Challenges in Employment of Blind and Partially Sighted People

A Presentation by Maria Kyriacoy, Representative of the Pancyprian Organization of the Blind to the European Conference "Views Ahead" Visually Disable People Coping with the European Employment Strategy

Bratislava, Slovak Republic 28 - 29 October 2005

I. Introduction

For the majority of people, employment is considered to be "A Major Life Activity" that enhances quality of life, offers financial self-determination, improves self-esteem, gives feelings of contributing to society, and offers general life satisfaction.

This is also true among people with disabilities where employment is an essential factor in the gaining of independence, achieving social inclusion and ensuring equal participation in all aspects of life. Employment and rehabilitation have therefore been one of the main priorities of the Pancyprian Organization of the Blind, ever since its establishment in 1980.

The organization may accept as a member any person over 18 years of age who has total loss of vision or whose visual acuity is below 6/60 in the best eye (1/10 of usual vision), even with the use of any corrective lenses or spectacles.

Today (November 2005), the Organization has 1003 enrolled members (462 women / 541 men) out of an estimated total of 2.200 blind and visually impaired people living in Cyprus.

Although no statistics have ever been compiled regarding the employment of people with disabilities in Cyprus, many organizations for people with disabilities publish their own statistics on the basis of their records. Likewise, in October 2005, the President of the Pancyprian Organization of the Blind, published the following data regarding employment.

It is estimated that 40.9% of the 2200 people with a visual impairment living in Cyprus are of working age. Of these:

  • 20,85% are employed by the government or in jobs in the semi-governmental sector
  • 12.53% work in the private sector, mainly for insurance companies, banks and investment institutes
  • 1.1% are self-employed
  • 30.12 % are unemployed and
  • 35.6% receive a monthly disability pension or other financial support from the government on the basis of their visual disability.

The great majority of those employed people with a visual impairment are hired as switchboard operators by the government and the private sector (35%). Only about 30 people with a visual impairment are graduates of higher education institutions and these are involved mainly in positions in government and the Education Service (Lawyers, Teachers, Administrative Officials, etc). About twenty individuals with visual problems are involved in the manufacture of chairs, stools, baskets and other handicrafts in the Organization's workshops.

II. Challenges in the Employment of people with a visual impairment

The major challenges regarding the employment of people with visual impairments in Cyprus can be clustered to five core areas and described as follows:

a. Limited job alternatives

A close look at the Cyprus job market shows that people with a visual impairment are usually employed in specific areas. Job searching is becoming more demanding due to factors such as increased unemployment, technological evolution and competition among applicants, products and prices.

Nowadays, people with a visual impairment that have the necessary academic abilities can study at university or college either in Cyprus or abroad in subjects such as Law, Education, Psychology, Social Science, Physiotherapy, Music and many others. Upon graduation, these degree holders will have to compete and struggle along with sighted graduates to obtain a job position. For those who will be employed in the public sector, a personal secretary/guide is provided to assist with the restrictions that the loss of vision entails. This is one of the main reasons why people with a visual impairment are not employed in the private sector. For those that will attempt to do so, they will either have to overcome many barriers on their own or put up with the financial burden of hiring a secretary for themselves.

For the rest of those for whom further education is not an option, the only available training programme, at present is offered at the School for the Blind, the only educational institution of its kind in Cyprus, and this trains people to become switchboard operators.

Workshops in handicraft and basketry which are registered as a non-profit company that meets all its financial obligations to the state can be considered as another option.

The Pancyprian Organization of the Blind has been running workshops in handicraft and basketry for about 25 years, and in these blind people are engaged in making wickerwork (chairs, stools, and different sorts of baskets and trays) and also repairing such items. In these workshops numerous of blind persons have been trained, and are still being trained, or employed on a permanent or temporary basis. These persons are either congenitally blind people or persons who have lost their sight at a later age.

