How blind engineers are fixing the online job hunt

Emilee Geist

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Magnification and text-to-speech software can help people with visual impairments navigate online job search tools.


AFB

This story is part of Tech for a Better World, stories about the diverse teams creating products, apps and services to improve our lives and society.

Searching for a job during a pandemic is a difficult task, especially as joblessness claims rise to over 740,000 in the US and many people have found themselves unemployed in recent months. If you’re living with a disability such as blindness or visual impairment, it can be even more difficult. But a team at the American Foundation for the Blind is making the online job hunt more accessible for everyone, from the initial search to interviewing, getting hired and starting work. 

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“Throughout the entire lifecycle of employment there are potential barriers and friction for individuals with vision loss, and really anybody with a disability,” said Megan Aragon, chief program officer at AFB. “There’s a direct connection between access to technology, accessibility of job postings, inclusive recruiting practices and just getting your foot in the door.” 

As of 2017, of the 2 million individuals aged 16 to 64 with vision loss, only 39% participated in the labor force, and 10% of those were unemployed, according to an AFB study. When you break down the job searching process, you can start to see all of the issues at play.

Read more: Unemployed? Here are 8 online resume-writing services to help you land a new job

To search for a job online while visually impaired means you have to have a computer or phone with internet access, as well as the tools that will help you use it. Some of these tools are built into your device, like the Windows 10 magnifier, which makes words appear larger, or the Mac VoiceOver feature, which can read information out loud. Or there’s software like ZoomText, which uses a combination of magnification and screen reading to help those with vision impairments navigate the web. 

Then, you have to submit a resume and cover letter, through a job search engine or a company website — so if those job sites don’t have features that let people with visual impairments navigate them, they won’t work. 

Say you make it to an interview, either online or in person — then you’re discovering the hiring manager’s attitude toward someone with a visual impairment, and their understanding of your capabilities. And if you get hired, you’ll have to learn what technologies the company has and how they can be made accessible, navigate relationships with your manager and coworkers, and figure out how to create a path for advancement and career growth. 

The pandemic has brought additional challenges for workers and job seekers with visual impairments, according to an AFB survey of adults with visual impairments in the US performed in April. Of 253 participants who were employed, 38% reported experiencing an accessibility problem with at least one of the tech tools needed to do their job, and 22% reported they weren’t able to access technology at home that was essential for their job. 

Read more: Meet the blindness consultant ensuring Apple TV Plus show See respects accessibility

Building in accessibility from the start

To improve these conditions, AFB has a consulting service made up of a team of professionals and accessibility engineers (most of whom have visual impairments) that helps companies make their websites, tools and practices more accessible and, more importantly, user-friendly. Aragon likens it to having four different remote controls for your TV that all work fine, but ultimately aren’t as nice to use as one universal remote. 

The consulting service helps companies build in accessibility to their job posting, recruiting and onboarding processes, as well as their websites and products. They also test digital work environments to make sure all employees can perform their jobs, and develop HR strategies and emergency response modifications for people with disabilities (like fire drills). 

AFB Consulting has worked with Google on accessibility training and additions to its software and hardware products, including G-Suite applications and Chromebook. It also worked with Adobe to make its PDF software easier to use and read, and AT&T, Verizon and Sony Ericsson to make some of their cell phones more accessible to people with disabilities. 

“Technology should make our lives better and our ability to do work easier,” Aragon said. “It should be serving a purpose of good, and not a barrier that we must overcome. Creating that accessibility and universal design from the beginning so everyone can access information is critical.” 

For more check out how mobile apps give the blind and visually impaired a new sense of freedom


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