The future of work for people with disabilities
By MUHAMMAD WAHEED & TIM UTZIG
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writers
Most people on the job market have nothing to lose from including their high school’s name on their resumé. Not so for Kelvin Atkinson, who is visually impaired and attended a private school specifically for students with blindness or low vision.
Atkinson, 25, went to The Maryland School for the Blind while taking classes at Parkville High School. He graduated in 2011 at the age of 17.
After years of struggling to find work, Atkinson said a job coach told him to remove MSB from his resumé. He waited, but eventually took the advice after a supervisor at Sinai Hospital also made the same recommendation. He started seeing positive results.
“Once I took that off of my resumé and I put just Parkville High School even for the same job I might’ve applied to in the past and I wouldn’t get hired I was able to get an interview,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson is one of many visually impaired individuals who struggle to find work. The American Community Survey estimates that visually impaired individuals are employed at a one-half rate compared to those without disabilities. Roughly one-third of people with visual disabilities are employed full time.
Two million Americans age 16-64 years old have visual impairments and only 35 percent of the visually impaired individuals had jobs compared to 70 percent of working Americans who do not have disabilities, according to the 2017 Current Population Survey. One fourth of the survey’s participants seeking employment were searching for work for about 18 months applying to five jobs per month and only getting less than one interview per month.
Visually impaired job applicants face a range of challenges, among them finding transportation to work, not finding jobs in an area of expertise, and inaccessible applications and screenings. Part one of this story explains some of these challenges in detail. Part two examines the experiences of people with visual impairments who have found full-time work.
Part one: The application and interview process
Atkinson’s first job was at Friendly’s while in high school. He went to the Community College of Baltimore County Essex for a semester. Then he took a break from college to figure out how to live independently.
After the break, Atkinson took an internship at Community Law In Action, eventually leading to him working for former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, while also returning to CCBC Essex during the fall 2013 semester.
Atkinson also worked for the Center for Urban Families, interned at Sinai Hospital in adult daycare, Blind Industries and Services of Maryland, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, Prometric and now works at Broadway Services, a staffing company for security and transportation used by Johns Hopkins Hospital, as a human relations specialist.
Atkinson said he removed MSB from his resumé at some point between 2015 and 2017. He said his supervisor at Sinai Hospital did not care that MSB was listed but told him that it could prevent him from being hired in the future.
Removing MSB resulted in interviews, but those interviews did not lead to second interviews, Atkinson said. He disclosed his visual impairment to Friendly’s, the staff of the mayor of Baltimore, the staff of Rep. Ruppersberger and Broadway Services while not disclosing his disability to Prometric and Sinai Hospital.
Deciding on whether to disclose the visual impairment all depends on the level of comfort during an interview, Atkinson said. The reactions were varied, from “Oh, wow, oh my God, I didn’t know” to “can you see me right now?”
“At this point I’ve already proven I can do the job so they were typically okay with it,” Atkinson said. “If anything a lot of them were like ‘I wish you had told me… you should’ve told us sooner and we would’ve provided accommodations.’ However, I don’t think I would’ve gotten the job had I told them early on some of them.”
Atkinson said he disclosed his disability to Prometric and Sinai Hospital after being hired rather than informing them during the interview process. He said he didn’t always disclose his disability to some employers as additional tasks would be added such as obtaining a note to work from doctors.
“Honestly, I might not disclose it because the process might have been a lot faster [without a disclosure],” Atkinson said. “I mean the process was smooth, but I do notice that… I think it’s a stigma in our society to think that people with any type of disability can’t do the same things that everybody can do, but we can.”
The value of accessibility
Visually impaired individuals face challenges accessing job postings online. Inaccessible applications can include online resources such as job applications that are not compatible with screen readers or other forms of assistive technology. The use PDFs also can pose accessibility challenges for the visually impaired.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law by former U.S. President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas including employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications, and access to state and local government programs and services. As it relates to employment, Title I of the ADA protects the rights of both employees and job seekers.
Title I of the ADA states that private employers, local and state governments, employment agencies and labor unions are prohibited from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities through job application, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, training and other aspects of employment.
Assistive technology such as screen readers, including Apple’s VoiceOver and Freedom Scientifics’s Job Access With Speech (JAWS), might not always be able to navigate inaccessible web pages or PDF files. Some online resources might be heavy on visual graphics, charts and tables, which are not always optimized for screen readers. A screen reader verbally describes all information on a computer from top to bottom to a visually impaired user.
Atkinson, who sometimes uses the Windows magnifier and inverted colors, said that websites such as Indeed are inaccessible, especially for those who are completely blind and rely on a screen reader such as JAWS.
