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Discrimination? 'Only 16% of people who are blind or vision impaired in Ireland are working'

People with sight loss do not have the same opportunities as their sighted peers, writes Chris White.

THERE ARE 51,718 people (Census 2011) who are blind or vision impaired in Ireland and only 16% are in employment. Although unemployment rates among people with disabilities tends to be higher in other countries, the rate in Ireland is unacceptable.

For example, in the UK, 41% of people with sight loss are in employment. In Australia, it’s 36% and in Canada it’s 33%. So, we can and must do better.

Impact of sight loss

Sight loss impacts on every area of a person’s life. Naturally there are emotional consequences in learning to come to terms with sight loss, but there are also practical and financial implications.

Employment gives people a sense of inclusivity and identity. It affords people financial independence and freedom it alleviates isolation and loneliness. It is vitally important for a person to feel that they are making a worthwhile contribution and employment is a key component to this.

Unemployment amongst people with disabilities is a complex issue. If we look at third level education we can see that people with sight loss are falling behind at a time when a third level qualification is highly valued and a basic requirement for many positions.

While the total numbers of students with disabilities rose 4% from 2015 to 2016, the number of students who are blind or vision impaired actually fell by 10%. (AHEAD, Numbers of Students with Disabilities Studying in Higher Education in Ireland 2015/16).

Barriers to employment

While the issues facing employers and potential employees are complex, the most common barriers to employment include limited access to public transport, a lack of independent mobility, low levels of digital literacy, a lack of relevant skills and generally not being job ready.

The attitudes and awareness of employers is also a significant barrier. Even for people who are job ready, getting to the interview stage can be difficult. They are then faced with the issue of disclosing their disability and dealing with unconscious discrimination.

In a recent survey of people who use NCBI’s (National Council for the Blind) services, 82% said that they do not believe people with sight loss have the same opportunities as their sighted peers when it comes to employment, and 25% reported experiencing active discrimination.

This unconscious bias comes from a lack of awareness of the skills and capabilities of people who are blind or vision impaired and the assistive technology solutions available.

Employers worry about perceived additional costs but there are grants available to enable employers to facilitate staff with sight loss. Many who succeed in securing a job report failure to progress in their career. Of those who said they experienced discrimination, 48% happened while they were in employment and 64% related to finding employment.

So what steps can employers take to improve this situation?

Most people have never worked alongside someone who is blind or vision impaired so conducting disability awareness and diversity training can have a very positive impact. People aren’t aware that most people who use NCBI’s services can see something and only a small percentage are totally blind.

A willingness among employers is key and we actively look to collaborate with employers in driving change. We have recently been appointed as the official charity partner of Fujitsu Ireland, a leading information and communication technology (ICT) company, an example of one such company that recognises the difference that people who are visually impaired can make.

Working with employers such as Fujitsu Ireland, we look to introduce inclusive practices from recruitment right through to retention. Disability awareness training creates an environment where everyone’s individual abilities can be maximised. It improves people’s understanding and comfort levels and reduces stigma.

Braille is still very important

Technology plays a huge role in the lives of people with sight loss and so digital literacy is an essential skill for potential employees. A mix of mainstream and assistive technology can address many workplace issues that people might encounter.

For example, Braille is still a very important and practical aide today. Refreshable and digital Braille is increasingly popular, with devices allowing for Braille input and output, making it easier to take notes at meetings, which can then be emailed instantly from a device.

Other simple workplace accommodations like lighting or blinds to increase or dull natural light in offices, the use of coloured marker, large and clear signage around buildings, and markings on steps and door, can significantly improve the workplace environment for employees and employers.

These simple changes are not costly, and grants are available for workplace adaptations and wage subsidies to encourage employers to benefit from the skills and expertise of people with disabilities.

Employers should ask themselves one question today. If faced with two candidates with the same qualifications and experience for the job, except one candidate has a vision impairment, who would you hire?

Chris White is CEO of the National Council for the Blind of Ireland. NCBI, Ireland’s national sight loss agency, is a not for profit charitable organisation which provides support and services nationwide to people experiencing sight loss. The charity was recently appointed as the national charity partner of Fujitsu Ireland. Details of the services offered by NCBI can be found here.

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