The Rocky Road To Employment For The Blind

by Kevin Burton

When I was interviewing for my current job as a recruiter, one of the interviewers asked “where do you see yourself in five years?”

   The first time someone asked me that, in a previous interview for a newspaper reporting position, I wasn’t ready and sputtered out a non-answer.  This time I was ready.

   “I used to try to answer that question,” I said, then explained why I no longer do.  I said my goal was to help blind people increase their earning potential and wherever that quest took me is where I would be in five years.

   Now it has been 11 years and I have learned a lot.

   My best intentions, bolstered by some good training I’m afraid, have not made much of a dent in the basic problem.  If you are a blind professional or job seeker, you know what the problem is.  It is a problem with many causes and many layers.

   The bottom line is it’s tough to rise to the employment level where your education, work ethic and drive would indicate you should be. It’s tough to get employment at all. 

   For years I have seen the unemployment rate for the blind reported at 70 percent. This is almost never attributed to anybody in particular. No agency or government study is cited. We seem to have all agreed to use that figure.

   This makes me want to go, as the sports people say, “inside the numbers.”  How many blind people are so discouraged they have stopped looking for work?  How many are raising children fulltime? 

   How many are being effectively blocked from seeking work by parents or guardians who like the SSI check coming in and use it for the family, not necessarily for the blind person in the family? This happens more than you think.

   Whatever the actual unemployment figure for the blind is, it is way too high.  It’s a tragedy on the individual and societal levels.

   Each year, October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. You will see various organizations drawing attention to this is one way or another.  Some have a focus more specifically on blindness.

   I want to speak directly to the blind job seeker with some observations and advice about which ways to turn for best chances of success. For this purpose I have turned to a guest blogger who you will hear from soon. 

   My recruiting job is with an NIB agency. NIB stands for National Industries for the Blind.  The 100 or so NIB agencies around the United States employ people who are legally blind to make products for sale to federal government agencies. This is under a federal law passed in 1938 and updated in 1971.

   On the face of it NIB seems to be the perfect place to turn for a blind job seeker. It is absolutely a door to knock on.  According to the agency website, as of 2018 6,001 blind people were employed by NIB. The website lists the average wage of those workers as $11.96 hourly. 

   If you’ve been out of work a long time and see those statistics, your first question might be, “When can I start?”  If so, that’s very much understandable.

   But as with anything in life, a careful investigation is needed to help determine what is best for you as an individual.  When you are sitting across that desk from a hiring manager, you do so as a person with skills and goals that are specific to you, not as part of “the blind.”

   At some point in an interview, most managers will ask if you have any questions. There are some questions you need to ask an NIB agency, just as you would any other agency. 

   Even before that, there are some questions you need to ask yourself. 

   You can read more about this from our guest blogger in parts two and three of our series on employment for the blind, on the Page 7 blog.

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