Workplace prejudice keeps blind people out of employment

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SPECIAL REPORT / The statistics show that blind and partially sighted are the disability group with the lowest employment rate but the biggest obstacle for visually impaired jobseekers is not their disability, experts say.

The blind and heavily impaired sighted people have the highest unemployment rate among disabled groups, despite their great desire to be part of the labour market, according to organisations representing the blind.

But workplace prejudice might be even more crippling than disability, a new survey shows.

The survey, conducted by the Danish Blind Society, shows that prejudice is a major reason why so many blind people in Denmark are unemployed. According to the survey, more than one out three Danes is sceptical about having a colleague with sight impairment.

“There is in general a great uncertainty about what blind people can do. One of my favourite examples is about one of my blind friends. In a job interview she was asked whether she needed help to go to the toilet. This is just one of the things that people think we can’t do,” says Thorkild Olesen, the chairman of the Danish Blind Society.

“Another prejudice is that many think having a blind colleague would mean more work for themselves. They think that a blind person can’t completely replace someone who doesn’t have problems with their sight. Often it turns out, after having hired a blind person, after a while there aren’t any problems at all,” Olesen told EurActiv.

12% of the 9,500 members of the Danish Society for the Blind currently have a job. But 70% of those between 18 and 65 receive early retirement benefits. These statistics make the blind the disabled group with the smallest presence in the labour market.

For social workers supporting the integration of the blind, this is blatant injustice, as they can contribute to society in many different capacities, for example as researchers, web editors, physical therapists, book writers, lawyers, doctors and social workers.

Olesen said he experiences prejudices on a daily basis. The most common prejudice is that blind people are on social benefits and therefore represent a burden to society. And if a visually impaired person does work, the assumption is that it is probably in a volunteer job, and that there are never any expectations it might result in anything useful.

“I think it’s because people find it difficult to put themselves in the shoes of a blind person. They can’t imagine how it is to be blind. They almost believe that life stops if you are blind. It’s doesn’t, but I think that’s why people believe that we’re all on benefits and there are no expectations surrounding making it on your own,” Olesen said.

Common prejudices

Erwin Denninghaus from the Support Centre for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Germany said that he believed that prejudice against the blind or partially blind was commonplace across the EU.

María Jesús Varela Méndez from the Spanish National Organisation for the Blind studied Business at Santiago University and has a Master’s Degree in Marketing. She said she had experienced many prejudices in job interviews.

“Some years ago when I was unemployed, I went to a job interview and one of the first questions was whether I had a driver’s license. A driver’s license! That means that a lot of people don’t know what it means to be blind. It’s a proof that it’s really difficult to go to a job interview because people don’t understand our capabilities and in which jobs we can bring good results,” Méndez said.

Lars Kjær Hansen, who lost his sight when he was 15 years old, has a degree in International Market Economy and Marketing plus a degree in Coaching and Management. He has worked for Denmark’s biggest insurance company, Tryg, for the past five years. He said he still experiences prejudice.

“Even after five years at Tryg, I still meet many people who can’t understand that I have the competencies that I have and can work with the things that I work with. They often think that I just pick up the phones. So you definitely meet prejudice at work if you are blind. And prejudice, lack of knowledge and insecurity play a role both when you apply for a job and when you have the job.”

Méndez said she would like Spain to embrace positive discrimination and adopt legislation forcing companies with more than 50 employers to hire a set quota of blind or visually impaired people.

“The EU must interfere on this aspect,” she stressed.

Quota system

Such a quota system is already in place in Germany but it has yielded limited results so far.

Every company or factory with more than 20 staff members has to employ at least 5% disabled people. If they fail to do so, employers have to pay an extra tax that will go to a special fund for the disabled.

Denninghaus stressed that in Germany companies do not have to pay for special technical equipment for the blind, unlike in other EU countries. Still, many employers refuse to hire disabled people and prefer to pay the tax, raising doubts about the efficacy of the quota system.

Since all companies work with targets these days, Denninghaus said would like to see job centres do the same, making them disclose statistics about how many blind people they have successfully helped getting on the job market.

“In industrial countries, it’s not possible to get data about the different disabled groups and their participation to the labour market. In Germany, we can just get the sum of all the unemployed within the disabled groups. We don’t know what’s being done to help them get a job. This is one of our aims; to get the EU, via Eurostat, to get every country to publish these numbers so that we won’t have discrimination of disabled people,” Denninghaus said.

Solution in sight

Back in Denmark, Olesen said that a good solution would be to gather in one place all the knowledge and expertise on blind and visually impaired people’s inclusion in the labour market.

“A national resource centre would make sure that a targeted special counselling for blind children, youngsters and adults regarding education from school to employment is achieved. This would break the negative spiral where fewer and fewer blind people get an education,” Olesen said.

The idea would be to pool together all the national expertise in the area, Olesen said. It would make it less bureaucratic for both the visually impaired, employers, colleagues and politicians to find the advice they need, for example in relation to hiring a person with sight impairment.

Timeline: 
  • 10 Oct.: World Sight Day 2013
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