Disability Awareness

Getting to Grips with the Question of Employment… Or the Lack Thereof 03

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I’d love to know how many blind and visually impaired people have been unsuccessful in a job application because of barriers in the hiring process – both physical barriers and the more insidious barriers of unconscious bias. Want to know what on earth I’m talking about? Well, read on…

Sometimes the systems used in the application process disqualify us automatically – like when a driver’s license is a requirement for a job. Granted, there are some jobs that a driver’s license is needed, but for many it’s more about being able to get around independently. Here’s the thing, having an absolute requirement for a driver’s license automatically excludes a number of people, including anyone whose visual impairment is significant enough to prevent them from driving.

Sometimes an applicant may need to complete a range of aptitude tests, which may be conducted on computer. While some of these systems are designed with the needs of visually impaired candidates in mind, many of them are not.

I’m not saying that employers deliberately try to exclude visually impaired candidates. I really don’t believe that’s the case. What I’m saying is that perhaps these systems need to be reviewed to ensure they are inclusive of those with special needs.

Another potential barrier to employment are the unconscious assumptions that may affect the way people see disability. I’m startled when friends I’ve known for some time ask questions that reveal they don’t know what I can and can’t do. If people who know me struggle to understand my abilities and skills, how much more difficult must it be for someone in a hiring position who doesn’t engage with a visually impaired person on a regular basis.

Sadly, though we may try to deny it, the usual assumption made by people is that disability means inability, and that’s simply not true. Our abilities are no different – all that differs is the way we access information and accomplish tasks.

How often in job interviews are disabled candidates confronted with questions about how they accomplish the most basic tasks – How do you dress yourself? How do you cook a meal?– which have absolutely nothing to do with the job. The frightening thing is that if those conducting an interview can’t imagine how a visually impaired candidate can accomplish the fundamentals of independent living, how on earth will they be able to conceive of the same person carrying out the requirements of a job?

My plea to companies is that they relook at the systems they use to invite and assess candidates to make sure they aren’t inadvertently excluding those with a disability. I know of at least one company who specialize in this field and would be happy to refer them. Likewise, if I can assist organisations in my capacity as a consultant raising awareness of how we accomplish tasks and challenge the assumptions people make about disability and inability, I’d be more than happy to chat to you.

PS Please share this article with anyone you know who might need to read it – let’s work together to increase the inclusion of those who are visually impaired into society and the workplace!

Getting to Grips with the Question of Employment… Or the Lack Thereof 02

In my last post I referred to a recent article from the Cape Argus newspaper. It’s relevant to this post as well – here’s a link to the article if you want to read it: https://www.pressreader.com/south-africa/cape-argus/20180502/281814284483805

The Cape Argus article says that companies should have budget specifically for reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. In the case of visual impairment this would tend to be technology to help us access information, like screen readers, and text or object recognition products. The perception is that these technologies are prohibitively expensive.

Here’s my thoughts on that perception…

I’m not going to argue that we don’t need these technologies – looking at how much time I spend on my laptop and smart phone with accessible software I find it hard to remember how we used to cope before. What I’m arguing is the perception – the assumption – that it’s expensive to provide these digital accommodations.

Sure, some commercial software solutions do carry a cost, but these are not the only solutions. And I think the decision of whether to pay for a commercial solution will depend on the perceived value. Certainly, in South Africa, the commercial solutions are out of reach of many individuals so, if the employer decides this is the way they want to go it would probably be at the employer’s expense.

Let’s look at some of the other options:

Over the past few years the assistive technology landscape has changed. Increasingly we’re seeing technology companies including in-built accessible software into their products – all Apple products now have in-build screen reader and magnifier software, Microsoft also has in-build accessible software, and the number of free or discretionary cost solutions are constantly growing. These options mean that more individuals are able to access assistive technology without breaking the bank.

