Let Your Fingers Do the Hiring: Blind People and Employment

May 5, 2010

A Braille image that says "Hire Me!"In the disability world, there is often a difference of opinion on whether it is more appropriate to enroll a disabled child in a school specifically geared toward him or her, or to mainstream the child with non-disabled children in the general educational system. The decision on how to enroll a disabled child has major implications on the way the child spends his or her life as an adult, and importantly, the type of career the adult pursues.

The degree of difference in educational approaches varies by disability — those with serious developmental disabilities are usually placed in disability-specific schools, while paraplegics and quadriplegics are generally mainstreamed. Some types of disability, especially deafness, lend themselves to more complex debates on educational approaches. Generally, if a disabled child is put in a school that specifically educates children with the same type of disability, he/she would get an education geared toward accommodating the disability, but at the expense of forgoing educational opportunities otherwise available to mainstreamed children. On the other hand, while the disabled child who is mainstreamed may develop a strong education and interact on a regular basis with non-disabled children, this would be at the expense of social development, especially where the non-disabled peers are not appreciative and accommodating of the child’s disability (up to the point of bullying, deliberate ignorance, or just an innocuous lack of awareness of the disabled condition). Technology has, particularly in the last decade, become a very strong influence in the decisions parents and professionals make in the education of disabled children.

This debate has been surprisingly consistent across all types of disabilities, including the deaf, the blind, the mentally challenged, etc. What is very interesting about this debate is that, depending on the disability, the benefits of one educational approach is more obvious, while with other disabilities, the benefits of either educational approach (mainstreamed and non-mainstreamed) are not as clear-cut and often result in very spirited and emotional discussions on the fate of the child. As a deaf person, I have often experienced a high level of tension in the dialogue between those who champion sign language as a primary mode of communication in education (usually requiring schools well-trained in sign language, or sign language programs within mainstreamed schools), while others emphasize the auditory-verbal method (which is used to a great extent in mainstreamed education and at oral schools for the deaf).

Marisa Parker, a blind girl, types on a Braille-writing machine.In the blind and visually-impaired community, however, there is stronger and stronger evidence indicating that as more blind children are mainstreamed, they are increasingly becoming divorced from Braille, a mode of communication that is essential to their ability to understand and interpret the written word. As a person who values the appropriateness of different modes of education for different people with the same disability, I tried over the years to find information on blind people who were able to lead quality lives without the use of Braille, and have come up almost empty in my research. Looking at the available statistics on employment and education for the blind, it is patently evident that the blind community has been very ill-served by the lack of use of Braille in education in the last three decades.

In 1973, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability in Federal programs, and in programs that receive assistance from the U.S. Government. Among the more well known sections of this act are Sections 504 and 508, which requires these programs to provide reasonable accommodations to children and adults with disabilities, using technologies that enable these people to have functional equivalence to those in the non-disabled population.

The passage of this act had a major impact on the education of people with disabilities, as it made it possible for PwD’s to receive an education in mainstreamed settings, increasing access to educational, professional and social options. Over the next few decades, however, the application of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 has been uneven, as many PwD’s saw their quality of life increase, while other PwD’s suffered. For the blind community, the 1973 Act has been an unmitigated disaster, with across-the-board declines in blind people’s quality of life. For many decades before the 1960’s, the blind and visually-impaired relied on the Braille system to help them read, and express themselves through writing. In an age where the written word, aided by the Industrial Revolution and its impact on book publishing and world literacy, became a crucial part of a person’s life, Braille enabled the blind to better understand and express the written word and keep themselves on a par with the seeing world. In schools for the blind, teachers used the Braille system to help blind children learn English.

Starting in the early 1960’s, and accelerating after the 1973 passage of the Rehabilitation Act, the decisions to educate blind children increasingly resided with administrators in thousands of school districts, and less on schools for the blind. With the advent of new technologies that enabled blind people to utilize more diverse tools to understand the written word, school districts increasingly determined that if blind students could rely on these new — and cheaper — technologies, it did not make sense for the schools to pay for the more expensive outlay of braille devices. So, a whole generation of blind children grew up with little access to Braille.

According to a study by the National Federation of the Blind, less than 10 percent of the 1.3 million legally blind people in the U.S. use Braille, compared to 50 percent a generation ago.  Other statistics show that among legally blind children, just 12 percent read in Braille, and Braille literacy rates are declining around the world.

More interestingly, over 70 percent of blind adults are unemployed, and 50 percent of blind high school students drop out.

