This post is a follow-up from my last post, which introduced Work For You, a small company in Malmö that helps visually impaired people find employment in the city. People come to Work For You and explain their background, what skills they have, and what sort of job they might be interested in doing. Before Work For You matches these participants with employers, they do a practique program with the participants. This is essentially a training stage in which Work For You readies the participant for the job they intend to do, teaching them how to use the software and equipment that they will need at that job.
While a participant undergoes this practique, Jens and Reine need to figure out the best way to “make this work accessible for this person. So we have to go out to the place where they should work and talk to the boss and the colleagues, and we have a look at the location and so on, and find out what is the best way to make this as good as possible.” This company survey process is one of Reine’s favorite challenges of his job, and Work For You now has solid relationships with several companies.
Before visiting companies, Jens and Reine call them to introduce their program for the visually impaired. If the companies have a negative attitude over the phone, Work For You doesn’t pursue a relationship with them. Many companies, however, are not entirely negative but have their doubts. They say, “How can a blind person work? It’s not possible. We don’t have any blind people here.” Then Work For You tells them about the technology they have and all the visually impaired people that have been successful in various jobs. They will often visit a company in person, bringing along a visually impaired participant who demonstrates the skills they developed during the practique stage.
While some participants show up to Work For You knowing for whom they would like to work, it is most common that they don’t know what they want to do. Work For You tackles this problem as well by finding out what their participants’ capabilities are. They also do some research when they first meet a participant, learning what they have done before in life, what skills they have, and what type of education they had.
Jens and Reine both believe that education is a huge factor in the success and morale of a visually impaired person. One of their biggest challenges is working with visually impaired people who didn’t get the proper education or treatment when they were young. “If they got the right help in school,” said Jens, “they will be motivated for the rest of their lives.” Otherwise, they struggle with moving forward and getting jobs. Jens thinks that the visually impaired need to educate themselves more because many did not get the full extent of the help they needed in school.
Reine also finds a big difference between people who are born with their visual impairment, like he was, and those that develop it later in life. As he said about himself, people who have always had a lack of sight “know that it’s no big deal. They know you can live with it and sometimes use it to your favor. But if you have been sighted and get a visual impairment it’s often a big trauma. You have to go a little bit slower and you have to build up the motivation and come to that point when they experience ‘oh okay, my life has not ended. I have to live my life in another way, but it works well.’ So this takes time.” At Work For You, this difference impacts the duration of each participant’s practique stage. Participants who are just figuring out how to navigate their visual impairments might work with the job consultants for much longer than others.
Reine told a story that he uses to look at blindness in a more positive and creative light. One of his previous employers was a company working on stabilizing the steering system of an aircraft. This company employed a blind man to encrypt the steering system. They specifically chose a blind person because he would not be using a computer screen at his workstation. Instead, he used a Braille display to do all of his work, and none of his nearby coworkers understood what he was doing. Reine said that the company was thrilled with this because the encryption work was sensitive information, and it would have been problematic if anyone nearby could have seen the employee’s screen and understood what he was doing. “So you have to find out…how you can use your disability as a positive thing,” said Reine. “Not just sit down and say ‘oh no, [I] can’t do anything,’ but you have to say: ‘what do I do better because of my blindness?’”
Reine and Jens told me that about 60% of visually impaired people of working age in Sweden are employed. While they have seen mostly positive attitudes from companies and have had small successes, they are still working on employing the remaining 40%. Reine believes that awareness of the capabilities of visually impaired people will close the gap. He said that today, we have a lot of technology for visually impaired people, and we have the right technology. But not everyone knows that it’s available or how to use it, and not everyone realizes that visually impaired people can still work. “The biggest challenge is no longer to make technology,” he said. “We have come very far in that way. The biggest issue now is making companies and employers understand and be more interested in employing people.”