Q&A: Employment and Vocational Rehabilitation for the Visually Impaired, Part 2
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Q&A: Employment and Vocational Rehabilitation for the Visually Impaired, Part 2

The Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies (BLVS) at Salus University recently hosted a panel discussion, in partnership with Penn State Abington Rehabilitation and Human Services (RHS) Program, called “Employment and Vocational Rehabilitation of Individuals Who are Visually Impaired” to educate current students and practitioners who are employed or seeking employment.

This is part two of a three-part Q and A series featuring:

Kerry S. Lueders, MS, COMS, TVI, CLVT

Director, Low Vision Rehabilitation Program, Programs for Teachers and Children with Visual and Multiple Disabilities, and Assistant Professor, College of Health Sciences, Education and Rehabilitation (CHER), Salus University

Abby Akande, PhD, CRC

Assistant Professor of Rehabilitation and Human Services, Penn State Abington

Jamie Marks, CVRT

Certified Vision Rehabilitation Therapist, Assistive Technology Specialist, Educational Consultant and independent contractor through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), iCanConnect and the Visually Impaired Foundation of Georgia; Certificate program in Vision Rehabilitation Therapy (VRT) ’14, Salus University

Lisa Andrews

Customer, The Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR)

Luis Fontanez, MEd

Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, Altoona Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services (BBVS)

Karen Wolffe, PhD

Owner, Career Counseling and Consultation, LLC, of Austin, Texas

Q: What are some of the successes and barriers that have impacted competitive employment as a result of visual impairment?

Marks:

My answer to this would have been very different a few years ago. Now that we are in a virtual world, this does present a very unique opportunity for those of us who are low vision, vision impaired, and seeking employment, regardless of the job market’s current climate. It goes back to what are the expectations and how do you adapt to change? Let's say, using technology that you're not familiar with; learning how to navigate some alternative transportation; figuring out ways to get food; working from home; working in new households with multigenerational family members; all of these things that the general public is now starting to understand, firsthand, are things that those of us with vision impairments have been living with and adapting to forever.

Jamie Marks

That's what makes you a successful worker. The ability to adapt and communicate effectively is very, very important. I think having counselors and mentors who can help guide in programs such as job readiness or transition academies for the younger people, because as much as we'd like to think everyone has the same opportunities to volunteer or balance school work, play, those things sometimes really need to be taught by somebody other than the people in their households. They just need to have an opportunity to have that access. So, job sampling and informational interviewing. If you think you want to be in customer service, what does that really mean? You need to interview or talk to somebody who actually does that. Call them, ask them questions. What does their day look like?

Andrews:

I think during this time, I call it the sequestering. Some of the things that have made a little more room for success are also the things that maybe have presented themselves as barriers. There are things that I can do in the comfort of my space with my computer, working the way I work because nobody sees, nobody sees how much magnification I'm using, they don't hear my JAWS® (Job Access With Speech) speech. I can have that in the comfort of my own home. On the flip side, all of this Zoom video conferencing is challenging. Oftentimes I am on a Zoom call with sighted people. I'm scared of touching anything because I don't know what I'm touching, I can't necessarily blow it up the way I want so I can see people. It's very visually demanding is my point.

Lisa Andrews

The freedom to work remotely on the one hand is good, but it also exposes just how visual we are and how our world is set up more for the sighted than unsighted or impaired. That's becoming a little more amplified with all of this virtual meeting and even file sharing virtually, there's just a lot more. We're on our screens more. If you are like me and you straddle between screen readers and magnification, that can be taxing, and I think that's probably taxing on sighted people – all of the screen time.

Fontanez:

What are conceptual life successes and barriers? I think first and foremost, one of the greatest successes was the passing of the vocational rehabilitation, and all the legislation that followed, leading all the way up to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Vocational rehabilitation, and all its legislation, gave individuals who are blind or visually impaired at least a fighting chance. Technology, of course. I think that those two key factors have provided the most success, because it gave people the tools and the backing they need to be able to go forward, go beyond the same condition, and fight for the things that they have every right to in the world of work.

