Despite being capable of working a variety of jobs, people who are blind or visually impaired tend to have low job placement rates, low salaries and an unusually high underemployment rate. But some advocates say that more-accessible tech platforms could be a key to changing that.
Typically, employment for the blind and visually impaired fall into either the low-skill, low-wage category or the professional jobs that require a college education category, says Edward Bell, the director of Louisiana Tech University’s Department of Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness.
“While blind people are capable of a great many jobs, like working in the service industry or mainstream manufacturing, employers are extremely concerned over fears of safety,” Bell says.
That rules out a lot of jobs. And so the jobs that are made available to people with visual impairments are often jobs that are perceived as physically safe, which tends to mean that they involve sitting, like telemarketing or working at a call center, or that are professional jobs like teaching or law, he says.
The good news, according to Bell, is that college education and skills training—specifically the use of a white cane and braille—are associated with greater employment outcomes.
However, the accessibility of workplace training can serve as a stumbling block.
A workplace technology report from the American Foundation for the Blind, published this month, notes that many people who are blind, have low vision or are deafblind say that they experience difficulties with accessibility for workplace training.
According to researchers from the foundation, the participants in the study described problems with online trainings that were incompatible with screen-reading software or visual adjustments like changing the font size, with quizzes that didn’t work with a keyboard and with educational images and videos that weren’t verbally described.
Many of the participants say they needed to get help from a manager or coworker to complete mandatory training, the report notes, causing delays and feelings of exclusion.
“Sometimes people assume I can’t participate because I’m blind, when the real issue is that the materials either were not provided or aren’t accessible,” says one participant quoted in connection with the study.
At least one startup is gaining traction in building a possible solution.
The company, Clusive, Inc., says it can improve employment outcomes for the visually impaired through software and services for teaching remote and technical job skills. The company describes itself on its website as the first e-learning platform built for and by the blind and visually impaired.
“When I discovered the depth of that problem, I really committed myself to solving it: removing the barriers between the modern workforce and the blind population,” says Clusiv CEO Lukas Simianer.
The company acts as a training provider to state vocational rehab and blind services agencies across the country. Clusive is training what its leaders call “accessibility engineers” who can go into companies and determine whether their software is “truly usable” for those who are blind or have low vision. The founders say they are seeing demand for their system, though they would not disclose the number of current users.
People who are blind are often kept from feeling, “intellectually valued,” according to Simianer, who says he had his own academic experience ruined by a dyslexia diagnosis and can understand the need for feeling valued and engaged, a need that is also relevant to the educational approach. Usually, for example, screen readers are “monotone and boring,” he says, adding that using voice acting and other techniques that engage learners with visual impairments has helped them figure out how to get information to stick.
The company has raised $576,000 in pre-seed fundraising from venture capital firms, and it expects to close with a total of $700,000, with an anticipated launch sometime in the first quarter of 2022.
Gaps and Barriers
Some research has suggested that the gaps in workforce participation between the visually impaired and the non-disabled population still exist but have shrunk over time. However, the gap between the visually impaired and other disabled categories, such as hearing difficulty, has grown “significantly,” which may point towards unique accessibility issues or structural barriers for those who are blind or have low vision.
If there is a unique structural barrier for visual impairment, argues Bell, of Louisiana Tech, it’s likely the restriction of resources around the Rehabilitation Services Administration, the agency in the Department of Education which provides vocational rehabilitation services, and the lack of training most counselors have for visual impairments.
Part of the problem, Bell says, is that that people who are blind require more work to get “prevocational skills”—reading braille and using a white cane, for example.
With other disabilities, like deafness or a spinal cord injury, “prevocational skills” usually get taken care of during the medical insurance process, so that by the time they get to the vocational rehabilitation they’re ready to work, Bell says. In contrast, people with blindness or visual impairments often come out of vocational rehabilitation unready to go to work right away.
“The problem is [learning these prevocational skills] takes time, is quite expensive, and [vocational rehabilitation] counselors often feel pressure to close cases quickly and cheaply,” Bell says.