employment

Be My Eyes in the Workplace

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Those of you following this series of articles about tools to help a blind person be independently productive in the workplace may be asking how we engage with paper documents and physical objects we need to operate.

The answer is quite simple – there’s an app for that! It’s called Be My Eyes, is free to download onto a mobile phone and is available on both IOS and Android phones.

Here’s how it works: I open the app on my smart phone and hit the “Call Next Available Volunteer” button. My data call gets picked up by one of the volunteers, who are able to use the phone camera so I can borrow their eyesight to identify objects, read printed material or a computer screen (or even handwriting). The volunteers can also help me find dropped objects or help me navigate around places.

Can you see how this would help someone who is blind in the workplace?

It can help me do anything from reading print material to using the coffee machine in the workplace. As a blind person, one of my greatest challenges is access to printed information. With an app like Be My Eyes that’s no longer such a problem.

With more than 2 million volunteers around the world, speaking more than 190 languages, and less than 200 000 visually impaired users so far, I’m sure you’ll realize I won’t be waiting long for my call to be picked up. The calls are free, and you can call as often as you need to.

Imagine how an app like Be My Eyes can empower someone who’s blind, not only in the home, but in the workplace as well.

You can find out more about Be My Eyes on their website: www.bemyeyes.com or on social media.

Of course, Be My Eyes is only one of the tools we ca use in the workplace to access information – next time I’ll be looking at some of the multitude of apps using artificial intelligence to help us access the information we need to be productive in a job.
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An Introduction to Screen Readers: A Way to Use a Computer without Sight

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Back in the dim and distant past when I became blind, using a computer was a very different process from what it is now. Back then I had to use a special computer that barely resembled the computers my friends were using, and the amount I could do with it was limited.

Nowadays I, and many other blind people, use a standard laptop or desktop together with a software application called a screen reader. With a screen reader we’re able to accomplish almost anything that a sighted person can. Which means that we should be able to fulfil the requirements of most of the many jobs requiring the use of a computer.

Essentially, a screen reader is a programme that allows us to interact with a computer using audio. We have the option to either type or dictate to create documents, e-mails, spreadsheets or other text-based programmes. We can access menus, online content and documents created by others using the audio functionality. And there are ways we can access the content in images, graphs and diagrams.

So why then do so many people have difficulty in believing that a blind person could be successful in a job?

Maybe they believe that the software to allow a blind person to use a computer is expensive. And, certainly some of the screen readers do have a cost associated with them – as do many other software programmes used in business. But there are many different types of screen readers available nowadays, at a range of price points.

In fact, screen readers are in-built into several operating systems at no extra cost – IOS/Mac, Android, Microsoft are a few that spring to mind. That’s not to mention the many other applications that are out there – JAWS, Supernova, NVDA to name but a few.

And sure, each of these differ in what they offer and what they cost. But, for the purposes of this article, that’s detail and would depend on the preferences of the individual, the needs of the organisation, and the tasks required.

My point remains the same – with so many jobs being accessible to someone who is blind, why aren’t there more blind people being employed?

If you want to learn more about how I use a computer in my work life, please feel free to contact me through my website: www.loisstrachan.com and let’s chat about what I can and cannot do using a computer… I’m almost willing to bet you’d be amazed!

In my next article in this series I’m going to be talking about an app that helps the blind community to access print material and other physical objects more easily – or, maybe I should say one of the ways, since there are a few that I’ll be talking about in this series.

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

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