Real Jobs for Real People


Penny Melville-Brown
Director
Disability Dynamics Ltd


Paper for the Conference "The Challenge of the Labour Market - Plan Early, Act Right, Achieve High" held in Cyprus on 10 & 11 November 2006

1. Introduction.
1.1 Many of us work in organisations that are dedicated to helping visually impaired people in to work. Those organisations can be in the public, private or voluntary sectors. Typically, the type of support provided includes: rehabilitation;
vocational training;
improving self-confidence;
work experience;
finding a job;
completing application forms;
interview techniques;
support in the work place.

However, all these activities may have little success if we cannot change the attitudes of employers. We need to remove the myths and assumptions that influence decisions about who they will employ. Often those employers are fearful about taking on visually impaired people: they may consider that we will create risk in the workplace, will be less productive and that we will need expensive adjustments or equipment. Sometimes they may fear that employing a person with an impairment may increase their risk of non-compliance with the law. So the easy route is simply to avoid employing visually impaired people, and, often, any disabled people at all. So if we are to be successful in our mission of helping visually impaired people in to work, we also need to address employer attitudes. At the same time, it may also be necessary to influence the thinking of Government and policy makers. They, too, may be using out-dated policies that in turn influence employers and the funding for the sort of organisations that we represent. For example, in some European countries, Government strategy and social security benefits are still predicated on the basis that people who are blind are incapable of work. We know that this is not true and we need to demonstrate such. The following covers some ways in which we might tackle both employer and Government assumptions. The key is to give employers and policy makers much more direct understanding, knowledge and experience of visually impaired people in the work place - and using real people turns theory in to practice.

2. Using Legislation
Firstly, there have been some legal developments in the UK. This does not mean that we are leading the way but these changes do hold some suggestions for other countries.

2.1 Purpose. The Disability Discrimination Act 2005 becomes effective in December this year. The key outcome of this law is to require public bodies to both consider and involve disabled people when they assess their existing policies and develop new ones. This applies both to the disabled people who use the services provided by the public body and the employees of that body.

2.2 Activity. Most bodies need to write a Disability Equality Scheme by December that shows how they have involved disabled people and what actions/changes they will take over the next three years. They will have to monitor and report on progress, again with the involvement of disabled people.

2.3 Relevance to the employment of visually impaired people. The public bodies covered by the legislation are a very large group including: schools, colleges, universities, health services and hospitals, police and fire services, local city and other councils and extend right up to the Government Departments and their Agencies. Within the UK, these bodies are major employers so if their practices improve, they can have a major effect on the opportunities for all disabled people. For example, the UK National Health Service is considered to be the third largest employer in the world. But, the legislation goes further. It requires all these public bodies to ensure that all their sub-contractors have good equality and diversity policies - and evidence to demonstrate such. As public bodies spend millions of pounds each year procuring services, this part of the law can reach deep in to the private sector. Services purchased can range from security, catering, estate management, printing, IT support and much more - so the whole breadth of employment can be covered. And the law goes even further. It recognises that the barriers faced by disabled employees of these public bodies can vary significantly according to different needs/impairment types. So those bodies are encouraged to start developing means of gathering and analysing information according to the impairment type of their employees - visual impairment thus features.

2.4 Outcomes. This law is accepted as being likely only to create change in the long term. Many public bodies have struggled to comply in creating their Disability Equality Schemes by December, in involving disabled people and in identifying the action they will take. There will be a mechanism for monitoring their compliance and they will have to provide annual reports of progress each year. However, it is possible that by the end of this three year cycle of activity, disability and visual impairment issues will be better embedded and considered in policy making in the public sector with consequent effect on their employees and those of their sub-contractors. In 2009, a further cycle will commence with the possibility of more deep rooted and far reaching change. We have a beginning that is on the right road but need to keep scrutiny ongoing. The requirement for the continuing involvement of disabled people and the need to involve people from all impairment groups has further promise in the future.

3. Training Employers
Turning to some more practical activities working directly with employers:

3.1 Purpose. The Diversity Works Partnership has been funded by the European Social Fund for the last three years to promote diversity in the work place to small and medium sized businesses in one of the EU Regions (South East England). While general diversity was central, the main focus was on disability and ethnic minority issues.

