Reid My Mind Radio: Employment Challenges for People with Disabilities

With all the hype about the economy and employment rate it’s seems like a good time to remind or inform people of the high unemployment rate among people with disabilities.
RMMRadio Alumni Joe Strechay, Director of the Bureau of Blindness & Visual Services in Pennsylvania joins me to talk about the challenges faced by people who are blind and exactly what they’re doing to make a difference.
Picture of Joe Strechay

This episode includes some good advice for anyone impacted by disability looking to transition to employment.

Resources

Transcript

Show the transcript

TR:
There’s been some discussion in the news about the positive 2018 employment figures. The facts show that , the unemployment rate has been on a consistent decline throughout President Obama’s presidency.
I’m just saying’!

Depending on what you read, the percentage of people with a disability who are unemployed range anywhere between 45 and 75 percent.

So, I want to talk about employment among people with vision loss and disabilities in general.

[phone Ringing]

I decided to call an alumni of Reid My Mind Radio.

On that note, before I get into it… I’m T Reid and this is my theme music.

[Reid My Mind Radio Intro]

So I called Mr. Joe Strechay, also known to any listener of this podcast as the man who literally taught Charlie Cox, the star of Marvel’s Dare Devil how to be blind.
If you haven’t heard that episode I suggest you give it a listen.

Sometime after that interview, Joe took on the role of Director of The Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services or BBVS of Pennsylvania which is part of the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.

I asked Joe about the dismal unemployment percentages for people with disabilities.

JS:

When you look at the statistics I think your 45, 46 percent sound about right for unemployment.

But they would say 12 to 15 percent of people are not even engaged in the employment process and are not even counted.

Often the percentage you hear about, the 70 or 75 percent includes under employed, so people working at a level under their education or training. Some people like to provide the positive side of things, 54 percent of people who are blind or visually impaired are working, but again there’s a 12 to 15 percent that aren’t even included in those types of stats.
[TR in conversation with JS]
From your perspective, what are the challenges?

JS:
Employers knowledge and understanding and awareness around individuals who are blind and visually impaired…

I think it was back in 2011, the National Industries for the Blind did a study with Human Resource professionals asking them what their big questions were or concerns were with hiring someone who is blind or visually impaired. And these were the gate keepers in the employment process from a lot of big businesses, small businesses. Their number one question was could they do the job and number two was transportation. How were they going to get to work, but not even just the transportation to work how were they going to get around in the work place. Am I going to have to guide them to the bathroom?

TR:

That question for some, is more upsetting than surprising.
Unfortunately Joe says some of those whose focus is creating diversity and inclusion in the workplace,
are just as unaware.

JS:

They’re really worried that like you’re coming out of the elevator that the lip of the elevator is going to make you trip and fall down.

[TR in conversation with JS]
Wow!

TR:
This first barrier of employment for people with disabilities
could be summarized as social challenges. Joe recommends dealing with these by taking control of your messaging. This means being proficient in your choice of mobility, access technology and effectively advocating for yourself.

JS:

When an employer has those types of simple concerns about hiring someone that’s a problem. We have to address those because if you walk out of an interview and that employer has concerns or questions about you, they’re not going to hire you. The employment process is really about creating trust between you and the employer. Some other obstacles are actually transportation. The more rural you live, the harder it is to commute. The harder it is to get access. If you don’t live on a street with sidewalks or near bus routes it’s going to be more difficult. Persons with disabilities battle with isolation and the more isolated you are the less opportunity you’re going to have. Proprietary software corporations and business working with the companies or contractors to build out software to fulfill needs in their employment setting and if these software’s are not built in an accessible manner, most are not, that’s a big barrier. If you get the job you won’t be able to do the job.

TR:

Further examination of the unemployed population of people with disabilities, reveals separate more specific needs based on demographics.

For example, teens and young adults have a need to acquire different skills in comparison to others adjusting to vision loss with
workforce experience.

JS:

We’ve developed out a lot of different types of programs that provide job shadowing, work based learning experience. Programs like Project Search – which works with the Human Resources department in a business and develops out different jobs within that business and working with individuals to fit into those situations.

It’s not just how you do the job it’s how you interact with your co-workers, the customers, your boss as well. Individuals learn those basic skills from experience but also from seeing how other people interact. Individuals who are blind or visually impaired may miss out on some of that incidental learning.

[TR in conversation with JS]

What does that training process look like?

