Disability and Elderly Issues



The problem

Why are job opportunities for individuals who are blind or visually impaired so bleak? Consider the figures on employment, college education, and poverty.

Fewer than half of individuals who are blind and visually impaired have jobs (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005 Disability characteristics). [For simplicity, unless distinctions become necessary; henceforth, the word blind will be used to include all individuals who are visually impaired).]

For individuals who are blind:

  • (a) the official employment rate is 47.2 percent (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005 Disability characteristics). This figure applies to the 16-to-64 age group—a standardized designation the U.S. Department of Census uses to define men and women likely to seek employment; (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005 Disability characteristics);
  • (b) 72.4% have no bachelor’s degree and are not enrolled in college (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005 Disability characteristics); and
  • (c) the poverty rate is 18.7 % (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005 Disability characteristics).

This paper discusses the problem of why individuals who are blind have such poor employment, educational, and poverty rates. This paper also clarifies the need for scholarly research to help fix the problem.

This problem is important because

  • (a) there are 3.4 million Americans who are blind (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000 Disability population) and as the general population ages the demand for services, including vocational services to help clients lead an independent life is increasing,
  • (b) there are about 100,000 school age children who are blind (Castellano, 2005) and [thanks to a statistical system that makes it difficult to obtain reliable specific data on the blind]  2.2 million undergraduates who have the entire range of disabilities (U.S. Department of Education, 2004). If current history relies upon the recent past as a predictor, blind students may not obtain the educational opportunities they require for rewarding careers,
  • (c) there are 1,700 returning Iraqi War veterans with brain injuries that include blindness, whose rehabilitation is only beginning (“Struggling back from war’s once-deadly wounds,” 2006), and (d) the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Science Foundation predict that the U.S. economy will suffer in future years from a shortage of skilled employees working in jobs where eyesight is generally not required (STEM occupations, 2007).

Because students who are blind face a multiplicity of issues, a successful outcome depends upon focusing on how to achieve measurable improvement. A concentration on primarily vocational issues, none-the-less, requires an understanding of the requirements for supporting, educating, and training individuals who are blind. At issue is preparation for long-term, secure careers requiring an education with a bachelor’s degree as a minimal requirement. A major goal is to enhance the self-esteem of individuals who pursue these careers.

Success, which will not come quickly, involves concentrating on a younger and less-numerous portion of the population who are blind. These are individuals who have years to devote to careers that require several years of obtaining prerequisites prior to their college training.

Individuals who are newly-blind and represent an aging workforce have talent, education, and experience and could benefit from a return to employment. They require new skills to solve problems caused by their loss of sight. It is hoped that as a consequence of a youth-based focus, older individuals who are blind will benefit from the consequences of a step-by-step analysis of the career preparation process. They would also benefit from likely advances in assistive technology and a more clearly-defined set of services as providers work to specialize on meeting special needs.

A primary focus on the vocational requirements of the young is the research strategy of this paper because a large portion of the literature is geared toward the young, because it is easier to martial the available literature to discuss their problems and the background behind those problems, to examine likely solutions, and to identify steps the scholarly community can take the provide the empirical research likely to produce success.

Currently, limitations of peer review publication highlight the need for more academic attention on subjects related to students who are blind including solid clinical accounts of empirical studies in a field of disability research.

Fortunately, the knowledge base concerning individuals with blindness is excellent. This is especially the case in the category of professionally-based literature on specific subjects, such as orientation and how to read Braille, and including a wide range of broader issues.  Counselors would feel more comfortable if prestigious science and education journals paid more attention to the problems of individuals who have disabilities.

This professional knowledge base demonstrates a fundamental understanding of the special requirements of people who are blind based on an extensive, frequently excellent, multi-genre knowledge base—but a supplementary knowledge base that does not benefit from the rigor of empirical research. This supplementary knowledge base consists of such categories as

  • (a) orientation and method (O & M);
  • (b) issues of self-image and how they apply to clients, counselors, and family, friends, and educators providing support;
  • (c) multiplicity of providers, including the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services (whose name may change from state-to-state), visual-impairment, special education, and guidance counselors in the school systems, the Veterans Administration and private agencies providing services which can be overlapping;
  • (d) use of role models to assist in encouragement of new careers;
  • (e) assistive technology, which can provide help, for example, for students who are blind to perform chemical experiments;
  • (f) the problem of declining Braille literacy rates, especially considering that 85% of individuals who are employed are blind are Braille literate (Castellano, 2005);
  • (g) limitations on the quality of data and statistical information on people who are blind to improve the quality of policy decisions and resource allocations (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000 subject definitions);
  • (h) a changing definition of disability which focuses on achievement rather than impairment (Mitre, 2006); and
  • (i) discussion of the demographics of people who are blind. [Separate study would be useful for older individuals who form a growing percentage of the visual impairment population. Of the 3.4 million Americans who are visually impaired, 1.3 million are over the age of 65. These individuals would benefit from employment or other assistance in helping them make use of their talents.]

