"Just because you have vision loss doesn’t mean you’re not capable. It’s transforming and educating the employers that visually impaired people are capable." —White male in his 70s who became visually impaired as an adult
The research question that guided the Technology and Accommodations study was:
How does technology and the need for accommodations shape the employment experiences of U.S. adults who are blind or have low vision?
Technology and accommodations are not "one size fits all." Even when you have two individuals performing the same job tasks who have identical eye conditions and similar visual acuity (the clarity with which one sees an image) and visual fields (peripheral or side vision), their needs for accommodations and the technology tools they use will vary. Not all individuals who are functionally blind read braille. If they opt to use screen reader software, they vary in the settings they use within programs and how they approach reading and writing tasks.
Employees who are blind or have low vision have protected rights in the workplace under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other laws, prohibiting discrimination on "the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment."1 As part of the prohibition on discrimination, employers must provide reasonable accommodations. Accommodations are considered "reasonable" if they do not create an undue hardship requiring significant difficulty or expense or a direct threat to the health and safety of the individual with the disability or others. Individuals generally must request an accommodation based on their disability, and employers must engage in an interactive process to clarify the individuals’ needs before the employer chooses an accommodation. The employer may make the final decision about which accommodation to provide, but it must be effective and provided expeditiously.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Department of Labor have set forth regulations, technical assistance, guidance, and compliance documents related to employers’ obligations to provide reasonable accommodations and the rare circumstances in which accommodations are not required. 2 This study considers both the accommodations that individuals request under the law and other technology practices that are conducive to producing an inclusive and welcoming workplace for people who are blind, have low vision, or are deafblind. The findings presented in this research serve as a window into how well common practices in the employment process are functioning and indicate the need for improving employer practices and protection of the rights of people who are blind or have low vision.
People who are blind, have low vision, or are deafblind, like all individuals, generally go through multiple stages of the hiring process – applications, interviews, assessments, and onboarding – before beginning work. Through this process they have contact with HR staff, IT staff, supervisors, coworkers, and others. The knowledge about disability these individuals bring, or in many cases do not bring to the table, coupled with the culture of the company or organization, the demands of the job, and the strengths and needs of the worker who is blind, has low vision, or is deafblind, all come together in an ever-changing way. Once an employee has their initial technology and accommodation needs met, the story does not end. As job tasks, tools, and personnel change within the company or organization, the visually impaired employee’s needs will change. Other factors such as new technologies that come on the market, changes in the employee’s visual abilities, the introduction of new company policies, and changes in supervisors and coworkers can all impact the productivity and inclusivity of the worker who is visually impaired.
In this report we examine the nuances of technology and accommodations used by employees who are blind, have low vision, or are deafblind within the context of strategies, consequences, and solutions that ultimately lead to recommendations. Our findings and recommendations, derived from our analysis of the data, will be of value to HR staff, IT staff, ADA coordinators, supervisors, VR professionals, technology developers, and those who are blind, have low vision, or are deafblind. Throughout the report we provide examples shared by participants that describe the products they use. The manufacturers of these products, in addition to developers of future products, can deepen their understanding of the need for products to be developed with accessibility considerations playing a pivotal role from conception, rather than being an afterthought.
Study Design and Analysis
This was a mixed method study with four phases.
- Phase 1, Literature Review: Researchers gathered information from peer-reviewed articles on topics including employment, technology, assistive technology, blindness, and low vision. In addition, they examined the prevalence of individuals with disabilities in different employment fields, for example, healthcare, information technology, and finance. The literature review informed the researchers as they developed Phase 2 of the study.
- Phase 2, Focus Groups: In fall 2020, two researchers conducted nine focus groups with those who were screen reader users (n=4), those who had low vision (n=3), and those who were typically sighted (n=2). Through a series of open-ended questions, the researchers examined participants’ experience with the hiring process, how they made accommodation requests, accommodations they used, and the mainstream and assistive technology tools that enabled them to maintain productivity at work. Researchers also examined participants’ relationships with HR staff, IT staff, and coworkers. The two researchers reviewed notes and audio recordings from the focus groups and identified themes. The themes from the focus groups were used to develop questions for the final two phases of the study.
- Phase 3, Survey: Using the information gathered through the literature review and focus groups, researchers designed an accessible, online survey that was made available to U.S. adults who met at least one of the following criteria:
- Employed and receiving a W2 from an employer
- Self-employed and receiving a 1099
- Not currently employed, seeking employment, and employed within the last 5 years
- Not currently employed, not seeking employment, and employed within the last 5 years
- Retired after January 1, 2016 Descriptive statistics were calculated for quantitative data. Responses to open-ended questions were coded by four researchers to identify themes and sub-themes.
- Phase 4, Interviews: After coding the open-ended responses to the survey questions, the researchers selected participants whose responses to the open-ended questions were especially rich and informative. If a participant whose quote was selected provided an email address, they were contacted and invited to take part in a one-hour interview. Interviews were audio recorded. One researcher led the interview while a second researcher took notes to verify the recorded transcript. The interview notes and recordings were analyzed to extract additional themes and quotes.
This report is based on the data from the 323 survey participants who were currently either employed and receiving a W-2 or were self-employed, and 25 currently employed participants who were interviewed. Not all participants answered each question.
