The Only Blind Person at work

In Representing Blindness, I shared some thoughts about often being the only blind person. Today, I’m going to talk specifically about being the only blind person at work.

As always, I’m not claiming to speak for other blind people. The thoughts contained here relate only to my experiences.

I hope anyone who reads this understands I’m not publishing it to complain. My hope with this is to educate at least one person about what working can be like for someone who is the only blind person at work.

Currently, I work for the city of Portland, Oregon (Portland)> Portland employs more than 8,000 people. As far as anyone can tell, I’m the first and only blind person employed by Portland. I don’t say that to brag. The truth is it disappoints me. I can’t wait to work somewhere where I’m not the only blind employee.

Since I’m the only blind employee Portland has ever had, there has never been anyone working there who works like me. There is no one I can talk with about my experiences working for Portland who has ever experienced working there the way I experience working there. Here are some of the things that are different for me that I would like folks to think about:

  • If I have a computer question, I can’t go to a colleague or even Technology Services, because no one else uses a screen reader. I’m on my own to find the answer.
  • Thanks to the inaccessibility of legacy technologies and many documents, I can’t do basic parts of being an employee like requesting time off, completing my timesheet, completing needed forms, and more without sighted assistance. I don’t like having to ask colleagues to help me do things they do without hesitation. Also, there is the reality that by forcing me to share information with more people than others must do, I don’t have the same right to privacy others expect.
  • When I’m advocating for something the public uses to be accessible, I’m also trying to make sure it’s accessible to me as someone living in Portland.
  • When I attend a meeting revolving around print handouts, I can’t participate as I may like. Even meetings I regularly attend and after I have asked people to make things more accessible, meetings are still too often inaccessible.

Truthfully, it’s not easy being the only blind person in a workforce of thousands. I remember a conversation I had with a colleague where she was complaining about an accessibility project we were working on with others. She said, “I just want to get back to my day job.”

Listening to her, I knew she had no idea how much privilege was behind that statement. If I work for Portland for 20 years, something I can’t imagine happening, I will never have the luxury of simply doing my day job. Portland will never be an accessible enough employer for me to simply focus on what I’m paid to do for Portlanders with disabilities.

I will always be advocating for something to be made accessible to me when its accessibility to me should have been considered from the outset. I will always be advocating for members of our community rarely included. My privacy will always be less. I will always have to work harder to complete tasks designed for sighted people to complete easily. I will do all of that with very few people ever stopping to consider their role in the inaccessibility they mistakenly believe is my responsibility to solve.

Honestly, it hurts my heart to have to face the reality that for many following the law and ceasing discriminatory practices isn’t a good motivation. But Portland isn’t the only place were following the law and ceasing unacceptable practices is the way things are now. I don’t know many people with disabilities who could write a post like this and not share stories of discrimination. The sad reality is that very few people are at a place where accessibility is even considered. People with disabilities have been so marginalized and excluded that most people have no meaningful experience with a person with a disability.

So, I hope this encourages one person to consider how they may be able to make their workplace more accessible. If you have hiring authority, consider hiring a qualified person with a disability and understand accommodating us is not as hard as it often seems.

I’m sorry if this sounds angry and/or bitter. Anger and bitter weren’t the feelings I wanted to communicate. But I wanted to be honest about what I experience, what I will continue experiencing, and how it all makes me feel.

I'd love to hear from you.

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