Lois Strachan – Workshop Facilitator

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

PSASA Cape Chapter President – A New Role

10Monday was the first meeting of the new Professional Speakers Association of Southern Africa year, and my first as President of the Cape Chapter.

After years of volunteer leadership through Toastmasters International you’d think I’d be immune to the anxiety of leading a new team through our first event, but somehow that anxiety never goes away. I think it’s something to do with me wanting to ensure that all the attendees gain value from the event.

Of course, I should have known there was no need for me to feel nervous. On the one hand I couldn’t have asked for a more motivated, efficient and willing team, and on the other hand, the interactions I’d had with the main keynote presenter left me in no doubt that he would offer immense value.

And so it was – everyone on the team went over and above the call of duty to ensure the event ran smoothly and I firmly believe every attendee left with real techniques of how to focus their marketing to grow their brand.

Sincere thanks to Lt. Col. Rob “Waldo” Waldman for demonstrating some simple yet effective techniques to use on our websites and marketing materials, to our MC Bradley Day, and to our 5-minute speaker Chris Adlam for the value they offered our members and attendees. And to the PSASA Cape Chapter team – Hani du Toit, Ian Hatton, Sisanda Dlakavu and Chris Adlam – for all their hard work in preparation for the meeting.

And, of course, Fiji was more than happy to walk me up to the speaking area and back to my seat like the great guide dog she is… though I suspect the treats I promised her also helped. I was amused when she flatly refused to find the door out of the room so we could go to the main entrance to let in a latecomer, But after an attendee graciously helped me through the doorway, Fiji’s fine training clicked back into place and she assisted me perfectly I guess she was just reluctant to miss any of what Waldo was sharing with us!

Do I think Monday will mean I won’t be anxious for future meetings? Probably not entirely. But I will have the confidence of having had a successful inaugural event, and the certainty that I have an amazing team working with me.

Oh, and many thanks to Charlotte Kemp for presenting me with a bottle of wine on behalf of the Past Chapter Presidents to wish me a successful year at the helm of the Cape Chapter – the gesture was very much appreciated!

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.

Insights on Digital Accessibility for the Blind

Recently I was invited to present to the Old Mutual Digital Garage on the subject of how assistive technology enables me to live a productive life as a blind person in a mostly sighted virtual world. Those of you who have read my book, A Different Way of Seeing, and know about my (somewhat ambivalent) attitude to technology will understand why I was a little… shall we say anxious… about speaking to a largely tech-oriented group. At least I could reassure myself that I probably knew more about the topic than any of my audience did.

Here is a link to the video of my presentation at Old Mutual:

I didn’t expect to capture the interest of the 100 or so attendees as completely as I did. Sure, I realized some of them would be curious about how I engage with technology and the impact it’s had on my life – they’re techies, after all. But the interest clearly went deeper than that, as was indicated by the questions I was asked afterwards.

Often we hear stories of how oblivious companies are when it comes to the question of accessibility, and website accessibility in particular. My experience of speaking to the Digital Garage was rather that people don’t know enough about how we navigate websites without sight and that they would be willing to incorporate accessible design on their sites once being made aware that it can be a challenge for us.

What I learned from the whole experience is that people are curious about how I accomplish the tasks I do without sight. More importantly, they realize that the information I share with them can have business implications that could make their products/services more accessible to a market group they had inadvertently been excluding.

That realization has given me a new sense of purpose to continue the work I’m doing.

How Will You Celebrate Diversity with Persons with Disabilities on Casual Day – 1 September 2017?

Casual dayI’m taking a break from writing about my recent trip to Ghana to share a few updates on other exciting experiences– but don’t fret, I still have more to share on Ghana!

Did you know that Friday, 1 September is Casual Day? The day when South Africans unite to support persons with disabilities? And that all you need to do to participate in this fun event is to buy one of the 5 bright and funky puzzle piece stickers from any participating outlet or organisation?

Casual Day is the brainchild of the National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD) and is South Africa’s foremost fundraising event promoting diversity and raising awareness of the abilities of persons with disabilities. Casual Day has been held annually for the past 23 years and this year looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun!

The theme for this year is Celebrate Diversity with Persons with Disabilities And the theme colour is green – the colour of summer grass, and positive growth, of hope and fun! So, whatever you choose to dress up in for Casual Day, try to have a splash of green in there as well!

Here’s where you can get hold of your Casual Day stickers – your entry ticket into the fun!

