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European Workshop
Vocational Training and Employment of Visually Impaired


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Introductory lecture
Dolores Carmen Polo Serrano & Agapito G�mez Garc�a, O.N.C.E. Spain

European society faces a tertiary, productive world, amidst constant technological and organizational changes. Within this framework, it is the task of educational Systems to furnish expert professionals, individuals with a basic and versatile education that is capable of transforming or mutating their professions as quickly as a productive system requires. The system of educating neglect turn its back on the reality of the market into which they must ah integrate. Therefore preparing for employment must pay particular attention to the demands of the productive system when selecting and designing the educational offer to be imparted.

For some time now public educational policies have been organized on the basis of the needs of the non-disabled citizens, unaffected by any type of handicap. Several official estimations indicate that the visually impaired suffer unemployment at a rate that is two or three times higher than the average person, and that the Iength of their unemployment is longer than that of the rest of the population. Furthermore, it is Iikely that periods of economic recession affect them disproportionately and therefore, they suffer more than others during those periods of uncertainty and economic instability. This situation does not correspond to a lack of ability or merit. Business frequently tend to take the disability more into account than the genuine capability of the person in question and, as a result, may underestimate the value that these people may contribute to the company. Workplaces that are poorly adapted, a rigid organizational structure as well as continued discrimination are factors which contribute to the unemployment of the visually impaired.

An adjustment to the educational and training systems is therefore necessary for the employment of the visually impaired. To do so it is fundamentally important to maximise possibilities of the visually impaired for the purpose of integration and participation in society on equal terms, and their incorporation into the workplace insofar as they are capable. The integration of visually impaired students into general educational institutions should therefore be accelerated, while at the same time respecting freedom of choice and ensuring mutually-beneficial and inclusive continuity between "general" and "special" education. The active measures of the employment market aimed at encouraging open and assisted access toward the employment of the visually impaired should be increased. By means of experimenting with innovative tendencies (telecommuting, self-employed professionals, integration into local employment initiatives and into programs for the creation of employment in new sectors of intensive employment growth etc.) new employment channels may be opened. It has been proven that the application of information and communication techniques improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the visually impaired contribution to the labor market. This strategy must include a review of training programs for employment to ensure its feasibility.

Within the plans for action on educational matters, the ONCE (Spanish National Organization for the Blind) follows European guidelines relative to the training of the handicapped. Therefore, the new training system for employment should be functional, flexible, non-discriminatory, capable of adapting itself to the dynamic, post-industrial society it must serve, of providing the multipurpose competition required by today's professionals and, where appropriate, capable as well of identifying and recognizing the professional capability acquired by the worker in other training fields or through experience.

Functionality, flexibility and polyvaIence are virtues which, according to major international and European institutions, should accompany employment training programs. Some programs such as Leonardo, Helios or Horizon in addition to placing emphasis on the link between professional training Systems and the various labor and educational administrative departments, establish the lines of coordination so that the training as well as the career guidance that goes with it are permanent processes which "accompany the individual throughout his life". All of the European countries are developing strategic educational policies through National Action Plans (NAPs). And training and apprenticeship throughout one's life is the fundamental basis of employment.

Preparaing for the employment of the visually impaired should include the following aspects:

  1. The visually impaired.
  2. The curriculum.
  3. Career guidance.
  4. Qualified professionals.
  5. Collaboration between training institutions and the company.
  6. The incorporation of Technology.

1. The visually impaired.

This is one basic element to be taken into account when preparing for employment; the blind or visually-impaired individuals themselves. We should include the following aspects designing the course, guidance and training of these people to ensure equal opportunity employment:

2. Curriculum.

There are two types of curriculums which visually-impaired students should acquire simultaneously, the ordinary curriculum and the specific curriculum.

The ordinary curriculum is that which is relative to the professional profile for training like any other student, for the purpose of acquiring a degree of knowledge relative to academic matters. A series of key/core competencies must be worked upon within this curriculum, which are associated with conduct that is observed in that individual, mainly attitude type and, consequently, transferable skill to new work situations. It is the aim of the European program Eurotecnec and later that of the Leonardo da Vinci program, specifically the "Coreguide" Project directed by the CEDEFOP (Center for the Development of Professional Training) to incorporate key competencies into the initial and the continuous professional training. These key competencies, which are social, vocational as well as personal, may be classified as follows:

  1. Problem solving skills.
  2. Organizational skill on the job.
  3. Responsibility on the job.
  4. Teamwork.
  5. Autonomy.
  6. Interpersonal relations.
  7. Capacity for taking initiatives on the job.
  8. Adaptability.
  9. Evaluating working conditions.
  10. Professional involvement and commitment.
  11. The incorporation of acquired knowledge.

