Last year on May 13, I graduated from college with a Bachelor’s degree in communication with a journalism emphasis. Today, May 1, 2013, almost a year later, I still do not have a job. My parents constantly remind me this is nothing to be ashamed of. There is a good chance that I wouldn’t have found a job by now even if I wasn’t blind. The recession is technically behind us according to economic experts, but companies are still slow to hire, fearing what our dysfunctional Congress might do next. The unemployment rate is dropping, but this is largely because a lot of people have become so discouraged they gave up looking for work altogether and these people aren’t counted in the unemployment figure. My brother-in-law earned a PhD six months ago in Microbiology, and he hasn’t had any luck finding a job either. Even so, I cannot help feeling like my blindness stacks the deck against me in ways that it shouldn’t in the 21st century, in the United States, a country founded on ideals of fairness and equality.
I blame this on corporate CEO’s. Every time I listen to an interview with a company CEO on a news program and they mention phrases like “efficiency” or “doing more with less” a wave of frustration surges through me because while I am not an expert on anything, I have the sneaking suspicion these phrases are part of the reason why 70 percent of the blind population is unemployed.
It seems as if all industries put these phrases in to practice to some extent, from government, to manufacturing, to medical care and education, but especially journalism. Print journalism could be, should be, and I think used to be a very blind friendly field. With all of the screen reading software, or even a notetaker with a refreshable braille display, writing stories or taking notes during interviews is no problem. If a story requires interviewing someone at a different location, all that is needed is someone–like the photographer who had to accompany the reporter to take photos of the interview subjects or a scene anyway–to drive the blind person to the site and assist him/her in finding the location where the interview will take place if it is a site the person has never been to before. The actual interview requires no vision at all to yield excellent results. My junior year of college when I inquired about an internship opportunity, a person told me that I couldn’t interview people, a major component of that internship, because looking at an interviewee’s body language is an essential part of interviewing. I did not end up applying for the internship because I wasn’t in the mood to waste time and energy fighting this narrow-minded person’s misconceptions, and I ended up finding another excellent internship with a wonderful, open-minded supervisor. But the fact is, while it is true that blind people cannot watch someone’s body language, we are very attuned to a person’s tone of voice, and tone of voice almost always betrays the same things as body language. So interviewing is a very blind friendly task as well. At one time, this was all that journalism used to entail: researching a story through interviews with primary sources that witnessed or were involved in a news event and writing short articles about these events. Photographing an event was a separate job for the photographer, and broadcast journalism was a separate field. But while I was in college, the combined effects of the recession and the exponential growth of social media and free smartphone apps ravaged the journalism industry. By the time I graduated, newspaper staff was dramatically reduced, and just as professors had warned, newspapers were now looking for multitalented reporters who could write well but also produce photos and videos. After all, the biggest expense incurred by businesses is paying employees, so if technology allows for one person to do a job that used to be done by two or three people, the business saves money.
I wouldn’t mind having both writing and photography duties if technology made this possible for me, but as far as I know, technological advances related to photography have been about making cameras smaller or allowing synchronization to other devices or live streaming to an internet site. There has not been any advancement with regard to helping a totally blind person know where the camera is pointing. I have tried shooting photos and videos of my face and my pets on my iPad for posting to youTube or Facebook just for fun out of curiosity over what it might feel like to be a sighted person with a camera. But despite my sighted parents’ best efforts to explain how the camera needs to face the image I want to capture and be held a couple feet away from it to capture the whole image, only a couple of the several attempts made were deemed acceptable for public viewing by my parents. Often times, I thought I had the camera facing where I wanted it to be, but the image couldn’t be discerned at all, and on a couple of occasions, I inadvertently captured some, well, inappropriate images if you know what I mean!
