Anne Steverson, M.S. Michele McDonnall, Ph.D., CRC Katerina Sergi, Ph.D. Mississippi State University
The contents of this manuscript were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, NIDILRR grant 90RTEM0007. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Health and Human Services and should not indicate endorsement by the Federal Government.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Anne Steverson, NRTC on Blindness and Low Vision, PO Box 6189, Mississippi State, MS 39762. Telephone: 662-325-2001. Email: email@example.com
Technology has become an important part of our everyday lives, whether a smartphone for communicating with others or Amazon Alexa telling us what the weather will be today. While technology, such as computers and software applications, has been essential for most jobs, it is even more important with additional people working from home due to the recent pandemic. These technologies by themselves are not special, and almost everyone has used them at some point in their life. But for people who are blind or have low vision, additional assistive technologies may also be needed to accomplish tasks that require using these standard technologies.
Interest in learning about assistive technology (AT) use in the workplace among people who are blind or have low vision has been growing. AFB themselves just published their Workplace Technology Study findings from a study conducted in 2021. The National Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision (NRTC) began a longitudinal study to learn about AT use on the job by employed people who are blind or have low vision in 2020. The NRTC wanted to learn about types of AT being used in the workplace, how AT use changes over time, and identify challenges experienced and gaps for which new or improved AT may be needed. The NRTC is partnering with several mainstream and assistive technology companies to share information learned from the surveys. This article focuses on some of the findings from the first of four surveys we will conduct with our employed study group.
Study participants completed the first survey online or via phone. They were asked to share information about their employment, the AT they used on the job, their perceived skill level and training needs, satisfaction with the AT used, AT self-efficacy, challenges with AT, and much more. For this article, we’ll focus on the most commonly used AT on the job, AT most frequently used by participants, and participants’ perceived skill levels and training needs.
Data was collected between May and September of 2021, resulting in 314 usable surveys. The average age of participants was 46 years with a range of 22 to 89 years old. Sixty-three percent of participants were female, and 36.9% were male. Most were White (82.5%), 7.0% were Asian, 6.4% were Black or African American, and 7.9% were some other race. Most participants had a college education: 3.5% had an associate’s degree, 38.5% had a bachelor’s degree, and 43.6% had a master’s degree or higher. Most participants were totally blind (55.7%) or legally blind with minimal functional vision (22.0%). A smaller portion were legally blind with some functional vision (18.5%) or low vision (3.8%). Level of visual impairment played a role in the AT used in the workplace so, our findings will be presented by level of vision (no to minimal functional vision versus some functional vision).
Almost half of the participants (44.9%) worked in blindness-related jobs, including traditional jobs (such as teacher of students with visual impairments or rehabilitation counselor), accessibility-related jobs, or for a blindness organization. The remaining participants worked in non-blindness related or other disability fields (see Table 1). Most people who are blind or have low vision worked for an employer (88.2%), but self-employment was substantial with 21.3% of our study group participating in independent work. On average, our participants worked about 38 hours per week, but that workweek routine ranged from a minimum of three hours to a maximum of 100 hours.
Table 1 Employment Information
|Variable||Overall||Some Functional Vision||No to Minimal Functional Vision|
|Job Type||Employer job||277||88.2||59||84.3||218||89.3|
|Both employer job and self-employed||29||9.2||7||10.0||22||9.0|
|Broad Job Field||Blindness-related||141||49.9||21||30.4||120||49.0|
|Other disability field||41||13.1||10||24.4||31||12.6|
Participants were asked about devices they use at work; almost everyone used a computer (98.1%) and most people used a mobile device (88.2%). Participants then selected the AT they most commonly used on the job from a list of 28 ATs divided by (1) devices and hardware/software and (2) apps used on a smartphone or tablet. Some of the AT included in the list of devices and hardware/software were built-in accessibility tools, screen reader software, screen magnification software, refreshable braille displays, and handheld electronic video magnifiers. Examples from the list of apps on a smartphone or tablet included optical character recognition (OCR) apps, remote sighted assistance apps, money identification apps, and other apps on smartphones/tablets which covered any other apps that were not specifically listed, such as email or calendar. Participants used anywhere from one to 22 AT, but on average they used seven ATs on the job. People with no to minimal functional vision most commonly used screen reader software on the job followed by other apps on a smartphone or tablet. For people with some functional vision, screen magnification software was the most commonly used AT and other apps on smartphones or tablets and built-in accessibility tools tied for the second most commonly used. Table 2 presents the six most commonly used ATs by vision level.
