Diversity & Inclusion Discovery Series: The Value of Hiring the Blind or Visually Impaired, Part 1 – The Foundation

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By Mark T. Vivien, Board Member, Blind Institute of Technology

Originally published on Mark’s LinkedIn Articles.

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Executive Summary

Why do organizations have a diversity and inclusion policy? Yes, it is the right thing to do – everyone given equal opportunities. As Dennis Nally pointed out in a 2015 article, “Five reasons why diversity and inclusion matter to every business – and every employee”, it is also good business. In their 18th Annual Global CEO Survey, 85% of the CEOs PWC surveyed, whose companies have a formal diversity and inclusiveness strategy, said it has improved their bottom line.

However, the reason I want to highlight, is that diversity and inclusion are key to filling the talent gap companies continually face. As Mike Hess, Executive Director of the Blind Institute of Technology (BIT) puts it, “companies are missing out on some of the best and brightest talent available in the country today”.

As a member of the Board of Directors of BIT, I have seen the amazing skills and abilities of blind and visually impaired (BVI) employees in action. Over the course of the next several months, I am going to introduce you to some amazing BVIs. I also hope that I will help to dispel the myth that the primary drivers of the high unemployment rate in the blind and visually impaired community are education, skills, and technology. I will highlight three unique abilities that separate the blind and visually impaired apart from sighted employees. In the end, it is my sincere hope that you will help increase the awareness around the value of hiring the blind and visually impaired.

Employment

To level-set everyone, we need to start with the facts around the high unemployment rate here in the United States for the blind and visually impaired (BVI).

The American Foundation for the Blind reports a 70% unemployment rate for the BVI community in the United States.

Let me repeat it one more time so it sinks in: 70% unemployment rate for the BVI community in the United States.

70% is the lowest in the developed world.

What does this mean in terms of numbers? Well, there are 23.7 million American adults (age 18 and above) with vision loss. After you multiply this by 70%, you get 16.6 million capable unemployed adults. This exceeds the total population of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and ½ of Houston combined – our four largest cities.

Education

So what is the primary driver of the high unemployment rate?

When the people I meet mentally process the 70%, it is very common to assume that the unemployment rate primarily results from an education or skill deficiency.

Data actually suggest that education or skill deficiency is not the primary driver.

  • According to the US Census, 88% of American adults have at least a high school diploma or GED – – According to American Foundation for the Blind, the number is 74% for BVIs age 25 and above.
  • However, while 59% of American adults have at least some college education, the number is 65% for BVIs age 25 and above.
  • In addition, 33% of American adults have a Bachelor’s degree or above. The number is 38% for BVIs age 25 and above.

Statistics are a great place to start, but I think the real proof is in the pudding so to speak. Read about these four BVIs thriving in some very complicated jobs.

While I could cite pages of additional support, I feel safe in submitting to you that the ability to learn and acquire employable skills is not the primary driver of the high unemployment rate.

Technology

The second common assumption many make is that the unemployment rate is a technology problem.

We cannot claim that every system and website is fully accessible to the BVI community. For example, most major online job boards are not fully accessible to BVIs.

  • Quick note – there are organizations like the Blind Institute of Technology (BIT) working with companies to make their websites and systems fully accessible.

However, similarly, it is not accurate to assume a BVI candidate cannot use a company’s systems. Here is a great example from Ethan Hollinger, one of the BVI’s you will meet in this series:

“Learning management systems are a great example of platforms that are usable, but not usually fully accessible. In many of my college classes, for example, we had online components (or entire online courses!) that took place in learning management systems. For every course, I had to learn different layouts, navigate through non-standard menus, and spend a lot of time figuring out the lay of the land, so to speak. However, I was able to use the system well enough to succeed in these courses, despite the inconvenient and inaccessible portions of the platforms.”

Technology is actually an amazing enabler for the blind and visually impaired. For example, Apple has almost single-handedly transformed the lives of all BVIs with high quality, built-in accessibility tools like VoiceOver. This is why the vast majority of BVIs use iPhones and iPads. The quantity of accessible applications written for these devices, specifically for the BVI community, is amazing. You can learn more about specific examples of Apple accessibility by clicking here. Also, watch this interview with Tim Cook, Apple CEO, by clicking here.

Another essential tech tool for the BVI community is screen readers. Screen readers are software programs that allow blind or visually impaired users to listen to the text displayed on the computer screen with a speech synthesizer, or read it with a braille display. There are both free and paid versions of screen readers. Mobile phones and tablets typically have screen readers built in. If you are interested in learning more about screen readers, there is a lot of information on the internet. You can also access a nice overview from the American Foundation for the Blind by clicking here.

I believe the takeaways are:

  • BVIs can function in the workplace at a high level, largely due to – not in spite of – technology.
  • One cannot automatically assume BVIs cannot use your organization’s systems
  • Finally, while we did not get into this in detail, there are organizations such as the Blind Institute of Technology that can help you assess the accessibility of your systems and in turn help make them fully accessible.

Three Unique Skills & Abilities

The primary driver of the high unemployment rate is awareness, opportunity, and prioritization. I truly believe there is not a purposeful exclusion of the blind and visually impaired from job consideration. Rather, it is a lack of awareness at fault: too few people truly understand the strengths BVIs bring to the table, let alone the fact that there is a 70% unemployment rate.

So, in the spirit of awareness, I want to share what many BVIs, BIT, and myself believe are three unique benefits employers realize when they employ a BVI candidate.