I think the most salient barrier I've come across in my time working in this field has been general unawareness on behalf of the general public, organizations and employers of what people who are blind and visually impaired are capable of. So much attention is drawn to the disability, that it overshadows going deeper. People can be very prone, very quickly to value judgments and looking at the surface only.

Luis Fontanez

There's still a lot of covert discrimination. I've heard so many stories from clients about phone calls with potential employers who are going for interviews who sound fine over the phone. Then, the mood changes as soon as the prospective employee goes in, taking a cane side to side or walking in with a service dog or breaking out electronic or analog magnifiers to look over information.

Stigma, social stigmas, are still very salient barriers to the success of people who are blind and visually impaired. Unawareness of what an agency like mine can do for people with disabilities. I see it all the time. There are people who are walking around with Android phones and Apple phones in their pocket, and they have no idea that VoiceOver, the Zoom and magnifier exist on those phones.

Wolffe:

I'm just going to share with you what the people who responded to our World Blind Union employment survey said. We had more than 2,400 people respond. Many of them, 62 percent employed, and these were the things that they liked about their jobs. The people. They liked the people with whom they worked, the employers, the coworkers, the clients, the students, people were always number one. The other two things that came up repeatedly, were they really liked being paid. They liked the salary, they liked having the money come in, that worked really well for them. And they liked it when they had accommodations in the workplace. Everyone else has talked about accommodations, assistive technology and the importance of that, and when it works, it's dynamite and works really well. The other three things they mentioned were respect. The fact that they were valued for who they really are, that they felt the respect emanating from people around them.

Karen Wolffe

They talked about flexibility. For many of them it was because they work remotely or they are self-employed, could pick their own schedules, didn't have to deal with transportation. Then the last thing they mentioned as a real plus was the whole intellectual challenge or learning opportunity that work provides. For many of the people who responded, that was one of the big benefits that they got out of work. The number one problem worldwide for people who are blind or visually impaired in terms of access to work is actually transportation. It is the biggest hassle on the face of earth because they don't drive, typically, and if you don't drive in this modern world, it's a real problem. Even where there's good public transportation, it’s hard to get to where you want to go when you want to go, et cetera.

Q: What is one thing that you could recommend for future practitioners who will be working with adults who are visually impaired and seeking employment?

Marks:

Being such a vast audience that we have here, I think the one thing is to consider or realize the possibility, not the disability. Realize possibility, access opportunity.

Andrews:

I think really understanding more practically who you're dealing with as opposed to just a very clinical understanding. I've dealt with practitioners who seem to have more of a textbook approach and not really an understanding of what real life is like. Some lose that sensitivity of treating someone, not just medically, but emotionally.

Fontanez:

When you're working with people who experience a sudden onset of dramatic vision loss, reinforce the fact that their life has not come to an end. Take the time to listen to their story, because rapid sudden onset of vision impairment is very tough to deal with emotionally, psychologically. When you're working with individuals who are adventitiously blind, they know what they're capable of, and reinforce that there is going to be a future for them if they're willing to do the hard work to find that future.

Above all else, have patience, because it can be very frustrating for people to learn new skills to try to develop the techniques, and the coping strategies can be a shock to the system. I've seen horror stories of individuals who are blind and going through school and having everything handed to them and not being taught the life skills that are going to be so crucial. But when the schools are no longer legally obligated to, I've seen individuals push past that and be successful and I've seen individuals crash and burn.

Wolffe:

I have one simple piece of advice for all the practitioners. Mix and mingle. Join consumer organizations, attend their conventions, attend local support groups, attend parent and teacher groups, participate, make friends with people who are blind or have low vision mix. If you're not quite sure, ask. Ask people experiencing vision loss. Those lived experiences are important for us to pay attention to you. You can't pull it all from a book or from an evaluation. You have to meet people, and you have to meet them at a neutral place or in a neutral ground. But I think the best knowledge I have gained in my life has come through other people and experiential learning, and that's what I would advise.

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