Turning a blind eye: The stark realities of employment prospects for visually impaired persons in South Africa

13 December 2021 by Kevin Jooste and Louis Linde

When considering the discriminatory past of the nation, South Africa has been home to a myriad of legislative reforms which enshrine the rights of all workers and promote just employment practices and relations.

However, despite the nation’s discriminatory past, legislative reform, and the continued need for equality and transformation, job seekers who present with disabilities often find themselves effectively eviscerated of their right to earn a living — this, as they fall victim to employment discrimination, while further remaining particularly vulnerable in an economy with an abysmal unemployment rate.

For those fortunate enough to actually secure some form of work, the practical reality for disabled employees is that they face a labour market in which there is a general lack of reasonable accommodation in the workplace, an inaccessible public transportation network, a lack of assistive devices/technologies at work, a generally low level of disabled employ, and overall ignorance of their potential to work.

Furthermore, in many instances, employers hold a lack of concern for or ignorance of disability policies, and generally do not engage with proactive efforts to address barriers to the employment of persons with disabilities.

According to attorney Tzvi Brivik of Malcolm Lyons and Brivik Attorneys Inc, even where employers engage sincerely with employment equity as it relates to the employment of disabled persons, this seldom follows through to their consideration and reasonable accommodation on a daily basis once employed, or to appropriate consideration on termination — including through retrenchment.

While South African labour legislation mandates the employment of persons with various disabilities by designated employers, the practical “grey area” of such legislation is that no specificity of quota is given to the specific categories of disability to be employed by designated employers.

In addition, and in general terms, building codes do not prescribe minimum requirements for the accessibility of buildings for the visually impaired. The practical consequence then is one in which the employment of the disabled person is a product of the overall cost to accommodate them in the workplace. It is in this regard that the blind and visually impaired find themselves particularly vulnerable.

The sad reality is that in over 10 years of researching the labour market plight of the blind and visually impaired, we have yet to see meaningful change, or for that matter, progress toward meaningful redressal of discriminatory attitudes, stereotypes, environmental barriers and poor enforcement of the Employment Equity Act. This is despite some progressive measures being implemented by the state and private sectors.  

To truly understand the employment and workplace challenges faced by the blind and visually impaired, one must immerse oneself in the world of work as it exists for them. To do this, we recently conducted an in-depth interview with several, key players at Blind SA, namely; Ntshavheni Netshituni, Chairperson; Christo de Klerk, Vice Chairperson; Jace Nair, CEO; and André Vosloo, Chairperson for the Advocacy and Information Committee for Blind SA. The synopsis of their thoughts, experiences and the continued challenges faced by the blind and visually impaired, follow.

Catching a bus, train or taxi to work is, for most, simply part of daily routine. The reality for the blind and visually impaired though is starkly different. For them, public transport is often a no-go and is where they face verbal abuse, or outright discrimination, especially if they use a guide dog. In addition, they often further face the prospect of being victims of petty and opportunistic crime while attempting to use public transportation. You might well then think to yourself, okay, there are e-hailing services, why not just use that? In a nutshell, cost. If we use a 25km one way trip as a benchmark, the cost ranges between R220 to R293, and that’s one way.  

While many of us almost take the experience of “death-by-PowerPoint”, or endless whiteboard scribbling meetings for granted, both these media remain visually skewed, and their use has no real benefit for the blind and visually impaired. If one takes the time to think about it, most of what is done at work is skewed towards the visual modality, and where everything from training and development, through to discussion of annual reports, is done with sighted persons in mind.

Now, at this point, you would be correct in pointing out that various software programs exist to assist the visually impaired at work, and that various assistive devices are also available. Indeed, this is true, however, as noted earlier, it is the notion of cost-to-company that perhaps plays the biggest role here. The screen-reading program, JAWS, often costs in excess of R20,000 per licence, per year, with the added difficulty that most accounting software packages, for instance, are not compatible with JAWS (and other screen readers). While equivalent freeware exists, companies are hesitant to use these, out of a fear of creating a vulnerability on the enterprise network.