The specific curriculum, or core curriculum requires some areas of additional learning. Experiences and concepts that are learned by chance or incidentally by students that do not have a vision impairment, and which must be taught in a systematic and sequential manner to those visually-impaired students. This is a curriculum which refers to ability and needs that are specific to the visually impaired. This specific curriculum shall cover the following abilities or competencies:

  1. Functional or compensatory academic competencies, including forms of communication.
  2. Capacities for orientation and mobility.
  3. Social interaction competencies.
  4. Competencies for an independent life.
  5. Competencies for Leisure and Free Time.
  6. Career guidance that is specific to the type of handicap.
  7. Use of technology adapted to the visually impaired.
  8. Competencies for an efficient visual function.

3. Career Guidance

In the Task Force report (1993) entitled "The current situation in the scope of career guidance" we find the following paragraph:

"On the one hand, career guidance offers significant financial and social benefits: it can bring about a reduction in cases of studies being abandon, and also reduce the imbalances among professional requirements, and on the other hand the capacities and personal motivations (...); it can help those responsible for education and training to increase the efficiency of their services by placing apprentices in contact with those programs that are best adapted to their needs; and it can help management by encouraging potential employees whose qualifications and motivation are best suited to the needs of companies (...), to submit their candidacies. Career guidance is therefore a crucial strategic mechanism through which the community can encourage the development and the utilization of human resources: a key for the liberation of human potential.

Along the same line, the objective of the ONCE, in terms of Career Guidance and preparation, promotes a series of actions, such as:

  1. The development of specific training activities which contribute effectively to the placing of the blind or visually impaired into the working world.
  2. The promotion of technology to the visually impaired given its fundamental, instrumental nature.
  3. Analysis of the different professional families, in collaboration with the various organizational authorities and those of other institutions (Ministry of Education and Culture, INEM, IMSERSO, European institutions, etc.) for the purpose of obtaining information that is suitable for the planning and development of possible training offers in ONCE institutions, as well as supervising the curricular adaptations aimed al students educated al ordinary institutions.
  4. To design a map of resources for career preparation by areas of influence that adapts the training offer to the demands of the labor market.
  5. Effective educational planning, blending elements such as the: suitability of the teaching staff, ratios, provision of resources, timetables, internal and external practical training sessions, collaboration with experts, curricular adaptations, criteria, evaluation times and counseling, etc.
  6. Periodic review of the classes given, for the purpose of adapting the curriculum to actual training demands.
  7. To design a career-professional guidance program, as well as its application to the student body of specific institutions and the counselling of team professionals. And with reference to career-professional guidance, the importance of simulated interviews must not be overlooked. It is necessary to establish different interview models taking into account the professional profile, he capacities of the applicant and the characteristics of the position being sought.

In terms of ONCE's initiatives for Self-Employment, the objective is to achieve its consolidation as one more means of gaining access to employment, for those visually-impaired and/or blind persons who may have had, at any time, the interest, the initiative and the desire to put their own idea for a business into practice: either individually or jointly. The following objectives and actions are hereby proposed for this purpose:

  1. Objectives:
    1. To consolidate and optimize training courses and subsequent tutelage for self-employment.
    2. To improve the Systems for the channeling of information relative to self-employment. assistance and grants, courses etc.
    3. To optimize and intensify the awarding of loans and grants.
  2. Actions.
    1. The promotion and creation of programs which facilitate the start-up of self-employment projects.
    2. Post-training support, by means of personalized counselling and guidance tutelage for the start-up of the project.
    3. Creation of the professional Guidance Counsellor.

4. Qualified Professors.

Professors for specific institutions as well as those itinerant professors for the visually impaired should be qualified and, in addition to a suitable general education, should have a series of special competencies relative to:

  1. Knowledge of Braille.
  2. Knowledge regarding daily orientation and mobility skills.
  3. The role as mediator between other professionals and the family.
  4. Adaptation of the material.
  5. Knowledge about blind and visually-impaired students with associated handicaps.
  6. Knowledge of vision impairment and optical aids.
  7. Knowledge about new technologies and their applications to the visually impaired.

