October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), a national observance led by the U.S. Department of Labor that’s dedicated to recognizing the work of employees with disabilities and the value they bring to the workplace. This year’s theme, “Disability: Part of the Equity Equation,” emphasizes the vital role people with disabilities play in building a diverse and inclusive workforce.
Launched in 1945, NDEAM counters negative attitudes and misunderstandings that persist and lead to unequal employment opportunities for people with disabilities, including people who are blind. Today, despite their limitless capabilities, nearly 70% of working age Americans who are blind are not employed. That figure is unacceptably high given their abilities, the abundance of assistive technologies available at minimal cost to employers, and record low unemployment rates.
During NDEAM, National Industries for the Blind (NIB) is highlighting the capabilities of people who are blind and connecting employers with resources and solutions to make their workplaces more welcoming and accessible. NIB’s goal is to create more opportunities for people who are blind to build meaningful careers and become more involved members of their communities.
NIB does more than just create jobs for people who are blind, it empowers them through programs like the Advocates for Leadership and Employment. The Advocates program prepares employees who are blind working in NIB associated nonprofit agencies to engage with local, state, and federal leaders and represent the interests of NIB and people with disabilities. The program, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, educates participants about public policy processes and provides training in advocacy skills that give them the poise and self-confidence to meet with legislators and their staff on Capitol Hill. The skills learned through the training carry over into the workplace and Advocates’ everyday lives.
NIB Public Policy Specialist Vivian Fridas manages the Advocates for Leadership and Employment program. As a professional who is blind, she understands firsthand the importance of promoting employment practices, policies, and strategies that create opportunities for people who are blind or have other disabilities.
Fridas says employers wishing to access the untapped workforce of people who are blind need to evaluate their hiring processes from step one – the application phase – to make sure all qualified applicants have an opportunity to join their workforce.
“Sometimes there are barriers for applicants right at the beginning. They may not be able to access an online application because it’s not compatible with screen readers or other assistive technology. Or they could be unable to fill out a physical application form,” she explains. “Employers need to review their websites to make sure they’re user-friendly for all job seekers, including those who are blind or have another disability. There are plenty of resources to help with that determination, including NIB, which offers accessibility services.”
When a person who is blind or has a disability comes in for an interview, employers need to focus on the applicant’s ability to perform the job, Fridas says. “Remember, a person who makes it to an in-person interview has already shown they are qualified. When an applicant discloses a disability, employers shouldn’t be reluctant to address it. It’s perfectly fine to ask applicants how they would carry out specific job responsibilities and what accommodations they might need.”
Fridas says many employers are surprised to learn that the cost of accommodations for an employee with a disability is usually less than $500. “Tech companies have stepped up to the plate and made accessibility features standard in many of their products, so in some cases, there’s almost no cost for accommodations.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that employers and employees work together to determine appropriate accommodations through an interactive process, Fridas explains. But she cautions that accommodations should be individualized. “Not every person who is blind or visually impaired is the same – different accommodations may be needed for different types of vision loss.”
“Sitting down with a new employee and making a plan is a great way to ensure their success, which will translate into success for the employer.”
Fridas says employers need to commit to supporting employees with disabilities year-round, not just during NDEAM. “Promoting education and awareness about the challenges and struggles people with disabilities face when seeking meaningful employment should be part of employers’ diversity, equity, and inclusion activities. Such efforts can go a long way to breaking down some of the barriers people with disabilities face in the workplace.”
Fridas says the most important step employers can take to ensure success for employees who are blind or have other disabilities is no different than what they do for employees who do not have a disability.
“It’s important to believe in your employees. Believe they are capable of carrying out the duties and responsibilities of the position – after all, that belief is why you hired them. Set your employees up for success with the proper tools for the job and opportunities to grow and thrive. When employers take those steps, the result is great for both them and their employees.”