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Looking Past a Disability

Employers’ Wariness Thwarts Many Blind Jobseekers

ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, NOV. 4, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - Marie Hennessy, president of the Perkins School for the Blind alumni association leaves a job fair for the visually impaired with her guide dog "Azalea" and a volunteer guide, left, on the Radcliffe Yard campus in Cambridge, Mass., Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013. Despite technological advances that dramatically boost their capabilities, blind people remain largely unwanted in U.S. workplaces where about 24 percent of working-age Americans with visual disabilities hold full-time jobs. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, NOV. 4, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - Marie Hennessy, president of the Perkins School for the Blind alumni association leaves a job fair for the visually impaired with her guide dog "Azalea" and a volunteer guide, left, on the Radcliffe Yard campus in Cambridge, Mass., Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013. Despite technological advances that dramatically boost their capabilities, blind people remain largely unwanted in U.S. workplaces where about 24 percent of working-age Americans with visual disabilities hold full-time jobs. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

Cambridge, Mass. — Back in the late 1980s, when Maura Mazzocca was a human resources administrator with a Boston-area firm, a blind man showed up to apply for a job. Today, she remembers the encounter ruefully.

“What I kept thinking about was, ‘How can this man work in a manufacturing company?’” Mazzocca recalled, saying she looked past his abilities and saw only his disability.

“I wish now I’d given him a chance.”

That reflectiveness is heartfelt. Mazzocca lost her own eyesight in 1994 through complications related to diabetes. Now as a jobseeker herself, she knows firsthand the many hurdles the blind must overcome in pursuit of full-time work.

At a job fair last month for blind and low-vision people, there she was going table to table, with a sighted volunteer by her side. Some of the other 80 jobseekers carried white canes, a few had guide dogs.

Like the rest, Mazzocca was greeted with firm handshakes and encouraging words — but none of the employers she spoke with had job openings matching her interests and qualifications.

The venue was the former Radcliffe College gymnasium where Helen Keller exercised en route to becoming the first deaf/blind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree in 1904. Over the ensuing decades, Keller helped increase public awareness of blindness and empathy for those affected by it.

Yet blind people remain largely unwanted in the U.S. workplace, despite technological advances that dramatically boost their capabilities. Only about 24 percent of working-age Americans with visual disabilities had full-time jobs as of 2011, according to Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute.

“There’s a lot of stigma, a lot of obstacles,” said Mazzocca, 51. “It comes down to educating employers... It’s going to take a really long time, if ever, for them to see us for who we are and what we bring to the table.”

What they bring, according to national advocates for the blind, is a strong work ethic, plus deeper-than-average loyalty to their employers. That’s in addition to whatever talents and training they bring, just like any other applicant.

In the current economy, good jobs are hard to come by for anyone, even the sighted. But the blind face added challenges. Even employers professing interest in hiring blind people often don’t follow through out of concern that they might be a bit slower with key tasks or require assistance that could be burdensome.

In some cases, said Mazzocca, who has held professional jobs since she lost her sight, “They’re thinking, ‘What if I have to fire them? Will they sue me?’”

Many national and local organizations are working hard to change the equation, through a mix of outreach to employers, training and counseling for jobseekers, and support for technological development. Though sometimes costly, there are now myriad devices and technologies that can convert computer text or printed pages into Braille or spoken words.

Still, the steadiest sources of jobs for many blind people are nonprofit organizations with missions related to blindness and other disabilities.

Among them is National Industries for the Blind, a network of 91 nonprofit agencies which collectively employ about 6,000 blind people. It recently conducted a survey of 400 hiring managers and human resource executives across the U.S.

The survey found 54 percent of hiring managers said there were few jobs at their company that blind employees could perform, 45 percent said accommodating such workers would require “considerable expense,” 42 percent said blind employees would need someone to help them on the job, and 34 percent said they were more likely to have work-related accidents than sighted employees.

“We’re having to deal with lots of misconceptions and myths,” said Kevin Lynch, CEO of National Industries for the Blind. “From that standpoint, the study was clearly disappointing, but it gives us the opportunity to find a way forward.”

Lynch and his colleagues take heart from federal initiatives that have expanded hiring of blind people by government agencies and federal contractors. They also are encouraged by efforts of the U.S. Business Leadership Network, a coalition led by several dozen major corporations seeking to boost employment of people with disabilities, including blindness.

Another initiative called CareerConnect, launched by the American Foundation for the Blind, offers an array of resources and advice for blind jobseekers, including a mentorship program to connect them with blind people working in the professions they aspire to.

Joe Strechay, program manager for CareerConnect, said visually impaired people tend to be dedicated workers — less likely than others to miss a shift or quit the job, and no more likely than others to sue in the event of dismissal.

Among those featured on CareerConnect’s website is Jay Blake, a race car mechanic and pit crew chief. Other role models include Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to climb Mount Everest, and the late Richard Casey, the first blind federal trial judge.

Yet a glance through listings of prominent blind people conveys some of the challenges faced by jobseekers. There are many famous blind musicians, such as Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, but a dearth of notables in many other fields. In the U.S. Congress, for example, there have been several blind members — but none since 1941.

Numerous blind Americans have built successful careers as advocates for the visually impaired, but the pathway often is difficult.

Frederic Schroeder, who served as commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration under President Bill Clinton, recalls sending out 35 job applications after earning his master’s degree in special education — and getting not a single offer in reply.

Such rejection can be demoralizing, says Schroeder, now a professor of vocational rehabilitation with San Diego State University and a vice president of the National Federation of the Blind.

“We need to make sure blind people don’t think, ‘Society doesn’t want me,’ and stop trying,” he said. “If a person gives up hope of finding a suitable job, it’s a terrible waste of human resources. It’s terrible for people to live in poverty simply because of public misunderstanding.” About 31 percent of working-age people with visual impairments live below the poverty line, roughly double the overall national rate, according to Cornell’s Employment and Disability Institute.

At the recent job fair, freelance writer John Christie, 57, said he sometimes struggles to keep up his spirits while pursuing a full-time job.

“When I apply for something, I never hear back,” he said, suggesting that he was disadvantaged by a resume listing numerous articles related to blindness. “Sometimes I’m optimistic, sometimes I’m frustrated,” he said. “It depends on the day. Sometimes you get burned out.”

Another jobseeker, 32-year-old Jeff Paquette, graduated in 2011 from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., and is seeking work in the tourism/hospitality industry.

Declared legally blind in 2006, he has limited vision that prevents him from driving but enables him to use public transportation on his own and to read, sometimes with the help of a magnification option on his computer.

“I honestly don’t know from employer to employer what their perceptions of someone like me will be,” said Paquette, who carries a white cane when he’s out and about. “I have to be honest with them. I will need some accommodation — but I’m fully capable.”

At the job fair, the only employer from the hospitality sector was Hyatt Hotels. Their representative told Paquette to keep checking on the company’s jobs website.