Employment statistics paint an even more powerful picture of how blind people live out their lives:  90 percent of blind adults who are Braille-literate are employed, while just 33 percent of blind adults who do not use Braille are employed.

A Braille keyboard in front of a standard computer keyboard, and a pair of hands using the Braille keyboard.

A Braille keyboard, used by Victor Tsaran, the blind co-director of the Yahoo Accessibility Lab.

Why the shift away from Braille? Budgetary reasons were the major driving force behind the school districts’ decisions, fueled by the districts’ perception that blind people would benefit from the new technologies that did not utilize Braille and render the raised-dot mode of reading unnecessary. Screen readers, raised print, and text-to-speech devices, especially in computers and the Internet, have widened the spectrum of selections available to blind people and given them powerful tools to read and interpret the written word. Unfortunately, all of these new technologies lack one essential ingredient that is very important to blind people: their ability to express themselves through the written word. Short of typing on the computer — which makes it more time-consuming to correct their own typing mistakes — there is no other technology short of Braille that enables blind people to accurately, expressively, and efficiently communicate in their writing style. While the average seeing person takes for granted the ease of picking up a pen and writing his or her words on paper, or pulling up a keyboard and typing away, this mundane but essential act of writing is not easily available to the blind person.

Proponents of alternate forms of technology point to the fact that non-blind people cannot understand Braille and thus would have a hard time communicating with them on legal documents, literature, newspapers, and other expressions of the written word. By enabling blind people to communicate on a platform that is easily understandable by non-blind people, they can better interact in the world at large. That may be true, but it fails to consider blind people’s ability to express themselves through the written word. The non-Braille technologies put the power of control in the hands of non-blind people. Braille gives blind people the ability to control their own flow of communication, and perform on the same functional platform as non-blind people.

Fortunately there has been a strong push by advocates for the blind community to return Braille to its rightful, historic place in the annals of the blind. Braille readers that transmit text from a computer, such as a document or a website, have been developed, and blind people sometimes prefer to input their words in Braille than on standard computer keyboards which require not only the ability to type, but also a speech synthesizer and a screen reader to read back what is written.

Nothing is more plain to the eye than a statistic that shows that 90% of employed blind people use Braille, while 2 out of 3 unemployed blind people do not use Braille.

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    { 7 comments… read them below or add one }

    Mike Squillace May 7, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    Michael: As a totally blind non-braille user, I was outraged and somewhat offended by your recent post. Since you have seemed to come up empty-handed in terms of finding information regarding, “..blind people who were able to lead quality lives without the use of Braille,” let me assure you that there are plenty of us. I hold two jobs, one as a full-time research software engineer and the other as a part-time pianist/vocalist. I have four college degrees, including a Ph.D in philosophy and have received multiple awards both during my scholastic and my professional careers. Indeed, I have had multiple professions including college-level instructor, entertainer, and computer scientist. I have many blind friends who do not use braille and who are equally successful and productive members of society. So, first, I resent the comment that our lives as blind persons have been an “unmitigated disaster” simply due to our not using braille, many of us by our own choice. You might just as well claim that blind people live intolerably horrible lives and have made little progress in the years since the Federal Rehabilitations Act because they did not receive, say, adequate orientation and mobility training, which many of us have not. It is true that braille literacy has significantly decreased but that should not be equated with or somehow naturally imply that literacy or communicative skills of blind persons have diminished. Writing is a technology that takes many forms, whether on the printed page, in braille, or on the computer screen. Ushered into the world by the advent of the alphabet and exponentially propagated with the invention of the printing press, the technology of writing put the power of self-reflection, inference, and collaborative thought within the reach of the masses for the first time. The age of reason was no longer 7 (the age when most persons learned to speak their native tongue) but later, when they learned to write. Thus, the aim is mastering writing, not mastering a particular manifestation of this technology. Let us now turn to your link between the lack of braille usage and employments rates. First, the fact that 90% of persons who use braille are employed should not be surprising. Since, given your own statistics, most of these adults have been of workforce age longer than those who do not learn braille, naturally they have had more of an opportunity to find stable, long-term, gainful employment. More generally, however, the fact that there is such a high unemployment rate among blind adults is, I believe, not attributable to their lack of braille usage. Rather, I believe that access to assistive technologies like screen readers and screen magnifiers in this information age significantly hinders opportunities in education, employment, and entertainment. The cost of everyday devices for sighted persons can literally be doubled for a blind person trying to use the same device and braille is not the answer to using my smart phone, my Ipod, my on-screen programmable DVD player, or an internet more and more populated by dynamic web applications. Braille may have been the answer to the problems posed by the printed word in the 1960s, but it is not the answer today in an environment where the printed word takes so many different forms in so many different environments. Your discussion, in fact, of screen-reading technology (a technology, by the way, that completely transformed my life in the late 1990s) is especially offensive. The claim that it lacks “one essential ingredient that is very important for blind people: their ability to express themselves through the written word,” is utterly ridiculous as, I hope, this response shows. Screen-reading technology hides nothing of the structures required for good writing. Indeed, much effort has gone into both the assistive technology and the guidelines that shape product development to preserve the semantics conveyed by visual presentation. If typing on the computer is so horrible for us, why is it so beneficial for you? I can probably navigate the web, make an on-line purchase, or compose a blog post more quickly than yourself. This is not because of braille, but because I had a proper introduction to modern writing technologies like the word processor, the internet, and screen readers. Also, since you are so interested in the differences among different groups of PWDS, consider that blind people still face a great deal of fear and ignorance in all walks of life. People still talk about me in the third person to my wife, still cower at my approach, and still speak to me as if I am deaf rather than blind. I do not believe that any other disability group faces more fear or ignorance on a regular basis and many (like your own) face much less. Finally, I find it a little odd that you, as a deaf person, would have so much to say about blindness and how best to cope with it. I would not think of making claims about the benefits of sign language for your community because I know so little about it and because signing is so foreign to me as a blind person. Regardless of the statistics you find so intriguing, perhaps you ought best to refrain from judging the quality of life of a group of persons so entirely different in their lifestyle and their everyday activities from your own.

