Employment Barriers for People Who Are Blind and Visually Impaired

with Mike Hess of the Blind Institute of Technology

People who are blind or visually impaired face barriers to employment, including challenges with transportation and lack of accessibility in the workplace.

Mike Hess, Founder and Executive Director of the Blind Institute of Technology, joins host Tetiana Anderson to discuss a workforce development solution for people who are blind or visually impaired.

Posted on:

October 1, 2023

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: Studies show, more than half of working-age people who are blind or visually impaired are not working or pursuing employment opportunities. That's more than double the rate of people without disabilities. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. People who are blind or have low vision face significant barriers to employment, including stereotypes, transportation difficulties, and lack of accessibility in the workplace. And joining me to talk about a workforce development solution for people with vision loss is Mike Hess. He is founder and executive director of the Blind Institute of Technology. And, Mike, thank you so much for being here.

Hess: Thank you for having me, Tetiana.

Anderson: So, we just heard some pretty significant numbers, in the intro, about how challenging this is. But let's get behind those numbers. I mean, what's the real issue here?

Hess: It's a great question. And quite honestly, I approach it from a slightly different lens. I spent 20 years in corporate. So, managing seven- eight-figure projects. However, I was always the token blind person in these large organizations. And so seeing, hearing, recognizing firsthand that stigma and perception is really what drives, to me, the unemployment epidemic for the blind and visually impaired community. Most people have rarely interacted with somebody in a professional setting who's blind or visually impaired. So they really don't understand, you know, conversations of reasonable accommodation, and just how does a blind person like me accomplish and deliver and be productive in corporate environments.

Anderson: So, I know you've been blind for your whole life, but you've been working formally with the blind and visually impaired community for about a decade now. Over that 10 years, what sort of progress have you seen?

Hess: So, some game-changers. Obviously, pervasively, technology is becoming more accessible, so digitally accessible. So, we've all heard of the digital divide, right? And generally we're thinking about, you know, rural areas and that sort of thing. But when you hear that less than 10% of all websites on this planet are actually digitally accessible to the hardest-to-serve digitally, which is the totally blind community, like less than 10%. So that digital divide is truly a chasm, and it creates a huge barrier for employment and just quality-of-life issues for the blind and visually impaired community. So, in the last decade, there are a lot of organizations that are really taking this digital accessibility on and making a difference to allow me to have a quality of life and the ability for me to earn my own nickel.

Anderson: So, within that scope, are there specific things that certain industries or companies have done that have worked, and what have you seen? Tell us.

Hess: So, we -- and it really is our workforce development initiative. Salesforce, the leading CRM globally, and they're the first tech-stack company in the world to have a fully funded workforce-development initiative for people with disabilities. So, the very first. So, out of all the big tech companies. So they're totally focused on not just making the B2C, like the user interfaces, you know, from a consumer perspective, accessible, but the internal workforce side. So, to allow somebody like me to be able to customize and configure the Salesforce ecosystem, from a workforce perspective. So organizations like that, that are leading the way, that are truly trailblazing this workforce-development initiative to allow myself and other totally blind people around the world to get trained up in that ecosystem and start working in the Salesforce economy.

Anderson: So there are jobs out there specifically, when it comes to the world of technology. But what other kinds of jobs are people who are dealing with blindness or some other form of visual impairment doing.

Hess: So, kind of the big three. And this is, like, if we go back into the mid-'80s and you say, "What are the three main professions for females?" Right? Like, it's teachers, admins, and nurses, right? And today, call it 30-some-odd years later, almost 40 years later, kind of the big three for the blind community are accessibility -- which is fantastic -- so a lot of accessibility jobs out there -- customer service, and then there's the blind-friendly factories, which is the federal government's way of providing some sort of employment opportunities for the blind. But those are the big three, outside of what BIT is focused on.

Anderson: So what would you say your biggest challenges are, at this point, and what are you doing to really focus your efforts on developing the workforce for this group over the next decade?

Hess: The big thing is stigma and perception. It's, for real, the human condition of empathy. So, I walk into an interview, I've got my cane, I've got my service animal, I've got the shades, right? It's not all for the cool effect. It's actually -- You know, it's necessary for me, right? But when I come into an interview -- like, I'm blind, not dead -- I can feel the uncomfortableness with the interviewer. Like, it's a for-real thing because the human condition of empathy -- right? -- you're able to put yourself in my shoes. And all of a sudden, you're thinking, "Oh, my gosh. How would I do this? How would I do that? How would I do this?" Like, that's a for-real -- Like, we need to address that uncomfortableness immediately. So again, education, awareness. Like, those are always keys to anything, regardless of what you're attempting to solve for. So we have to talk about that. And then, quite honestly, after we address that, the important thing is, is talking about reasonable accommodation, from a technology perspective. Like, I am a technology solution. Allowing blind and visually impaired people to be productive in your environment is a technology solution. However, what isn't a technology solution now?

Anderson: So, Mike, people are going to want to know more. What is your website?

Hess: Blindit.org. And there's plenty of information out there for employers to get engaged with BIT. And if you're blind or low-vision, there's also information out there to get engaged with us.

Anderson: Mike Hess of the Blind Institute of Technology, thank you so much for being here.

Hess: Thank you for having me, Tetiana.

Anderson: And thanks to you for watching, as well. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, just visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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