Suggesting steps for solving the problem

A major problem of low employment, low educational attainment, and poverty is solved when individuals who are blind are educated, trained, and receive assistance in securing well-paying jobs. A Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report on the “fastest growing occupations,” between 2004-2014, showed 30 jobs, growing by at least 30 percent (BLS, 2005).

The overwhelming majority of the jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree. Many of the jobs are science-related, such as network system and data communications analysts, which are projected to grow by 55 %.

According to a National Science Foundation report entitled, An Emerging and Critical Problem of the Science and Engineering Labor Force (2004), jobs in science and engineering are growing by almost 5 % a year compared to 1 % for the labor force at large. The report noted, “Quality education in math and science is everyone’s challenge and responsibility. The nation’s economic welfare and security are at stake.”

The National Science Teacher’s Association and the American Chemical Society jointly chair The Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education Coalition to advocate on behalf of STEM-related issues (STEM, 2007).

A recent search of job opportunities at Yahoo’s (2007) found the following available jobs at disclosed salaries for each of the STEM categories:

  1. Science: Research scientist, pay $75,000 to $100,000, Azusa, CA, Master’s degree and experience required. Job description for the CyberCoders Company reads, “We are looking for a Research Scientist in the Life Sciences and Cell Therapy divisions who has experience working with plastics, polymer, film….” (Yahoo 2007)
  2. Technology: Java developer, pay $59,000 to $76,000, Philadelphia, PA, Bachelor’s degree and a variety of software including JAVA2007 required. The recruiting company e-brilliance notes, “Developers needed to work for software company which creates system for the insurance and financial services industry.” [Note: For an individual who is blind, the software sets (which require work on web pages) may or may not work, depending on cooperation of colleagues and whether assistive technology can be in place to make this particular job work. The requirement for software engineers, using Oracle, for example, and the state of the market might dictate another software developer choice. Vocational counselors can be especially helpful here.] (Yahoo 2007)
  3. Engineering: Applications Engineer I, pay $43,000 to $55,000, Chrystal Lake, IL, Bachelor of Science degree required and experience. Epson Electronics America notes that the applicant “Provides technical interface for LCD’s [liquid crystal displays] and associated products with field sales and customer to evaluate generate sales leads and design-in EEA [company abbreviation] products for design.” (Yahoo 2007)
  4. Math: Math Teacher, pay $43,500 to $68,887, Dallas, TX, Bachelor of Science degree required, bonus provided because of math teacher shortage, certification results in higher salary. (Yahoo 2007)

The point of the above exercise is that individuals who are blind currently earn a Social Security Insurance (SSI) minimum of $623 per month ($934 for a couple), plus, as a Social Security web site notes, recipients “may be able to get Medicaid, food stamps, and some other social services.” (Social Security, 2007)

The jobs cited here and jobs like them could lift individuals who are blind out of poverty and dramatically change the quality of their lives forever. There are no guarantees that hard work, a college education, experience in the field, knowledge of software, and advanced degrees are likely to result in secure jobs. Nor is there a guarantee that STEM careers will continue to live up to their promise.

Arnette (2006) reported that the private sector unemployment rate for American Chemical Association members was 3.9 % and the Rand Corporation issued an equivocal report raising questions about whether future demand for scientists and engineers will continue to grow.

The U.S. scientific and technical workforce improving data for decisionmaking, 2004). Individuals who are sighted prepare for the vicissitudes of the marketplace and understand that if they have the skills to follow a career, the opportunity may exist for them to grow and prosper. Individuals who are blind should have the same chance to prepare and to develop their talent in an environment that evaluates talent equally with the talent of sighted individuals.

Credible organizations such as the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics believe in the promise of STEM careers. Other career paths may have less clear and remunerative outcomes. For the individual who is blind, STEM careers offer a reasonable route to choose for escaping a life of low employment, low educational attainment, and poverty.

The body of this work suggests empirical studies the scholarly community conduct to analyze the issues involved in STEM careers so students who are blind can benefit from quality research rigorously conducted.


— Just call me Joel.

Copyright 2016 by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.

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