Windows Magnifier is a magnifying tool found on computers running the Windows operating system which enlarges portions of the screen as the user navigates the user interface. Apple’s equivalent is known as Zoom and performs the same task of enlarging the user’s viewing area. Inverted colors consist of the computer displaying the opposite color on the display such as a white webpage being shown as a black webpage with this accessibility option enabled.
Atkinson said companies should make more of an effort to cater to visually impaired individuals. There should be more accessibility options such as having the ability to increase text or font size on a job application, Atkinson said.
Beth Haller, a professor at Towson University and an expert in disability and media, said the Mass Communication department at Towson uses a dedicated email account and is more accessible as no portal system is involved. One solution to avoiding accessibility challenges is not using traditional job portals that might feature PDF files, tables and other visual elements.
Haller said accessing social media sites to find job advertisements can also pose challenges for the visually impaired, who may not be able to make connections there that can help with networking. Social media platforms such as Facebook or LinkedIn can sometimes be inaccessible as a visually impaired using a screen reader may not be able to navigate by headings. In-person networking events are more accessible to the visually impaired, Haller said.
“I think you have to start networking even more and expand your search to things that might not be your dream job you know something that’s kind of adjacent to what you got your degree in, sadly,” Haller said. “I mean people who aren’t disabled have to do that all the time, too, when they can’t find their dream job and they end up getting something adjacent.”
The potential for algorithmic discrimination
Algorithms, which automate the process of sifting through job applications, also can lead to discrimination against individuals with visual impairments. Miranda Bogen, a senior policy analyst at Upturn, an organization promoting equity and justice, said algorithms are looking for patterns, which can include a user’s behavior and input into an online job application, as well as speed of competition.
Bogen said that unintended discrimination is possible with the use of algorithms. Amazon, for instance, used technology that disadvantaged workers who went to women’s colleges, as the company did not have much data on this type of demographic.
“You can imagine that similar scenario for people who went to schools that particularly catered to people with visual impairment or who participated in activities or groups or clubs that reflected that disability,” Bogen said. “A system might end up learning that affiliation with those institutions or activities was something that the company had never seen before and therefore it was not an indicator of success or of some kind of significant skill or leadership because it didn’t know what to do with those pieces of data. So that’s another way that these tools can end up impacting people who have a different accommodations needs without there being an opportunity to request a different process to be evaluated.”
Creating opportunities to request accommodations might be a solution to the possible discrimination against visually impaired individuals. Algorithms could also be programmed to better understand the various behaviors of visually impaired job seekers such as understanding that the speed of browsing a web page of filling out the application may not reflect the individual’s ability to work.
“Some tools do offer separate tracks — separate versions of the tool for people who need accommodations, and so at the moment that seems to be the way that they’re trying to mitigate those risks is to have a separate process for people who self-identify as needing accommodations and that would be required under the ADA for them to do so,” Bogen said.
Places to find support
The 2017 Current Population Survey found that 20 percent of participants mentioned a vocational rehabilitation professional assisting in seeking employment. According to the survey, the three most helpful resources to participants included training in assistive technology, comprehensive blindness training and cover letter and resume development. Recruiters, job developers and career fairs were not as helpful.
Brittany McCoy, a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the Division of Rehabilitation Services (DORS) in Maryland, said that resources offered to help visually impaired individuals gain employment include training focus on assistive technology, independent living skills, courses and career assessments.
McCoy said that the steps of getting employment resources from DORS first begins with a referral, then continues with an initial intake application, determining eligibility, creating an individualized plan for employment, service statuses of authorizations and items purchased for the consumer, searching for employment and concludes by closing the case if employed for 90 days.
DORS tries to instruct job applicants on how to handle discrimination through advocacy, McCoy said. She said a resource room is being opened up so applicants can complete inaccessible job applications with someone by their side to assist.
Dareen Barios, assistant principal at MSB who also focuses on career development, said that her school offers on-campus jobs, including working a café and packaging and delivering mail. Barios said off-campus jobs include working at Shoppers, Meals on Wheels and at a church.
The jobs offered to MSB students can help them learn employment-related skills they may not have picked up at a public high school.
“It’s kind of based on student interest, but it’s not like we’re trying to find them their career while they’re here in high school,” Barios said. “We want them to work high school jobs and learn just like you or I learned in our high school jobs all the things that could go wrong, all the things that could go right, how nice it is if you’re organized and if you have good time management, how it makes your day easier.”
MSB offers a program during the summer in which students work four to five hours per day in the community earning minimum wage while developing independent living skills residing at the school’s independent living ranchers, Barios said. MSB students must apply and be interviewed in order to get hired and receive a stipend for on-campus employment. Students work with job coaches, Barrios said.
