Getting exact data about how many people with visual impairments are unemployed is difficult, because the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts those not working and not actively looking for work in a category called “not in the labor force,” thereby eliminating them from the unemployment rate. The American Foundation for the Blind estimates that nearly three-quarters of the blind are not employed, if you go by the BLS manner of gathering statistics -- and that’s pretty close to the average of 70 percent that advocacy groups for the blind often give.
One of the main reasons cited for the high unemployment rate among the blind and visually impaired is a plain old lack of knowledge. Employers and workers alike are unaware of the many technological advances in assistive technology that put blind workers on a level playing field. Everything from talking computers to braille keyboards can open opportunities for the blind in most workplaces.
Stereotypes prevail when it comes to hiring blind people. Employers fear that the blind worker will present workplace safety issues or require too much assistance to do the job. Few workers challenge hiring practices under the Americans with Disabilities Act, making it easier for employers to continue with their biased recruiting efforts. Public misconceptions about the capabilities of educated blind workers are pervasive and continue to make it difficult for blind people to get jobs.
Many blind advocates believe that teachers for the visually impaired are ill prepared to teach blind students how to integrate into society so they can become independent. Young blind students looking for summer jobs to prepare them for a career have difficulty finding accessible part-time and temporary positions, leaving them unprepared for the working world when they do graduate. Seniors over the age of 50 who lose their sight due to accidents or age-related diseases often don’t get the kind of training they need to retain their jobs or find new work.
The government created laws that should help the blind find work, but those same laws don’t seem to be strong enough, or enough blind workers aren’t filing discrimination lawsuits. The ADA protects blind workers from discrimination. Under the law, employers can't even ask if a job applicant has a disability. They can, however, ask if the applicant needs reasonable accommodations to do the job. Sure, you need to be able to see to do some jobs. People might not appreciate a blind surgeon or dentist, but many types of work are accessible. The ADA also urges employers to put aside their biased, uninformed stereotypes when making hiring decisions.
- Lighthouse for the Blind: FAQs
- American Foundation for the Blind: Interpreting Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Data
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Employment Status
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Q&A About Blindness
- USA Today: Employer Bias Thwarts Many Blind Workers
- National Federation of the Blind: Challenges in Education
Linda Ray is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years reporting experience. She's covered business for newspapers and magazines, including the "Greenville News," "Success Magazine" and "American City Business Journals." Ray holds a journalism degree and teaches writing, career development and an FDIC course called "Money Smart."