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Jan 9, 201812:34 PMOpen Mic

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Adapting to employees with special needs

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In 2012, the company I work for was sold. We became a wholly owned subsidiary of a much larger organization, an organization with a mission to provide employment opportunities to individuals who are blind or visually impaired (BVI). At this point our company had been in business for nearly 30 years and like many (most) companies, we had never had an employee with adaptation needs. But suddenly one day in March 2012, we also became a company with a mission to provide employment opportunities to BVI individuals.

We are in a graphic industry, one that is highly reliant on sight. We were faced with questions we didn’t know how to answer. How does one find proactive ways to adapt jobs for someone with limited to no sight while keeping the productivity of the position? Just where are we supposed to find these prospective employees who need to not only be BVI, but more importantly qualified to do the job? What positions can actually be adapted? How do we avoid reverse discrimination if we begin specifically recruiting people who are BVI?

It is not surprising that the unemployment rate amongst people with disabilities is high. The logistics of making it happen can weigh down even companies with the best intentions. So today I am sharing with you our success story. Five years ago we didn’t have a single blind employee; now nearly 10% of our staff is blind and we have a goal to increase that to 15% in the next few years.

Our first step was to find a really awesome blind person to help us. We were lucky and got a referral/introduction to a woman who has since become an integral part of our team. An alternate option would be to work with a state agency that specializes in placement and adaption (I went to the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation in Wisconsin and found some great resources). You have to face it — unless someone on your team has specific training in adaptive development, it is nearly impossible for someone with sight to figure out how a job needs to be adapted to be done by someone without sight. We can’t just close our eyes and know what it is to be blind, nor do most sighted people know all the amazing adaptive technology available or how to use it.

Our next step was to visit a few Industries for the Blind agencies (affiliated with the National Industries for the Blind). It is very eye opening — pardon the pun — to see a factory full of BVI employees doing jobs that you could never imagine someone with limited sight being able to do, and at a pace that doesn’t drive the cost through the roof. Even though these companies are in different industries, these visits helped me stop limiting my imagination for where we could take this. One of my most memorable visits was to a wood shop where I observed a BVI student working with a BVI instructor using a band saw to make a wooden cigar box. They were doing this without any special equipment and they both still had all their fingers. I have sighted friends who don’t have all their fingers after a run-in with a band saw!

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