Posts Tagged 'Blogging Against Disablism Day'

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2013: Stop Doing More with Less

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.

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2011: Raising Awareness about an Inaccessible Information Age

This post was originally written with the intention of using it for Blogging Against Disablism Day on May 1, an annual event since 2006, where people all over the world blog about something related to disabilities whether it be access, discrimination or negative perceptions of people with disabilities. The name of the blog that hosts this event is Diary of a Goldfish. Here is the link to the blog if you would like to read about this event or check out other blogs that participated in the event: http://blobolobolob.blogspot.com.

     Unfortunately, due to a lack of inspiration on May 1, I wasn’t able to submit this entry on time, but it was indicated that people who couldn’t blog that day would still be included in the archives, so I will e-mail the host with the link to this entry as soon as it is posted. As my fourth grade teacher liked to say, “better late than never.”

     On the release day for each of the Harry Potter books, my dad would stand in line at the bookstore early in the morning to buy a copy, which he presented to my brother as soon as he woke up. Then instead of watching cartoons or playing video games after breakfast, he would join in the Harry Potter hysteria, reading the book practically nonstop until it was finished.

     I would get my book a month later. As ruthlessly as my brother teased me about my blindness in other ways, like randomly poking me on long car rides and getting away before I could prove it was him, to his credit, he never spoiled the Harry Potter books for me. Even he saw how unfair this long wait was.

     I am not sure if I had to wait because the publisher wouldn’t give National Braille Press access to the book until it was released because of the whole secrecy thing that authors are obsessed with, or if the publisher did give them the book in advance but not enough in advance to get it brailled before the release day. But as a child, I didn’t care about the reason. I was just furious that a publisher would release such a huge sensation of a book before EVERYONE could access it. I am not sure whether or not getting the book on tape would have allowed me to read it on the release day, but I never liked listening to books on tape because there is something special about reading the same way sighted people do, with the silent experience of reclining on the patio or on the sofa, turning pages and reading the words for yourself. But when the mail man rang the doorbell to deliver the giant box, or two or three that was my book, and I got to bust them open and hold each volume in my hand, feel its newness and turn those crisp never-been-read pages feeling just like my brother did on the day of the book’s release, the wait was well worth it. (For the release of the final book, to my complete joy, I found out that National Braille Press was able to arrange for the book to be delivered on the day of its release! But why couldn’t these arrangements be made all along?)

     Unfortunately however, my reading frustration has effected educational reading as well. In elementary school, many of my textbooks were only available on tape, and this actually would have been fine with me. Textbooks, unlike Harry Potter aren’t meant for pleasure reading. School books on tape were fine when reading a book cover to cover, but of course with textbooks, teachers assign specific pages. In high school, I was finally given a special CD player where you could just type the page you were looking for on a keypad and skip right to it, but in elementary and middle school, my educational experience was marred by the good old fashion portable four-track player that did not have this feature. Each book would come with a braille sheet that would say for example “cassette 1 side 1: pages 1-30.” But of course, the teachers had to assign pages 10-25, so I had the choice of either just listening to the first nine pages, or playing a tedious game of rewind, fast forward, listen for a minute, rewind fast forward listen for a minute, until I found, or got close enough to, the correct page. Neither of these choices were appealing to a kid who, like everyone else, just wants to flip right to the page, get the reading done and move on to better things. So although my teachers caught on and weren’t happy about it, I would often just ask my parents to read my textbooks to me, which they were happy to do because they didn’t think all the time spent just trying to find the page was fair either.

     Even for Math, the one subject where my teachers recognized that the textbook had to be in braille, problems getting the book were not uncommon. One year, I think it was seventh grade, my parents and I came home from running an errand, to find a voicemail from my vision teacher who was in charge of ordering textbooks.

     “I found the textbook Allison will need for Math next year. But do you know how much it is going to cost? Five thousand dollars!” she said in a tone of utter shock and disbelief.

     Now of course, a braille book is going to be more expensive because braille is such a specialized code that the producers of these books have to get trained in which costs money, not to mention the fact that braille just takes up a lot more space than print. (For sighted visitors to this journal who may be unfamiliar with braille, one page of print can require as many as four pages in braille). In addition, math also requires the duplication of graphs and diagrams. But still, my parents, teachers and I were astounded by this price. I still remember my mom saying as a joke, “are the pages trimmed in gold or something?” Fortunately, I live in an affluent school district, but in many districts, ordering such a pricey math book would not have been possible, preventing the student from participating fully in class. But actually, I have not always been able to participate fully in class myself because often times I had to use an older addition of the same book because the newest addition the regular class used was not available in braille. I was still learning the same concepts, but I had to be assigned different homework problems than the rest of the class and thus didn’t benefit as much from the regular teacher’s lecture, which was based on the problems the other student had done.

