Blind People in the Workplace

Everyone who has been in the placement business for a few years has stories to tell. Some are humorous and unbelievable. Others are weird and tragic. We see life from an interesting vantage point. We meet people at their best and at their worst. Let me share my answer to a question that I’ve been asked many times. “You’ve work in the field of diversity placement for a long time, what is the most difficult placement you have ever made?”Actually, there were two both were white Irish-American males, both worked in Information Technology. One, a systems analyst, was a recovering alcoholic; the other, a database administrator, was blind. The recovering alcoholic, who had been sober for three years, discussed his recovering status during the company interviews. The CIO wanted to hire him but the HR manager did not. Why? “He’s a risk and I’m afraid that he will begin drinking again.”After a few discussions about the disease of alcoholism, the sterling qualifications of the candidate, three months of interviews, and after I agreed not to bill them for one year, he was hired. They were so delighted with their new systems analyst that they paid the bill in three months.The database administrator was from my hometown, Medford, Massachusetts. Dick is about 15 years my junior. We had many mutual friends but had lost track of each other. I remember him from my Medford days as a fiercely independent young man. After he was blinded in the military, that independent spirit became one of his assets and motivators. His greatest asset and motivator is his wife. He met her after he was discharged from the army “I met her on a blind date.” They have two daughters. Dick went to school nights for four years and then took time off work to complete his undergraduate program and get a master’s degree in Computer Information Systems. He did this in three years. He worked as a programmer for a few years and was promoted to EDP Operations Manager. He continued to study, take courses, get new MIS experiences, and became an expert in database management.When we reconnected, I was doing a search for a Database Administrator for a large Boston area company. Dick had all the credentials and experience for this job. He was, by far, the most qualified candidate we presented for the position. I reviewed Dick’s credentials and experience both in writing and on the phone with the client. They wanted to see him as soon as possible. I knew the culture of this company pretty well and wasn’t too sure how welcoming and open they would be to a blind database administrator. But, I had a fairly good idea and so I decided not to tell them. Dick agreed to this and commented: “When they see me coming with my white stick, they are not going to be very happy with you.” They weren’t with me but they loved him. Once they found out how qualified he was they wanted him to come back for more interviews, and more interviews, and more interviews. Would you believe: six months of interviews?I later learned that the senior staff members were ready to hire him but the person to whom Dick would report continued to bring up potential obstacles to his success. “What if he is not as good as he appears, how will we get rid of him without getting sued?” “What if he can’t find the bathroom?” “What if he makes people nervous?” “What happens if he gets lost, falls down, has to travel, has to go home early, or has to stay late?” “What ifs,” “what ifs” ad nauseam! The boss was simply afraid to hire him. Senior management prevailed and Dick was hired. He successfully reorganized and improved their database management system. He remained with the company for more than five years and then was recruited by an international hotel chain to manage their database operations. Dick completed his career as the Manager of Technical Services for a national insurance company. He is now retired.Dick and I and Paul, another friend, meet three or four times a year for lunch. We’ve been doing this for years. One time Dick called me to make arrangements for one of these lunches. This one was to be held at The Bostonian Hotel in downtown Boston. When I asked him how he was going to get there, he replied in typical Medford fashion, “Do you ask your sighted friends how they will get there?” “No”, I answered. “Well then don’t ask me.” This was just another example of his feisty independence. A few weeks ago, at our annual Christmas luncheon, we got into a lengthy discussion about opportunities for blind people in the workplace. I thought that this information should be shared with The Fordyce Letter readers.Dick believes that companies have no idea how to recruit, interview, hire and retain a blind worker. “They think they are hiring an elephant. They’ve never had one before; they didn’t plan on having one; they certainly don’t know what to do with one; and they are fearful about what the elephant may do.” I asked him what advice he would give to companies and to recruiters about interviewing and hiring blinded workers.He was very direct and blunt with his comments and advice, but as always he provided some helpful insights and guidance. “Don’t ever hire a blind person as a token or because it is a nice thing to do. When companies do this, everyone, especially the blind person, loses. Interview the potential candidate around the skill sets needed to perform well in the position. Set up typical situations that happen in this job or in the work setting and test the candidate’s reaction. Find out what the candidate would do or what decision he would make in the hypothetical scenario.How did he handle situations in his last position? Get examples. The person’s past experiences and method of operating in a job are pretty good indicators of how he or she will perform in a new company.” Dick emphasized that the interview is a key element in judging how comfortable and independent the blind person will be in the position. The information gathered in the interview can be tested and verified when checking the candidate’s references.Dick has quite a network of blind professional people who have done very well in organizations around the country. He also has some strong opinions and beliefs. “The attitude of the blind person is critical. You have to be the kind of person that people want to be around. A sense of humor is very important. People sometimes get a little angry with me because I am so independent. That’s okay. I honestly believe that the only things you can’t do are the things you tell yourself you can’t do. I drive my wife crazy when I clean the gutters every April and November but never clean the mirrors in the house. I tell her that the reason I don’t clean the mirrors is because I don’t use them.”Dick told me how one of his friends who was blind from birth taught him how to get around with a cane. “I’m advantageously blind. That means that I had my sight for a number of years but my buddy, who is an expert at maneuvering without a cane, was congenitally blind. I wanted to become less dependent on the cane and bugged him to teach me. I swore he had built-in sonar but he certainly gave me a lot of tips.” His pal was also an MIS guru.Dick’s experience led him to believe that most employers know very little about hiring the blind and as a result they are missing out on very talented employees. “They are afraid to hire a blind worker because they don’t want to take the risk of the person failing. All they have to do is interview carefully and then judge the person on performance just as they do with sighted people. If the person isn’t performing, that’s the ball game. Hold the person to the same standards as other employees. Sure, they may need more “break-in time,” more time to get started and acclimated but not an inordinate amount of time.”Dick reemphasized a couple of points. “Companies shouldn’t hire blind people to fail and they shouldn’t make nebulous arguments for not hiring someone. You know, statements like ‘how will he find the cafeteria or the bathroom?’ or ‘how will she get to work?’ or ‘what if there is a fire drill?’ If the person doesn’t measure up or doesn’t meet the accountabilities, take the same course of action you would take with a traditional employee. People have to pull their weight; they don’t need slaves to work for them. Make judgments on performance.”You would enjoy my friend and would have a lot of fun with him. Now that he is retired he reads about ten books a week, and works out two hours a day. He and his computer stay on top of his investments. Dick and his wife travel extensively because he wants to see everything he can “while he is on this side of the grass.” He loves to tell jokes and give his opinion on anything and everything.I’ll finish this article with a few practical notes about interviewing a blind person and then recommend a couple of websites. Most people are probably nervous when interviewing a person who is blind. What do you say? How do you act? The important things, as in any candidate interview, are focusing on the candidate’s experience and skills. To do this, you have to be comfortable. The blind person is a “person” first. His or her blindness is just one characteristic. It’s amazing that when you get to know the person and her skills, you almost forget the blindness. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. “What term do you use when you talk about your vision-loss? Blindness? Visual Impairment?” Dick would be quick to tell you that blindness or visual impairment does not mean helplessness but it is a good general rule in the interview to ask the person if he or she needs any assistance.Don’t worry about using phrases like “See you later,” “See you next week,” “Look at this,” “Did you read that book?” Blind folks use these phrases themselves and will not be offended at all. Let the person know when you are entering or leaving the room. Speak directly to the person who is blind. When the person is leaving, simply say, “I would like to shake your hand” and then extend your hand. If you have a job application, allow the person to take it home to complete. If the application has to be completed on site, simply offer the person assistance. If the interview process requires the candidate to go to another office, ask the job applicant if they would like to take your arm, or, if they prefer to follow you. You can describe where you are going: “We are going down three stairs and then we will walk about fifty-feet to my office. Talk about the surroundings as you walk along.Here are a few websites where you can find more information: National Federation of the Blind has a Jobline; The American Council of the Blind has 71 affiliate organizations; The American Foundation of the Blind has a Career Connect which explains the range and variety of jobs that are performed in the U.S. and Canada by adults who are blind; National Industries for the Blind: “Jobs are what we’re all about”.

