Employment for the visually impaired: the indian experience

Audio description: This is a colour photo. Diffused light is coming from a large window illuminating the room. There is a group of people around at the table. A man with a black beard and wearing a turban is standing and looking away. Two other men are sitting at the table and discussing something. Two women – one with dark hair and the other with blond hair – are sitting with their backs to the camera.

According to the recent statistics of the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, about 284 million people suffer today from various eye conditions, among which 39 million are totally blind. Reading this data, the acclaimed story by H.G. WellsThe Country of the Blindsprings to mind, in which blind people living in an isolated community learned to live ignoring their condition and not even knowing the true designation of human eyes. In the real world, blind people, after losing their eyesight, do not lose their will to continue with their normal life: to study, evolve, work, travel, have friends and start a family.

Employment is one of the most pressing issues facing blind people. Back in the Soviet Union, there was a whole system of specialised enterprises for people with visual impairments. The people performed their duties perfectly well, but lost their jobs after the massive shutdown of these enterprises. Finding a job in the general market is hugely problematic for the visually impaired. The majority of employers are reluctant to hire the visually impaired due to existing stereotypes, unreasonable fears and lack of knowledge of the potential and professional advantages of such job applicants. It will take a considerable amount of time for all these reasons to dissolve. This process can be facilitated not only by specific governmental programmes, but also by access to information about the professional skills of blind and partially sighted employees, as well as by personally knowing such people and adopting the experience of other countries which have advanced in solving these types of problems.

One such country, in particular, is India, which was described by Mark Twain as the "cradle of the human race" and the "mother of history". Prashant Ranjan Verma, General Secretary of the National Association for the Blind in Delhi, India, shared with Special View his thoughts on the employment situation for the visually impaired in his country. According to him, over the past 15 years, India has seen a major shift in this matter. This was made possible thanks to the governmental programme and sensibilisation policy, as well as the development of computer technology for the blind and partially sighted.

“In India, there are a few organisations that are simultaneously engaged in implementing different programmes for the blind, including employment. They develop educational programmes and projects aimed at increasing access to books, information platforms and computer software. They protect the rights of applicants and employees with visual impairments and develop a legal framework in the field of employment for people with disabilities. In state-owned companies, it is required that a certain number of job vacancies are reserved for disabled people and lower-caste groups: 4% of vacancies must be distributed amongst people with disabilities. The law governing this issue was adopted in 1995. For the first 10-15 years, employers tried to avoid complying with it, and people with disabilities had to fight for their rights. In the last five years, there have been no problems with complying with this law anymore although it still applies only to state-owned companies. They are obliged to hire employees with disabilities. As for private companies, they do so only if they possess social integrity and have a developed corporate policy.

To protect the rights of people with disabilities in India, a special state commission has been created, where you can complain if you have applied for a job and have been rejected or if the company keeps delaying the start of your employment. The commission contacts the employer and investigates the cause for rejection or delay of employment. The commission cannot discipline the company, but, in most cases, it is not needed anyway: employers try to comply with the law and take on four or even five percent of people with disabilities. In any case, today every state-owned company in India has a certain number of vacancies reserved only for visually impaired applicants.

Unfortunately, visually impaired job applicants are not always well-educated and highly qualified, not everyone has computer skills, and their preparation for the job requires an intensive training course. To be hired by a company, they need to learn how to work with certain computer software and sometimes master it within a short period of time. There are two solutions to this problem: a company recruiting a blind employee turns to a partner training company or hires a coach who specialises in training visually impaired users.

It is very important for both parties to be mutually prepared for cooperation. In special training courses, applicants and employees learn how to use software effectively. Sensibilisation training sessions for employers and software developers help them to find out more about the challenges that visually impaired employees face whilst working with computers and the ways to overcome them.

In India, there are bank chains that use corporate software accessible to employees with visual impairments. This provides opportunities for career growth and promotion of such employees, with some of them even becoming heads of department. On the other hand, some banks still use programmes that cannot be read by a screen reader, which means they remain inaccessible to blind users.

Being employed and receiving a competitive salary is a matter of survival for blind people in our country. State disability pension is so small that it’s even embarrassing to talk about. Besides, the formalities are a long bureaucratic process. Many people simply can’t be bothered about it so they refuse to apply for these miserable allowances and condemn themselves to poverty.”

In present-day Russia, blind people cannot even dream of the opportunity of achieving the position of head of a bank department. On its path to inclusive employment, in general, Russia is at the same stage as India was five years ago. Most Russian employers still prefer to ignore the fact that 2% of the jobs must be reserved for people with disabilities (of the total number of people in companies with more than 100 employees). However, if they decide to comply with this requirement, they agree to employ only applicants of the third or, maximum, second category of disability. For socially responsible managers to believe in the capabilities of blind people and acknowledge their professional qualifications, we need both state policy and proactiveness of people with disabilities. In this regard, the Indian experience is extremely useful and important for Russia. It shows that, in our context, we also can achieve excellent results on the way to inclusive employment.