One of the best personal decisions in my life was asking my now-wife out; one of my best professional decisions was to hire her as my office manager. Ana would seem to be an obvious choice to help run a busy immigration office. She speaks several languages and displays an amazing and comforting depth of cultural sensitivity to often-nervous potential clients. However, Ana is completely blind, and many employers would be wary of hiring even the most qualified visually impaired person, as the sky-high unemployment rate among the blind shows.
If you have a disability, you shouldn’t have to be married to a potential employer to get a job. Several exciting new assistive technologies should make employers treat a disabled job applicant the same as any other. Before going further, though, let’s not get hung up on the latest, greatest thing. Assistive technology for the blind goes back quite a ways—at least as far back as Louis Braille’s revolutionary written communication method for the blind in the early 19th century. Providing jobs for people with disabilities hasn’t kept pace with the advances since then—technologies that magnify the screen for people with low vision, technologies that read the content of the screen to those with no vision, technologies that convert text into braille on a refreshable braille display, and technologies that allow for verbal inputs for your touchscreen smartphone. Yes, Siri isn’t just for the sighted!
When making accommodations, ask what the person needs; as you might imagine, they’ve given some thought to this and they know what works best for them. It needn’t always be an expensive accommodation, either—we have a dedicated Portuguese phone line due to our large Brazilian clientele, so when I asked Ana how she wanted to handle the separate lines, she immediately suggested the (what should have been) obvious solution of distinct ringtones.
JAWS® for Windows is another technology of choice for us. This is a computer program that works as a screen reader, so Ana can input data or search the web, and have the results read to her. On the suggestion of a blind part-time employee (not married to me), Ana started using the iPhone, which gives her a great deal more flexibility, as she doesn’t have to be tied to her PC to do her work. Ana also brings a guide dog to work; I mention this because although Eclipse isn’t a piece of equipment that the office has to provide, potential employers may be wary of hiring someone who brings a dog to work. In my special circumstance, lawsuits would be the least of my worries if I were to ban Eclipse from the workplace, but on the other hand, you’d be surprised at how much the presence of a dog can lower the stress level for a client—and as far as the bottom line goes, I’ve been told more than once that the dog sold a client on the office before that person ever saw or talked to me or Ana.
We can make all the technological advances we want, and we can all agree that they’re incredible, but unless we make the accommodations that harness those advances, the disabled will continue to be left out of the workforce. Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of meeting Ted Henter, the blind engineer and programmer who developed JAWS® for Windows. A measure of the importance of this technology to him and to other blind people is what JAWS stands for: Job Access With Speech—in other words, a technology that opens the door to the workplace.
On the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, there’s no excuse for such low rates of inclusion in our workplaces. As lawyers, we need to lead the way to inclusion, not out of fear of lawsuits, but out of the knowledge that a well-qualified individual, disabled or not, is an asset to our practice. With advances in law and technology, we shouldn’t need to be pushing this; however, with our leadership, inclusion will continue apace and high rates of unemployment will soon be a thing of the past.
About the Author
Joshua Paulin is an immigration lawyer in Boston, MA. His website is PaulinLaw.com.
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