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Frank X. McCarthy is Partner in Charge of Diversity Practice with The Corporate Source Group. He was a Catholic priest from 1956-70, working in parish and school assignments, serving as a paratrooper chaplain with the 101st Airborne, and as pastor and director of an African American community project in Paterson, NJ. He founded Xavier Associates and conducted diversity searches for over 25 years. Frank is a well-known and widely respected author and speaker on workplace diversity, recruiting, and candidate research. He can be reached:


1 Comment on “Blind People in the Workplace

  1. Personally, I’m a legally blind junior in college with blindness myself. I’m studying in political science like many other blin people going ito government fields cause of the insecurity of the private industry on hiring other blind people. I agree with Frank thugh that private industries need to step up their effort on hiring people like me out there cause you corportions complain about taxation without representation right? Well, you have hit two blows by hiring a ssi or ssdi medicaid/medicare card holder withh allowing them to be paying taxes like the rest of the normal population out there. Many jobs like my local Birmingham, Alabama Milos Sweet Tea had a sales man position, however, they need one or two things I cannot offer like a drivers licenes or near to far away vision that I don’t possession at this moment and time.
    Basically being blind needs a work envionrment condusive to at least adapt to our circumstances with our assistive technology like Window-eyes, Jaws, Hawl, supernova, etc with assistive methodologies like cane travel, tactical braille or alternative with other functions that we can fill in s we go on. We are more than capable in many cases to furfill your need, however, we need bosses to go half way to meet us at the other side of the bridge. Only bluerer states right now usually hire diabled workers outside of the public square unfortunately for the most part. More advocacy on behalf of the blind needs to occur by the government, individual and advocacy groups to corporations on videos, conferences, cooperations, etc. Please just give us a chance that is all we are saying.

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