What does that mean? Let’s say I was to consider applying for a position with a company, which I’m not right now, I could approach a job interview with all the assistive technology solutions already in place – hence no cost to the company unless they decided to use the more expensive commercial products. Using my existing software and various free apps on my iPhone I’m able to access almost any information I’m likely to need.

Are these free solutions as good? Certainly I find they enable me to do all I need to do, though at times I may need to hunt for the solution. I can’t say I’ve done an exhaustive comparison but certainly I Haven’t found anything I can’t do on my current screen reader that I could on the commercial equivalent.

And yet the perception persists that making reasonable accommodations will be expensive.

I suppose it’s logical – very few people with no lings to the disability world know what solutions are available, and you’re unlikely to be told about the free options if you ask a commercial vendor. So it’s up to us, as visually impaired people, to make other’s aware of what we can access.

I know the focus of my posts is on the issue of barriers to employment that exist for people with visual impairments, rather than all disabilities. This is the area I have direct personal experience in. However, I know the principles hold across the spectrum of other disabilities.

If you’d like more information on anything I’ve said in this post, please feel free to contact me – this is a subject very close to my heart… as is decreasing the barriers to employment so often faced by persons with disabilities.

PS Please share this article with anyone you know who might need to read it – let’s work together to increase the inclusion of those who are visually impaired into society and the workplace!

Getting to Grips with the Question of Employment… Or the Lack Thereof 01

Cds 2017 04 18 20 49 22 The Cape Argus newspaper recently published an article entitled “We’re human, too, you know” giving an overview of the realities faced by South African people with disabilities. The article stated that in 2016 less than 1% of South African persons with disabilities are employed.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand why so few of the 1.4 million blind and visually impaired South Africans are employed. Here’s a few of the reasons people have given me for why they think this is so:

1. It’s hard finding visually impaired candidates with the skills, training and/or experience 2. The cost of necessary accommodations required to employ a visually impaired person is high. 3. Unconscious bias in the placement process

I want to consider each of these in a separate article so I can explain my thinking without having to rush.

Let’s start by looking at finding visually impaired candidates to fill positions. I want to start by posing a simple question – is it plausible that 99% of those with a visual impairment aren’t interested in being employed? Because isn’t that what’s implied if one blindly (pun intended) accepts there are no visually impaired candidates out there?

Okay, so it would seem there are candidates. But do these candidates have the skills, training and experience for jobs on the market?

Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity of working with blind and visually impaired learners. I usually leave the sessions impressed and inspired at the skills, confidence and motivation the learners demonstrate. Often by necessity, they have developed strong problem-solving skills, are innovative thinkers and are effective communicators – I say these sought-after business skills are developed by necessity because they are skills we are forced to use on a daily basis as visually impaired people navigating the sighted world.

Then consider the blind and visually impaired graduates who successfully complete degrees or other qualifications. And those who have done so in the past and are still out there looking for work, and those who have been doing so for months, if not years.

I know of several organisations who run learnerships for youth with disabilities, helping them to develop job-related skills, which adds to the number of skilled visually impaired candidates out there seeking employment.

I’ll admit it may be challenging finding visually impaired candidates with extensive previous experience, which may at times be a factor in the candidate assessment process. With employment levels currently being so low in the visually impaired community it’s unlikely there is huge pool of visually impaired candidates with vast amounts of job experience out there. So I think it becomes a self-perpetuating problem –the only way to grow the number of visually impaired people with experience in a job is to start off by hiring more visually impaired people so they can gain that experience.

We also live at a time when technology is helping to make an ever-increasing number of jobs possible for us, when our access to information and services is greater than ever before. I think most people would be startled at how few jobs are currently inaccessible for someone who cannot see. This, of course, raises the question of the costs of accommodating the needs of visually impaired employees – but more on that in a future article.

I’ve been told by a number of people in Human Resources that they’ve never received a job application from a visually impaired candidate. Just as I’ve spoken to a number of visually impaired job seekers who have struggled to find work.