     And then came college, where I was ultimately responsible for having the textbooks I needed, not my vision teacher. Fortunately, I have gotten better at coordinating with the Disability Services Office at my college, thanks to my dad who assured me it is not rude to put a little pressure on them and tell them I really need my textbooks on time. We even start checking the bookstore as soon as one semester ends, buy the books as soon as the bookstore receives them, and take them to the Disability Services Office right away for scanning. But the first year of college was rough. First semester, despite getting the books to them in July, I found out on the first day of class that they had barely started scanning them. By the time chapters did start trickling in to my inbox, the teacher had often assigned them the week before. If it weren’t for the fact that I lived close to home and am blessed with dedicated parents who read my textbooks aloud for me, I almost certainly would not have received the excellent grades that I did. Second semester, my parents and I thought we would try scanning the books ourselves since the state gave me a scanner and Kurzweil software that allows scanned pages to be read by a screen reader like JAWS. I couldn’t put up with this plan any longer than one semester though because I don’t know if it was the way the print textbooks were formatted, or if I didn’t have the highest quality scanner, but whatever the reason, it wasn’t uncommon to have large sections of illegible garble. In the time it took my mom to help me edit the garbled sections, I swear I could have done the assigned reading five times! Fortunately by sophomore year, I was much more comfortable advocating for myself at the college level, politely speaking up when I needed a particular chapter that hadn’t been sent to me yet. But another problem still drives me crazy. I have yet to do a research paper where I don’t have to deal with at least one PDF file that is a scanned page so that my screen reader cannot read the text, or one book that I would really like to peruse but which I cannot access. With the unreadable PDF files, I e-mail them to the disability services office which has been great about cleaning them up and sending them back to me, usually by the next day. With books, I have not had as much luck and thus have resigned myself to the fact that if it is not available on bookshare.org, (a site where people who are blind or dyslexic can register to download electronic books for an annual $50 subscription), I might as well not waste my time trying to find it anywhere else. Case and point? For a research paper I had to write this semester for a Public Policy course regarding the FCC’s regulation of indecency and profanity on television, I saw an awesome editorial, at the end of which it was indicated that the author of this editorial wrote a book called “The Decency Wars: The Campaign to Cleanse American Culture.”

     Since this short editorial had such excellent arguments, I thought it would be cool to peruse the book and see if I could use it to expand on the arguments in the editorial. So I checked Bookshare. It wasn’t there. I checked Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic. A totally unrelated book by the same author was there, but not the book I needed. It wasn’t available on any mainstream audio book company sites and it wasn’t available at all from my local library. It wasn’t even available as an electronic file on Google books or Amazon. I thought that was a pretty in-depth search, but when I saw a contact form on the web site of the book’s publisher, I thought I would fill it out and explain my situation. My hopes was that they would direct me to a company I may not have heard where I could get the book directly. Instead, I received a reply a few days later saying that I could contact the disability services office who could contact the publisher for an electronic copy. Now, I am very aware of the Disability Services office doing this every semester for my textbooks, and based on how long it took for the books to be sent in the past, I think there is a lot of red tape. Then, when the books arrive, they often have to be cleaned up or converted to word files so that I can read them. Don’t you think that is a lot to ask of the Disability Services people for a book that I only wanted to peruse, that I might not even use in my research paper at all? Needless to say, I just cut my losses with that book and found another less awesome sounding but adequate book on Bookshare.

     I think what I am trying to say with these experiences is that I wish mainstream companies from education to recreation would stop and think a little more about how much equal access means to people with disabilities. Alright, I recognize there does need to be a little give and take. In an ideal world, it would have been cool to wait in line and get Harry Potter in braille, direct from the bookstore. But that would be a lot to ask since as I mentioned earlier, braille takes up a lot of shelf space! But in the 21st century, isn’t it a bit outrageous that it takes a month from the time the book is released in print until it is available in braille? I have heard four-track players are pretty much obsolete now, thank God! But again, why on Earth does a math book cost $5,000, and why haven’t publishers thought about the fact that releasing a new print addition before it can be brailled puts blind students at a disadvantage? In this the internet age, why aren’t all books available electronically so that blind people can purchase them directly like everyone else? In the 21st century, is it too much to ask to want to just be able to open any file and start reading, with no garble or scanned pages that screen readers cannot recognize? In other words, with all of our technological advancement in so many other areas, shouldn’t blind people be able to access a book or file just as easily and efficiently as anyone else?

     It is not generally my nature to gripe like this, and I really don’t think these access difficulties are intentional. I’m sure the publisher that created the scanned PDF pages wasn’t thinking “I hate blind people. I am going to scan this in such a way that they will have a harder time reading it.” I think the problem is simply that because blind people are a minority, there is not a lot of awareness or education regarding our needs in mainstream society. Without education or awareness, it would make sense that there is not a lot of thought given to these issues. So I hope that sighted people, especially those in the field of publishing educational materials, will stumble upon this entry and at least start thinking about these issues. Being the young optimist that I am, I have faith that with a little awareness, society would be more than willing to put these thoughts in to action, making the world a little more accessible for all.