Barriers to employment identified by blind and vision-impaired persons in New Zealand.

Author:La Grow, Steven J.
Position:Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind


The Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind (RNZFB) has identified the low rate of employment among its members as a priority to be addressed in its latest strategic plan. The identification of the barriers to employment their members face, and the exploration of solutions for overcoming them, are necessary first steps for addressing this issue. This paper reports on a study of 95 members of RNZFB who were asked to identify barriers to employment, solutions for overcoming them and the types of training or educational programmes undertaken that proved most helpful in acquiring or retaining employment. The barriers identified clustered around two themes: (a) direct and indirect consequences of having a vision impairment, and (b) the attitudes and behaviours of potential employers. Solutions offered clustered around three themes: (a) the provision of disability-specific training and adaptive technology, (b) altering attitudes among potential employers, and (c) the provision of better vocational services. Vocational training was identified as being the most beneficial type of programme attended, followed by disability-specific training for adaptation. The implications of these findings in relation to existing policy for disability are discussed.


Participation in the workforce is a primary activity for most people of working age. Work provides obvious economic rewards, as well as a sense of identity, accomplishment and meaning. The workplace also often provides the majority of one's social interactions outside of the home. Numerous studies show participation in the workforce (i.e. employment) to be related to increased self-esteem and higher levels of self-efficacy, while unemployment has been shown to result in depression and low self-esteem, and to have a negative impact on families and personal relationships (Leonard 2000). Disabled people are generally under-represented in the workplace, and those with significant vision disabilities are among those most disadvantaged (Wolffe and Spungin 2002). Even in the most developed countries, it appears that only about 30% of working-age adults with a significant vision disability are meaningfully employed, compared to 70%-80% of the population as a whole (Bruce et al. 1991, Hagemoser 1996, Hanye and Crudden 1999, Kirchner 1988, Leonard et al. 1999, McNeil 2001, Roy et al. 1998).

Although there are some real limitations imposed by the consequences of a vision impairment, there is little doubt that factors external to one's ability to perform a given job also play a huge role in limiting employment opportunities among this population (Hagemoser 1996). Wolffe and Spungin surveyed 102 organisations of the blind in 75 countries, asking them a series of open-ended questions, one of which was to identify the "greatest barriers to employment for persons who are blind or vision impaired" (2002:246). The responses in descending order of frequency were:

* poverty

* discrimination

* lack of education and resources

* employer awareness of the abilities of persons with vision disabilities

* lack of necessary technological aids and appliances

* inadequate legislative support

* economic factors affecting society as a whole

* difficulties with mobility and physical accessibility to the workplace

* workforce opportunities dominated by high-tech industries

* inability to read print

* lack of exposure to the world of work

* unfavourable workplace policies

* lack of social skills

* lack of role models.

The frequency of responses varied somewhat according to the socio-economic development of the countries surveyed, yet the order of the responses differed little from developed to developing countries (Wolffe and Spungin 2002).


In terms of rates of employment among those with a vision disability, the situation in New Zealand is similar to that experienced elsewhere. A recent study of a randomly selected group of 150 working-age members of the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind (RNZFB) found employment rates to range from 26% for those who had "no usable vision" to 65% for those with "a lot", with a mean rate of 39% across the entire sample (La Grow 2003). This compares to an employment rate of 40% for all disabled adults and 70% for those without disabilities (Statistics New Zealand 2002:17). The rate of employment found for this group may be considered representative of that which would be found for all persons with a significant vision disability in New Zealand, as RNZFB is the only provider of specialised rehabilitation services for this population and registration as a member is required for access to those services. As a result, the vast majority of persons with a significant vision disability in this country are registered members of RNZFB.

RNZFB has addressed the implications of these findings in objective 1.6 of their strategic plan for 2004-2007 in which they state: "We will assist members to secure or retain employment consistent with their skills, abilities and interests" (RNZFB 2004:16). This objective is in line with objective 4 of the New Zealand Disability Strategy, which is to provide opportunities in employment and economic development for disabled people.

In order to reach these objectives, the barriers to doing so must first be made explicit so that they may be addressed. This is essential because it is not clear how well the barriers listed above represent those experienced by blind and vision-disabled people in New Zealand. Those reported by Wolffe and Spungin (2002) represent (a) the views of organisations of the blind rather than individuals, and (b) an international aggregated view as opposed to the unique perspective of those living in New Zealand. Findings from studies that have directly canvassed individuals about their perceptions of the barriers to employment do differ from those reported above, and usually identify two primary concerns: (a) attitudes of the employer (e.g. discrimination or ignorance), and (b) limitations imposed by the interaction between one's visual abilities (i.e. vision impairment) and the demands of the environment (e.g. issues of accessibility and demands of the job) (Crudden 2002, Hagemoser 1996, Malakpa 1994, O'Day 1999, Rumrill et al. 1997, Salomone and Paige 1984, Tillsley 1997). However, none of these studies have used questions that were as open ended as those used by Wolffe and Spungin (2002). As a result, it is not clear if the findings vary due to the perspective of the respondents, or to the methodology used, or both. Nor were any of these studies conducted in New Zealand, and as a result their findings may be no more representative of the experience of those living in this country than those reported by Wolffe and Spungin (2002).

Therefore, the purpose of this study was to identify the barriers to employment experienced by blind and vision-disabled...

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