Is it possible that the problem is in connecting the two? Or are there other factors adding to the question? And, if the solution is as simple as that, what forums connecting visually impaired job seekers with organisations looking to hire them exist? And how are they reaching their target markets? Are they reaching their target markets?

I know there are greater minds than mine working on the diverse aspects of this issue. I acknowledge the many individuals and organisations who are doing amazing work to increase the inclusion and employment of visually impaired persons.

My intention in writing these articles is to add my voice to the conversation and to offer my perspective to those with whom I’m connected – you never know what ideas may be sparked by one simple post.

PS If you’d like to read the Cape Argus article cited in this post, you can find it here: https://www.pressreader.com/south-africa/cape-argus/20180502/281814284483805

PPS Please share this article with anyone you know who might need to read it – let’s work together to increase the inclusion of those who are visually impaired into society and the workplace!

X Let’s be honest, anyone who’s been looking for work for a long time is going to feel disheartened. Add to that the awareness that less than 1% of their community are employed and it becomes a little more easy to understand the difficulty wow, that’s quite a challenging mindset to overcome. XXX

You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Reader

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“I can’t imagine any visually impaired person would prefer reading books using a computer voice rather than a human voice!”

I’m probably misquoting the words but that was the sense of a comment I heard on one of the assistive technology podcasts I regularly listen to. My immediate response was to disagree vehemently… and then I paused and thought about it for a bit.

You see, I actually do prefer reading using a computerized voice. And I seriously doubt I’m the only blind person who does so. So I hopped onto Facebook and asked the question, tagging all the visually impaired people I’m connected with on that platform.
It wasn’t just curiosity that drove me, though anyone who knows me will agree that I have a finely developed sense of curiosity. I also wanted to find out to help me reach more blind and visually impaired people with my own books.

It turns out that most of the people I asked preferred human voice books in the form of audio books or services like Audible.com. When chatting to a friend about this startling (to us both) fact he offered a few reasons why this might be so, but his rationale was fairly complicated and this is only meant to be an article, not a thesis!

When I first lost my sight I used to listen to audio books and found that my opinion of the book often depended on the quality of the reader and, in some cases, how well I felt the reader’s voice fitted the genre of the book. Of course, that was back in the days when my only source of books was the library service, Tape Aids for the Blind where the readers were all volunteers so the quality varied quite a bit. Thankfully there was only one instance that the reader was so bad that he totally killed the book for me! But I truly began to feel like I was juding the books, not by their covers but by their readers.

Then someone introduced me to reading on computer using a screen reader and my life was transformed. I loved the ability to scan any book I wanted and read it. I loved the ability to change the rate and pitch of the voice – if you try that with a human voice it often lands up sounding like Minnie Mouse on helium which really isn’t pleasant. But most of all I loved that I was free to interpret the words in whatever way I chose to rather than having my impressions of the book determined by the reader– to me that was the closest I’d found to reading as I’d done when I still had sight.

Ultimately I don’t think there’s a right and wrong way to read when you’re visually impaired. The important thing is that we have the ability to read in whatever format we each prefer, whether it’s using human voice, computer voice, or braille.

But my investigations got me thinking that I really ought to do an audio version of my book, A Different Way of Seeing… Anyone interested in reading for me?

Anyone for Pizza?

NewImageOur first stop on the tour of guide dog-friendly places Fiji and I go to was our nearby Woolworths retail store. Today we’re walking just a few steps away from Woolworths and stopping for a cup of tea… or a delicious meal , if you’re feeling a little peckish.

In fact Sostanza, the coffee shop/restaurant we’re about to visit is so close to Woolworths that I usually instruct Fiji to find the counter in Woolworths and navigate my way from there – when we first learned our way to the coffee shop Fiji tried going straight there, stopping at each table to say hello to the people sitting there. It wasn’t long before I figured out that it was easier for me to navigate from Woolworths, so that’s what I taught her to do.

