Adapting to employees with special needs

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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Next, we needed to start exploring which positions could be adapted. We immediately identified that we could not adapt any positions in our graphic art department, and that when we get out to production (decorating), we must have at least two sighted people per three-person press team. As much as we want to say the sky is the limit, there are some natural limitations — a blind person is not going to be your delivery van driver. Then we started evaluating with the assistance of our blind employee and state resources. What are the requirements of the position? What adaptive technology is needed? Is that technology available? How might the adaptations affect the efficiency of the position (if on an assembly line, will the employee be able to keep up to the pace of the line)? It all came down to picking one position and figuring out how we could adapt it. Then we picked a second and a third and so on, but the first was the most difficult and had the steepest learning curve.

Recruitment has been a particular challenge. We have discovered that we find our employees through referrals and word of mouth. BVI individuals form a community just as any other group might, so once word gets out that there are companies looking to hire people who are BVI, word spreads. Even so, there is a limited population in any community, which means the search must move outward to the state or even to a national level. This can be a challenge, but networking has proven to be the most effective method for us.

The top of the list for us was making sure this job was not a handout. We do not lower our expectations because an employee is BVI; instead, we work with the employee to provide him or her with the technology they need in order to be able to perform the job. It may be a screen-reading program for the computer or a special magnifying glass for reading paperwork, or it may be converting away from physical paper with handwriting and moving to a digital system, so they can read the documents. What we felt were insurmountable obstacles five years ago are now the norm. We have sighted and blind employees. We have guide dogs that work at our company alongside their handler (although we don’t get to count them in our employee counts). We don’t even “see” the blindness anymore. We don’t have blind employees, we have employees who happen to be blind, and it is this view and attitude that I am the most proud of.

Shannon Mayerl is president of Top Promotions Inc. in Middleton.

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