  • The Edcon Group: Edgars, Jet, Boardmans, CNA, Red Square, JetMart,
  • Game and Dion Wired
  • Shoprite Checkers
  • Toys R Us and Babies R Us
  • National and local participating beneficiary organisations
  • The Casual Day office in Edenvale, Johannesburg

I’m honoured to be serving as a Casual Day Ambassador again this year. As an ambassador my role is to promote the aims of Casual Day and help to raise awareness in the community. It’s a role I believe in passionately – and I hope you’ll be willing to come on board and join us on Friday

So, roll on Casual Day – Friday,1 September, 2017!

I’m Neither a Politician Nor an Academic – So What Value Can I add to the Disability Conversation?

Cds 2017 04 18 20 49 22As you may recall, the reason I was in Ghana in the first place was to speak at the 5th annual AFRINEAD conference on disability.

Sitting in the conference centre at the KWAMA Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, listening to a Star-studded group of dignitaries address the challenges inherent in developing policies, strategies and plans to increase the inclusion of persons with disabilities into society across Africa, I began to seriously rethink the focus of the keynote presentation I would give the following day.

Most of those speaking at the opening ceremony were politicians and academics and, since I’m neither of those, I began to consider what value I could add to the conversation – a message that was uniquely mine and could supplement the work the politicians and academics were doing. While, of course, bearing the theme of the conference – assistive technology- in mind.

And then it struck me – by sharing my own story, my own experiences of how assistive technology has increased what I can accomplish on my own, and also what I’ve learned from talking to HR departments and managers about employment of those with disabilities, I could provide a personal context to highlight the importance of the policies, strategies and plans that were being discussed.

And I’m really glad I did!

Every now and then as a speaker I receive feedback on a fundamental shift that my words and stories have made on a person who was listening to what I was saying; that my message held a particular significance for them as an individual. It’s probably the most powerful reminder of our purpose as speakers… at least, it is for me!

I was granted the gift of such a moment in Ghana. After I spoke one of the delegates approached me and told me my words had redefined his reason for doing the work he does in the field of assisting those with mobility impairments – that my words showed him that he was, in fact, changing people’s lives for the better with what he was doing.

So, apart from the amazing contacts I made at the conference, the wonderful people I met and with whom I shared the experience of travelling to this beautiful country, I’m grateful to the organisers of the AFRINEAD conference for giving me the opportunity of being in the right place, at the right time, to reconnect that delegate with his purpose.

I took an audio recording of my presentation but haven’t had a chance to edit it yet – if it turned out okay I’ll post a link in a future blog so you can listen to what I said.

OMW! I Still Can’t Believe It!

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Fairly early one Saturday morning I found myself sitting in stunned disbelief staring at the announcement that I had been awarded a Presidential Citation by Toastmasters International. Even now, a few weeks since I received the notification, I still find it hard to express exactly how I feel – honoured, overwhelmed, valued, appreciated and, perhaps above all I have a profound sense of gratitude knowing that the work that I’ve done has helped to make a difference in the lives of those around me.

Perhaps I ought to explain a little more about the award. The Presidential Citation is an annual award that recognizes work done by one or two individuals in each of the 14 Toastmasters regions. Here’s how the award was described In the letter I received notifying me that I was one of this year’s recipients:
“ This award is presented in recognition of your outstanding achievements in representing the goals and ideals of Toastmasters International and is one of Toastmasters’ highest honors.”

I was recognized as a member of Region 11, which comprises Southern Africa, West Africa, East Africa, England, Ireland, Europe and the Middle East.

It’s just a sad reality that I won’t be able to attend the Toastmasters International Convention taking place in Vancouver, Canada in august to receive my citation in person, but I have no doubt that the Southern African Toastmasters leadership will arrange a suitable time to present me with my citation on behalf of International President, Mike Storkey.

I’ll be sure to let you know when that event will take place – it would be wonderful to see you there!

What’s in a Question?

Cds IMG 4440Over the past few weeks I’ve been privileged to present to a pretty wide diversity of audiences – from pre-primary school learners to retirement groups. I’ve come to realize that even though my audiences have been very diverse, I have come out of each experience with greater knowledge and understanding than I previously had.

Some of that understanding relates to how other people see the concept and the abilities of those who live with a disability. And at times that knowledge is startling, and even a little frightening – you’d be amazed at some of the myths and stereotypes about blindness I’ve had the chance to demystify.