Over the past two decades, the rapid growth in the population of people with additional disabilities has brought about a new challenge in the area of employment. The range, severity and combination of additional disabilities within this population group vary, thus creating a heterogeneous population. Such additional disabilities may include serious to profound learning disabilities, mental retardation, physical disabilities, problems in speech and communication, social and emotional disturbances and multi-sensory impairments, including deaf-blindness. We are at the beginning of a process of facing the vocational and rehabilitation needs of multiply disabled people, and none of the existing vocational options are appropriate.

This challenge is directly linked to the absence of an available and appropriate vocational and rehabilitation service.

B. Since 1969, the Service for the Care and Rehabilitation for the Disabled people has operated a centre for vocational and rehabilitation training which is mainly oriented towards the needs of people with physical disabilities. The Centre provides training and employment in specialisations such as leather goods / shoe-making/ the furniture industry / carpentry, broom-making, knitting and sewing/ embroidery. It is obvious that the Centre does not target, and cannot meet the needs of, people with a visual impairment.

The absence of a Center that will meet the needs of people with a visual impairment is a strongly limiting factor. A vocational and rehabilitation centre can provide vocational training in line with the developments of the labour market, taking into account the employment prospects of each individual person. In addition, such a Centre can provide services to the trainees, which aim to promote their skills, and abilities to become independent and face potential psychosocial problems.

The absence of any qualified personnel that will assist with the assessment of the abilities, needs and interests of people is also a primary requirement. People with a congenital or progressive visual impairment or those that have lost their sight at a later stage in training or employment process are in great need of professional counselling that will evaluate their current situation and offer solutions and suggestions for available programmes, adaptations and necessary equipment.

In an attempt to overcome the challenges associated with the lack of such services, the Pancyprian Organization of the Blind in close cooperation with the School for the Blind, offers programmes in the training in the use of personal computers, accessibility software, mobility and orientation and daily- living skills. These programmes are mainly directed towards adults that are visually impaired and either require retraining for a specific position or seek a new career. However, these programmes are not available throughout the year and there is often a waiting period due to shortage of staff.

C. Issues of accessibility are another major challenge. These issues can include access to the environment or the available printed information.

Cyprus' limited transportation network, which includes few bus routes, is inadequate in providing people with a visual impairment with the means to travel independently to their workplace. It is often the case that, people with a visual impairment depend on others for transportation to their workplace, or use private taxi services at high cost.

Physical / Infrastructural barriers in the environment, such as the absence of appropriate pavements, landmarks or even clustered public areas deprive people with visual impairments of the right to safe access as well as mobility and therefore cause dependency. Factors such as these prevent people from exercising their right to full participation in the workplace.

With regard to printed information Braille users are frequently unable to access printed material. Although a number of devices such as Braille embossers and reading machines are designed to assist with access to printed information, factors such as the high cost and absence of synthesized Greek synthetic speech, make it harder for employed people to function as independently as possible and fully fulfil their job requirements.

In an attempt to overcome this burden, the Pancyprian Organization of the Blind provides recording and transcription services. Moreover, it assists persons with a visual impairment to benefit from the scheme established in 1988 by the Service of Care and Rehabilitation of the Disabled, which provides financial assistance for the purchase of technical aids and equipment to facilitate their lives and employment. Despite all the above, there still remain numerous limitations involved in this issue.

D. One of the greatest challenges is the absence of any positive and proper legal support actions concerning the difficulties people with a visual impairment face regarding their vocational training and employment.

Besides Law no. 17 of 1988 which provides qualified, visually impaired telephonists employment priority anywhere within the public sector, no other provision in the constitution or in specific legislation imposes or permits any positive action in the employment of people with a visual impairment.

In 2002 the legislation that gave priority to people with disabilities in the employment in the Education Services on a quota system basis was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Cyprus, as this was deemed discriminatory against non-disabled people.

Although the Persons with Disabilities Law (no 127/2000), safeguards equal rights and opportunities in the employment of persons with disabilities, the provision of its positive measures has never come into effect. Likewise, attempts such as the 1999 legislation that proposed a quota system basis for the private sector and the directive that was to establish the right of people with disabilities to benefit from special measures in vocational rehabilitation and ensure their participation in the social and economic life were rejected.

