Challenges and Barriers to Successful Employment for Man with Visual Impairment

By Louis Herrera

Louis Herrera

Louis Herrera

I was born with normal eyesight, and at the age of three and a half it was determined that I had a visual impairment. By the time that I was about seven years old, I had lost most of my eyesight.

At the inquisitive age of four, I wanted to know how things work and how a box could have different voices coming out of it. Learning about radios was the beginning of a path to a career in the technology industry.

At the age of 15 I built my first computer at a time when components were starting to decrease in size.

Jerry-Rigged IT Systems

In the early 80s, I went to work for a Fortune 500 aerospace company. I was hired as an “experimental employee” because they had never hired a blind person before.

Back then there was hardly any assistive technology to speak of. Several companies were starting to develop a screen reader for MS-DOS, but in many cases these screen readers only worked with some specific programs.

Some of us with visual impairments, in order to maintain our jobs, had to be creative and figure out a way to generate speech output.

For me, I used an old Votrax speech synthesizer like a printer driver. Every time I wanted to know what was on the screen, I executed a print command that would convert the data on the screen to a format that Votrax could read and then speak aloud in probably the worst speech synthesizer voice that one would want to hear. Nevertheless, I was able to get the job done.

As technology continued to evolve in terms of processing speed and better video graphics, it paved the way for the beginning of a graphical user interface, which today is commonly known as Windows. This progress made it difficult for the blind user to keep up with the new changes because the screen reader at that time could not accommodate off-the-shelf hardware and software improvements. Partially-sighted people had to modify video settings to accommodate their visual requirements.

Mobile Devices

As technology continued to move towards a touch screen environment with no real interaction solution for the blind consumer, it seemed as though the blind and individuals with various degrees of visual impairment would not be able to move away from conventional mechanical user interface technology like the flip phones with the tactile keypad.

Once multilayered technology was introduced to hardware and software developers, companies like Apple and Google started to develop a user interface that consisted of gestures and tapping concepts that allowed for the interaction and execution of commands and operations.

As part of their Universal Access initiative in 2007, Apple introduced VoiceOver, a screen reader output interface for the iPhone 3GS. Apple demonstrated that touch technology could be made accessible for everyone, and in today’s work environment mobile technology is something that we all depend on.

We still have to deal with third-party applications that have the potential to be used by the visually impaired community, but we can’t use these apps because the developers either are not familiar with accessibility coding guidelines or choose to make apps more visually appealing in the hope that screen readers will provide a level of accessibility for the blind or visually impaired user.

One of the first barriers that we had to deal with had to do with educating the developers on what text-to-speech technology is and how it differs from speech recognition. This has been a problem for a long time and will continue to be a problem that affects us because developers believe speech recognition programs meet our needs. The reality is that these programs make it possible to receive speech input, but they do not read what appears on the screen.

In the case of smartphones, many app developers feel that built-in artificial intelligence (AI) programs are the same as the devices’ built-in screen readers (Apple’s Siri vs. VoiceOver, Android’s Google Assistant vs. TalkBack, Windows’ Cortana vs. Narrator) and that the built-in AI programs are all the visually-impaired user requires. Unfortunately, these AI programs are voice-driven search services that will in most instances provide audio feedback, but they are not screen readers that function without internet connectivity.

The issues described above are quite common in the desktop environment as well. The best way to resolve this issue is by requiring developers to submit their applications to a level of accessibility compliance verification before an application is deployed.

Technology in the Workplace

While technology has come a very long way and has made it possible for the blind and visually impaired to be competitive employees, there are many road blocks to still overcome for equality in the workplace.

Even with all the new advances in technology and software development today, blind or visually impaired professionals are still encountering barriers with their ability to carry out their job duties.

For example, the idea of providing PDF file attachments so that anyone, regardless of the platform being used, should be able to open the file can sometimes be an issue for some of us that use screen readers or screen magnification tools.

Often because of company policy, we are issued a computer equipped with a common commercially-available PDF reader, which does not do well making PDF images accessible. Some companies, like my employer, have smart printers/copiers that can scan a document and generate a PDF image that is not easily converted to text that can be read by the screen reader. Sometimes it is easier to print the image file and then use an optical character recognition tool to scan and read it. This is time consuming and a waste of paper.

Another on-the-job issue that we face is a lack of quality interaction and support with Information Technology (IT). While the IT staff is able to maintain and support staff using the general issued computers and software, they often don’t have the knowledge or experience to install, configure and maintain the adaptive technology.

If the IT specialist installs the specialized adaptive software, many times they do not install it correctly causing the program to fail to operate properly or at all due to the lack of the resource requirements needed for the software to run efficiently.

