Visually impaired and blind workers: undervalued, underemployed

Article from the Sydney Morning Herald – 13 October

Reporter: Julie Power

Lauren Henley has developed superhero-like powers as she navigates the world of work.

Blinded when she was 20, Ms Henley uses a form of “echo-location” – clicking her fingers or tongue to produce echos much like a bat’s navigation – to find her way around a new office and a new city.

“The noise bounces off objects in your environment. You can use it to work out different bits of information, such as how large the object is,” said Ms Henley who moved to Sydney two weeks ago to work as an adviser at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

“Normally I use a tongue click,” she said, demonstrating the technique. “You do it discreetly if you are inside. If I am in a louder environment, such as busy peak-hour traffic, where I can’t hear much, I either tap my cane or click my fingers.”

Ms Henley was trained by Daniel Kish, the leader of a global movement to teach blind people to see using their ears. He was brought to Australia by Guide Dogs NSW /ACT.

Some disability advocates fear this skill can make people with visual impairment look like “superhuman freaks”, but 27-year-old Ms Henley said it had bolstered her independence and confidence, allowing her to travel independently for work and pleasure.

People who are blind or have a vision impairment are four times as likely to be unemployed than average, finds new research by Guide Dogs. Around 37 per cent of its clients are unemployed, many are underemployed, and nearly all want more work. Once they find a job, they are more loyal and take far less sick leave.

After losing most of her sight in 2001, Sally-Anne Giliam, the executive assistant to NSW Roads’ Minister Duncan Gay, has developed another skill that is nearly as impressive in an era when most people store phone numbers in mobile phones.

To save time, Ms Giliam – who was promoted from receptionist to EA and office manager – remembers more than 1000 phone numbers. She has become the “eyes” of her office, the person who knows where things are kept.

Ms Giliam uses an identification cane when she catches public transport to work. In the office, she uses screen reading technology and magnification.

Her screen reading technology is so accurate that she is often asked to proof the office’s documents. Once she spotted an error in a draft press release, announcing a tax on toads instead of a tax on roads, that had been missed by others.

The research was commissioned to address employer concerns that people who can’t see can’t work because they won’t be able to get to work, read emails or use a computer.

Before Ms Henley started her new job, a mobility expert from Guide Dogs spent the weekend with her, helping her navigate public transport to work and around the new office that sprawls over several floors, so she could find the bathrooms, the lunch room, the meeting room and her office.

“It is so extremely daunting to start a new job. So the ability to learn how to get around before you even start was really empowering,” she said.

“Having a job provides me with financial security and greater flexibility in terms of the life that I choose to lead.

“But beyond that, it gives me a sense of self-worth, the opportunity to get out and meet people and the opportunity to fight for a cause that I am passionate about.

“For me, not having a job would be devastating.”