But at times the insights I’ve gained have been about myself, my life and my own assumptions and self-imposed limitations. Regularly I find myself reflecting on some of the questions at quite a deep level.

It’s yet one more reason why I like to include a no-holds-barred question and answer session when I speak to an audience. Not only do I get to address some of the questions that people are often scared to ask someone with a disability, but I also get to ask myself some pretty challenging and profound questions about my own purpose.

And That is a true gift – so I want to say thank you to my audiences for these gems of self-discovery!

Book Launch feedback

Lois book launchHere’s a photo from my recent presentation and book launch in Cape Town, taken by speaking colleague Charlotte Kemp.

As often happens, there were some parts of the event that I was thrilled with and a few that perhaps didn’t go quite as planned. One of the things I’ve learned is that it is from the areas we want to do better that we learn the most. So, here is my brief overview of my favourite parts of the event and what I’ve learned to do better.

I would have loved for more people to have been there. Well, who doesn’t want more people to be at an event where they’re speaking? Of course, using a workday lunchtime event to launch my book was probably not the brightest move I could have made. So, I’ve decided I’d like to hold another book launch – this time in the evening so I can enable more people to attend.

Having said that, there were amazing people there and I loved the diversity and creativity of the questions I was asked after I spoke. I always love the Q&A time I try to build into every speaking event because that gives me the chance to find out what people want to know about living without sight. It’s one of my favourite ways of demystifying blindness to an ever increasing number of people.

I also really appreciated that the venue gave me not only the opportunity to create a video of my presentation, but also arranged a professional sound engineer to assist so the video would have a good quality sound track. That was an unexpected bonus!

You may be wondering what learnings I took away to help my growth as a speaker. First, I realized it was difficult for me to identify where the people asking questions were sitting. Because they were using a roving microphone it sounded to me like everyone was sitting right next to me at the front of the room – that’s where the sound was coming from. What I learned is that I need to develop a more effective way of identifying where people are during a Q&A so I can look directly at them rather than facing the speakers.

Another area I need to figure out better is how to make people more comfortable with my blindness, and especially my sense of humour when talking about my blindness. I share several funny personal stories about living without sight when I speak. I know and understand that people who don’t know me may feel uncomfortable about laughing at these stories in case they come across as insensitive or politically incorrect. So I need to find a way to minimize that discomfort as I strive to demystify blindness.

Every experience is an opportunity for me to learn new techniques to become a better speaker and writer. With that in mind, I can honestly say that the presentation and book launch were immensely valuable … even if I would have liked more people to have been there!

Time to Brush Up on My Skills

When this is published I’ll be immersed in the professional speaking world at the Professional Speakers Association of Southern Africa Convention. This year the annual PSASA Convention is in Cape Town so it’s right on my doorstep – at least it is, if one thinks of the whole of Cape Town as one very big door!

Over the past few months I’ve been part of the organising team for the convention, working with conference convenor, Bronwyn Hesketh. I’ve been on a few conference organising teams before but this one has been the most fun – probably the most work but definitely the most fun! It’s been great seeing the whole event take shape before our eyes… not without the odd mishap along the way, but that’s only to be expected.

I’ve also had the opportunity of interacting with the 16 speakers taking part on the programme. So I already know what they’ll be speaking on. I know I’ll gain insights into topics that will make me a better speaker and help me grow my speaking business. It’s going to be a great way for me to brush up on my skills!

I have no doubt that Fiji will be staring out of the glass doors at the panoramic view from the conference centre at the Lagoon Beach Hotel, plotting

Here’s another Fiji video – this time of when she and I went walking in Tokai Forest.
(Link here)
It was a beautifully warm morning. In fact, at over 32 degrees Celsius it was verging on being a little too warm! The sky was clear and there was a gentle breeze keeping it from becoming stifling. It was a beautiful day to walk in the forest.

I did have an ulterior motive for wanting to walk there – I wanted to assess Fiji’s dog and squirrel distraction levels in a safe environment. Occasionally I’ve noticed her being a little too eager to go and play with other dogs and with squirrels… though I’m not sure that chasing squirrels counts as playing – at least, not if you happen to be one of those squirrels!

Naturally, Fiji behaved perfectly when we were in Tokai Forest. Yes, she may have looked at a few dogs and noted when two squirrels sped past her, but at no stage did she veer off course or pull towards them. I was really proud of her as I know it must be hard for a dog to so totally ignore what their instincts are telling them. Well done, Fiji!

Hope you enjoy the short video of Fiji and I walking down the forest path…

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