3.2 Activity. The project sought to help employers understand that disabled people could contribute directly to their productivity and increased market share. A comprehensive business case was developed to show how disabled people could fill skills gaps, could bring wider skills and experience to the workplace, were less likely to take sickness absence and less likely to have accidents in the work place. In addition, guidance and information was provided on the relevant legislation, on recruitment and retention. All this material was provided to employers through training - often at the workplace for short one hour sessions that thus took account of the operational priorities of small businesses. The information was also offered in simple, straightforward information handbooks and on a website (www.diversitymeansbusiness.org.uk) . Throughout, the project kept the needs and priorities of the businesses at the forefront of activity: guidance was practical, concise, relevant, provided some law but not too much, offered examples of case studies and best practice. Take up by small and medium sized businesses was a challenge as diversity is just not on their priority list. However, the project learned that external pressures on these businesses can be effective levers. For example, employers in the care sector are now required to train all their new staff on diversity issues so they were looking for some free compliant training and the project filled that need. The impact of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 (discussed above) on supply chains and procurement by the public sector has the potential to be another powerful lever if enforcement and monitoring are robust. Many of these businesses are keen to gain public sector contracts so may be more willing to engage with the diversity agenda.

3.3 Relevance to the employment of visually impaired people. While this project dealt with all forms of disability, there is no doubt that impairments which are the most apparent to employers gain the most attention. Visual impairment fits directly in to this category. Our training and material offered a range of help about employing visually impaired people. In addition, as the project was led by a visually impaired person who was responsible for editing the information handbooks, designing and delivering much of the training, both employers and policy makers were able to see a real person doing a real job for themselves.

3.4 Outcomes. The project exceeded its targets for training by some 50%. So there are hundreds of better informed employers. But the project has also achieved Region wide publicity and promotional activities - employment for disabled people is becoming better understood.

4. Giving Employers Experience.
Another project under current development is the creation of a disability day for employers.

4.1 Purpose. As discussed previously, many employers can be fearful about taking on disabled people including visually impaired people. In addition to the fears discussed above, people involved in recruitment and management can be afraid of using inappropriate language or behaviour and of not knowing what questions they should ask a disabled recruit and more. Often these management and personnel staff may have had very little exposure to real disabled people in the work place. The aim of this project is therefore to bring employer representatives and disabled people, including visually impaired people, together for a series of discussions and exercises related to work.

4.2 Activity. The project will offer a one-day programme for employers. They will start with a session where they practice supporting disabled people: guiding someone with a visual impairment, appreciating the consequences of different forms of visual impairment, learning about disability etiquette and accessible communications. Having undertaken this learning in private, they will be introduced to a group of disabled people who are seeking work. They will all take part in short interview activities - with both the employers and disabled participants taking the roles of interviewer and interviewee. A secondary aim of the day is to enable disabled people to develop their interview and job-readiness skills. Over lunch, more structured discussions will take place between participants with the goal of helping employers better appreciate that disabled people have the same values, problems and priorities as non-disabled people. The high spot of the day is to set tasks for mixed teams of employers and disabled participants: bricklaying, painting and decorating, carpentry and Information Technology activities. Here the aim is less on the outcome of the task and more on employers working with disabled people as part of a team, recognising that a mix of skills can be successful and that impairment is not a bar to participation or effectiveness.

4.3 Relevance to the employment of visually impaired people. Again, employers most readily recognise visual impairment as a disability and thus it can feature high on their area of interest and concern. They will therefore take part in exercises on supporting visually impaired people, be provided with a communications handbook that pays particular regard to accessible information for blind and partially sighted people and they will gain better understanding of the different consequences of such impairments. During the IT tasks they will see adaptive technology in action. Visually impaired people will be included amongst the disabled delegates for the day and it will be facilitated by a blind person.

4.4 Outcomes. This disability day builds on a similar multi-cultural day that has been very successful: employers can wait several months for places to be available because demand is so high. They travel from all over the UK - and they pay so that the events are commercially viable!

5. Using Employer Experience.
A further project being developed is to use community radio, television and local newspapers to show how real disabled people get work and succeed.

5.1 Purpose. With this project, the emphasis is more on the disabled participants who will be interviewed, will make their own feature radio programmes and will report on their experience of moving in to employment. However, a major element of the two year series of weekly programmes will be to capture the experiences of employers - their fears and assumptions, their best practices and their comments on employing disabled people.