5. Collaboration between Training lnstitutions and Companies.

Beginning with the Maastricht Treaty, in the preparation of the White Paper for the European Commission, and in subsequent European agreements, cooperation on matters of training between educational institutions and companies is well reflected. Agreements with major business and union organizations must therefore be established and developed to address aspects such as:

The figure of the professional guidance counsellor is fundamental in the collaboration between training institutions and companies, in that he is the main link between these two entities. The objective of the professional guidance counsellor is to serve as a means of support to the visually impaired who wish to gain access to the world of employment or, for those who are already employed but wish to improve or overcome possible situations of exclusion or professional dissatisfaction, while always bearing in mind the global perspective and the coordination of all the institutions involved in the incorporation into the working world. Their tasks shall focus on:

  1. The establishment of evaluation and career guidance actions for the visually impaired, relying upon the definitive consolidation of the performance of team professions on matters of employment integration.
  2. Increasing information for the visually impaired, both individually and collectively, about programs available to them for access to the working world.
  3. Spreading and encouraging the utilization of employment search techniques among the visually impaired, arousing their consciousness to individual initiatives without decreasing the efforts of institutions.
  4. Establishing mechanisms which are suitable to tracking the effective application of legislation on matters relative to the reservation of jobs for the handicapped, in general, and for the blind and visually impaired, in particular, including those which have associated handicaps to blindness.
  5. Encouraging access to positions in the Public Administration for the visually impaired, by means of information relative to exam dates, financial and personal aid, institutional agreements for job adaptation and the necessary means.
  6. Tracking and giving priority to those who are at risk of losing their jobs due to blindness, so that this does not occur, facilitating in all cases their integration into the employment world.
  7. Keeping up to date on offers of employment, establishing a dynamic communication exchange with employment applicants.
  8. Increasing the awareness of the business world so that it supports policies of labor integration as an option which is both socially and financially profitable, while strengthening the situation of those visually-impaired individuals on action service.

6. The Incorporation of Technology

The development of information and communication Technology affect the visually impaired, in that it contributes to improving their training, personal autonomy and socio-professional integration. On the one hand, the almost total disappearance of manual, routine and repetitive labor has had a significant impact on those persons whose competency or cognitive capacities are restricted to basic tasks. But on the other hand this same technology allows the visually impaired access to a greater and Improved quality preparation, even for those with associated handicaps. Technology not only provides them with increased participation in the working world, but in other areas of life as well. For example, technology may be applied to provide a more flexible working atmosphere, through telecommuting or computerized employment, which may be the most appropriate for the labor skills and capacities of the visually impaired. The incorporation of technology involves improved communications and access to information by the visually impaired, which results in their improved Integration into the standard working atmosphere, while providing improved access to training and the acquisition of competency. Technology can and should be used to introduce new working practices, and to open new professional fields from which, up until now, the blind and the visually impaired have been excluded.

In conclusion, preparation for the employment of the visually impaired is a task which must be undertaken by several entities and institutions:
Ministry of Education, Ministry of Social Affairs, Ministry of Labor, training institutions, companies, unions and non-governmental organizations. Equal opportunities in terms of both employment and social life must be achieved, for the purpose of attaining total social and labor integration, by taking into account a person�s capacities and expectations but not his "incapacities", by means of an integrated, non-discriminatory and non-exclusive education. All people have a right to an education, in accordance with their possibilities, to increase their capacities so that they may compete in the labor market. With the incorporation of new technologies, the adaptation of the specific curriculum, the preparation of new key competencies, new methods of career guidance and suitable professionals, full preparation for equal opportunity employment shall be achieved.

List of propositions to be debated:

  1. How are the core skills being applied in the different European curricula?
  2. What curricula can be used in training for self-employment?
  3. How are the blind and visually impaired who have associated deficiencies being prepared for employment?
  4. Are company internships included in the specific curricula for vocational training?
  5. How is the simulation of interviews handled in the curricula?
  6. Does the position of Skills Guidance Officer exist in other European countries? What functions should he have?
  7. Could a blind or visually impaired person be a Skills Guidance Officer?
  8. Are the certificates which are granted at the end of the different courses official? If so, will they be officially recognised in other European countries?
  9. What is the structure of the different curricula such as Telephony and Chiro-massage?

Summary of the Discussions

Since this was the first groupwork some time was spent on introducing the system of training and education for visually impaired people in the participating countries.

When it comes to core skills in the different curricula, there emerged several interpretations and implementations, some in special schools and other in integration. It was said, that it is more possible to work on core skills in a special school, than in integration, where the process is more difficult to monitor. Still the core skills were in many cases included in normal teaching, and not as a special subject. The levels of integration varies from country to country. The same can be said for the curricula. In some countries the curriculum is determined on a state level and adapted on an institute level, whereas other countries has more individualized curricula. Available resources also play an important role.

Several groups talked about the importance of social skills. Some training is geared specifically towards developing these skills, whereas others detected a lack of social skills in the students.

