For the past nine months or so, I've been doing a lot of research into the issue of employment among the population of people with vision impairment. I'm still learning a lot about this issue and discovering that the problem is profoundly more complex than I would have ever predicted. At one time when I worked for Ted Henter a HJ and later when we became FS, we honestly believed that if we made the technology accessible to blind users that the jobs would follow. There was an estimated 70% rate of unemployment among people with profound or total vision impairments; today the number is often expressed as a range between 70-80% by CNIB and other groups that try to estimate this number. Thus, we've seen the employment landscape grow worse for blind people over the past couple of decades and I'm interested in learning why and how this happened.
To this end, while I spend my time googling to find actual data on employment and disability, I've also asked a number of other blind people with different backgrounds, different skill sets, different levels of educational attainment and different life experiences to write guest posts relating their own experience with employment, the benefits landscape and I'm hoping to find as many different points of view as I can and publish them here.
I cannot say that I agree with everything people have suggested to me as ideas on this subject but, of the three guest articles I've received thus far, I find myself both learning from and agreeing with them at least in part. I'm a pretty smart guy but I admit I don't know everything and, as I'm not a social scientist, I'm just trying to gather as many anecdotes as possible in order to hopefully inform a real researcher's work in the future.
This is the first of these guest posts to be published, it's by my friend and long term member of a creative writing group in which I've participated for nearly as long as I can remember. Ann Parsons is a terrific wordsmith and her perspective on work is interesting although very different from my own.
Ann's View On Work
When I was growing up, I was encouraged to do as much as I could as a child who was blind. The prevailing attitude was that I could do whatever I wanted to do if only I would work hard. The companion to this attitude was that I had to be better than everyone else because I was blind. I needed to prove that I could be just as good as, if not better than my sighted peers. In addition to this set of attitudes which I took in and made part of my own, American culture is based on the perception that what one does for a living is one's identity. Doctors and lawyers and business men were touted as being good. Waitresses and bell hops and gas station attendants and other tradesmen were inferior. As a person who is blind, I grew up learning that people who worked in factories and especially workshops for the blind were lower than I, and being employed as one of these was tantamount to failure. These are the perceptions of the society which shaped my view of the world of employment I went to high school, I went to college and graduate school, and I was certain that I could get a job. After all, I had proven that I "could do it". I made reasonable grades, my teachers were pleased with me. I was going to get a job. I have a degree in English Education, an M.S. in guidance and personnel, and thirty hours in teaching the blind and visually impaired. Then I started my job search. I won't go into numbering how many applications I filled out, nor will I burden you, reader, with the numbers of interviews I attended, all to no purpose. Suffice it to say that I paid my dues. I went to scores of interviews, and filled out hundreds of applications, and all I got for my pains was a stack of rejection letters and a broken heart. I was angry and discouraged for many years because I believed that my self worth was all tied up with my nonexistent career. After all, that's how society in the U.S. and probably other places too, is. Your self worth is measured by whether you have a career or not, whether you are working in a workshop or not, whether you are on SSDI or SSI. I was a failure, unworthy, a flop. All my dreams had turned to dust and I was marking time by living at home, keeping the house and supporting myself with the occasional substitute teaching position or home tutoring gig. As I say, I was angry for many years. I felt trapped. I was living at home. I wasn't earning enough money, hardly anything at all, to live on my own, and I could see no way out!
Then two things happened to me. The first was the love of a good man. Herb Sanford III became my friend and more than that. We were almost engaged. He loved me for me, not because of what I was but because of who I was. That's a great ego booster, you know? When he died in August of 1988, it threw me for a loop, practically destroyed me. Another dream broken on the stones of life.
The second was unearthing the tapes I had received from an Iroquois medicine woman when I was in college. I was seeking solace and I listened to them again. Something came out and knocked me upside of the head, as they say. Twyla, the medicine woman, started talking about the Iroquois view of what work is. She explained that for the Iroquois, work is anything you do to benefit The Tribe, be it only a smile. Whatever you do that is good for the tribe is your work. You don't need to get paid for it; a white man's idea. No, all that you do to help others is your work.
I was thunderstruck! I realized that I had been working my whole life! All the volunteer work I had done and was doing: the house keeping, the cooking, the cleaning, the singing in the nursing homes and the school for kids with multiple disabilities, the singing in the church choir, the singing in the community chorus, the helping of others on The Net, the listening to friends, the work for ATAC and ACB and The Junior League, the care taking for my mother, and on and on it went, every day, all day, I was working.
Believe me, reader, you could have knocked me over with a feather. Here I had bought into this myth that I had to have a paid career, had to live on my own, had to be independent, and on and on, complete and total rot! I had bought into a pile of junk and broken dreams. Once I figured out that Ann Parsons was worthy, I began to come up from under. I started actively looking for ways that I could help others, even if I wasn't paid. Then I began to actively seek ways toward interdependence, trading my skills for help from others. Giving of my talent and treasure in return for the help I received because I can't do many things without assistance. I found that becoming interdependent gave me a true sense of self worth because I was needed.
It didn't matter that I wasn't getting paid. I was needed.
Becoming interdependent is far more important than becoming independent.
I began to be confident. Living on my own after my mother died helped, yes, and owning my house helped too, but it was the underlying assurance that because I was worthy, I could continue living in confidence. My faith was a major factor, but it was those two important things, Herb's love and Twyla's explanation of work, that started me on my healing journey. Now, I'm an AT trainer and a teacher of braille. I work part time. I own my house, I like my life, and what's more, I like myself. After all, isn't that the first step toward healing?
Here's a radical thought for you, reader. I believe that part of the answer for the unemployment of The Blind is self employment. Whatever it is, selling insurance, acting as an AT Trainer, acting as a tutor, being part of BEP, studying massage, writing, and so much more. Find a product or service that somebody wants and provide it. Quit working for other people, work for yourself.
Of course this means that you need to be self reliant, strong willed and confident. You need to be self motivated and able to work independently. Learn these skills. Learn problem solving. Learn time management. Learn self reliance. Don't wait for teacher, aide, mentor, counselor to find you a job. Mold your own future.
It just makes me so angry when I see young people buying into the same pile of junk I did. It's a chimera, folks. It's a damned chimera! One is measured not by how much money one makes but by how well he or she has learned and practiced interdependence. That's God's measuring stick, not society's. [Listen to this song], written by [Mahalia Jackson]! It's the best illustration of my point that I can think of.