CAMBRIDGE, MASS.: Back in the late 1980s, when Maura Mazzocca was a human resources administrator with a Boston-area firm, a blind man showed up to apply for a job. Today, she remembers the encounter ruefully.
“What I kept thinking about was, ‘How can this man work in a manufacturing company?’ ” Mazzocca recalled, saying she looked past his abilities and saw only his disability.
“I wish now I’d given him a chance.”
That reflectiveness is heartfelt. Mazzocca lost her own eyesight in 1994 through complications related to diabetes. Now as a job-seeker herself, she knows firsthand the many hurdles the blind must overcome in pursuit of full-time work.
At a job fair last month for blind and low-vision people, there she was going table to table, with a sighted volunteer by her side. Some of the other 80 job-seekers carried white canes, a few had guide dogs.
Like the rest, Mazzocca was greeted with firm handshakes and encouraging words — but none of the employers she spoke with had job openings matching her interests and qualifications.
The venue was the former Radcliffe College gymnasium where Helen Keller exercised en route to becoming the first deaf/blind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree in 1904. Over the ensuing decades, Keller helped increase public awareness of blindness and empathy for those affected by it.
Yet blind people remain largely unwanted in the U.S. workplace, despite technological advances that dramatically boost their capabilities. Only about 24 percent of working-age Americans with visual disabilities had full-time jobs as of 2011, according to Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute.
“There’s a lot of stigma, a lot of obstacles,” said Mazzocca, 51. “It comes down to educating employers … It’s going to take a really long time, if ever, for them to see us for who we are and what we bring to the table.”
What they bring, according to national advocates for the blind, is a strong work ethic, plus deeper-than-average loyalty to their employers. That’s in addition to whatever talents and training they bring, just like any other applicant.
In the current economy, good jobs are hard to come by for anyone, even the sighted. But the blind face added challenges. Even employers professing interest in hiring blind people often don’t follow through out of concern that they might be a bit slower with key tasks or require assistance that could be burdensome.
In some cases, said Mazzocca, “they’re thinking, ‘What if I have to fire them? Will they sue me?’ ”
Many national and local organizations are working hard to change the equation, through a mix of outreach to employers, training and counseling for job-seekers, and support for technological development. Still, the steadiest sources of jobs for many blind people are nonprofit organizations with missions related to blindness and other disabilities.
One job-seeker, Jeff Paquette, 32, graduated in 2011 from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., and is seeking work in the tourism/hospitality industry.
Declared legally blind in 2006, he has limited vision that prevents him from driving but enables him to use public transportation on his own and to read, sometimes with the help of a magnification option on his computer.
“I honestly don’t know from employer to employer what their perceptions of someone like me will be,” said Paquette. “I will need some accommodation — but I’m fully capable.”
At the job fair, the only employer from the hospitality sector was Hyatt Hotels. Their representative told Paquette to keep checking on the company’s jobs website.