On the eve of Cyprus' accession to the EU the landscape changed somewhat in an attempt to harmonise the existing legislation with the two anti-discrimination directives. A new body of Law was introduced consisting of four different Laws. Two are relevant to people with disabilities:

    - The Equal Treatment in Employment and Occupation Law of 2004; and
    - The Law (Amendment) Concerning Persons with Disabilities
The scope of the anti-discrimination Laws in Cyprus covers all sectors of public and private employment and occupation, including: - Contract work and temporary occupation
- Self-employment and
- Those holding statutory office, with the exception of military service.
    Discrimination on all the grounds listed in the Employment Equality Directive, including disability is forbidden in:
    - Employment;
    - Access to vocational training;
    - Working conditions including pay, membership of trade unions or other associations;
    - Social insurance and medical care;
    - Education and
    - Access to goods and services including housing.

Provisions for shifting the burden of proof to the employer once a prima facie case of discriminatory dismissal is established already exist in cases of alleged unfair dismissal and are now extended to cover the grounds of the Employment Equality Directive.

The Commissioner is empowered to impose small fines on perpetrators of discrimination. The courts have greater powers in imposing fines. The Commissioner's decisions may, however, be used for obtaining damages in a regional court or an employment tribunal. Employment tribunals are also entitled, in addition to awarding damages, to order the reinstatement of the victim to the job from which he/she was dismissed. Generally speaking, the fines that the Commissioner may impose are considered to be very low and offer little in the way of deterring potential perpetrators. Thus far, the laws have not been tested, nor have they been closely scrutinized as they were rushed through Parliament on the eve of accession.

E. A major barrier in the employment of people with a visual impairment is the need to cope with the stigma surrounding the disability. In their attempt to seek a job position or maintain an existing one, people with a visual impairment may come across unpleasant situations or experience prejudice mainly due to lack of information about their abilities.

The lack of awareness of policies and services among employers may be the reason why the majority of persons with a visual impairment are employed in the public sector. The Service for the Care and Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons in an attempt to reinforce the activities for the implementation of the principles and the policy of the Law providing for Persons with Disabilities, has prepared a draft of regulations which provide incentives to employers and to persons with disabilities to achieve improvement in their employability. In its annual report for the year 2004, the service that operates under the supervision of the Cyprus Ministry of Labour and Social Insurance announced the following four schemes:

(a) The Self-Employment Scheme
Under this Scheme persons with disabilities are entitled to a grant of up to approximately 3000 euro, and to an interest-free subsidy (400 euro for 5 years) to set up their own business.

(b) Scheme for the Vocational Training of persons with disabilities in courses of their own choice that are not offered by the Centre for the Vocational Rehabilitation of the Disabled
Under this Scheme persons with disabilities are entitled to the reimbursement of training costs (up to 2000 euro) incurred in courses of their own choice. The training courses should aim at improving employment prospects and may also take the form of apprenticeship.

(c) The Supported Employment Scheme
This Scheme basically aims at providing support to persons with mental or multiple disabilities to facilitate their placement and employment in the open labour market. The support is provided in the form of a job-coach.

(d) Scheme for the reimbursement of costs to employers for ergonomic and other arrangements for the employment of severely disabled persons
Under this scheme employers are entitled to reimbursement of costs (up to 1000 euro) involved in providing newly engaged disabled persons with facilities such as ramps, ergonomic alterations to machinery etc.

III. Overcoming the Challenges

I would like to end this presentation by listing a series of measures that I consider to be necessary in an attempt to minimize the challenges associated with the employment of people with visual impairments in Cyprus.

First of all, what I consider most essential is the creation of a Vocational and Rehabilitation Centre for people with a visual impairment. This centre should be staffed with qualified rehabilitation personnel and have as its main objective the vocational integration of this group of people. Every customer should have his/her own individual rehabilitation programme and training plan designed and compiled by the person himself/herself and a multidisciplinary team.