Listening Skills

In his 2010 Scientific American article, “Why Can Some Blind People Process Speech Far Faster Than Sighted Persons,” R. Douglas Fields discusses research conducted at the Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research at the University of Tübingen in Germany. Scientists proved that blind people can easily comprehend speech that is sped up far beyond the maximum rate that sighted people can understand. Taking it a step further, the scientists wanted to find out what was going on inside the brains of blind people that gives them this ‘superpower’. The result – “In blind people all this brain power [for vision] would go to waste, but somehow an unsighted person’s brain rewires itself to connect auditory regions of the brain to the visual cortex.”

To really appreciate the strength of BVIs listening skills, let’s run a quick experiment.

I want you to download and watch a video by clicking this link. Afterwards, jump down to the “Video Follow-up” section at the end of this document.

So, what were your results? When Mike Hess, Executive Director of the Blind Institute of Technology, uses this video in his Art of Blinders workshop the result in very consistent – the majority of sighted participants let their vision take primary control and are distracted from listening.

This makes sense because studies show that sighted individuals use vision 83% of the time to learn (see 2012 article by Jeff Hurt titled “Your Senses Are Your Raw Information Learning Portals” published in Velvet Chainsaw Consulting).

Vision cannot distract a BVI individual, often making them better critical listeners.

Adaptability/Problem Solving

Adaptability and problem solving is hard to quantify scientifically. I believe the daily reality of life supports the notion that BVIs are very adaptable and good at problem solving.

  • Blind and visually impaired individuals must adapt and problem solve quickly, often on the fly, as they navigate through the unpredictable environment we call life.

For example, one of the amazing BVIs I know lives 20 miles from his office. He has to navigate from his apartment to the bus stop, get on the correct bus, take the bus to the light rail, get on the correct train, get off at his stop and navigate across a busy street to his office. Then, he has to reverse the process to get home. Wrinkles to the “normal” day include transportation delays, weather, overcrowded trains and buses, detours, construction, etc.

  • Another example of adaptability and problem solving comes from motor development. BVIs must use problem solving skills to learn to coordinate their hearing and use of their hands.

Loyalty

According to studies cited in the book, “Foundations of Rehabilitation Counseling with Persons who are Blind or Visually Impaired” by Jeanne Boland Patterson, William H. Graves, & J. Elton Moore, BVIs stay on the job four to five times longer than the average sighted employee, miss less work, and are highly dependable. In addition, their productivity in outstanding.

This makes sense when you think about it … with how long it takes to find a job and especially one that truly leverages a BVI’s skills and abilities, BVIs are going to be a lot more grateful, patient, and loyal.

Video Follow-up

Answer these questions:

  • What is the name of the young man in the video?
  • What is the name of his employer?
  • What qualities does a person need to possess to be successful at working at home?
  • What are the two challenges with working at home?

Now, go to the section below titled “Answers” to see how many you got correct.

About BIT

Led by founder Mike Hess, the Blind Institute of Technology is a team of staff, volunteers and board members passionate about addressing an attitude shift for blind professionals and educating companies on how to hire and cultivate success for the visually impaired

BIT’s mission is simple, but powerful: Prepare the blind and visually impaired, and the employers who hire them, for success in the workplace. Said another way, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

BIT fundamentally believes that companies are missing out on some of the best and brightest talent available in the country today. It means that talented individuals are left to live off public welfare programs, rather than being afforded the opportunity to put their skills to work and earn a living wage.

BIT believes that addressing these problems is a moral and economic imperative.

BIT is the only organization proactively working to reduce the high unemployment rate in the BVI community.

Read more about the BIT story, our candidate and employer services, special events etc. by clicking here.

About Mark

Mark Vivien and his wife of twenty-seven years, Laura, are both Ohio natives who fell in love with Colorado in 1997 and fulfilled their dream of living there in 2002. 

Since earning a B.S. degree from John Carroll University and a MBA from Texas A&M University, Mark has excelled in a variety of roles and industries: financial, business, and strategic planning & analytics, business development, mergers and acquisitions, sales, oil and gas, consumer products, technology, and non-profit. Today, he is an Account Executive for Softchoice Corporation, a leading technology company in North America.

Over the years, Mark has provided volunteer support in areas such as conservation, homelessness, and supporting veterans. Today, he spends most of his volunteer time supporting diversity and inclusion efforts.

Mark currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Blind Institute of Technology (BIT). BIT prepares the blind and visually impaired, and the employers who hire them, for success in the workplace. There is actually a 70% unemployment rate in the adult Blind and Visually Impaired community in the United States. When you add underemployment (working in positions requiring a lower level of skills and abilities and for less pay than equally skilled sited individuals), the rate goes over 80%. Paraphrasing Mark, the problem is not a skills nor technology issue. It is an awareness issue.

This month Mark begins an eighteen month term on his company’s lead Diversity and Inclusion Committee, ONEsoftchoice.

Mark also enjoys camping, hiking, fly fishing, riding his Polaris RZR side-by-side, hunting (especially with his dog Riley), obstacle racing, music, and spending time with friends and family.

Video Answers

  • Young man’s names is Michael Trimble
  • Michael works for Alpine Access
  • The qualities one needs to possess to be successful working at home are driven, self-motivated, and consistently reliable
  • The two challenges are zero background noise and solitary nature of the work

Now, go back to the section just below the video link.

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