Over the years my guide dogs and I have had issues gaining entry into a fair number of restaurants – not a lot, but enough for me to call the instances easily to mind. But we’ve never had a problem at Sostanza– in fact, they’re welcoming to all dogs, though I think Fiji and her guide dog colleagues are the only ones allowed to sit inside; other dogs have to sit in the corridor.

We’ve had a number of funny experiences at Sostanza – like the 5-year old girl who was convinced Fiji was cold lying on the floor and sacrificed her own seat-cushion for my dog. And the day Fiji was pulling to get to the people at the table behind me and it was only after I’d chastised her that I realized we knew them. And last week a Jack Russel was whining piteously to be allowed to come and play with Fiji – and Fiji simply turned her back and went to sleep.

Sure, Fiji often has people coming across to pet her but I’ve never had to yell at a fellow patron for trying to slip her food, and it’s a great opportunity for me to tell people about the amazing work being done by the SA Guide-Dogs Association in training these remarkable animals.

Not only is Sostanza welcoming to guide dogs, they also serve amazing food – whether you’re looking for a tasty breakfast, a scrumptious lunch or just a slice of cake with your tea or coffee. As for the pizzas… Well, let’s just say that Sostanza makes what I consider to be the best pizzas in Cape Town and leave it at that!

I doubt you’d be interested to hear about the other places Fiji and I visit at the Old Bakery Centre – especially since one is the cash machine and the other we only went into by accident when the passage to Woolworths was temporarily blocked. So we’re going to go further afield on the next stages of our tour of guide dog-friendly places.

In the meantime, anyone feel like a pizza?

Proposed New Accessibility Emoji

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I love using emoji – sometimes they so exactly capture what you’re trying to convey, where you’d need a whole bunch of words.

So I was intrigued when I listened to a recent episode of the Assistive Technology Update podcast and heard an article about some new emoji that are being considered – including emoji of guide and service dogs, people in wheelchairs, people with white mobility canes, hearing aids and prosthetic limbs.

I was interested to note that it is Apple who have put these new emoji forward for consideration – well done, Apple!

Here’s a link to the article about the new emoji from the Assistive Technology Update podcast show-notes. Why not take a look and tell me what you think.

http://bit.ly/2IQaIoq

Starting the Tour of Local Places Fiji and I Are Welcome

NewImageA little while back I said I wanted to start a series of articles recognizing places that were welcoming to my guide dog. Here’s the first of those articles.

I live in Lakeside, in Cape Town. Our closest shopping area is the Old Bakery Centre, so named because it used to be a bakery. When we first moved into the house I would regularly wake to the scent of freshly baking bread – Mmmm…

So I want to take you on a tour of some of the local shops and restaurants who not only accommodate, but go out of their way to welcome my guide dog and I – and the Old Bakery Woolworths is going to be our first stop.

Fiji has been trained to walk straight to the counter where the tills are located in Woolworths. Whenever we enter, the employees greet me and either offer assistance immediately or politely ask me to wait for a minute or two while they finish up with their current customer. Then they assist by collecting the items I need and bringing them so I can look at them before I pay. Admittedly it’s a small Woolworths and my needs aren’t overly complex – besides which, I keep my shopping list short since I’ll have to carry everything home in a backpack.

On occasion I accompany the assistant to select the items I need, especially if I’m buying fresh produce, but usually I stand out of the way and let the assistant manage the process. Yes, I am aware that there are several apps and other assistive technology devices that would let me shop pretty much on my own and maybe one day I’ll do so. For now I just find it easier to shop this way and the assistants are amazingly efficient in how they help me. And it makes a huge difference to me.

I’ve heard of so many cases where a visually impaired person has been refused entry into a shop because they have a working animal with them. We’ve even had a few instances where it’s happened to Fiji and me, even once in a different Woolworths. So I’m truly appreciative of the amazing service I receive at the Old Bakery Woolworths in Lakeside.