Navigating the interview process
Bob Gamble, 72, retired in June 2009 as a supervisor of the adult services central intake and screening unit working in adult protective services investigating allegations of abuse, neglect of venerable adults. Gamble had five jobs prior to becoming visually impaired.
Gamble worked as a pharmaceutical manufacturer and at Dr. Scholl’s Shoes, a leather manufacturing company, Levi’s Strauss and the Kroger Company before starting to become visually impaired in 1979.
Gamble worked as a supervisor at the Levi’s Strauss Co., had difficulties filling out paperwork and also became a safety concern after bumping into items on the factory floor, sometimes bumping his head or skinning his shins. This resulted in Gamble taking disability retirement.
Gamble said he did not work again until graduating with his master’s degree from the University of Maryland School of Social Work in 1994. Gamble said he had two jobs as a visually impaired individual and they were at the Stella Maris nursing home and with the Maryland state government.
Gamble applied to work at a hospital and he said that he spoke with a doctor or psychiatrist via phone who was excited to interview him. Gamble went in to be interviewed and perceptions changed.
“[The interviewer] was talking to me like I already had the position, but when she walked into the room and saw that I was sitting there with my guide dog and that I was blind I could tell immediately she was kind of taken a back,” Gamble said. “She almost didn’t know what to say.”
Gamble said the interviewer had to get other people together for the interview.
“So when I went into the room the whole tone of the atmosphere was totally different and so the bottom line is naturally I didn’t get the job and I know that was because when they saw I that was blind that played a roll in it,” Gamble said.
Gamble said he then applied to work at the Stella Maris nursing home, where the hiring process differed. He said he was impressed with the interview process. Applying to work for the Maryland state government within adult protective services was much different and even more difficult than his experience trying to work at a hospital.
Gamble said he was called in after applying for an interview for adult protective services in Baltimore City due to his resume and qualifications. The interview was not going well due to the panel’s perception of his visual impairment, Gamble said.
The panel praised Gamble’s experience and said that they would get back to him. Gamble said he called two weeks later to inquire on whether the position had been filled.
“I said, ‘I believe that I should be given some consideration because of my visual disability’,” Gamble said. “I said “I want to say that I’m not threatening anyone I just want to make this very clear. If someone is hired to fill this position that is less qualified than I am then I want to know why that happened.’”
Gamble said he called the program manager around 10 a.m. and was offered the job around 4 p.m.
Part two: What it’s like for a visually impaired person in the workforce
Even after getting a job, people with visual impairments have a range of challenges.
Eddie Zaremba, a 28-year-old visually impaired second-year law student at Syracuse University, previously worked at a university, which he prefers not to disclose, doing data analysis with databases while using spreadsheets and multiple computer screens. Zaremba has bilateral coloboma of the iris and retina, a congenital impairment, where the eyes do not form their round shape correctly. Zaremba said he has more vision in his right eye and that his impairment is invisible, as he does not use a cane or guide dog.
Viewing large amounts of data on two computer screens was visually challenging, and he made errors transferring information from one screen to the other. Zaremba said he had to think about when and how to discuss with his employer that the task took longer for him because of his visual impairment.
“It was a hard conversation because at that point I’m already feeling like I’m inadequate,” Zaremba said. “I’m already feeling like, ‘wow, I’m not really doing well enough’ and because of who I am and how I operate I was probably feeling the guilt at that point like, ‘wow, why can’t I just do this? It shouldn’t be hard.’ It was a challenging situation for me.”
Zaremba said he was written up by his direct supervisor for making errors that he was unaware of, which is how he realized that he needed to have a discussion with his employer. Zaremba said looking back, he would have approached his employer, which was aware of his visual impairment, earlier than he did so he could have better explained why he was making errors and how his performance could be improved.
“I think having those discussions turned around my experience in the job,” Zaremba said. “It allowed my employers to take a step back. It allowed me to take a step back.”
Working with a visual impairment can lead to challenges, which may be resolved if open discussions take place with an employer. Learning how to get access to and use assistive technology can lead to a better job experience for the visually impaired.
Accessibility issues while working
Gamble, who worked in adult protective services, said he took his personal equipment to work as he waited for his employer to provide a computer, a speech program and a printer. Gamble said his employer asked him what accommodations he needed, but he did not receive any of the equipment requested within the first nine months of being on the job.
“I had to basically kind of get tough with them again and tell them, ‘I’m taking my equipment home and I’m not going to use it anymore. I didn’t buy this to use on the job. You know this is my stuff and you’re supposed to accommodate me and I’m taking it home,’” he said.
