National Disability Employment Awareness – by Lauren Branch
This year I celebrated my 20th anniversary at NewView Oklahoma. When I was hired in 1997, I had never worked for a non-profit agency nor did I have any knowledge of blindness. I was a finance person who somehow, after six months on the job as the controller, was promoted to executive director of a financially distressed organization. My first official duty as the newly appointed executive director was to lay off 40% of our workforce, most of whom were individuals who were blind, exactly one week before Christmas. At that moment, my top priority was to get each of our employees back to work because I knew if we didn’t bring them back to work, most of them would never find another job.
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month and one of the most important times of the year for me and for our agency. Every year at this time, I remember how I felt when I had to lay off our employees and I remember how long it took to get everyone back to work. I know first-hand how important it is to raise awareness of the workforce capabilities of people who are blind.
As business owners, company executives and members of management, we know the importance of hiring and retaining top talent. We know the importance of hiring individuals who are not only qualified, but those who also have a commitment to working hard. Since this year’s focus is on recognizing inclusion of people with disabilities as a core component of workplace competitiveness and innovation, I’d like to share some thoughts I have about our workforce and the insights I’ve gained over the 20 years I’ve worked for NewView Oklahoma.
Seventy percent of working age Americans who are blind or visually impaired are unemployed. That’s 7 out of 10 people. That statistic alone has motivated me to work diligently to help create jobs for people who are blind who just want to work.
What hits home for me on a personal level is the courage it takes for someone who is blind to even get to work. Imagine if you can, what it would be like to get up each day, shower, pick out something to wear, make yourself breakfast and then navigate to the nearest bus stop without being able to see. If someone can do these things while being blind, they have already overcome some of the most difficult challenges in life. They have already learned to be self- sufficient, independent and courageous. If they can do these things, the things that scare us to death, the really hard things, then the work part is easy! We, as employers and business owners should want to hire these individuals. These are the individuals with will the willpower, the stamina and the determination to be great employees. We should be running after them and not refusing to give them an interview because they can’t see.
At times, when I witness the courageous exploits of the children, youth, and adults I have had the privilege of interacting with over the last 20 years, I wonder, would I have that same courage? Could I learn to fearlessly walk out my front door? Travel safely down the street? Go to the grocery store? Out to dinner? Would you have the same courage?
Since 1949, NewView Oklahoma has helped create employment opportunities for people who are blind. We currently employ more than 85 people who are blind or vision-impaired in various positions from assembly line work to corporate accounting to professional and management positions. We are proud to employ so many individuals who are blind. We celebrate the fact that we are the largest employer of the blind and vision impaired in the state of Oklahoma. Yet, to truly make an impact on the 70% unemployment rate among the legally blind, it will take more than just NewView Oklahoma. It will take all of us doing everything we can to create a pathway for employment for this highly skilled, courageous talent pool that’s just waiting to be tapped.
NewView Oklahoma may currently be the largest employer of working age adults who are blind or vision impaired, but my hope is that someday the courage it takes for individuals who are blind and vision impaired to embark on that pathway to employment would be met by equally courageous employers who have opened their doors to Oklahoman’s who just want to work!