Sarah Blake LaRose (3kitties) wrote,
Sarah Blake LaRose

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thoughts about advocacy and unemployment

I've been involved recently in some discussions on the ACB-L list regarding the same old familiar topic: unemployment. In the course of these discussions, I have brought up my eight-year job search in an attempt to illustrate some points: namely that in certain fields volunteering is not going to land a person a job because employers want to see that the applicant has previous paid experience in the field; that long-term unemployment puts a person in a situation in which the person does not have the resources to relocate for a job; that it is nearly impossible to obtain an entry-level job in a city in which one does not live because the employers will fill the position locally... There are a number of people on the list who are successfully employed and who have tried to share their strategies. These are all things I tried years ago. They unfortunately were not appropriate strategies for my situation.

My participation in the discussion seems to have backfired on some counts. I'm not sure whether the problem is me or the other people involved. About half the people reading seem to appreciate what I'm saying. The other half seem to think that I am angry and cynical and that I think that people who are successful are bragging. I suppose I used the wrong wording in my posts; but I'm not sure what else to use to communicate that sometimes people need to think outside of what worked for them. When I say that I'm glad that someone has been successful, I mean it. However, that is irrelevant to the discussion at hand. That person has never experienced the long-term difficulties that I and many other blind people are facing. In some cases, people have been working for 20 years or more. It can actually be more difficult to gain employment now than it once was. I have observed this change, but it is hard to explain in words. It has to do with the cheapening of labor. If something can be automated, it will be. If it can be outsourced, it will be. Many of these "cheap labor" jobs are things that used to be done by unskilled workers; and they used to be paid well because doing them well was valued. This was once the way that people worked their way through college. It was also the way that many people with various disabilities supported themselves.

On top of this, many professions which were formerly friendly to people who are blind are no longer so friendly. Some are fading altogether. The advent of the electric keyboard (aka synthesizer) has made it difficult to locate a real piano anywhere. Many people who are blind once worked as piano tuners and were paid quite well for it. Teachers of people who are blind now travel to the blind people instead of teaching at a specific location. This means that in order for a person who is blind to do the job, she needs a driver--and the employer fills the job with a sighted person because then a driver is not needed. The impact of the quickly changing computer industry means that people who are blind are almost always a step or two behind. Working in IT is a bit challenging in this regard. When I explored technical writing as a potential career, this was a significant source of frustration for me. How does one document the use of a program which is inaccessible?

I am not angry or bitter; but I am not a person who glosses over anything either. I do not hold out false hopes. I call reality what it is because that is the only way that I can get on with the task of dealing with it. I acknowledge that this and that strategy haven't worked in my job search for eight years, and it's obviously time to move on to something different. It's all a matter of figuring out what is doable and what is not. Otherwise, I will be 80 and still doing the same things, trying to get the same jobs because that's what someone said worked for him. If this sounds negative, it's not. This same strategy gets me through school. I wake up in the morning, realize that my back is still hurting and I have books to scan if I'm going to be successful in school this semester and meds to take if I'm going to control the pain, and I get up and do it. It's something I can do. An angry person would just give up, not even go to school, assume that nothing would work. An angry person would heap burning verbal coals on every employer who refused to hire her. I don't. Every one of those situations was excruciatingly painful, and sometimes there is a lesson in one of them for a group of people to whom I am speaking; but I do not speak evil of individuals. I will keep trying because that is what I do. What I will not do, however, is sugar-coat reality.

There is one reason I won't sugar-coat reality. It's one thing for me to struggle uphill. If it was only me struggling, I would do it behind the scenes and never say a word. But it isn't about me, regardless of how it looks. I try to let my experiences make a point. I have skills, and I couldn't get a job. What about people who have none? What is their experience? It is well and good to talk about training them; but it is not such an easy thing to accomplish, and we in the blind community put a lot of blame on them without realizing how hard it is for them to overcome their circumstances. I have the advantage of being raised in a strong family with minor dysfunctions. Not everyone has that advantage; and we are expecting people with some very poor backgrounds to just pull up their bootstraps and get on with life. If I'm going to be an advocate for people who are blind, I have to realize the impact of my advantage, and I have to advocate for people who do not have that advantage. I cannot afford to assume that everyone has the potential or opportunities that I have had.

I know of people who have never even held a part-time job, never gone to college, and perhaps never will. I could never begin to advise them without getting out of my own circumstance and into theirs. My strategies would never work for them because they are facing an entirely different set of circumstances. Some of them could barely make it through high school due to learning disabilities on top of blindness. It is unreasonable to think that they will ever get the kind of education that would allow them to work as IT professionals. Yet they are 30 years old now and want badly to do what their peers are doing: raise families and own homes. There is a tremendous disparity between what they want and what they know they can do. For many of them, the disparity itself creates a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness. That feeling is something I can relate to, even if I cannot personally relate to the circumstances. I would only make the disparity worse by telling them about how I went back to school so that I will someday be able to get a job. Their hopelessness will only be alleviated if I get inside their situations and help them figure out what will work for them.


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