Gamble said he was told to take a leave of absence if he decided to take his equipment home, but he replied saying that he would continue to come to work and would to the best he could with what he was provided with. One week later, Gamble’s employer provided him with a computer, he said.
Gamble’s situation illustrates that getting hired does not end the accessibility challenges, as employers sometimes do not provide sufficient equipment for people with disabilities. Having the necessary tools to complete work-related tasks can improve an individual’s productivity, and not having these resources limits what a visually impaired employee is able to do.
Gamble said he was given a speech program that he didn’t request and was given inadequate training on how to use it. Gamble said he contacted DORS, and a program representative stepped in on his behalf, resulting in the speech recognition program he originally requested being provided to him by his employer.
Edward Bell, director of professional development and the Research Institute of Blindness at Louisiana Tech University, is 42 and visually impaired. He relies on screen readers to complete his work.
“If I wasn’t proficient with a screen reader I couldn’t do my job and therefore I wouldn’t have a job,” Bell said. “Nowadays virtually any job you can imagine you have to do some computer work even if you have a job as a cane travel instructor and you’re out there teaching all day long you still have to write reports, you still have to send emails, you still have to look for information online and so if you’re not proficient with the screen reader or magnification then certainly it’s going to impact your job. You’ll either not get a job to begin with or you’ll have poor job performance and therefore poor job satisfaction.”
Bell said he uses JAWS and NVDA, an open source screen reader for Windows, as well as Windows Narrator, Microsoft’s native offering for Windows. Being proficient in using multiple screen readers is essential, as some may work better in certain situations, Bell said. JAWS might work better with Google Chrome while NVDA might perform certain tasks better in Mozilla Firefox that JAWS may not have been able to do.
Bell said he encourages employers to purchase the tool that increases job productivity. This is important to take note of as NVDA can be downloaded for free while JAWS is priced at $2,000.
Employers are intrigued by screen readers, but the price can cause concerns, Bell said.
Productivity and appropriate workplace interactions are important to change the perception of employers and colleagues who think visually impaired individuals are fragile.
Bell said his department donated chairs to the dean’s office, and a colleague was concerned about how he would travel with a chair and cane on the stairs. Bell said he took a chair and started traveling, but his colleague still had safety concerns about him falling down the stairs. People asked if they could get coffee at meetings for Bell. Bell said he let others get the drink for him a couple times, but he normally politely declines the offer and pours his own cup of coffee.
“If you get up in the middle of a meeting and you’re stumbling and bumbling and bumping into things and making a scene of course everyone’s going to stop what they’re doing and say ‘oh gosh let me help you let me help you’, but if you’ve kind of previewed the room and know where things are and if you’re going to be graceful about it… the first time I pour that cup of coffee and I go back and sit down and everybody’s breathing a sigh of relief then the next time they’re a little bit more confident in my ability to do it,” Bell said.
Arriving early is a habit Bell so he can orient himself prior to an event on where tables, chairs and drinks are located. Arriving early also allows for preparation when speaking and presenting on stage, Bell said.
“You have to be confident and competent in doing those things and one of the ways to be competent and confident is first of all if you’re doing those things at home if you know how to do those things on a normal basis then you should be able to do them in public,” he said.
Working as a visually impaired individual requires more effort when compared to sighted colleagues. The visually impaired consider travel and transportation when selecting a workplace, which limits their options. They then have to advocate for accommodations that help them complete work based tasks and must show peers that they are capable of being in the workforce.
What visually impaired employees bring to the workplace
Some visually impaired individuals travel with a guide dog. The presence of a guide dog at the workplace draws mixed reactions.
According to The Seeing Eye, a guide dog provider, Title I of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, in addition to state laws, ban workplace discrimination for reasonable accommodation requests. The Seeing Eye states that guide dogs provide confidence, independence and a sense of safety to their owners.
Gamble said he first started using a cane in 1982 and got his first guide dog in 1984. Some colleagues were first afraid of his guide dog, but realized that there was no harm after a few weeks of seeing how the service animal did its job, he said.
Carol Gamble, 63, a visually impaired Braille instructor at MSB and the wife of Bob Gamble, also uses a guide dog.
“The [students] were very accepting of me and respected my authority I guess as their teacher you know they asked a lot of questions,” Carol Gamble said. “I could tell often they were trying to wrap their heads around how a blind person could do this, could be a teacher and get around and do all the things that must be done so I had a lot of opportunity to share my life with them hoping to be an encouragement to them to just show them this is possible. It takes a good bit of work for sure, but it is possible and some were excited about my dog and some were not excited about my dog so it just kind of depended on who they were.”
Carol Gamble not only used her guide dog to navigate, but it also served as a tool to inspire her visually impaired students on how an individual with blindness can be successful within the workplace.