    Reply

    JDS May 8, 2010 at 10:22 am

    As the 3rd generation of a family of mixed sighted & blind family members let me start off by saying that both my parents and one of my daughters are blind.
    I myself am partial. So I have a fair bit of experience in this area.

    I think the argument is that blind children need to be taught braille or they will have a strong potential to not be able to communicate in a written form effectively. Being able to write and spell is critical to getting a good job.

    A couple of years ago, I had a co-op student who was blind but not taught braille. This student was bright, capable but couldn’t write a document that did not contain phonetic spelling or words that sound similar to the ones that contained the meaning that was intended by the word that was actually written. He wroat lyke this: It sounds phine iff yew runn it threw a txt-2-speach enjin butt is unacceptabl if partt of a formel document.

    This isunfortunately the norm. If you go on screen reader support lists you will find that a great number of the participants spell like the above string of text.

    This is not the case for individuals who lose their sight after they have learned to read and write. I believe the crux of the argument is that the statistics support braille literacy in children as a path to employment. Which is not to say that someone who is already literate but loses their sight is unemployable or that you cannot succeed without learning braille, just that literacy is important.

    Reply

    Michael Janger May 11, 2010 at 10:35 am

    Thank you for your comments. I have written a followup to everyone’s comments.

    Reply

    Mike Squillace May 9, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    Yes, and I disagree with the crux of the argument, that braille is the answer to literacy for blind persons. With proper training using screen-readers and other assistive technologies, there is no reason a blind person cannot learn to read and write as well as anybody else. Spelling is, I admit, a problem but its a problem that stems primarily from laziness, a problem that all suffer, sighted and not sighted and, quite frankly, it is a problem that all address in this modern era in the same way – the spell checker. Remember that spelling errors have two sources – the lack of knowledge of how a word is spelled and the typographical error and there is nothing wrong with using automation to help in either case. I have no problem with providing braille as an option, but it is not the end all and be all to the literacy issue.

    Reply

    Michael Janger May 11, 2010 at 10:37 am

    Thank you Michael for your comments. I have written a followup post.

    Reply

    meltdownfreedisney May 12, 2010 at 10:24 pm

    Mike Squillace,
    I have to say I cringe when I hear people call non-Braille users “illiterate” when they can program an html page, create a video message, listen to books on MP3 files and retell a story.
    I also work with some students who have secondary disabilities, making Braille a less than perfect medium for them. No details, but Braille requires sensitive fingers, as well as problem solving for learning the rules of contracted Braille, as well. I feel bad for the people whose secondary disabilities mean they are again labeled, because their medium is something other than Braille. It doesn’t mean they can’t contribute, or that their academic progress should go unnoticed. I think some of these VI students are not “counted” as they deserve to be.
    Thanks for speaking out.

    Reply

    Michael Janger May 13, 2010 at 8:55 am

    Great comments. Nobody can assume that if a person doesn’t have something (e.g. not a Braille expert) that has helped others, then that person can’t do anything. It’s amazing what people with disabilities (severe or not as severe) can do in order to adapt.

    Reply

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