Table 2 Top Six Most Commonly Used AT by Level of Visual Impairment
|Some Functional Vision||No to Minimal Functional Vision|
|Type of AT||n||%||Type of AT||n||%|
|Screen magnification||44||62.9||Screen reader||230||94.3|
|Other apps on smartphone/tablet||40||57.1||Other apps on smartphone/tablet||167||68.4|
|Built-in accessibility tools||40||57.1||OCR app||155||63.5|
|Handheld lens magnifier||34||48.6||Built-in accessibility tools||124||50.8|
|Electronic video magnifier||28||40.0||Remote sighted assistance app||118||48.4|
|Screen reader||26||37.1||Refreshable braille display||102||41.8|
Participants had the opportunity to write-in the three AT they most frequently used on the job. The top three ATs most frequently used by people with some functional vision were screen magnification software (58.0%), built-in accessibility tools (36.2%), and electronic video magnifiers (33.3%). However, for people with no to minimal functional vision, the most frequently used ATs included screen reader software (95.5%), a smartphone or tablet (54.1%), and OCR technology (app or software/hardware) (29.5%).
Participants rated their skill level for their work AT on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being beginner and 10 being advanced. Most people self-reported intermediate to advanced skill levels (ratings from 7 to 10) for commonly used AT. Interestingly, people with some functional vision reported an average skill of 7 for screen magnification software, their most commonly and frequently used AT, whereas people with no to minimal functional vision reported more advanced skill levels, on average, for screen reader software, their most commonly and frequently used AT (see Table 3).
Table 3 Perceived Skill Levels by Level of Visual Impairment
|Some Functional Vision||No to Minimal Functional Vision|
|Type of AT||M||SD||Range||Type of AT||M||SD||Range|
|Screen magnification||7.0||2.4||1-10||Screen reader||8.2||1.4||2-10|
|Otder apps on smartphone/tablet||7.9||1.9||2-10||Otder apps on smartphone/tablet||8.3||1.4||4-10|
|Built-in accessibility tools||7.6||2.1||3-10||OCR app||7.6||2.2||1-10|
|Handheld lens magnifier||9.0||1.7||3-10||Built-in accessibility tools||7.8||2.1||1-10|
|Electronic video magnifier||8.0||2.5||3-10||Remote sighted assistance app||8.3||2.0||2-10|
|Screen reader||6.7||2.3||2-10||Refreshable braille display||7.5||2.2||1-10|
Note: M = Mean; SD = Standard deviation.
People who rated their skill level 7 or below received a follow-up question asking if they would benefit from additional training on using that AT. A quarter or more of people with some functional vision who used the following devices indicated they would benefit from additional training on them: screen magnification software (38.6%), other apps on smartphone or tablet (25.0%), built-in accessibility tools (32.5%), and screen reader software (53.8%). A quarter or more of people with no to minimal vision who used the following devices expressed the need for additional training: built-in accessibility tools (25.8%), screen reader software (25.2%), and OCR app on a mobile device (39.4%).
AT is essential to employment for most people who are blind or have low vision. Participants in our survey used multiple ATs to complete job tasks, but the types of AT used sometimes differ by level of vision. Not surprisingly, the most commonly and frequently used AT provided computer access: for participants with some functional vision it was screen magnification software and for participants with no to minimal functional vision it was screen reader software. Apps on smartphones and tablets were also commonly used on the job, regardless of vision level.
While most of our survey participants rated their AT skill level between intermediate and advanced, more than a quarter of participants expressed a need for additional training on several commonly used ATs. This suggests that there is always room to improve on AT skills, whether you are learning a new AT or want to improve your efficiency with a current AT. For job seekers, it indicates the importance of learning as much as possible about and honing your skills with workplace AT.
Job seekers should be aware of what AT is needed for the jobs in which they are interested. Seeking out individuals in those jobs to learn how they efficiently complete their job tasks with AT may be helpful. If the job seeker lacks the AT skills needed to perform those job tasks, it would be valuable to seek additional training before obtaining a job. If a job seeker is unaware of the AT needed or is open to multiple types of jobs, our results suggest it is likely that either screen reader or screen magnification software skills and skills with using apps on a mobile device will be required. Skills with these ATs would be a minimum starting point.
People looking for work and those seeking to advance in their careers must maintain their AT skills, which can be hard with frequent updates to the AT itself and the software used on the job. For job seekers, it may be hard to maintain or advance skills with some AT without consistent, daily use of the AT, like one would get on a job. It is important to be aware of training opportunities that can be used by people who are employed. There are a variety of resources available for AT training, including AT instructors with vocational rehabilitation agencies and organizations for the blind, vendor-provided audio or video tutorials, YouTube demonstration videos, and social media groups, to name a few.
As part of this study, we will conduct two surveys with people who are not working but would like to work, our unemployed study group, and three more surveys with our employed study group. We are sharing information from this study with technology companies, both mainstream and blindness-specific, who have been very interested in the results. We will also share more results from this study in future AccessWorld articles. In the meantime, additional information about this study can be found at the NRTC’s Access Technology in the Workplace webpage.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.