The next stop on our tour of local places where my guide dog is welcome isn’t far away. In fact, next time I want to tell you about the coffee shop/pizzeria right next to Woolworths, who also look after Fiji and me as if we’re royalty.

But that’ll have to wait for another day…

Paws for Thought – An Announcement from Fiji

Cds DSCF5922I’m wagging so hard right now that I think my tail might just fly off! You won’t believe what’s happening!

Mom and I are going to write a book together… In fact, I’m going to write the book and mom will just co-write it with me. Don’t you think that will be exciting?

We’re only in the planning stages right now but we often have long conversations about what we think should and shouldn’t go into the book. I still disagree with mom that we should include stories of me being naughty – she says it will make me more human (I think she means canine). But ultimately I’ve never written a book before and mom’s written five, so maybe I ought to listen to her.

What I really wanted to say is that if you have any ideas about what you’d like to see in the book, you must just let mom and I know… I promise we’ll consider them!

And we’ll most definitely let you know how we’re getting on as our plans develop and we start putting paw to paper.But no pre-orders yet, please – it’s a little early for that.

Wow… me, a published author… wag wag wag wag wag wag

A Lady of Leisure

Cds IMG 1394 2Yesterday was an extra special day in the Strachan household – my beautiful retired guide dog, Eccles, turned 14 years old… and that’s not 14 doggy years, it’s 14 human years.

Back when I decided to embark on a career as a writer and speaker working in the disability field Eccles took the opportunity of retiring herself. I think she secretly enjoyed the engineering talk that she was exposed to when we worked at the marine engineering firm. Maybe she just didn’t feel that an artistic career was the right one for her.

I’ve been highly amused to observe that Eccles has started being naughty over the past few months – it’s almost like she’s rediscovered her inner naughty puppy. it’s not unusual to find her sniffing around in the kitchen for any possible overlooked scraps of food (you know, the ones her eagle-eyed doggy sister Emily might somehow have missed). Eccles also seems to get a real kick out of pushing Fiji away from her water bowl and having a long, leisurely drink while poor Fiji has to stand around and wait. I’ve even found Eccles trying to scratch at the packet of dog crumbles that we keep under the shelf in the kitchen. I know I shouldn’t find it funny, but I do!

I also suspect Eccles had a temporary return to her engineering side – when Craig was installing our grey water system at home, Eccles could usually be found supervising his work.

I know Eccles is getting older and is almost entirely deaf. But she’s healthy, happy and remains a joy to us all in her own, newly-mischievous way.

Happy birthday, my Ecce-wekkie-waggy-woo – may we celebrate many more years with you.

Explaining the Realities of Blindness to Architects

Cds 2017 04 18 20 49 34“So, how would you navigate your way round a large public space in a shopping centre? What technology would help you do that?”

Those were two of the questions I was asked when Fiji and I spoke at an architectural company who specialize ? in designing shopping centres, school and university campuses and large apartment buildings. It was one of those sessions where I really got to test my own knowledge and skills in trying to offer the architects suggestions on how to make their designs more friendly to blind and visually impaired people, both those of us who work with a guide dog and those who prefer using a white mobility cane.

More importantly, it got me thinking about how much I’ve learned over the past two years – if someone had started asking me things like that when I first sat down to write A Different Way of Seeing, or when I first started working with Fiji I probably would have been lost for words… or at least lost for ideas to put into words. Yet, when I was standing in front of the team of architects I found myself not only able to answer the questions but to offer a few thoughts on emerging technologies that may really help architects to design large public spaces that are accessible to those of us without sight.

Of course, I had the added advantage that Fiji was being her usual beautiful and talented self, so I could probably have got away with it even if I hadn’t been able to answer the questions posed by the architects… but I could, so her being beautiful and talented was merely an added bonus!

I really enjoy doing this kind of work, and Fiji loves doing any kind of work, so it was a wonderfully stimulating day for us both.

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