JS:
It could be starting out with job shadowing, occupational interviews, mock interviewing, actual interviews, work based learning experience where they’re actually getting to work a part time paid job. One of our emphasis is providing paid work experience because people are two and half times more likely to be employed after their education if they’ve had prior paid work experience. They’re even more likely to be successful if they actually found that employment setting themselves.

[TR in conversation with JS]
Can you give us an example of some of those successful projects?

JS:
We have a partnership with the Overbrook School for the Blind where they’re doing the Transitional Vocational Initiative, which is a three week summer program where students around the Common wealth of Pennsylvania go to Overbrook in Philadelphia and they work for two weeks doing those soft skills and then they move on to job shadowing and then the last week they’re working. They’re going to extend out the length of the working period in the coming year. That really is where the kids get that real world experience to work in an employment setting and learn about interacting with their co-workers and boss.

[TR in conversation with JS]
I know people listening would wonder, especially those not familiar with blindness would say ok, what kind of jobs can a blind teen do?

JS:
All kinds of things. Working in stores, point of purchase systems such as Square because those can be accessible, busing tables. We have kids that are washing dishes. WSe have kids…

[TR in conversation with JS]
Alright, alright hold on Joe!

TR:

Ok, I know! Some of you may struggle with the idea that a blind person
can hold a job as a bus boy. It’s ok!

I’ll let Joe answer that but in general when it comes to people with disabilities and employment
consider if the question should be; What job can the person hold or
how can we accommodate this person to make sure they’re successful fulfilling the job?

Back to Joe.

JS:

I’ve known a couple of bus boys who were totally blind. I know some dish washers who were totally blind. Some individuals working at a store on the register were totally blind as well. We’re also utilizing our Business Enterprise Program so our Randolph Sheppard Programs as locations; cafeterias and vending. The more opportunities the better. We don’t want to limit someone at one opportunity if they can get experience in multiple settings we’re all about that. We have people that are working in offices as receptionists answering phones and a little more high level if they have some more technical skills.

TR:

Getting teens with disabilities prepared for employment begins as soon as the summer following 9th grade.

In partnership with other organizations and agencies, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services offers the Summer Academy.

JS:

It’s a post-secondary preparation and career exploration program. Really an emphasis on that post-secondary preparation giving people a realistic college experience. Making sure they have the assistive technology skills. Getting orientation and mobility skills around the campus university and town. How to organize things. How to access things, cooking their meals and also to find out if college is the right avenue for them. They may be looking at more vocational training or opportunity.

TR:

Students even get the chance to take a college level course where they receive 3 credits upon completion.

This successful program is currently being replicated in other states.

When it comes to adults with vision loss of working age, BBVS provides services through the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. Services include;

* vision rehabilitation therapist who teach daily living skills like cooking and organizing household goods; things which often require a different approach following vision loss.

* orientation and mobility or teaching a person how to effectively travel using any remaining vision and or a white cane. This includes traveling through your home, neighborhood and taking public transportation.

* Vocation Rehabilitation counselors who help with finding employment or returning to work.

JS:
We also utilize programs that are out there. Whether it’s the Blindness Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh which can provide a setting a location if someone needs more in depth services they can go and stay there. Training centers around the country as well. We have the ability to develop out internships or other programs and we’re going to be looking into more internship opportunities for adults who are blind or visually impaired. We’ve been having some discussions with bigger corporations and businesses . We’ve seen some success like with SAP, one of the big financial software companies and Microsoft working with individuals with Autism and why couldn’t that also happen with individuals who are blind or visually impaired.

[TR in conversation with JS]
In general, I’m not asking about any specific company, what are those conversations like. I mean are they kind of open or what?

JS:
I think they’re more open then they have been in the past. Typically for a really successful relationship it takes having a champion within. Some of these companies they can’t create products or services that meet the needs of customers they don’t know about.

TR:

Now that the prospective employee has learned proper orientation and mobility skills, is comfortable using their technology and
ready to advocate for themselves there’s still one question they need to answer.

In fact, anyone with a disability, especially those that are visible, deals with the question of when is the right time to disclose that disability to a potential employer.

JS:

I’m really passionate about that subject. I call it addressing the elephant in the room. Every time I walk into a room with an employer or business I have a visible disability. I have a long white cane and most likely you know I’m blind from that.