The harsh reality here is that an employer is more likely to expend once-off-cost to build a ramp for a wheelchair-bound employee than they are to expose themselves to recurring costs, such as screen-reading software licences for a prospective employee who is visually impaired.

As people, we often fear what we do not know. It is this same fear, and, perhaps ignorance, that creates further difficulty for the blind and visually impaired in the workplace. Often, the blind and visually impaired effectively find themselves outcasts at work with colleagues not wanting to speak with them out of a fear that they might say the wrong thing.

On the other side of the coin, colleagues will sometimes (and perhaps out of personal discomfort) confuse sensory modalities, and end up speaking loudly to their blind or visually impaired colleague, thereby creating the impression that they perhaps consciously, or otherwise, view their visually impaired colleague as lacking in intellect.

The practical consequence of this fear and ignorance is that the blind and visually impaired often find themselves stuck in closet type jobs, and as “tokens” of an organisation’s commitment toward employing those with disabilities. The sad reality for this group then is one in which they find themselves in an untenable situation where their skill sets are not being utilised, they have little or no impact on organisational function, have no real prospect of furthering their careers, and are surrounded by colleagues who are frustrated by their lack of output.

In some ways then it could be argued that they are effectively set up to fail, or flounder in workplace frustration.  

As noted at the outset, South Africa currently faces a high unemployment rate. With this said, Blind SA approximates that their current job-seeker database has more than 500 applicants, ranging in skill from matriculants to university graduates, and where as few as five applicants have been placed, in part-time positions, within the last 12 months. Indeed, Covid-19 rocked South Africa in 2020 and would have further impeded placements, however, for 2019, placement figures from the database are much the same.

So, what then of learnerships? Surely government and private organisations provide access to learnerships for the blind and visually impaired? Indeed, there are some learnerships available, with emphasis on the “some” part. Learnerships in general are skewed in favour of those who are sighted. For those who do get into learnerships, their experience is often one in which they are a window-dressing token candidate, rather than someone being meaningfully developed.

Where then does this leave the blind and visually impaired? For those of lower-level skill and education, and if highly fortunate, the practical secular reality faced is near stereotypical, with work often encompassing the production of canes, weaving of baskets, packaging, or debulking type work, this in protected workshop-type settings, on a “piece-meal” basis, and consequently with little prospect of a meaningful wage.

In many instances, the blind and visually impaired of a lower skill level will rather opt to stay at home and receive a social grant from government, as the grant provides a more gainful and stable source of income to them and their families. 

On the other end of the spectrum, the blind and visually impaired might find themselves employed as switchboard or call centre operators, although this is highly dependent on the inclination of the organisation to accommodate them, and during a time in which such functions are being more and more automated. On the other hand, Absa and Standard Bank have been noted as employers of blind and visually impaired persons in positions such as software programmers and call centre operators. In general, this represents an exception, rather than the rule, with demand well outstripping the supply of available positions.

With all this said, Blind SA continues to promote awareness in organisations. They also continue to face a frustrating reality where the champions of blind and visually impaired employment in organisations are often promoted, or leave for other positions, leaving Blind SA to once again attempt to rebuild awareness, understanding and agreements with these organisations. This loss of institutional memory presents a very real, and consistent challenge for society.

In November 1997, the Integrated National Disability Strategy White Paper was released by the Office of the Deputy President, highlighting the plight of the disabled. Now, nearly a quarter of a century later, the disabled face not only an oversaturated job-seekers market but one in which they are effectively unequal competitors.

The question then begs, for how much longer can we all continue to turn a blind eye?

Source: Daily Maverick at https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2021-12-13-turning-a-blind-eye-the-stark-realities-of-employment-prospects-for-visually-impaired-persons-in-south-africa/?fbclid=IwAR3jYUzCRsktFGmx3pCbb5yYeL7HbCwQglC3ESjvYWEyyZLzSw5SEEfh2Fg