Let Your Fingers Do The Hiring: Responding to Your Comments

May 11, 2010

Last week, I wrote an article about Braille, the blind, and unemployment, titled, “Let Your Fingers Do the Hiring: Blind People and Employment.” With one exception to date, blind people I reached out to, or who posted comments on my blog, were positive in their praise of my article. My followup post is in response to a successful blind professional who wrote a point-by-point response that challenges the points I presented in my article.  Given the points he made, his response is best addressed here in a full post instead of in the Comments section.

Michael Squillace, a software engineer who is blind and does not use Braille, has posted his comments here in full.  Below are my responses, with Squillace’s comments in italics:

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 stand by my article 100%.  Perhaps some sentences could have been phrased better, but my basic argument remains unchanged.

People who succeeded in their lives and careers without relying on Braille should definitely be recognized. When I searched on the web for, and inquired around about, blind people who grew up and how they were educated, I was very skeptical of the lack of information on blind people who were successful without Braille. I knew they were out there — those 10% of employed and legally blind people who do not use Braille — and  I wanted to give them their due in my article, but I just had no empirical information available, and thus no stories to tell.  After I posted this article, I emailed some blind people and advocates for the blind, and asked for their feedback. The comments of those who responded were uniformly positive, which surprised me given the fact that I could not find successful blind or visually-impaired people who do not use Braille.

I would appreciate information on any blind people who do not rely on Braille and have become successful in their lives or careers.  The more diversity, the better.

Yet this is not the point of my article, which is about the decline of Braille as a result of decisions made by schools that were not well-informed and did not consider the whole spectrum of educational options available to blind and visually-impaired children. It is unfortunately an ongoing problem in other disability groups.

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.

Yes, “unmitigated disaster” were strong words to use. There is no denying that 50% of blind people used Braille in the 1960’s and just 10% use Braille today, and that the statistics I show indicate the educational level among blind people have declined during that time. It is a disaster nonetheless, whether it was caused by declining use of Braille or other factors, and I was perhaps dramatic with the use of “unmitigated.” This does not mean that there are no blind people who have succeeded in their lives and careers without the use of Braille.

This article in last December’s New York Times was one of the guiding posts for my article. It examines both sides of the braille debate — those who prefer to read print, and those who prefer to read Braille.

Michael, you clearly have done well without relying on Braille, and I am not surprised there are others like you.  Born profoundly deaf, I do speak and listen well, and did not learn sign language until I was 21.  I worked extremely hard to be where I am in terms of spoken communication.  Just as I worked very hard to learn to speak, I am sure that some blind people have to work just as hard as I did to be able to spell and write well, and it is easier for some to do so by learning Braille.  This is not to say that every blind person has to learn Braille.  I certainly did not need sign language in order to speak and listen well, but other deaf people I know do want sign language to aid in their educational development, and they have become successful in their lives as a result.

You mentioned “many of us by our own choice.” I have no statistics or hard data, but it would be safe to assume that blind and visually-impaired people who are not successful in their careers, and do not use Braille, came into this situation through decisions made for them during their childhoods that may have something to do with not using Braille.  Among the deaf and hard-of-hearing, and in other disability groups, some people have had choices made for them that in retrospect were ill-advised.  For blind people who became successful, whether they rely on Braille or not, the choices they made have little to do with the points I make in my article.

The other person who made a comment to my article says, and it bears repeating here:  “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.”

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.

Nowhere in my article do I say that literacy has diminished, or that communicative skills have diminished. All I have written about is the ability of blind individuals to express themselves in the written word, either through Braille or without.

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.

I cite these statistics in my article without further interpretation of the numbers. I lay out the numbers for people to digest, and have not offered further discussion on them other than to paint a fuller picture of the blind community. However, one sentence I wrote, “Employment statistics paint an even more powerful picture of how blind people live out their lives,” could have been more diplomatically worded.

Can you elaborate further on what you mean about assistive technologies like screen readers and screen magnifiers, which “hinder opportunities?” How does this square with your achievements in utilizing those assistive technologies?

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.

It is presumptuous to say that the blind community “faces more fear or ignorance on a regular basis” than other disability groups, mine included. Each disability group has its own challenges in how it is perceived and labeled by the non-disabled population. There should not be, and never should be, any moral hierarchy among disability groups in terms of how they are negatively perceived by non-disabled people. It is enough to say that there should never be one single case of negative labeling or perception of any individual with a disability, ever.

As you find it odd that I, “as a deaf person, would have so much to say about blindness and how best to cope with it,” I also find it odd that you take the moral road and say that blind people like you face more fear or ignorance than other disability groups, without knowing much about what other disability groups, including mine, face in their own worlds. Like Ana Rodarte, a woman featured on Oprah who has severe neurofibromatosis, a condition in which her face is so extremely disfigured that people scream and run away wherever she goes. Or a intelligent person in a wheelchair I met who has little control over the motor functions of his face and, as a result, drools into a cup – I have seen, to paraphrase your own words, “people talk in the third person about him, still cower at his approach, and speak of him as if he is deaf rather than mobility-impaired.” Or a child with dyslexia – people may think she is not intelligent and lacks attention, a perception that could do as much psychological damage to her self-esteem as someone who talks about a blind child in the third person and ignores him.

No one should make a subjective moral determination that a group with a particular disability faces more fear or ignorance on a regular basis than another group with a different disability. We can make definitive moral determinations about individuals with disabilities based on their particular situation (i.e. a blind child in New Jersey was teased and made fun of by a group of boys, and then dragged and beaten up on the street, versus a child on a wheelchair in Texas who is just teased in the school halls but do not suffer physical abuse). But we should not make the same moral determinations about disability groups as a whole. Otherwise this invites labeling and stereotyping.

Finally, in response to the comment that I “as a deaf person, would have so much to say about blindness and how best to cope with it,” where do I say in my article how blind people should cope with their own disability? I do not step on a soapbox and claim to be an expert on blindness, but instead try to draw on primary and secondary sources and comment as best I can on a disability I have no personal familiarity with. All the commentary in my article is based on information from different perspectives that are available on the web, including scientific articles, newspaper clippings, and the websites of the National Federation of the Blind (which according to the New York Times “frowns upon” reading print) and American Foundation for the Blind.

Some blind and visually-impaired people, and their advocates, have written me to say it was a well-done article.  Yet I do not seek perfection — I always seek out opposing viewpoints in an effort to promote diversity, original thinking and honest critique.  Thanks, Michael, for your insights and please feel free to comment anytime.

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