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Working Blind

From The Octopus Online By Beth Finke
July 14-20, 2000

When Keith Wessel was four years old, he connected his Playskool typewriter to his magnetic letter board to fashion his own PC. Twenty years later, he and his guide dog, Apollo, travel every day to the Digital Computer Lab on the University of Illinois campus where Wessel works as a software support representative for the Computing Communication Services Office.

Wessel's career started in 1992, when he took a part-time job at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications. "I installed a freeware screen reading package onto the PC they assigned me," he recalls, adding that he brought his own speech synthesizer from home. "I made it as flexible for them as I could. Since I was only a junior in high school I knew they wouldn't want to invest a lot in me."

After seeing all Wessel was capable of, however, NCSA was more than willing to pay for all the higher quality adaptive equipment he needed. The National Science Foundation kicked in additional money, since the support systems Wessel worked on were being used for a variety of NSF-funded research projects. The costly braille display unit Wessel uses now is one he was allowed to take with him after leaving NCSA for his current position at CCSO.

"It was very, very generous of them," Wessel says. "I still run a couple systems for NCSA, but they didn't have to let me keep the equipment."

Mike Champion, a visually impaired vending machine operator, memorizes the rows of sodas, candy bars and sandwiches in his vending machines and uses the bit of vision left in one eye to confirm his memory when necessary.

"I bring them right up to my eyes" Champion explains. "When the colors are similar like with Milky Way and Snickers I have to look closely, or go by feel."

Champion's job is sponsored by Illinois' Blind Enterprises Program (BEP). BEP paid for his training and the software he uses to enlarge characters on his computer screen to twenty times their normal size. If Champion wants to equip a computer at home the same way, he'll have to pay for it himself.

"So far, at home I just use a handheld magnifying glass," he says.

Big Bucks

Adaptive equipment for blind workers can cost thousands, such as a closed-circuit TV that allows a visually impaired worker to read a timecard or mail, for $1,200 to $4,000, or a scanning system that helps people read books and other documents, for $400 to$1,500. Advanced sound cards come standard with most PCs these days, but the special screen navigation software a visually impaired person needs to be able to use it costs between $500 and $1000. Braille display units can cost over $10,000.

Adaptive technology can be used as a tax write-off for businesses, and low-cost loans are available as well. The Illinois Employees Credit Union, for example, has a special low-interest loan program to purchase adaptive equipment for blind workers. Up to now, however, Champaign-Urbana's private employers have chosen not to take advantage of these options. As a result, the employed blind and visually impaired people in Champaign-Urbana all work for government-supported agencies and programs where funding for adaptive technology is assumed. It's either that, or they work for themselves.

Even in today's much-discussed tight labor market, private businesses routinely deem the visually impaired as too problematic or expensive to hire.

"I've applied for all sorts of telemarketing jobs," says Donna DeVault, a blind 43-year-old single mother relying on disability checks to get by. "But they don't want to have to adapt their computers for me."

There are state services set to help blind people and their employers acquire adaptive equipment, but the program has a Catch-22. Regulations prevent the Bureau of Blind Services from funding adaptive equipment until after the blind person has been hired.

"The way it works," explains Verle Wessel, technology consultant for the bureau, "is that rehabilitation counselors evaluate work sites to see how adaptive technology might help, they send a report to me for review, we check it out to be sure that the request for adaptive technology is reasonable, then I put it out for bids."

Qualifications are strict and the required paperwork can take months to process. Without an up-front guarantee that the equipment will be approved, most small business employers find the prospect of hiring a visually impaired person too daunting.

The Second Mile

The blind people in town who manage to get hired often do so by starting out, like Wessel, using adaptive equipment they've bought themselves. Even if jobs don't require a lot of adaptations, blind job seekers often find it difficult to convince employers to give them a try.

Bryan MacMurray, blind since birth due to retinitis of prematurity, supervises the Sensory and Testing Accommodations department for the U of I's Division of Rehabilitation Services. He received a master's degree at the University of Texas in the 1980s to teach English as a second language. He wasn't able to convince employers there to hire him, however, until he offered to volunteer first.

As a volunteer teacher, there were no textbooks available to him in braille. MacMurray and his wife brailled exercises ahead of time to prepare for class, but if his boss assigned something new at the last minute, there could be trouble.

"A lot of times my wife would be driving me to work, reading the exercise out loud and I'd be brailling it in the car," recalls MacMurray, who was eventually hired as a full-time teacher.