This is like keeping a car engine pristine with four flat tires.

In many cases, permission to update the software as needed is denied due to company policies, which leaves the assistive technology unable to keep up with the many updates and changes that the operating system and other programs the IT department regularly update to keep the hardware and software running at peak performance.

Support in the Workplace

My previous job as well as other companies will hire an assistive technology specialist to install the needed software and provide specialized scripting for the software to run on the company created software.

The software runs great until the first major update the IT specialist pushes to all computers on the network. This can affect scripting performance that was created so that the disabled user could fulfill his/her job. Often the assistive technology user has to make due with inadequate software accommodations until the company will bring in the assistive technology specialist again at a substantial fee to reinstall the scripts or create new ones if needed.

These costs and roadblocks could be minimized if employers include the employee who will be using the assistive technology so that he or she can provide input during the discussion and planning phase up to the point that it gets delivered and installed.

Developing and implementing all-inclusive collaborative meetings to address assistive technology needs will yield a more positive interactive communication and success among all participants.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Julie Sarama & Doug Clements

Julie Sarama and Doug Clements

Julie Sarama and Doug Clements

Julie Sarama is Kennedy Endowed Chair in Innovative Learning Technologies and Professor at the University of Denver. Her research interests include developing and evaluating research-based educational software and other technologies, using learning trajectories in standards, assessment, educational technology, curriculum and professional development, developing and evaluating research-based curricula, and asking successful curricula to scale using technologies.

Douglas H. Clements is Kennedy Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Learning and Professor at the University of Denver. Previously a kindergarten teacher and preschool teacher, he has conducted research and published widely in the areas of the learning and teaching of early mathematics and computer applications in mathematics education. His most recent interests are in creating, using, and evaluating a research-based curriculum and in taking successful curricula to scale using technologies and learning trajectories.

Doug and Julie have collaborated over the past 20 years on research and implementation projects focused on improving early math development in young children.


ED: How did you begin your career in early learning and early math?

Doug: I was always interested in math and was planning on being an engineer but after I graduated, I decided to go into early education. My first job out of college was teaching kindergarten. As a teacher, math was the shining star for me. I was so interested in young kids’ thinking around math. When I went back to school to get my doctoral degree, I focused my dissertation on preschoolers’ thinking about early math. How do young kids learn math ideas and skills? How do they think about early math? What are the best ways to teach early math?

Julie’s background was in teaching high school and middle school math. In the 1990’s we became involved in a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded project on developing a kindergarten-through-fifth-grade math curriculum. We had developed some of the technology for the kindergarten piece of the curriculum, but weren’t able to complete it since the project ran out money. Thankfully, NSF soon came out with a call for a focus on early math, and then we had the opportunity to really start our work on early math and began developing what we call our Building Blocks project.

Julie: Previous efforts around early math focused on activities or developing ideas that sounded cool but weren’t based on research. Alternatively, we focused on identifying (from the research base) the specific features that help young children in early math. In the first year of Building Blocks, we worked on identifying the early math learning trajectories for young children. Doug reads everything from everyone; he looked at studies from a variety of related fields (developmental science, cognitive science, mathematics education, early childhood education, etc.). We pulled from all of those areas to help us develop these learning trajectories. What do kids learn, when do they learn it, and what can we do to help them progress? In the end, we developed an assessment and curriculum to help teachers understand learning trajectories. Later we were very lucky to receive funding from NSF and the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences for our TRIAD project. This allowed us to develop the needed professional development materials and scale-up approaches for our work. Through TRIAD we were able to help early childhood teachers across multiple sites (e.g., Boston, Buffalo, and Nashville) understand the learning trajectories and how to implement the assessment and curriculum. This was especially important given many early childhood teachers often report they went into early childhood so they wouldn’t have to teach math!

ED: How has your research improved the quality of early learning and influenced approaches to teaching early math?

Doug: Everyone can write more cute activities that might touch on basic math concepts, but with the growing consensus on the ways young children learn to understand mathematical concepts and engage in mathematical thinking, we believe that understanding the early math learning trajectories is critical for early childhood educators to teach early math.

Julie: Learning trajectories have three parts:

  1. a learning goal (i.e., target, benchmark, expectation);
  2. a developmental path along which children develop to reach that goal; and
  3. a set of activities matched to each of the levels of thinking in that path that help children develop the next higher level of thinking.

The idea behind a learning trajectory is that these are the stepping stones to get you to your goals. Each of these stepping stones represents a significant change in the way kids think; they are the developmental progressions or descriptions of kids’ behavior that give us a hint of where a kid is developmentally. The activities that follow are critical to help move children from one stepping stone to the next.

