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Technological progress has not stopped bias in workplace, blind people find

05 April, 2008 by Peter Verhoeven

Technology and training have improved to the point that blind people can adeptly perform a dazzling array of jobs - soon to include the governorship of New York. The biggest obstacle still in their way, advocates say, is the negative attitude of many employers.

The most recent available statistics suggest that only about 30 per cent of working-age blind people have jobs. That figure was calculated more than 10 years ago, but the major groups lobbying on behalf of blind Americans believe it remains accurate despite numerous technological advances.

"Most people don't know a blind person, so they assume that blind people are not capable of doing most jobs when in fact that's not true," said Chris Danielsen, spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind.

Exhibit A, for the moment, is David Paterson, the legally blind lieutenant governor of New York from Harlem who was sworn in and replaced scandal-tarnished Eliot Spitzer.

However, blind people hold all sorts of jobs these days - judge, fitness trainer, TV show host, registered nurse, lawyer and so on.

"Unfortunately we're still living in an age of misperceptions of what blind people can do," said Carl Augusto, president of the American Foundation for the Blind. "We're hoping that an employer considering hiring a blind person will say that if David Paterson can be governor and be legally blind, maybe this applicant who is blind can be a good computer programmer."

There are an estimated 10 million visually impaired people in the United States, including about 1.3 million who are legally blind, according to Augusto's foundation. The foundation says legal blindness is generally described as visual acuity of 20-200 or less in the better eye, with a corrective lens. Paterson has enough sight in his right eye to walk unaided, recognize people at conversational distance and read if the text is close to his face.

In theory, those people are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which among its many provisions requires employers to give fair consideration and treatment to visually impaired employees and job applicants. But Augusto said employers routinely turn down blind applicants without incurring legal sanction.

"The ADA is a wonderful law, but many employers find a way not to seriously consider blind people," he said. "They look at themselves and then say, 'I can't imagine how a blind person can be a computer programmer. They can't possibly do it.' "

Advocacy groups work persistently to change such attitudes, with employer education programs and public appearances by successful blind people to discuss their capabilities. One component of such campaigns is to raise awareness of the ever-evolving technology that helps blind people handle more types of jobs - including software that reads aloud information on a computer screen and scanners that can covert printed material into Braille or an accessible electronic format.

"The assisted technology has made the playing field as level as it's ever been for blind people," said Kirk Adams, president of Seattle's Lighthouse for the Blind, a non-profit agency that provides job help. "There are fewer and fewer jobs a blind person can't do."

Source: The Sault Star Ontario

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