Vocational training and employment based on the outcomes of the Arla-ICEVI workshop and focused on future developments in this field
Marika Carlborg, Finland

Plenary session 3, Tuesday 11 July 2000, 14.00 - 15.30


Background

Most people will have to change their profession 3 - 8 times in their lives. Also those who remain in the same profession will see their work changing, both when it comes to content and ways of working. Work also demands strong commitment and flexibility when it comes to work hours. People are also more likely to move in order to get work and the work they find is more often project work or short-term employment. Self-employment is also becoming more popular, with an increase in small and medium size companies. The work is usually teamwork or networking, bringing more focus on social and interaction skills.

Skills valued in today's working life are initiative, entrepreneurship, teamwork skills, self-evaluation skills and what might be called emotional intelligence. It is also important to be multi-skilled, have the ability successfully manage change and tolerate uncertainty.

Technological competence is already a must in many professions. The advances of technology has also created a number of new professions, for example in e-commerce. Computers are also becoming more common in fields such as physiotherapy.

Challenges for vocational training

The time spent in education or vocational training is growing. It is no longer possible to forecast the skills required for a certain profession to the exact degree that was previously possible. Nowadays it is more important for training organisations to focus on offering and acquiring such qualifications, that make it possible to participate in various work processes. The training is also being brought closer to the labour market and its needs, although in many instances the education system can still be quite rigid. It is also important to pay attention to the changes in the structure of the economy and focusing training on professions that are viable in that particular country and not train people for work that is disappearing. The changes in the working environment also provide a strong case for life-long learning. One of the most important skills a training organisation can offer its students is the ability to learn to master new skills, investing in their own mental capital, if you will.

The way in which vocational training is offered is also becoming more diverse. Apprenticeship training, flexible/distance learning, virtual courses, etc. are some of the forms of training being increasingly used.

I am sure we can all agree, that inclusion is the preferred choice in vocational training. Even so it is important, that there is continuity between general vocational training and special vocational training ensuring freedom of choice for visually impaired students.

The curricula for different professions vary from country to country and are "culture specific" making generalisations more difficult. When looking at the curriculum it should provide a balance between two parts, professional subjects and skills required to manage as a visually impaired person, including career guidance. Here social skills are very important, young visually impaired children should start focusing on these skills already in primary school.

Due to the rapid changes in the labour market, a periodic review of the vocational training is important. Analysis of professions and work tasks, which is then used when shaping the curriculum, helps keep the training up to date and help those visually impaired students studying in general vocational colleges. Especially for blind and severely partially sighted people, task analysis is a useful tool for providing a training that is broad enough to provide a general level of the diverse skills valued on the labour market while at the same time making it possible to include much deeper knowledge of a more narrowly defined subject, which in turn makes finding employment easier. Training for self-employment is also important, as well as some form of post-graduate support for the entrepreneurs.

Life-long learning is becoming essential, raising the need for post-graduate training with courses that help keep visually impaired people up to date in their preferred profession, thereby helping to guarantee their continued employment.

An important part of the vocational training is taking place in the workplace as learning in the workplace, internships or work placements. Close co-operation with companies during work practice is important, since it gives a picture of real life work. The employer can also be involved in the planning of the training, keeping it more current with today's needs of the labour market. One drawback is that the training can become too company specific, making it difficult to generalise.

During the vocational training it is also good to work on the transition phase between school and work. This could include meetings with a career guidance counsellor, for example either working for a training organisation, employment office or advocacy group (organisation of the blind, Workable). This person could work as a link between the visually impaired person and the labour market / training organisations. This person could well be visually impaired himself or herself. Questions to be pondered could include when and how to mention being visually impaired when applying for a job, how to deal with prejudices and social or technical barriers.

Employment

Within Europe, there are cultural differences and different starting points for employment and developing new jobs for blind and partially sighted people. Employment can be divided into three main groups: salaried work, which can be full-time or part-time, self-employment and supported or sheltered employment.

Company size and ownership (public, private) plays a role in its policy of hiring people with disabilities. A larger company offers more opportunities where it is possibilities to tailor work tasks to the individual's abilities. A large company has a bigger staff, which provides opportunities for mentoring and support from co-workers. The public sector is also traditionally a good employer for visually impaired people. Small and medium size companies tend to be less friendly, often due to a tighter budget and less staff resources, making it more difficult to tailor tasks. This might be a problem, since a growing number of companies fall into this size group.