Participant Recruitment and Limitations
For both the focus groups and survey, an email was developed that explained the study. The email was sent to individuals on AFB’s extensive mailing list. In addition, information about the study was posted on social media. Organizations and companies in the blindness field were asked to share the recruitment announcement with their members/customers.
A limitation of this study was that participants were recruited through digital means. Thus, individuals who did not use email or did not use social media did not have an opportunity to participate. The sign-up procedure for the focus groups and the survey were online, again limiting the potential participant pool. The study was conducted from February through June 2021, when the United States was in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which may have influenced participation and responses. All data collected was self-reported and not verified by the researchers.
Demographic Characteristics of Participants
The survey participants were from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, with California (n=30), Washington (n=25), and Texas (n=21) having the largest number of participants. The interview participants were from 17 states. Demographic data is provided in Table 1 for gender and Table 2 for race/ethnicity.
Table 1: Demographic Data of Participants by Gender
|Characteristic||Survey (n=316)||Survey Percentage||Interviews (n=25)||Interviews Percentages|
Table 2: Demographic Data of Participants by Race/Ethnicity
|Characteristic||Survey (n=316)||Survey Percentage||Interviews (n=25)||Interviews Percentages|
|Native American/Pacific Islander||4||1.3||1||4.0|
The survey participants ranged in age from 21 to 78 years with a mean (and median) of 47 years (SD=14.0). The interview participants ranged in age from 23 to 72 years with a mean age of 51 years (SD=15.5).
The majority (n=205, 64.9%) of the 316 participants were congenitally visually impaired, while 56 (17.8%) participants acquired their visual impairment between 2 and 19 years of age, and the remaining 51 (16.0%) acquired their visual impairment in adulthood. Four participants (1.3%) chose not to provide this information. The leading cause of visual impairment among the 312 participants was retinopathy of prematurity (n=55, 17.6%), followed by retinitis pigmentosa (n=29, 9.3%), and glaucoma (n=29, 9.3%).
When asked how they accessed ordinary print, with multiple responses permitted, participants reported that they accessed print by:
- Listening to it (n=215)
- Enlarging it (n=100)
- Reading braille (n=111)
- Reading it as is (n=9)
On the question of whether their method of accessing print had changed within the last 5 years, 322 participants responded. Of these, 112 (34.8%) reported there had been a change, for example, they had started using a screen reader such as JAWS or VoiceOver.
There were 129 (39.9%) of 323 participants who reported having additional disability(ies) or health condition(s). The most common was a chronic health condition (n=73), being D/deaf or hard of hearing (n=35), having mental health challenges (n=30), and a physical disability (n=25).
Almost 85% of the participants (n=265 of 316) reported they had a college degree with 41% (n=130) having an associate’s or bachelor’s degree and 44% having advanced degrees.
Current Employment Sector, Hours, and Work Location
It is not uncommon for individuals to hold multiple forms of employment simultaneously. Of the 323 participants, 256 received W2 income only, 47 were self-employed only, and 20 both received W2 income and were self-employed.
The 323 participants were currently employed in varied employment sectors and were allowed to select multiple responses when asked. These employment sectors included the following:
- Education and instruction (n=94)
- Government, community, and human services (n=92)
- Information technology (n=57)
- Healthcare (n=36)
Less than 15% of participants were employed in other sectors, which included office and administrative support; arts, entertainment and media; business management and administration; and sales and retail.
Thirty-three participants reported they were small business owners. When asked to select the type of employer they worked for, 311 responded with some selecting more than one option. These included the following:
- Nonprofit with more than 15 employees (n=86)
- State or local government (n=77)
- For-profit company with more than 15 employees (n=76)
- Nonprofit with less than 15 employees (n=29)
- Federal government (n=18)
- Private company on federal contract (n=16)
- For-profit company with less than 15 employees (n=11)
No question specifically asked whether the participant worked for an organization that provides services or support to people with disabilities, or specifically those with visual impairments. However, based on responses to questions about their job responsibilities and information provided in long-answer narrative, it was estimated that more than one-third (approximately 127 of 323 participants) work for this type of organization. These employers should be more aware of and more responsive to providing accessible technology and accommodations.
When asked how long they had worked for their current employer, 317 participants responded that they had worked for their current employer for:
- Less than 2 years (n=79, 25.0%)
- 2–5 years (n=75, 23.7%)
- 5–10 years (n=63, 19.9%)
- 10–20 years (n=61, 19.2%)
- More than 20 years (n=39, 12.3%)
When asked how many hours per week they worked, 308 respondents reported the following: * 1 and 20 hours a week (n=40; 13.0%) * 21 to 40 hours a week (n=179; 58.1%) * More than 40 hours a week (n=61; 19.8%) * Varying hours each week (n=22; 7.2% * Prefer not to answer (n=6; 1.9%)
Of the 309 participants who provided information about whether they worked on site or remotely prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and in February 2021, 192 (62.1%) reported a change in where they worked. Of these, 149 (77.6%) reported that they moved to working remotely exclusively.
Table 3: Work Location in February 2021 and Pre-COVID
|Work Location||February 2021||Pre-COVID-19|
|Worked remotely exclusively||63.5%||17.6%|
|Worked both remotely and on site||13.7%||12.8%|
|Worked on site exclusively||22.8%||69.6%|
1. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C.A §12112(a)