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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

When It Comes to Hiring, Blind Workers Face Bias
The Wall Street Journal

March 18, 2013, 10:27 AM
By Leslie Kwoh

When it comes to hiring blind employees, many employers remain skeptical.

Bosses often assume blind workers cost more and produce less, according to a new study. They also believe blind workers are more prone to workplace accidents and less reliable than other workers.

The study, scheduled to be released this week by the nonprofit National Industries for the Blind, polled 400 human-resources and hiring managers at a mix of large and small U.S.-based companies. The group commissioned the survey, in part, to shed light on why roughly 70% of the 3.5 million people working-age Americans are not employed. (Legally blind Americans are eligible for Social Security disability, according to NIB.)

NIB president and chief executive Kevin Lynch described the survey results as a “terrible surprise.” With the exception of certain jobs that require driving or steering, “there are very few jobs that a person who’s blind is not capable of doing,” he says.

The findings reveal a disconnect between what employers say and what they do. While the majority of executives claim they want to hire and train disabled workers, many view blind workers as an inconvenience.

Hiring managers tended to be slightly more negative than human-resources managers, but overall results were similar.

Among hiring managers, most respondents (54%) felt there were few jobs at their company that blind employees could perform, and 45% said accommodating such workers would require “considerable expense.”

Forty-two percent of hiring managers believe blind employees need someone to assist them on the job; 34% said blind workers are more likely to have work-related accidents.

One-quarter of respondents said blind employees are “more sensitive” than other employees; the same percentage said they were “more difficult to supervise.”

Twenty-three percent of hiring managers said blind employees are not as productive as their colleagues, and 19% believe these employees have a higher absentee rate.

Blindness is largely absent from corporate conversation about employees with disabilities with the exception of sporadic lawsuits: Last August, Hawaiian Electric Co. agreed to pay $50,000 to settle a discrimination suit by a partially blind employee, the AP reported.

And in December, Bloomberg reported that a blind ex-banker at the Royal Bank of Scotland Group lost a suit seeking disability benefits.

Rarer still is news about companies like apparel business SustainU, based in West Virginia, which hires blind and visually impaired employees to man its factory, according to the New York Times. The company said there was no difference in the cost and quality of its goods when compared to that of other U.S. manufacturers.

Companies may have to invest some money to provide “reasonable accommodations” for a blind employee, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, says NIB’s Lynch, many computers and smartphones already have built-in features that enable users to change font size and light intensity. Installing voice technology that allows computers to “read” text to a blind employee costs just $1,500 to $2,000, he says. The American Foundation for the Blind has estimated that 88% of employee accommodations cost less than $1,000.

As for health insurance, company rates are determined by the number of incidents among the entire group - not individual employees - no evidence suggests that blind employees incur more costs than other workers, Mr. Lynch says.

Blind employees may also be more loyal than most, he adds. A DePaul University study from 2007 found that employees with disabilities were likely to stay on the job four months longer, on average, than employees without disabilities.

The study also found that workers with disabilities took 1.24 fewer scheduled absences than non-disabled workers during a six-month period. But they took, on average, 1.13 more days of unscheduled absences.

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