While the journey for each blind or visually impaired (BVI) individual is unique, they can share many similar experiences regarding professional life.
These encompass important modifications aligned with the principles of greater accessibility, inclusion, and belonging.
Obstacles Blind or Visually Impaired Professionals Face
One of the biggest challenges BVI professionals encounter relates to stigmas and stereotypes. In their continual pursuit for greater accessibility, they routinely push up against the notion that people with disabilities are incapable of being gainfully employed or doing the work that is asked of them.
“I think it is the perception that people with disabilities are not as productive,” explains Crystal Preston-Watson, a Senior Digital Accessibility Analyst at Salesforce. “That is a huge amount of it. And it just really is not the case.”
Preston-Watson had ocular toxoplasmosis when she was born, an infection that permanently scarred the macula in her right eye, and has keratoconus, which has caused impairment in both of her eyes. She believes the stigma that people with disabilities are less productive largely persists because many people don’t have close friends or acquaintances living with disabilities.
“I think it's that kind of stereotype,” says Preston-Watson. “It shows that in their personal life they probably don’t have an outward relationship with people with disabilities. That's really the key perception when it comes to employment.”
Furthermore, BVI professionals often have to work even harder to convince potential employers they’re capable of completing their tasks.
“It's like, ‘Oh, someone's who is blind, well, they're not going to be able to do anything, there's no way,’” she continues. “There's the perception that if you're blind, you can't be a developer. I know quite a few blind developers who are better than I could ever be.”
Discrimination against BVI professionals shows up elsewhere in the hiring process, as well.
“I've never put on my job application that I have a disability, because I think that's just gonna mark against me,” shares Preston-Watson. “If you put that, it’s just as good as putting it in the trash.”
As a result, many people with disabilities are discouraged from applying for jobs. For those who do get hired, it can be difficult to acquire the accommodations needed to bridge the so-called “digital divide” and do their job well.
“Just give me a screen reader or give me speech-to-text software, and I'll do the same work. It's really not a big ask,” she says, noting the discrepancy between how accommodations are often handled differently between disabled and non-disabled professionals.
“It's the same as someone asking for a second or third monitor,” continues Preston-Watson. “I'm asking for a screen reader. You're asking for these accommodations. I'm just asking for the tools to do my job. People in different roles need different tools to do their jobs. And that's the same thing for disabled workers.”
While employers might try to explain away their lack of accessibility or inclusivity as due to added cost (despite its clear business advantages), she believes it comes back to a single core assumption:
“People think, ‘Oh, well, we don't have the setup for you.’ Or, it's like, ‘That's going to cost too much money.’ All these are really excuses when it's just not the case. It's that perception, and it's not true. It all leads back to one thing: thinking that people with disabilities are not as productive as someone without a disability.”
Working for a Company That Embraces Accessibility & Inclusion
Having worked in journalism, user testing, and quality assurance for various organizations prior to joining Salesforce, Preston-Watson has experienced first hand the world of difference it can make being part of a company culture that prioritizes accessibility and inclusion.
“When it comes to accessibility, this is the first place I've really felt open about my disability,” she shares. “I started wearing an eyepatch instead of glasses. I wouldn't have done this before, because a lot of people may feel like it calls attention. But one of the things is that I felt comfortable enough. This actually helps me with focusing when I'm not using a screen reader or when I'm doing visual stuff.”
A major part of the company culture grows from the Office of Accessibility at Salesforce.
“Everyone in the Office of Accessibility really cares about this stuff,” continues Preston-Watson. “They want to make products for all of our customers. There really is that focus and drive to make sure everyone can bring their full self to their job, and be able to do their job without any sort of hindrance or wondering why they can't access this or that.”
It’s not uncommon for companies to state a commitment to accessibility and inclusion out of compliance, but she believes it’s easy for people with disabilities to quickly discern whether an organization actually practices what it preaches:
“The team that I was brought in on did really well with communication, a lot of people were sharing things about themselves, and really bringing themselves to work. And when you have people who are being genuine about who they are and have teams who are not just saying, ‘Oh, we're all open and honest here.’ They really backed it up with actions. It allows you to get more comfortable.”
Preston-Watson recalls the first time she wore her eye patch to work as just one example.
“We acknowledged it and nobody brought it up again,” she says. “It's not about bringing attention. It's like, ‘Hey, I'm wearing this now.’ They were like, ‘Oh, cool, that's awesome.’ And then you go about doing your job.”
Requesting Accommodations & Providing Remote Work Options
When asked what she believes companies can do to foster more accessible and inclusive workplaces, Preston-Watson recommended a few actions organizations can take regarding hiring practices and accommodations.
For example, to encourage more BIV applicants, companies can include prompts on applications for any accommodations potential employees might need. This demonstrates that an employer is aware people require different setups to do their jobs well.
“It’s about asking for accommodations in the interview process knowing it’s not going to get them marked down on their application,” she explains, “and letting people know that if they do apply and get a job, that they don’t need to cover up their disability.”
Once hired, providing remote work options might be the most consistently beneficial and concrete thing an employer can do to accommodate BVI professionals—and something people with disabilities have been advocating for years. The coronavirus pandemic has helped many companies realize employees can be just as effective and happier when given the opportunity to telecommute.
“Being able to work remotely is a huge thing for a lot of people,” says Preston-Watson. “That's actually one of the biggest things. There are many different ways to do our jobs. That doesn't mean you have to be in a physical space. And it doesn't mean that everyone has to be remote, because that may not be the best for some people.”
She adds that such flexibility enables her to give her best effort:
“It's just that being in a very public space with things going on, loud noises and stuff, can be really difficult. I don't bring my best work when I'm kind of always constantly on edge. It's really about trusting your employees. You hired them for a reason and trust that they're going to work. The more you trust me, the more I'm going to do better work for you.”