Most countries offer training in starting one's own business or help the students who want to set up their own enterprise. There is also co-operation with varous government agencies, such as special counsellors in employment offices. Some organisations have their own specialists in business matters.

When it comes to visually impaired people with associated deficiencies, sheltered work and activity centers play an important role in most countries. Still a growing number mentioned employment on the open labour market with the aid of job coaches and other supported employment methods. In some cases support is also given to the employer of a visually impaired person.

It was generally agreed that close connections to companies during work practice periods are important. This offers training in real job situations with employers as teachers. There are alslo instances where the employer is involved in the planning of the training.

Most groups agreed, that a blind or partially sighted could work as a skills guidance officer. Some countries prefer the officer to have a visual impairment. There is also training available for visually impaired people who want to pursue this occupation.


Models of Employment
Sue Wright, Queen Alexandra College

It Is the duty of those of us who support people with visual impairment to research and understand the employment opportunities available and match them to individual needs, skills and aspirations. To achieve this we need to have a clear and up-to-date knowledge of the labour market and the types of employment available.

The aim of this presentation is to describe various models of employment and consider their suitability for the people whom we support within the national and regional context in which we work. Each nation will of course have its own economic, social and political characteristics, but as professionals working to change the lives of people with visual impairment, we should not shirk from challenging the national context in which we work. It will be helpful to know how things are done in other countries and to imagine what might be possible in our own.

We are all Europeans, so it seems sensible to begin with an important directive of the European Union. The June 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam took the first step towards a European Employment Strategy, which linked economic and employment policy as part of the same agenda for jobs. It provides for member states and the European community to work together in developing a coordinated employment strategy. It was agreed at the Luxembourg Jobs Summit in November 1997 that this strategy should be built on four main pillars:

For each of the pillars, Guidelines were adopted, setting out a number of specific targets for Member states to achieve in their employment policies. These have been transposed into National Action Plans for Employment, which have been submitted to the Commission.

Within this new comprehensive approach the European Social Fund represents the main financial instrument at European Union level, providing the means to achieve the objectives of the European Employment Strategy:

Specifically, Article 13 of the Amsterdam Treaty proposed that the Council may take:

"��� appropriate action to combat discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion and belief, disability, age or sexual orientation"

Employment is, however, neither a simple nor a static concept. There are various types and models within which such high ideals must work, and about which we professionals must develop an intimate understanding.

For most of the populations of all our nations employment predominantly means working for someone else in a small, medium or large organisation. These may be divided into:

  1. Large private sector organisations, some of which may be multinationals
  2. Large public sector organisations, both statutory [eg education, health] and voluntary [eg NGOs]
  3. Small to medium private sector enterprises [SMEs]
  4. Small to medium public sector enterprises

Let us consider these as potential employment opportunities for visually impaired people. First, an obvious point, the larger the organisation the more opportunities are likely to be on offer. Large private sector organisations have more employees and therefore more vacancies. A human resources or personnel department is likely to be tuned into relevant disability legislation and may - although much always depends on the outlook and efficiency of individual personalities - be more encouraging about employing people with a disability. Larger organisations in the United Kingdom, for example, represent the majority of holders of the "disability symbol". This is a logo consisting of three ticks which shows that, following inspection by our Employment Service, the organisation is positive about employing people with a disability, and this is reflected in its policies and practices.

An organisation's awareness of and commitment to disability issues is also likely to be greater if it is in the public sector. Whether this is because public sector organisations are often concerned with social rather than purely economic aims, or whether because they are themselves the initiators of equality policies is open to speculation. In my own experience, public sector organisations are more prepared to employ more visually impaired people [and indeed to find ways of retaining them when sight deteriorates] than private sector ones. The culture and working climate seems more disability friendly.

Small and medium sized organisations are, in the UK, less likely to display the disability symbol and more likely to resist accommodating a visually impaired employee. Much depends on the person who is contacted by the supporting professional. In a small private organisation there may be no personnel department, but a single manager whose experience of and interest in the potential of a visually impaired employee could be limited. Producing targets may be more central to the organisation's success; budgets generally may be smaller and tighter, preventing expenditure on even basic accommodations to sight loss; in small staffing structures the availability of mentors, supervisors or other supporting staff to the new employee would be limited. Where there are no legislative quotas requiring organisations to employ people with visual impairment, the task of persuasion is that much harder.