[TR Laughs]
I believe I have a duty if I want to really reach that employer to dispel any myths, but also address the elephant in the room. Make sure that they understand that I am a competent individual who’s blind. I talk about my background my work skills and how I deal with being blind and how I navigate that employment setting and I really think you’re better off building in to your sales pitch , the end of your sales pitch, you’re not going to lead with it, but how you performed tasks that will be related to a job. You use a screen reader and explain what a screen reader is and how you navigate and that you can use Microsoft Office and Excel, Access. I did HTML coding and explaining how I did that . I have my white cane, I’ve been trained in how to use it. My last job I traveled about 18 days per month all over the country independently and explaining that type of information otherwise you’re leaving the room without addressing the concerns and questions of the employer. And they’re not going to hire you if they have questions and concerns about you. I believe that persons with disabilities need to take charge of it. Own who they are. Not that your disability defines you but if you’re not comfortable talking about it, that employer is not going to be comfortable with talking to you about it and that can be a problem in itself.

[TR in conversation with JS]
So that was the interview process but what about when you’re trying to get the job whether that be your resume, cover letter. What do you guys recommend on that?

JS:

Point of disclosure. And I’ll tell you with the disclosure process there’s no right or wrong answer. Every situation’s different, every persons different. I can tell you that the employment process is about building trust and the earlier you let them know the more likely they’re not going to feel that you were dishonest with the. On my resume I don’t like write “blind guy”. I make sure that they know. I would want them to know before I walk in the door. As an individual who’s blind I’ve been in that situation where I didn’t let people know. I was going in for an Orientation and Mobility internship position. It went from a meeting about my internship to a three and a half hour interview where they basically grilled me on everything. I was supposed to have that internship but they didn’t know I was visually impaired at that time. I had to address it. At the end of it I knew I wasn’t going to have that opportunity , I could feel it. I felt it right when I walked in the door. You’re putting yourself at a disadvantage. There are positive and negatives to disclosing at any point in the employment process. I really believe at the time of scheduling an interview to talk to the person about it and explain that you are a person who’s blind.

TR:

Sounds like some real good advice and Joe should know, he’s been focusing on employment issues even before taking his current position as the director of BBVS.

JS:

I worked for the American Foundation for the Blind for about seven years. I supervised their employment initiative such as career connect which was an online career exploration , job seeking skills and E-Mentoring program. And also advising state agencies and even countries on their employment initiatives and also initiatives around transition from school to work.

TR:

Let’s recap the ingredients that go into improving employment opportunities for people with disabilities;

* A shift in the way we as a society think about disability in general and what is possible
* Training for both prospective employees and employers
* Policy changes in both the public and private sectors

From what I can tell, Joe has a very specific quality that seems like an essential requirement to take on this task; optimism.

JS:

One of the big impacts I’ve seen is around section 503 and their aspirational goals on federal contractors and sub-contractors around the hiring of persons with disabilities and also maintaining their employment. I really think that has made an impact. I’ve seen companies looking to hire persons with disabilities and there’s a 7 percent aspiration goal for federal contractors and sub-contractors and it depends on the size of the organization. I really think that is a big step and you know that stems from President Obama’s Executive Order where he pushed the Federal Government to being a model employer and looking to demonstrate that federal agencies could show the corporate world and the private sector how it could be done. And they were successful as of NI believe November 2012. In reaching that goal. Prior to Obama leaving office he was expanding it within the Federal Government. We’re hoping that these standards really continue and only grow to give more opportunities to persons with disabilities .

TR:

Joe says he’s looking at more opportunities that will come from mentorships and less traditional routes for employment and entrepreneurship
through freelance and job outsourcing web sites like Fiver and Up work.

If you are or know of a person with a disability interested in talking about the employment experience, I’d love to listen. Send me an email at ReidMyMindRadio@gmail.com. I’m especially interested in sharing stories of people with disabilities in nontraditional roles or finding creative income streams whether via employment or entrepreneurship.

Now I have a job for you, whether you’re a person with a disability or not… subscribe to this podcast if you are not already.

You can do that through Apple Podcast, Google Play, Stitcher, Tune In Radio, Sound Cloud or just visit Reid My Mind.com and all your options are right there.

I’ve been trying to come up with a slogan for Reid My Mind Radio. Maybe something like

JS:
Some people like to find the positive side of things!

I’ll keep working on that, but for now break time is over yawl…
let’s go to work!

[RMMRadio Outro]

TR:
Peace!

Hide the transcript

Leave a Reply