In his current job he often suggests students use volunteering as an option to finding full-time work.

"A person with a visual impairment or a physical disability may have to volunteer to convince employers they're capable," says MacMurray. "You know, go the second mile to get in."

Sue 'Em ?

Under Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines, blind people who are refused employment or not provided reasonable accommodation at their jobs can sue, but most don't. Court cases are lengthy and expensive. With the burden of proof placed on the blind person, most think it's too much trouble.

And then there's the worry of being blackballed by filing a complaint. Attorney Karla Westjohn, 37, has countless stories of being discriminated against by employers due to her blindness. During a job interview with a senior law firm in Champaign, for example, she was complimented for how attractively she was dressed and asked how she manages to put her clothes on in the morning. There were questions about braille and about Westjohn's Seeing Eye dog, Jodie, with particular interest in the dog's bladder and bowel control.

"There were so many questions about my blindness that we never talked about legal philosophy or anything like that," she says.

Westjohn did not get the job. She didn't complain to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission or the American Bar Association, either. "I was the young attorney, I'd just moved here, this was one of the oldest firms in Champaign," she explains. "If you report them, you're sunk."

Self Employed

Blind and visually handicapped people routinely face the perception that they can't do certain jobs or are safety risks. After running into too many walls in terms of finding training or work, determined blind job seekers are left to start businesses of their own somehow. Karla Westjohn now has a private solo practice she runs from her home in Champaign.

"Good thing I know braille shorthand," she laughs. "I'm the secretary, the receptionist, the whole show."

Westjohn uses a hand held electronic braille notetaker anytime she's away from her desk. Her computer at home has synthesized speech so she can hear what she reads or writes on it, and an optical character reader scans and reads printed material aloud. Westjohn hires readers when documents are handwritten or too voluminous to scan, and hires drivers to take her places she can't get to by cab, train or bus. The costs for all of these come out of her pocket.

"When you're a small business woman and you're blind, you're paying bills, lots of bills," she says.

Lee Petrie-Springer applied for funding to attend massage therapy school once her retinopathy of prematurity progressed enough to make her library job too difficult.

"We have three kids, and my husband was making $25,000 a year," she reports. "So DORS (Office of Rehabilitation Services) said that was too much."

Petrie-Springer finally received funding from rehab services after her husband left his job. From then on, all costs of Petrie-Springer's schooling were covered. And since her graduation, rehab services have provided a special massage chair and copy machine for National Fish, the one-woman massage therapy business Petrie-Springer now runs on her own.

Jazz pianist Donnie Heitler plays everything by ear and says he's never been denied work because of his visual impairment.

"But then," he adds, "I've never sought work of any kind that required any more vision than I have. I mean, that's foolish to even try to do that."

Heitler is an avid braille reader and brailles three by five cards with dates and other information to keep track of upcoming gigs.

"Braille is my pen and paper," he says.

Heitler has been told he's eligible for a talking computer from Bureau of Blind Services. Without the promise of anyone there training him to use it, however, he hasn't bothered to pick it up yet.

"I'm going to try to get some grant money and hire someone myself," Heitler says. "I've heard there's a way you can use a computer to produce music, there's also a way you can proofread music from a printed score, you can read what's on the page without being able to see it. I'd love to do music on a computer."


When it comes to blind people finding jobs, it's not just about equipment. It's about attitudes, too. The technology such as scanners and computers with braille and voice systems is out there, but the problem seems to be getting it into the hands of blind or visually handicapped workers and training them to use it.

"It's not that we're all 'unrehabable,'" says U of I's Bryan MacMurray. "It's because we don't get chances."

Organizations estimate 74% of the nation's blind are unemployed.

Those numbers should change, according to Tony Cobb, director of Job Opportunities for the Blind, a national organization committed to training blind people and then placing them in jobs. With the help of JOB, some large companies, such as IBM, Marriott and United Parcel Service, are making investments in blind workers. It is Cobb's hope that, even though none of these companies are headquartered locally, the mere fact that more blind people will be seen out working might trickle down to help the blind in smaller communities like Champaign-Urbana. As perceptions of visually impaired people improve, opportunities will, too, Cobb says.

"Nothing succeeds like success. If a blind person is successful, then the employer is going to call back and say, 'Do you have anybody else?' That's a question I look forward to hearing."

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Date last modified 7/23/2000