5.2 Activity. Although this work is only in development stage, there is already considerable interest from a range of public and private sector organisations. Radio has not been a fully exploited medium but it can be a powerful and direct means of influencing many people. By hearing the voice of real people, it is hoped that both disabled people and employers will better identify with them and learn from the material. The programmes will be supported with information websites, phone-ins, material provided on CD and in other formats. Community radio stations have only limited geographical coverage. But, programme material can be shared between several stations so that the broadcast listenership can be potentially nationwide.

5.3 Relevance to the employment of visually impaired people. The progress of visually impaired people in to work will be one of the feature areas alongside the experiences of their employers. Using accessible websites and other information formats will also help a range of bodies and employers better understand how they too can meet the needs of this group of disabled people. Most importantly, radio can be the best way of providing information to visually impaired people who often do not use printed material.

5.4 Outcomes. If the project is successful, it will provide several hundred programmes, provide speech and other information on websites and include disabled people and employers in both the content and production of programmes.

6. Real Examples of Real People doing Real Jobs. Finally, how can you directly contribute to changing the attitudes of employers and policy makers across Europe?

6.1 Purpose. The European Blind Union is developing part of its website to show examples of the types of jobs undertaken by visually impaired people across Europe. The aim is to show real people who are doing real jobs within a range of cultures, different economies and within various legal frameworks. Strong examples of work across the huge range of employment opportunities will show that we have the skills, aspirations and motivation to do almost anything. Our visual impairment does not constrain us when the right opportunities and support are available.

6.2 Activity. To date, we already have a number of examples posted on the website (www.euroblind.org/jobwebsite/siteintro.htm). But we still want more. Each entry follows a very simple template and only requires some basic information about the work, how the person obtained it and any adjustments or equipment they need. The template is not difficult to complete and there is help available to ensure that the English translations are correct. But the website goes further. We appreciate that many countries will already have or be developing their own sites with information about jobs in their own countries, about sources of support and other information. The EBU website will provide links to all of these - you just need to give us the information. In this way, we can promote the employment of visually impaired people in both the language of the EBU site (English) and in national languages to reach the widest audience.

6.3 Relevance to the employment of visually impaired people. This initiative is especially designed by visually impaired people for other visually impaired people. By showing our colleagues elsewhere the range of jobs that are possible, we hope that their aspirations and motivation will be supported. But we also want employers and policy makers to see what is possible and achievable for visually impaired people. We are not showing them theory but real people who are doing real jobs - jobs that are possible in any country if there is enough support and determination.

6.4 Outcomes. This site has the potential to make considerable impact across Europe as both employers and policy makers are able to see the huge range of work that visually impaired people can do. By telling them about the adjustments or equipment we use, employers can better understand that, in fact, employing us is not difficult, not expensive and not risky. Wherever possible, we are trying to include quotes from the employer in relation to each job. This way other employers across Europe can hear directly from their counterparts. And the contributions are not limited to organisations of visually impaired people in Europe. Already a contribution has been offered from Canada and I suspect that there are others possible from farther field. Organisations are also not the only source - we are very happy to hear from visually impaired people themselves and, especially, from their employers. It is hoped that employers might consider that an input on the website would support their Corporate Social Responsibility agendas, enhance their international reputations and demonstrate that they are employers of choice.

7. Conclusions.
7.1 In conclusion, there are a number of ways that we can change the attitudes and behaviour of employers:
Use of legislation and public policy;
Provision of training and direct interaction with visually impaired people;
Practical information and guidance through a range of different media;
Real examples of visually impaired people at work.
There will be many other types of activities that you are using in your own countries. The EBU Social Policy Commission Rehabilitation, Vocational Training and Employment Working Group is keen to hear from you about other ideas, whether they work or not and why. By pooling our experience, we can develop a wide range of activities that are effective. A fundamental part of this paper is that a single strategy is unlikely to make the changes needed - instead, we have to deploy a portfolio of activities which collectively can be more powerful. We know that visually impaired people can do real work. Our organisations have been working in this field for many years - we know most of the problems and many of the answers. Now we just need employers to hear that message and respond positively.


8. Take Action.
8.1 Please consider whether any of the above suggestions have relevance in your own country. If you want to know more, please contact Penny Melville-Brown through the EBU website.

8.2 Most importantly, please have a look at the site and make your own inputs on work done by visually impaired people in your country. Not only will it mean that your organisation and country will feature on this international website, your contribution will reach across Europe. If you have other websites about employment, please send those links to us for inclusion too.