"Increasing Access and Opportunity" is the 2020 theme for October's annual observance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month. This year is the 75th observance and while strides have surely been made, it is clear that much more progress needs to occur at an accelerated pace.
US Secretary of Labor, Eugene Scalia, noted that ensuring workplaces continue to include and accommodate people with disabilities is an important part of the economic rebound...a vigorous economic rebound and job growth will increase access and opportunities for Americans with disabilities. How do these intentions translate for people with disabilities?
Delving into issues for those people who are blind or have low vision:
Recently Dr. Penny Rosenblum and her team(1) studied the issue of accessibility and conducted a survey that investigated the experiences of adults who are blind or have low vision during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 1,921 individuals participated and their experiences provide a snapshot that can serve as a roadmap for companies, consumer organizations, policymakers, those with vision loss, and others. These participants were from 50 states, they were 63.4 % women, 35.2% male, 1% transgender or gender nonconforming and .37% no response. The report produced was quite detailed--some of the key points in the report:
Companies must ensure recruitment and applications platforms are accessible and that employees are trained on new technologies and have access to technical support.
Employers should establish virtual meeting policies that may include providing materials to attendees in accessible formats, use of captioning or interpreters where appropriate, nonvisual communication techniques, and having individuals identify themselves before speaking.
Critical public health information must be accessible to people who are visually impaired.
Grocery delivery services, internet communications platforms and telehealth should adhere to accepted accessibility standards.
Provision should be made for visual interpreting services.
Transportation providers should establish community advisory committees that include people with disabilities and should work with local governments to offer alternatives for those who are disabled when services in a community are limited or discontinued during an emergency.
Drive-through or curb-side pick-up services (testing sites or food banks) should provide alternatives for those who don't have access to a vehicle.
Instructors should be given accessibility training and support to ensure that they can create equitable learning experiences for all students.
Disability resource offices should have a plan for providing appropriate accommodations, accessible materials and course access to students whether for live or on-line classes.
And, finally, an issue of significant concern right now:
Votes must be provided with options that allow for independent and private voting at the polls or at home.
Accessible voting machines must be available at all polling locations, and workers must be trained on their use so they can provide instruction to voters as needed.
Remote voting options must be accessible, secure, and widely available.
A moment that clearly illuminates challenges that people with a disability might experience:
I recently was asked to suggest names of individuals who could serve on the board of a non-profit organization. Among the segments of the population I provided was "blind or low vision."
I know that many blind people can function successfully in a world that is 95% visual. If they can do that, they are creative, critical thinkers. Most blind people have their own adaptive technology and can read any electronic materials provided that are Microsoft, including all presentations. Many can do this simply from a smart phone. I explained that it might take us a while to find someone, but this was a way for us to be inclusive with someone who has a disability and a way for us to promote leaders in the community, giving those who often don’t often have a chance a chance.
The CEO had an instant reaction--he immediately noted that he was not ready for that. Ready for what? Well, he couldn't accommodate all of the special needs of such an individual.
I was surprised and actually hurt by his response, which was honest and swift. Because I work with the American Foundation for the Blind I have quickly learned that people with disabilities are experienced problem solvers with a proven ability to adapt. Now, more than ever, flexibility is important for workers and employers. On a first hand basis, I have seen the ingenuity that people with disabilities bring to the workplace.
Two of the individuals with whom I work are outstanding development officers, actually two of the best with whom I have had a chance to work. They happen to be blind. Perhaps in part because of their inability to actually see what most people can see, they have developed a remarkable concern for others, the ability to "read" emotions, to sensitively and maturely approach many development and life problems. I am amazed at how effectively they use their technology, how they participate in zoom meetings without ever losing a beat, how their access to information is right at their finger tips, how their view of the world is ever positive.
With these thoughts in mind, I urge:
Our corporations to hire people with a disability and to make any accommodations necessary. They will be minimal accommodations.
Our foundations to ensure that people with a disability are represented on their board.
Departments to seek qualified individuals who might be blind or deaf or otherwise disadvantaged to work in their areas.
Employers to look well beyond the disabilities that we all have in one way or another and begin to think about them as different-abilities.
Our voting centers to ensure that someone can assist those with a disability to cast their ballot.
Higher education universities and colleges to ensure that they have accessible online platforms and technology tools that are needed.
And there are so many other situations that require awareness of the community and the ability and intention to respond to the needs of those who might need help. We all have something to offer and in this new world of inclusivity, everyone should have the chance. A hand up is easy thing to give.
(1) Rosenblum, L.P., Chanes-Mora, P., McBride, C.R., Flewellen, J., Nagarajan, N., Nave Stawaz, R. and Swenor, B. (2020). Flatten inaccessibility: Impact of COVID-19 on Adults Who Are Blind or Have Low Vision in the United States. From the American Foundation for the Blind.