computer and filled it in whenever someone had a phone message. I put Braille names on all the mailboxes so I could put the message in the right mailbox.
Last summer was my first summer working in the Houghton Visitor's Center and there were lots of new things to learn, for example: operating a cash register, booking passengers for the Ranger III (a boat) with a computerized reservation system, and answering visitor questions and requests.

I have been working for the Park for 10 years now and really enjoy it. I like new challenges and learning new things and I like figuring out how to do things as independently and simply as possible.


Scientists consider Dr. Vermeij, an expert on seashells, to be one of the world's greatest biologists studying evolution. He has been totally blind since childhood. In between his trips to investigate seashells around the world, Dr. Vermeij is a professor at University of California, Davis, and the editor of a respected journal in his field. He's written the following about his career:

Seeing how my own manuscripts benefited greatly from passing the gauntlet of reviewers and editors, I concluded that involvement in the publication of scientific journals held promise as a potentially rewarding way to serve my profession. I began with "Paleobiology. . ." . [I]n 1992, I became editor of "Evolution. . ." . This journal. . . receives roughly 450 manuscripts per year on all aspects of evolution. [pp 256-7]

Shells have always been more to me than just beautiful variations on an elegant theme of spiral architecture. These works of art, and the environments in which they were fashioned, have shown me the way to some of the larger questions in biology, questions about function and evolution and construction. Almost all my research began with observations in the field and on specimens in my collections. [p 263]

I cannot claim to observe shells better than others do, nor would I pretend to discriminate more easily among species on the basis of shell features than other malacologists do. Every observer brings to his or her own science a unique perspective, and I am no exception. Inspection of an object with fingertips, fingernails, and thin needles reveals not only the broad outlines but also the small-scale details--the number, relative size, and orientation of elements of sculpture; the placement of teeth and folds surrounding snail-shell apertures; the pattern and asymmetry of clam-valve serrations; and the like--that a casual observer is apt to overlook. [p 265]

[Excerpted with permission from his autobiography, "Privileged Hands: A Scientific Life" by Geerat Vermeij, c1997.]


He is a talented electrical engineer, a graduate of Stanford University, a father, a husband, and totally blind. After several years on the engineering and research staff of QUALCOMM, Inc., a high-tech telecommunications company, Mr. Miller was hired as a senior engineer by Rockwell Semiconductor Systems (a part of Rockwell, International). He is currently working on designs for new computer modems that will work at one-and one-half megabits per second or faster. This high-speed digital- subscriber-line research is in their Network Access Division.

To fulfill a part of his job description at Rockwell, he attends meetings on ASCII standards. Recently, Mr. Miller travelled to Tel Aviv to debug a sister-company's system and to add their ideas to his research project.

As other engineers at his level must do, he screens job applicants who apply to work for Rockwell. Mr. Miller told JOB this particular task, which many engineers consider drudgery, he very much enjoys. "Isn't that great!" he said. "A blind man is making hiring decisions!"

The majority of job descriptions we receive are skills-based and goals-oriented. When job descriptions are flawed, the major error we see is that of requiring a driver's license for a profession that requires a professional to travel but is not trying to hire a professional driver.

For example, too many descriptions read: "Social Worker needed, must have driver's license" or "Custodian needed, driver's license required."

JOB knows many blind professionals who travel regularly. We suggest companies and agencies change their language to leave the door open. For example, the position descriptions above could be restated as "Must handle own transportation for on-time delivery of services; travel stipend provided." Or in a shorter form, we suggest "Social Worker: 80% travel, 20% office." On a custodial crew, it is likely there will be a need for some of the workers to have a driver's license; but it is unlikely that all of the custodians will need one.

JOB offers free consultation to any employer with questions about company job descriptions or about making jobs accessible to blind employees. Let's keep the doors open. Ask yourself whether your company's current job descriptions would prevent your company from hiring a Carla McQuillan, Lynda Boose, Dr. Vermeij, or John Miller. True "equal opportunity" can help your company toward "a successful future in an ever-changing world."