Anyway, my point is that because of my disability, I cannot shoot photos or videos, but I could be an excellent interviewer and writer. Yet when I peruse job postings online, I hardly ever come across jobs that don’t have at least one or two responsibilities that would be iffy if not impossible given the fact that I am totally blind. It’s not just newspapers that are guilty. As I came to appreciate the fact that journalism is a very competitive field and even people without disabilities have a difficult time nabbing a journalism job, I decided to look at Public Relations jobs instead since journalism and public relations skills overlap. But even with these job postings, hiding somewhere in every list are phrases like, “participation in the selection, production and coordinated use of still images and videos,” or “exceptional attention to detail and a keen sense of design,” which to me insinuate in a subtle but firm way, “blind people need not apply.” In my idealized childhood mind, I remember thinking that if I just advocate for myself and all the things I can do assertively enough, or impress an interviewer enough with how well-spoken and educated I am, I could get hired for any job I wanted and my coworkers would like me enough that they wouldn’t mind pulling a little extra weight by handling the visual stuff. But then I gradually became aware that the corporate world is different than the warm, friendly and accommodating school atmosphere. Corporations are not about friendliness, warmth or accommodation. They are about turning a profit. There are laws, most notably the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act that try to force employers to hire and provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, but with a simple form letter, an employer can just pretend they found a better qualified candidate. If a person with a disability gets this letter after attending an interview and suspects that the company really just found a candidate without a disability so they wouldn’t have to go to the extra expense and effort to accommodate a disability, you cannot prove this intention with absolute certainty in court, especially since as I said earlier, lots of people without disabilities are also unemployed.
I am careful not to mention the fact that I am blind in my application materials unless I am applying for a job with an organization that serves the blind, so I am confident that the fact that I haven’t been called for an interview is due to nothing more than the competitive nature of the job market for everyone and my resume just didn’t stand out. I haven’t applied to any jobs since March because of the very few job postings I find in my field, none of them appealed to me so I am considering giving up the job search and maybe going to graduate school to see if more education opens up better opportunities.
But when I was looking for jobs, I would apply for ones that looked like they only had one or two visual responsibilities: Jobs with multiple visual responsibilities intermingled with the writing duties scared me away. And then I would await the form letter, half hoping for an interview but also half scared about how I would tout all that I could do and convince an ignorant HR person that my skills were worth the extra effort and expense of accommodating my disability, even if that meant hiring another person to handle visual stuff when the company only planned on hiring one person to do it all. I hate to be cynical, but I would almost be glad to see the form letter of rejection before the company could meet me and find out I am blind because as greedy and profit centered as corporations seem to be, I am convinced they would pull this dirty tactic on me, showering me with fake kindness when they see me walk in with a guide dog and pretend to interview me when they have already made up their mind that hiring me would be too much of an imposition.
I don’t think more laws are the answer to this problem. If new laws are passed, some people will only find new loopholes to avoid complying with them. Besides, I don’t want to be hired just to meet a company’s quota in compliance with the law, especially if I can pick up a vibe of resentment. I also don’t want to be taken advantage of, hired as a charity case by a company and then paid a lower wage then someone without a disability doing the same work. Sadly, even what I thought were upstanding nonprofit organizations like Goodwill are guilty of this practice, and I think it is wrong. In other words, like most people with disabilities I have met, I don’t want to be treated any different than everyone else.
With that in mind, in my opinion what is needed is not more laws, but an overhaul of the whole corporate mindset of doing more with less. I have noticed that even people I know who do not have a disability hate this mindset because when companies try to do more with less, the quality of their services and the health of employees often suffer. For example, I am friends with former nurses who noticed that gradually more and more responsibilities were being heaped on to them. When nurses would retire or quit, they sometimes were not replaced and if they were, they were replaced with young nurses right out of college that the company could pay way less. Of course, all young people in any field need to start somewhere, but when a company opts to hire a disproportionate number of inexperienced people rather than a nice balance of experience and youth, mistakes are inevitable. In terms of my own field of journalism, because I read newspaper articles on NFB Newsline, a free service blind people can sign up for to access newspaper content more easily, I am not aware of the proportion of advertisements to articles in a newspaper. But my parents have said that the Sunday paper which used to be fat and full of articles, is now thinner and has a lot more advertisements. I have no doubt this is because when a reporter has to take on more stories due to staff cutbacks, and be a writer, photographer and videographer rolled in to one, of course they cannot produce as much content as they used to. And instead of being just pleasantly tired but satisfied at the end of a hard day’s work, I know people from all fields who come home exhausted from burning the candle at both ends all day.