Previous education, work experience and personal wishes and needs should be taken into serious consideration. In order to fulfil the main goal, a person may have to work on other functional skills as well as, to become as independent as possible. Such functional skills necessary for training, work and social interaction may include: mobility, daily-life skills, Braille, social and communication skills, word processing, use of technical aids and visual training. Psychological support should also be available.

In the event that a programme is not available at the Rehabilitation and Vocational Centre, other training establishments or employers can provide such training in cooperation with the staff at the vocational centre.

Such a centre will accommodate the rehabilitation and vocational needs of people with a congenital or progressive visual impairment or those that have lost their sight at a later stage due to an accident or illness.

Early intervention is vital and can contribute to a successful future employment career. Early vocational planning can apply to students with a visual impairment. A transition plan that takes students' skills, abilities and interests into serious consideration will smooth the process of transition from school years to the work force.

There is also, however, an immediate need for research the current job market. New occupations, vocational training opportunities and educational orientations for people with visual impairments especially those that have additional disabilities, need to be identified. This is necessary in order to expand the horizons of social and professional inclusion.

These new jobs should, and can, be located within the private sector through the offering of incentives to companies to employ people with a visual impairment. As a starting point there should be a positive marketing effort to improve the attitudes of employers in an attempt to overcome prejudice. It is vital for employers and other specialists involved in the field of vocational training to realize that people with a visual impairment have the abilities to engage any task with competence in a manner similar to sighted peers. Only then will any action taken either by the Organization or the legal sector be successful.

Through a series of seminars or personal contacts, employers need to be informed of the various programmes made available by the Service for the Care and Rehabilitation of the Disabled for the employment of people with disabilities. A support network can then be established to link employers for an exchange of ideas and the offer of support and information on new programmes and innovations.

Therefore, there is a need for continuous upgrading of the existing programmes provided by the Service for the Care and Rehabilitation of the disabled. This may include an increase in the budgets or the addition of new programmes/opportunities to motivate employers in the private sector or encourage persons with a visual impairment to start their own business if they so wish.

    It is the responsibility of the State to ally itself with the Organisations for the Disabled to overcome challenges in the employment of people with disabilities. The State has to revise a complete and concrete social policy framework. New appropriate and supportive legislation needs to be voted in so as to promote opportunities for the employment of people with a visual impairment. Such legislation should include/ cover:
    The return of a quota system in the public, or even private sector, for people with disabilities.
    A non-discrimination act that will protect people with disabilities from losing their jobs and encourage promotion.
    Equal participation of people with a visual impairment themselves in all processes taken by decision-making bodies as well as political encouragement for developing initiatives.
    Measures to ensure that employers will accommodate the needs of people who have recently lost their vision by placing them in more appropriate positions and responsibilities.

Accessibility issues also need to be considered to ensure a barrier-free physical and social environment. This may include workstation modifications to address mobility issues, information and technology equipment and technical aids for employees with visual impairments. Building modifications are also necessary to address mobility limitations. A well-conducted ergonomic assessment of accessibility regulations should be available upon employing a person with a visual impairment. The findings of such an assessment can then be communicated to the appropriate service to ensure the provision of improved accessibility in buildings and facilities. Therefore, the establishment of practices and procedures that will ensure a barrier-free environment is crucial.

Finally, I should point out that area of responsibility that belongs to people with a visual impairment themselves and their Organizations in their effort to overcome challenges in their employment. Visually impaired persons themselves, have to build a positive self-image and self-esteem. They should regard employment as their opportunity to contribute actively to socially beneficial work while stimulating and engendering a sense of belonging and contribution to the community. This is how people with a visual impairment will reach their full potential in regard to employment and overcome the major challenges that the disability itself, the environment and society as a whole set.

Through the implementation of all necessary measures and programmes, our attention will be focused on the full employment, quality and productivity at work, and an inclusive labour market that offers equal rights and opportunities to people with a visual impairment irrespective of their disability. Only then can inclusion in the social and economic life of our country be achieved.