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.

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.

10 Million Book Downloads Today Provides a 10x Model for Tomorrow

This is a cross-post from the Benetech Blog. Benetech is a grantee of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP)


By

Many years ago I had the wild idea to start a deliberately nonprofit technology company in the heart of Silicon Valley. I knew that technology, when applied for social good, promised to usher in positive and sustainable change. Today’s 10 million download milestone is a celebration of our ability to deliver on that promise.

Ten million is more than a big number. It represents our ability to scale technology for global impact. It demonstrates what is possible when technology makes it 80x cheaper to create and 15x cheaper to deliver an accessible book. It shows our ability to empower communities in need with the tools to succeed.10 million download with Bookshare logo

Today’s milestone is worth celebrating, but like any good social entrepreneur, I’m focused on what’s next. What innovation needs to take place so the hundreds of millions of individuals who are unable to read standard print can access every published book? How can we realize our Born Accessible dream of all digital content serving blind people and sighted people equally?  What investments can we make today in order to have the greatest impact tomorrow? Finding answers to these hard questions through scalable technology solutions is what motivates me and the entire Benetech team.

Bookshare’s success provides a proven model for answering these questions. First, we must identify technology-driven solutions that will be 10x better or 10x cheaper (or both!) in delivering social impact. Next, we must engage our communities to test prototypes and to separate the good ideas from the truly great ideas. We will then take the best projects, inject the needed capital and scale them for global impact. The Bookshare model guided us to our 10 million milestone, and it’s a key model that will guide us to identify, develop and scale technology to tackle the hard questions we ask ourselves every day.

Moving forward, we will work hand-in-hand with school districts, libraries and our nonprofit partner organizations to make digital content accessible to everyone who needs it. We will work with publishers to ensure the right tools, standards and best practices are available to build accessibility into all content when it is first created. Globally, we will engage the communities we serve until every person can access every book in the way he or she needs to succeed.

I look forward to sharing more milestones on our mission to empower communities in need by creating scalable technology solutions. I hope you’ll come along with me and the Benetech team on this wild ride.

Check out the press release to learn more about this exciting milestone.