To Face the Future of Work, We Need New Approaches

By Ross Miller

One of the greater changes in the lifestyle outcomes of people who are blind or vision impaired is the improvement in our ability to access education. What we know at this point in history is that technology has improved to such a degree that there are minimal disability related barriers to achieving a solid and meaningful tertiary education using the various forms of screen, audio and interactive adaptive technologies.

However, what we also know is that with the improvement in educational access, there has not been a commensurate increase in the degree of practical full-time employment. At present, the full-time employment level for people who are blind or vision impaired is reportedly around 24 per cent, less than half that of the general population. Employment levels in the regions would most likely be less than this, thus creating an even stronger catalyst for change and adjustment.

This disparity between improved technological access and static employment growth is of concern to everyone, especially our younger people seeking out meaningful and rewarding career opportunities. Meanwhile, recent analysis has demonstrated that technology is actually outstripping the labour market. Changes to working environments, work tasks, automation and increased reliance on artificial intelligence is impacting everyone in the workforce, and blind and vision impaired workers are not exempt or protected from these changes.

I have had 40 years’ experience in the larger employment sector, as a low level public servant through to an active tertiary student. I then transferred my energies, ending up with 20 years’ experience as a successful, self-employed, entrepreneurial consultant serving businesses across Australia. As people who are blind or vision impaired, I believe that:

  • We need to be aware of these disruptions to the labour market and their impact on our futures;
  • We need employment services to consider previously discounted pathways and options;
  • When approaching tertiary education, we should consider broader options such as non-traditional commerce and industry sectors, and;
  • We should take back control through becoming entrepreneurs and decision makers.

Disruptions to the Labour Market

Within my professional experience, I have observed vocational agents prompting blind and vision impaired people into a very small wedge of the job market. Roles such as switchboard operator, customer service, production or reception roles were handy and often unimaginative job targets. For deaf workers, it was the Mail or Registry Section within the Public Service. Nice, safe, non-confrontational and comfortable for management. Such locations have been called “ghetto” sites, just because the disabled worker would be given the so-called dignity of a job but then essentially hidden away and forgotten.

These jobs I have just mentioned are disappearing. Mail rooms no longer require teams due to OCR and artificial intelligence technology. Switchboards are much less prevalent now direct dial and auto-queuing is the norm. How many businesses now actually function without a receptionist? Much more common than you think. All due to changes in technology, staffing and role rationalization. Blind and vision impaired people need to address these broader labour market realities, just as does every other worker moving into the third decade of the millennium.

In the past, we’ve often been encouraged to move towards people-centred roles. But recent reports confirm that there are now too many solicitors being trained, too many psychologists and too many journalists for the Australian labour market. Consequently, all those blind and vision impaired students being prompted to these areas of study will be graduating into a labour market that is both shrinking and becoming more reliant on technology and artificial intelligence.

Employment Services Are Failing Us

In Australia, the United States and United Kingdom, I’ve also seen a trend of moving blind and vision impaired people into phone-based customer service roles. Of course, this is not universal, but it appears to be an easy option for vocational professionals. These jobs might include appointment setters, cold canvassers, warm leads and information sharing services. They are essentially all the same. Provide a phone, a computer with adaptive technology, and support the worker only to the point that they will not leave and cause a recruitment, staffing and training hole in the organisation.

There is nothing wrong with customer service roles if that is your own particular choice and that meets your needs both personally, financially and your overall vocational profile. But it should not be the default role that some vocational officers would be pushing you.

Personally, I was pushed through the NAB recruitment process for customer call centre. I felt that the blind agency vocational officer took no heed of my professional qualifications by bullying me towards this role. Dissatisfied with this pathway, I sought out and found a qualification relevant role providing triple the financial benefits and more importantly, the benefit of self-determination in a career pathway of my own choosing.

In the WorkCover universe, I saw many vocational rehabilitation counsellors push injured workers into roles such as car park attendants and customer service at local garages. It was lazy, ill-considered and mostly unsafe and unsuccessful. The individual needs proper consideration when deciding a career pathway. People who are blind or vision impaired are no different. Just pushing a person towards the “easy option” disrespects that person as well as the employer and the profession.

Having control of your own career, rather than being sent into a role that is pre-defined as being accessible and safe, would be a much more valuable outcome. In an era where the nature of work is changing so rapidly, it’s more important than ever that our employment service providers set aside their assumptions and habits, tailor their recommendations to our personal needs, and consider options they may previously have discounted.

A New Approach to Tertiary Education

There is an argument that it is time to refocus our skills set away from people oriented policy and support mechanisms to more industry and commercial sectors. The question is can you be as good a manager of systems and services as you might be of people? Can you be as great a problem solver in commerce as you might be in welfare services? Can you manage and manipulate the technologies that are going to drive our economy just as well as you currently operate your office PC?

