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EMPLOYMENT FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE VISUALLY IMPAIRED IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

a research project


This paper was written in 1999, when I intended to undertake academic research that would help to identify jobs that could be done by people who are vision impaired.  Work did start on the project in the year 2000, but had to be abandoned because of pressure of other work.  It is actually far too large a project for an individual researcher to undertake, but is published here to encourage others who may wish to follow the academic route.

Since writing this brief, I have had two further attempts at defining research studies that would not be too much for an individual, yet would contribute something worthwhile in the field of employment for people who are vision impaired.  Subsequently, I have decided that my time would be more effectively used in working with clients who are disabled in training and supporting them in employment and self-employment.
     

INTRODUCTION

This paper sets out the brief for an academic research project which, it is envisaged, will examine issues relating to the employment of people in the United Kingdom who are visually impaired.  It is intended that the study be undertaken by myself, working part time, over a five year period.  Discussions with universities suggest that the most appropriate route would be via an MPhil, leading to a PhD.  However, this project is intended first and foremost as a practical investigation and implementation, not simply as an exercise in academia.  It is hoped that genuine improvements in employment prospects for people who are visually impaired will be the most significant outcome of this work.
     

OBJECTIVES

1. To identify, survey, assess and evaluate new and alternative employment opportunities for people who are visually impaired.

2. To participate in the development, implementation and operation of at least one scheme that will create new employment opportunities for people who are visually impaired.
     

DEFINITIONS

There is often a deal of confusion about terminology used when referring to people who have a visual impairment.  The definitions below are not intended to be absolute, but they are those to be used throughout this study.

Blind   Refers to a person who is legally entitled to be registered blind in the United Kingdom, i.e. a person who has less than five per cent vision.

Partially Sighted Refers to a person who is legally entitled to be registered partially sighted in the United Kingdom, i.e. a person who has less than ten per cent vision.

Visually Impaired Refers to a person who is either blind or partially sighted, within the above definitions.  There are, however many more people who are not entitled to be registered as blind or partially sighted but who may have significant difficulties with many visual activities;  these people are also referred to here as being visually impaired.

Totally Blind Refers to those people who have no useful vision, although they may have limited perception of light and dark.
     

BACKGROUND

Estimates of the unemployment rate amongst people in the United Kingdom who are visually impaired vary from 75% (BBC “In Business”;  Radio 4, 3rd February 2000) to in excess of 85%.  Whatever the reliability of these figures, it is clear that the vast majority of people who are visually impaired are not in employment.  This view is supported by a large body of popular opinion within the visually impaired community.

It is not yet known whether these figures are stable or are changing.  However, it would seem likely that changes in the workplace and in working practices may be making it more difficult for people who are visually impaired to secure and retain employment.  Two of these changes that have already been noted are:-

a) much work that was formerly carried out by people who were visually impaired is now done in the developing world, done by machine or not done at all;

b) increasing visual factors in the workplace, notably though not exclusively due to the increased use of computer technology, have made it progressively more difficult for people who are visually impaired to carry out many tasks and to integrate with work colleagues.

The short article by John Rae, included as an Appendix to this paper, is a useful starting point for any survey of factors in the workplace that have further obstructed the employment of people who are visually impaired.  Although this article is based on the situation in Canada, it is equally relevant in the United Kingdom.
     

SCOPE

It is envisaged that a number of threads will run through this study and will be of differing significance at different stages.  The major areas of interest will be as follows:-

1. To establish actual levels of employment and unemployment among people in the United Kingdom who are visually impaired.

2. To establish how employment rates for people in the United Kingdom who are visually impaired have changed for various types of employment, such as professional, craft, trade and unskilled work.

3. To study initiatives in the United Kingdom and elsewhere aimed at improving the employment prospects of people who are visually impaired.

4. To examine the potential benefits for people who are visually impaired of enabling mechanisms such as supported employment and job accommodation.

5. To examine the potential of self employment for people who are visually impaired.

6. To examine the potential advantages and disadvantages of teleworking for people who are visually impaired.

7. To collaborate in the development and implementation of one or more specific schemes with a view to creating new employment opportunities for people who are visually impaired.
     

STRUCTURE

It is envisaged that the study will be carried out in seven phases, though there will inevitably be considerable overlap between these.

1. A thorough survey of existing facts and figures relating to employment of people who are visually impaired in the United Kingdom.  Much of the source material for this phase is already available, but will have to be identified and information compared and collated.

2. A review of the extent and effectiveness of employment services and other support available to people who are visually impaired offered by state and other agencies.