There are many ways in which the government has tried to smooth the way for disabled people to find employment. These include quotas, short-term wage subsidies and anti-discrimination legislation. All measures have both good and bad sides. The pension system can provide both incentives and deterrents to employment for visually impaired people. Co-operation between training organisations, government organisations, labour unions and companies would be of value when considering these issues.

The IT challenge

The use of information technology can help to prevent exclusion, for example due to distances, while offering opportunities to work and study from home. At the same time it can serve to exclude visually impaired people by confining them to their homes, possibly due to poor skills in mobility due to lack of use, fewer social contacts and maybe even a reduction in transportation services.

Information technology has created a number of new professions. Some other professions, that were previously restricted, can also now be accessed by blind and partially sighted people. Some occupations include maintenance of databases, telephone services, such as helpdesk services and emergency services (112). But in order to be able to take advantage of these, a visually impaired person must be a skilled user of both computers and assistive technology. This leads to questions of the accessibility and usability of the information available via the net. For instance many public services are now available via the Internet, but not all of them are accessible for people with visual impairment. Assistive technology questions and solutions are paramount. How will the assistive technology be able to at least try to keep pace with increasingly graphic information technology and how heavy and complex will the solutions be? This is a key element for employment in the growing IT sector as well as in many other fields where computers are making inroads. Offering training in the use of assistive technology is increasingly important. Still one should also be aware, that not every visually impaired person wants to or has the ability to work with computers. There should always be other alternatives available.

The European Union's 'eEurope' initiative focuses on the importance of an information society for all, with one section concerning 'eParticipation' for people with disabilities.
http://europa.eu.int/comm/information_society/eeurope/objectives/area07_en.htm

When it comes to employment, assistive technology poses its own challenges. The cost is one factor. This is different in all countries, but should be considered. Assistive devices take time to get and this again is a problem with short employment contracts, which is the current trend. There is some talk of a system where it would be possible to borrow the necessary assistive devices until the visually impaired person can get his own? Compatibility between the assistive devices and the software used by the employer is also a matter that needs to be worked out.

Work can be different

A growing number of visually impaired people opt for self-employment. Here they can build on individual skills, control the amount of work they take on, tailor the working environment and practices as well as the technological infrastructure to their needs. Cooperatives with limited liability together with other visually impaired people is less risky, gives peer support and offers opportunities for people with complementary skills to work together, for example furniture upholsterers and an accountant or physiotherapists, a receptionist and an administrator. Here the risk is shared and ability maximised. Networks of visually impaired entrepreneurs is another way of offering support.

In eastern Europe large companies or factories for visually impaired people are the major employers. Here the key is to find products to manufacture, that have a market.
In western Europe manufacturing work in general is decreasing, being replaced by automation. The growth of technology and decrease of manual work poses a problem for those visually impaired persons who, for one reason or another, can't or don't want to work with computers.

Working life can't be just for visually impaired people who are in good health and computer literate. Other professions than IT are equally valuable, but need to have their profiles raised. Handicrafts is one such profession, that is underrated. To raise its profile we could talk about handicrafts as design products with a high standard of quality control and product development. This can be ensured through courses, networks of instructors, etc.

There also needs to be strong focus and development of jobs for those visually impaired people with additional disabilities either as sheltered work, in activity centers or using supported employment. Especially finding employment using the supported employment method opens up a wide variety of work for blind and partially sighted people with multiple disabilities.

Conclusion

To conclude I would like to present the following general observations on the future labour market's demands from the point of view of blind and partially sighted people:

  1. Functionality
    Body control, positive body language
  2. Information management methods
    Using the keyboard, working with a computer using a graphic user interface, using the internet
  3. Interaction, social and communication skills
    Appearance, people skills, a sense of the situation, teamwork skills, performance skills, written and oral communication
  4. Independence and responsibility
    Independence, longevity, attitude toward shared responsibility
  5. Developing oneself
    An ability for continuous learning and acquiring information.

The question is, how can these areas develop in a child, youth or adult in rehabilitation and education?

Address:
Marika Carlborg
The Arla Institute
Puustellinmäki 4-6
02600 Espoo, Finland
E-mail: marika.carlborg@arlainst.fi


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