If you want to participate in a “disruptive” commercial labour market, then you will absolutely need to consider alternative pathways. Look towards being a decision maker, an influencer, someone who takes responsibility and manages that responsibility with the practical skills of a life well lived. As traditional vocational pathways slip into the sunset or actual extinction, it is time to consider new or developing roles that are ready to be made your own.

These roles may require the completion of a Bachelor of Business, a Masters of Business Administration or similar education standard. Why not study in one of the STEM areas, Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics? Why not work towards these goals like other enthusiastic people in society? Why not use the skills in organisation, lateral thinking, articulate presentation and strong personal motivation to move into the larger and often competitive sectors of the workforce? Why not be the Manager of Corporate Expansion in a medium sized services business, promoting the company, generating contacts and managing teams and budgets?

There are many pathways that can be pursued. The system is there to use, the services are there to support, the research provides lists of future job options, and the establishment is there to provide opportunity. Let’s move on and insert our influence and strength into all substrata of business and government, not just the welfare sector. Become competitive for roles in Local Government and State Government and in time apply yourself to a political party influencing community policy.

Being an Entrepreneur

By 2027, it’s predicted that the majority of workers in the US will be freelancers. It’s probable that Australia won’t be far behind. There is an argument that entrepreneurship and career ownership is the way of the future, and so it should be for people with disabilities.

A UK survey last year showed that almost 50 per cent of the general public believe that a person who is blind or vision impaired would struggle to hold down a job. Former Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes believes these outdated attitudes are the biggest barrier to our employment. But when you’re your own boss, that attitude barrier doesn’t matter. Your only limitation is your belief in yourself.

Professional exposures and the feedback from many over the past 25 years is that it has been valuable to get a “normal” job for a few years. This might take the guise of any role that is accessible based on available technologies and your own personal interests. But go out and experience the intricacies of the workplace. Absorb the lessons of workplace politics, cliques, inclusion and team mentoring and self-representation. From that point forward, the “entrepreneur” in you can develop, break out and expand beyond the confines of enforced under-achievement, managerial disrespect and societal indifference.

In 2018, Vision Australia gave me an award for a conceptual strategy I put forward as part of their Employment Ideas Survey. In that offering, I proposed a strategy outline that would identify, focus, mentor and professionally train people towards being successful self-employed “entrepreneurs”. My expectation would be that a percentage of these hard-working individuals would, in time, move toward full financial self-sufficiency and potentially employ others as part of their team, creating a cycle of engagement, development, self-reliance, opportunity and growth.

Although the initial programme would be moderate in size and resources, any success would have the capacity to expand in later years, thus snowballing the impact of self-reliance, and creating a marked improvement in employment outcomes for people who are blind or vision impaired. It is not a leadership structure, but a development towards ownership and expansion of viable business that is both sustainable and expandable.

With the advent of the truly inclusive technologies now available, many more roles are open to the potential entrepreneur. Why is it that a blind or vision impaired person should not be the driving force behind a “start-up”, or an embryonic business idea that has both financial and development opportunities? What is holding us back? In fact, it could be argued, there is nothing holding us back at all.

Why can’t one of us be a “player” in open business, a competitive force in areas such as insurance broking, in finance and banking, in digital marketing, in real estate investment, in handling SEO and platform management systems for large organisations? Why not be a competitive manager in general or specialist recruitment, maybe an operations manager in supply logistics or commercial cleaning, becoming a purchasing and procurement specialist. All these and more are areas that I believe are fully open to people who up-skill and focus on their future.

By combining personal motivations with broad thinking, a person can move towards an entrepreneurial role where they sub-contract, multi-contract and term contract utilising the highly valued skills and experience gained through years of learning and workplace exposures. By operating in start-up hubs, co-working spaces, integrating and networking with other entrepreneurs, absorbing the lessons of life and insider experience, it is clearly possible for people who are blind or vision impaired to generate new and more financially and philosophically rewarding career pathways. Many of us will pursue work in the health, welfare and caring sector and that is important, but it is also important that we expand ever deeper into the world of the broad human experience.

Combining my two primary thoughts, that of adjusting direction from person-centred education to business and operations focussed education with concepts of self-determination through embracing entrepreneurship, I believe that people who are blind or vision impaired are on the cusp of making expanding forays into actual business, commerce and industrial organisations. There are significant trailblazers that have shown us all that focus, persistence and resilience can provide strong futures. However, I believe it is time to expand the profile of blind and vision impaired workers, so that we will see them as true entrepreneurs, effective business leaders, political leaders, technology gurus, decision makers and more.

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