3. An investigation into initiatives in the United Kingdom and elsewhere that promote, encourage or support employment of people who are visually impaired.  This will be a lengthy phase in which it will be necessary to make heavy use of the Internet, as well as requiring visits to schemes in various parts of the United Kingdom.

4. Assessment and evaluation of a variety of those initiatives, with a view to selecting a small number for special study.  Much of this work will overlap the previous phase as schemes are identified and assessed.

5. A detailed study of the strengths and weaknesses of the selected group of schemes with a view to discovering why they have or have not been successful.  There may be a need here to examine the moral and ethical implications of schemes.

6. Implementation of at least one scheme aimed at creating new employment opportunities for people who are visually impaired.

7. Critical evaluation and assessment of the whole study.
     

THE LITERATURE

Searches of the Internet and enquiries amongst professional contacts have revealed little by way of literature relevant to the subject of this research.  It does, however, seem unlikely that so little related work has been done.  It will therefore be necessary to make an early and detailed search for relevant literature.

Some potentially relevant work has been found in the United Kingdom, and efforts are in hand to procure papers from the researchers concerned.  Another useful potential source has been identified at Mississippi State University.


APPENDIX


The following article was published in Volume 29, No. 1 of the Newsletter of the British Computer Association of the Blind in January 1998.  It is included here by kind permission of the original author, John Rae, who has already given considerable help and encouragement in developing the brief for this study.

Although I had had no contact with John Rae at that time, his article, posted on the GLADNET mailing list, focusses on the issues that were uppermost in my own mind at that time.

Note that the email address given for John Rae at the end of his article is no longer valid.
     

------ Text of Article - BCAB Newsletter Vol. 29, No. 1 -----------

WILL THE BLIND FIND WORK IN THE 21st.  CENTURY?  - John Rae

Margaret Hill offered the following for publication:-

Dear GLADNET Colleagues:

I was recently provided the following article by a friend, which will apparently be published.  The author raises an interesting issue; that systemic employment practices that result in the reduction in the numbers of support staff are having an adverse impact on the job opportunities for certain persons with disabilities.

Again, GLADNET colleagues may wish to contact the author directly at his e-mail address.

John Rae Writes:-

At present, the workplace, and indeed the very nature of work itself is being transformed more quickly and more dramatically than it has since the Industrial Revolution!  These changes will continue to have a profound impact upon all job-seekers with disabilities, including those of us who happen to be blind.

Over the past ten or twenty years, the disability community in most western industrialised nations has worked very hard to improve public attitudes and to remove old barriers in both society and in the workplace that have impeded our equal participation in the world of work.  The literature tells us that some progress towards achieving these goals has taken place but, to date, only the fortunate few have benefited directly by finding their niche in the workplaces of today.  The vast majority of persons with disabilities remain unemployed and marginalised or, at best, severely under-employed.

Advances in technology, it was postulated by some, would go a long way towards removing the drudgery of heavy, physical work, and help remedy our chronic level of unemployment by making it possible for more and more of us to compete successfully alongside our non-disabled counterparts.

Undoubtedly, some have definitely benefited from this promise.  After all, the development of new technology has spawned the development of a variety of new industries where some highly-skilled blind persons now work successfully.  However, those who predicted that the computer would become our panacea have failed to see the other side of this "double-edged sword," and today we are seeing the emergence of new barriers that were unforeseen as recently as five or ten years ago, that are threatening much of the progress we have made.

Today, the level of unemployment in most western industrialised nations remains high with little or no prospect for significant improvement.  While expanding global trade should help stimulate greater workplace diversity, cutbacks are now the norm as corporations try to maximise their profits through the use of an ever-shrinking work force.  Every day, more and more individuals are being hired on a short-term contract basis to work on a specific project.  Support staff, who often used to provide some of our needed accommodations are almost becoming an endangered species and the technology that was supposed to help make us equal is too often put onto the market before necessary access features are even thought about, let alone built into the new products.

As we approach the dawn of the 21st century, will even those fortunate few persons with disabilities continue to be employed, and what will be our prospects?  This dilemma leads to an inevitable question:  is any individual or Organisation now looking seriously at these futuristic questions?

Anyone with information, or who would like to discuss these questions in more detail, please contact me in print, Braille, or on tape, no disks please at:  92 Jarvis Street, Apt.  304, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5B 2J9.  E-mail:  raej@gov.on.ca

Cad Raskin, Coordinator, Global Applied Disability Research and Information Network on Employment and Training (GLADNET) craskin@magi.com

Visit GLADNET's Web sites at:  HTTP://www.gladnet.org or
HTTP://infoweb.magi.com/-craskin/index.html
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