The journalism industry really is struggling as people shift toward free web content for their news, so I understand why newspapers would need to cut costs, although on a side note, people need to get used to the idea of paying, even for web content from a newspaper. People have always payed for other forms of information like books and we will pay for intellectual services like legal advice. So paying for high quality journalism from a respected newspaper that has professional standards and rapport in the community shouldn’t be viewed any differently. But aside from that, at the same time many corporations said the recession forced them to “do more with less,” and even plead for government bailouts, they continued paying their CEO’s ungodly salaries, and when the recession was technically over and they were found to be making record profits, many did not hire back the people they had laid off. Yes, the reality is companies do need to be financially cautious because Congress has been gridlocked and useless lately. But if a corporation is making any profit, especially “record profits” they could hire more people. I think some corporations are just using the uncertainty in Washington as a convenient excuse and justification to continue being greedy.
So forgive me if this sounds like a socialist statement, but I really think the only way we will improve employment prospects for everyone, including people with disabilities is to get the corporate mindset away from the whole idea of turning a profit as the primary goal. If a company wants profit that they can invest back in to the company to expand it, at some point that is unsustainable. I know someone who was laid off from the company he worked for precisely because they expanded too much and went almost bankrupt because they expanded beyond the level of demand for their services in the market. If a company wants to turn a great profit so that the owners can retire early and live lavishly, that is just immoral when so many people, even in the United States, can barely make ends meet. And it could ultimately be unsustainable too if there comes a point when these practices put so many people out of work that nobody has money to buy a company’s product or service anymore. So it is time for companies to put less emphasis on profit and more emphasis on social responsibility.
When corporations talk about social responsibility, this usually means donating a little bit of their proceeds to local schools or assuring consumers that they only buy from fair trade producers if they sell things like chocolate, coffee or clothing. This is great and corporations should continue these practices. But companies also need to think more about how they can apply social responsibility “at home” so to speak. Company CEO’s need to start asking, “has the quality of the company’s product or service deteriorated at all since we rolled what used to be two or three jobs in to one?” If the answer is yes, and if the company has enough money to separate these jobs again, they could practice social responsibility by not sitting on so much of this money and hiring back some people. If a company has enough money to hire people, there is no excuse for the current situation where people lucky enough to have jobs are worked to the point of exhaustion while so many people cannot find work at all. But this kind of social responsibility could benefit the company as well because if the burden on each employee could be lightened by hiring more employees, and if each employee could focus on their unique talent and perform that talent well, rather than frantically trying to do it all on an inevitably mediocre level, employee morale and the quality of products and services could be improved, and maybe consumers who stopped buying products from a company when they noticed a decline in quality would decide to return and the company could make more money! Maybe it wouldn’t be the record profits they used to make when they rolled multiple jobs in to one, but I bet it would be enough.
A lot of people don’t like well-intentioned but ineffective laws that try to address diversity problems with quotas and I don’t blame them. Perhaps I am among them because I don’t want to be hired by a company just to satisfy a quota either, nor do I want companies to view accommodating my disability as an imposition or treat me as a charity case. But the “doing more with less” philosophy hasn’t been good for anyone except maybe the CEO’s, so while you could call my thoughts naive and unrealistic, I truly believe that a change in mindset, not laws would be a much more effective solution that would indirectly improve the employment prospects for people with disabilities, while generally improving the quality of life for everyone.