Through our TRIAD project we taught early childhood teachers to understand how young children think about math; how to identify where kids are with their mathematical thinking; and then to provide instruction or activities that take the kids to the next level of mathematical thinking. We found that teachers when given this framework and the learning trajectories became excited about teaching math. When they saw their students’ growth along the learning trajectories, it was transformative. Teachers often tell us “I had no idea young children could learn this or think like this.”

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them? 

Doug: The biggest challenge is the perception that math doesn’t belong in early childhood and that we don’t need to teach it yet. Another challenge is the false dichotomies that our field creates such as academics versus non-cognitive skills, or teaching math versus teaching literacy. We know we can teach math and literacy and social-emotional skills in early childhood. We know that early math skills are fundamental to children’s overall learning. Along with one of our post-doctoral researchers, Alissa Lange, we found improvements in oral language in classrooms that implemented Building Blocks. The learning is connected.

Julie: An effective strategy for overcoming the negative perception about math in early childhood is getting out there and talking about it. You really need a Doug! He travels a lot, spreading the word and accepting speaking engagements to all different kinds of groups about the work we are doing. Writing research articles isn’t enough. You also need your champions. The teachers we trained in our TRIAD project continue to implement Building Blocks without any coaching or support. We went back two years later and were shocked and delighted that they had all increased their fidelity of implementation, meaning they were implementing Building Blocks the way it was intended. Six years later, the teachers who were still teaching continued to implement Building Blocks. It is important to share their experiences.

[Check out this video report on the successful implementation of Building Blocks in Boston]

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in supporting early math development in young children?

Julie: When you focus on math, either alone or as part of a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) initiative, be sure to focus on the learning trajectories, not just math activities or projects, and embed math growth.

Doug: Professional development (PD) is critical and you need to start-off thinking about the PD as lasting for at least year. We know that a math day or a math workshop won’t change classroom practices, yet this is what we continue to offer to teachers. We need to be honest and start planning alternatives. Through foundation funding we developed a website with resources that support teachers to better understand learning trajectories. The website is called Learning and Teaching with Learning Trajectories (LT2), and is a great free resource for programs wanting to get started in thinking differently about early math.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Julie Sarama and Doug Clements
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Julie Sarama is Kennedy Endowed Chair in Innovative Learning Technologies and Professor at the University of Denver. Douglas H. Clements is Kennedy Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Learning and Professor at the University of Denver.

My story: The Benefits of Working with Agencies like the Washington State Department of Services for the Blind

Odyssey Sea

Odyssey Sea

By Odyssey Sea

Getting a job right after I graduated was a very exciting and scary experience. Luckily, I had Washington State Department of Services for the Blind (DSB) staff to help me along the way because without their help, experiencing new things would have been difficult. At first, I was nervous. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after high school. Luckily DSB staff stepped in and helped me figure out some things. I am getting job experiences with different companies like the Museum of Flight and at PAVE, a nonprofit that assists young adults like me. PAVE also assists parents, families and anyone connected to a child, youth or young adult with disabilities.

Reasonable accommodations were part of this experience. Some of the new experiences that worked for me were asking for accommodations such as getting a larger keyboard so it would be easier to see and type. Another accommodation I had was using an iPad to use the speech to text feature. This helps me get my thoughts in order instead of typing them out.

DSB also helped me get situated to find the right resources such as how to use shuttle services. It took a while to fill out all the paperwork but in the end, it was very simple to figure out and the wait was worth it.

They have helped me find job experiences which have helped me get to the job and do the work, stay busy and get ready for the real world.

I encourage you to try to get the help from agencies like the DSB or any other agency that will help you get a job. They will guide you all along the way!


Background on YES Programs that Assisted Odyssey

Programmatic Information:

Youth Employment Solutions (YES) II is a six-week program in Seattle, Wash., designed to provide valuable work experience and learning to high school students, age 16 through high school graduation. Accepted candidates are provided five weeks of paid work experience at internships created for them in cooperation with Seattle-area businesses. Positions are assigned to students based on their interests, abilities, and experience.

YES II is a residential living experience that provides students the opportunity to refine their daily living skills, such as planning, purchasing and preparing meals, and maintaining their own personal effects and common living quarters at the YES residence. Additionally, students learn skills in using public transportation techniques for travel to worksites. They are encouraged to participate in community social and recreational activities.

Washington State Department of Services for the Blind (DSB) provides training, counselling, and support to help Washington residents of all ages, who are blind or visually impaired, pursue employment, education, and independent living. Our goal is “Inclusion, Independence, and Economic Vitality for People with Visual Disabilities.”


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.