Meet an Employer

Jim Lee, Chief of Staff to the General President, International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF)

Ever wondered what it would be like to work with someone who is blind or partially sighted? If you haven't worked with someone with vision loss, it may be hard to imagine. But it's really no different than working with anyone else.

Jim Lee is Chief of Staff to the General President at the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), based in Washington D.C. He's also a long-time friend of Fred Leblanc, who was a fire fighter for 29 years before losing his vision suddenly in 2011. Both men were in disbelief when Fred began to lose his vision at the age of 48. Fred wasn't sure what his future held. His career as a fire fighter was in doubt. From the beginning, Jim showed support to Fred by calling him regularly to see how he was adjusting.

One year later, things took a turn for the better. Fred was elected to the Regional Leadership Council of the IAFF and he and Jim became co-workers.

Prior to working with Fred, Jim had no experience interacting with someone who is blind or partially sighted. Jim quickly saw first-hand that Fred's abilities didn't change, even though his vision did. He soon realized a person doesn't need to leave the workforce after losing their sight. He says working with a person who is blind or partially sighted isn't very different from working with his other colleagues.

"Unless he tells you, you wouldn't know that Fred has vision loss," says Jim. "His abilities didn't change at all. I was amazed to see how Fred handled himself when he first lost his vision."

Jim and the IAFF make basic workplace accommodations for Fred's vision loss, such as using email to send electronic documents instead of printing hard copies. Fred's workplace now uses a different background on documents to add contrast. Jim says while he and the IAFF would do anything to accommodate Fred, there was very little extra work involved in taking these simple steps.

"People with visual impairments have a lot to offer," says Jim. "They just need the opportunity to prove that. Employers have to give them a chance to come in and show what they can do. A lot of employers would be amazed."

The biggest barrier for people who are blind in the workplace is misconception. As Jim, Fred and the IAFF prove, with simple accommodations and an open-minded organization, it's not blindness that holds people back from working, it's the stigma and assumptions about what people with vision loss can do.

Jack Marquardson, Manager of Writing Services, Communications Services Manitoba

Having never worked with a person who is blind before, Jack Marquardson was apprehensive. But he not only found his apprehension to be unwarranted, he found the experience to be rewarding.

"I've learned a lot from Scott about patience and overcoming barriers. And I've learned that a person who is blind can do almost anything a sighted person can do, albeit a bit differently."

Marquardson is the manager of writing services in the communications services branch of the Manitoba Government. He has worked with Scott Best for a year and half as his supervisor. Best, now 27 years old, was born with retinopathy of prematurity and lost, what little vision he had, by the age of three.

Scott was hired through the Gateway program, a placement and referral program for external job seekers who self declare as a member of one of the following employment equity groups: Aboriginal, visible minority and individuals with a disability.
At first Marquardson had some trepidations and felt uneasy about how to address Scott's sight issues in the workplace.

"I was worried that I would say or do something that was offensive to Scott. I was also concerned about Scott's ability to do the job and whether his blindness would limit his effectiveness, which could be a big problem, especially during periods with a heavy workload."

But he found quite the opposite and through his experience working with Best, Marquardson gained the knowledge of how easy it is to work with a person who is blind.

"After working with Scott for just a few short weeks, I quickly learned he was every bit as capable as our other writers and his blindness was pretty much a non-issue."

Best's office is outfitted with the same equipment as other staff. The only specific accommodations provided for Scott was Jaws software, which allows Best to read the screen through a text to speech output, and a Braille printer. 

Not only did he learn how to make a workspace accessible, he learned that hiring a person with a disability does not mean they can't do the job.

"He is now an important member of our team, a skilled writer and editor who is held in high regard throughout our department. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give Scott is that, these days, it seldom occurs to me that Scott is blind."
Best is one of the few people across Canada who are blind that is employed. The employment rate among Canadians with vision loss is strikingly low: 38 per cent versus 73 per cent for people without a disability. And approximately half of Canadians who are blind or partially sighted live on a low income of $20,000 a year or less.  

"That's tremendously unfair and a waste of a valuable resource, because many disabled individuals, like Scott, have excellent qualifications, but they can't get a foot in the door," said Marquardson. "I suspect it's because many employers see the disability first, and the person second. They're worried that they'll need to provide a lot of special accommodations and that it will involve lots of extra work and expense.

"But it's not true. Many individuals with disabilities require very little assistance in the workplace, and they tend to be very motivated employees, perhaps because they're determined to show they can do most things that an able-bodied person can. All he needed was an opportunity."

Travis Spilak, Security Manager – Systems, Corporate Security SaskTel

Working with someone who is blind or partially sighted is not a complicated process, and often only requires some small workplace adaptations.

"I don't feel that my experience working with Shan has been much different than my experience working with any other individual," said Regina-based Travis Spilak, SaskTel Security Manager – Systems for Corporate Security.

Spilak has worked with Shan Noyes for over six years as his supervisor.  Noyes is legally blind, and uses a guide dog to travel both independently and safely.

Noyes has been working for SaskTel for over 25 years as a technical analyst. "If given the opportunity to work, we can be just as productive as a sighted person," he said.

Previous to Noyes, Spilak worked with Ian Widdup, another SaskTel employee who is blind, and found both experiences to be positive ones.

"Although there may be some specific challenges for people who are blind or partially sighted that need to be kept in mind in the workplace, it isn't really much different than the requirements of other people I work with.  I believe that all employees have specific requirements that they need in order to be successful at work." 

The required workplace accommodations were minor for Noyes.  He was given an office with a door so that his voice-over software on his computer and phone didn't disturb his coworkers.  His private office space also prevents distraction for his guide dog, Danson, and co-workers who may otherwise want to interact with Danson when he's working. 

Noyes also has a brail keyboard, scanner, and OCR software.  He has flexible work hours to help with the sometimes early drop off and pick up schedule of public transit, and receives assistance when interacting with non-accessible tools and processes. For example, older software, applications, or paper forms, etc.

The company's position statement is: SaskTel has long recognized the significant impact that diverse employees, including those who are blind or partially sighted, have on our workplace and our customer base.  It contributes to a focus on attraction and retention of diverse employees at all levels, and the resulting inclusion has, and will continue to provide, value to the province of Saskatchewan as well as our customers and employees of SaskTel.

Noyes also agrees with the concept of diversity. "Don't get hung up on a person's lack of vision, but instead focus on what the positive impact that individual can bring to your company."