By: Hunter Crowther
Shelby Travers said she wants to help change the narrative on visually impaired employees in the Canadian workplace.
The 23-year-old corporate communications intern with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), also studies media communications at Humber College. She suffers from homonymous hemianopsia, a condition where half of the field of view on the same side of both eyes is lost.
In hopes of creating awareness for National Disability Employment Awareness Month, the CNIB is launching their EmployAbility campaign in hopes of tackling misconceptions about those who are partially or fully blind and helping them get hired in the workforce.
Travers isn’t ignorant to the assumptions made about the visually impaired.
Her guide dog Frances, a three-year-old black labrador retriever, is usually by her side and helps wherever she needs to go. But Travers admits she’s been hesitant to bring Frances to job interviews.
Travers, who will graduate from Humber next spring, went on to say it’s not just ignorance on the employers’ behalf, but shades of discrimination as well.
“I think a lot of people don’t like to bring up the word ‘discrimination,’ especially when it comes to disabilities,” said Travers. “But people who are visually impaired, myself included, we’re scared to say we’re blind before we’re hired.
“A lot of employers will try to work their way around it so it doesn’t seem like discrimination. But it is.”
According to the CNIB’s website, approximately half a million Canadians are estimated to be living with significant vision loss that impacts their quality of life – and around 187,000 of those people live in Ontario.
More than 50,000 will lose their sight every year, including those with no sight from birth, people who are legally blind, as well as people with other significant vision loss.
One thing that has activists worried is the lack of job opportunities for those with vision loss. Of the over 100,000 working age Canadians with impaired vision, only 38 per cent are employed.
“Advances in technology and mobility training have provided the tools and techniques for people who are blind or partially sighted, such as myself, to do the job a bit differently than our sighted peers, but every bit as effectively,” says Diane Bergeron, executive director of CNIB Strategic Relations and Engagement.
“It’s time for employers to recognize that we are just as capable and competent as our sighted colleagues.”
“A lot of employers will try to work their way around it so it doesn’t seem like discrimination. But it is.” –Shelby Travers
A Statistics Canada report from 2012 states 55 per cent of visually impaired people feel their employers saw them as “disadvantaged.” Between 10-14 per cent of visually impaired respondents said they believed they were refused jobs, interviews or promotions because of their vision.
Shannon Simpson is the manager of communications for CNIB Ontario and says underemployment and unemployment in the vision loss community is “a needless burden on society and forces otherwise bright, healthy, able people to live in poverty.”
“We can’t even accurately estimate the unemployment rate because so many people with vision loss have given up trying to find work,” said Simpson.
“About half of Canadians with vision loss live on low incomes, making $20,000 a year or less.”
The CNIB’s goal isn’t just to find employment for who it represents. Educating Canadians on the myths that plague the partially and fully blind is what the institute hopes to accomplish in the near future.
Simpson says the CNIB is working with all levels of government. A set of federally funded public service announcements with visually impaired Canadians offers a glimpse into being an employee from the vision loss community.
According to their website, a third of Canadians say they don’t know how to interact in a workplace setting appropriately with someone who is blind or partially sighted.
Seventy per cent said in the survey that, if they were presented with two fully qualified job candidates – one sighted and one blind, they would hire the sighted job candidate. Twenty-two per cent thought the visually impaired would need someone to read documents to them on the job, even though 30 per cent admitted they didn’t even know if it were true or not.
Almost a fifth of respondents thought blind employees require someone to lead them around the workplace.