Viewing the options from the point of view of the prospective employee with visual impairment, being employed in any organisation which seems not to be in tune with disability is clearly daunting. Students at my own college have quoted many examples : a physical environment with little colour contrast and poor lighting; unhelpful and intrusive questions about the cause of their eye condition; no mobility and orientation awareness [they didn't eat with other staff because they couldn't find the canteen]; an inability to access the information on the noticeboard; the inference that the visually impaired employee's productivity rates were depressing the whole team's productivity scores - and therefore wage bonuses.

It is not surprising, therefore, that self-employment is an attractive alternative for some visually impaired people. In 1990 in the United Kingdom 3.5 million people were self-employed, a 50% increase since 1980. By 2007 this figure is predicted to rise to 4.5 million, representing 15% of the total employed workforce. On current figures, 14% of disabled people in employment were self-employed, a higher proportion than non-disabled people [11%].

Both within Europe as a whole, and within member states, there are political incentives for people to create their own enterprises, and a range of financial and other initiatives to enable them to do so. There are clear attractions for visually impaired people:

  1. They can set up and develop an enterprise which builds on their individual skills
  2. They can control the pace and flow of their activity to suit their individual needs
  3. They can determine the characteristics of the physical working environment
  4. They can devise the technological infrastructure which most closely matches their own needs
  5. Working practices and culture reflect a non-visual world.

Self-employment is, however, a risky business, not least financially. One way of lessening the risk is to work in a cooperative with other people. This is still part of the self-employment model, but a group of people would work together, harnessing the complementary skills of each person towards a common aim. Risk is shared but ability is maximised.

Cooperatives are the best way to ensure that a business works for the benefit of employees as well as customers, and as such are attractive to people with disabilities.
The employees create the product or service and as owners of the business they have a vested interest in high quality, good service to the customer, and profitability. In the UK cooperatives are usually limited liability companies. As long as the members act legally, they would not normally have to repay debts personally. This is especially important for people who have no personal wealth - as is the case with many of our students.

In cooperatives management skills are essential for everyone, because all members are owners and are committed to ensuring success. But roles within the business can be specialised. Two crafts people [for example wood turners] could work with two business administrators [for example a marketing and distribution specialist and a secretary] - all of whom could be visually impaired. Alternatively a telephone taxi service, which meets the needs of people with mobility difficulties, could be run by two sighted drivers, two visually impaired telephonists and a visually impaired administrator.

Despite the emphasis that many of us professionals place on developing personal independence, cooperatives as an employment model highlight the advantages of mutual dependence. For many visually impaired people seeking employment it could be a realistic and rewarding option.

In the UK and elsewhere in Europe there has developed an alternative model of employment for people with disabilities - sheltered or supported employment. In the UK this model has developed over the last one hundred years or so; colleagues here might recognise similarities in their own nations.

Beginning in the late 18th century and early 19th century, charities taught blind people to read and trained them in traditional skills such as basket and mat-making. This pattern continued for some decades, reflecting the needs of war victims by generally emphasising welfare and therapy rather than commercial employment. After 1945 workshop provision was directed more towards industry and away from welfare. A government company was set up, called Remploy, to accommodate people whose disability was considered such as to prevent employment under ordinary circumstances. Hence there was no rehabilitation and no progression to open employment.

The 1960s saw the development of sheltered groups of disabled employees in open industry. It was an alternative to working in a workshop solely for the disabled, but it did not address the aspirations of individual employees, or integrate them into the world of work.

In the 1980s the UK piloted a sheltered placement scheme, followed in the 1960s with a supported employment programme. This maintains the segregated workshops for people wishing to participate in that environment, but supports individual employees in the workplace where open employment is preferable. The present arrangements combine both strands of our historical development. An RNIB survey in 1991 reveals about 5% of visually impaired employees in sheltered workshops.
So far, we have considered

Alongside these models are changing trends in the way people work, which I think are equally important in considering the options for visually impaired people.

Flexibility of employment is being enhanced in the UK by the employment of part-time and non-permanent [or casual] workers. Flexible working, especially part-time working, is an opportunity for some people to balance work with other responsibilities, such as child care, continuing education or medical requirements. From the employers' perspective, flexibility allows output to be adjusted more rapidly in response to changing market-conditions - for example, matching staffing levels to peak demand and short-term cover for staff on holiday and sick leave.

Flexibility of location is another trend affecting the UK labour market. Over one million people worked predominantly at home in 1991, allowing them the flexibility to juggle other responsibilities, to create a working environment tailored to their individual needs, and to take breaks as and when required. The disadvantages of this type of working, however, include poor pay and irregular hours.

A British government survey of employers has revealed that 6% of companies are employing teleworkers, working from home and making increasing use of new and sophisticated information and communication technology. A further 9% of employers were considering introducing teleworking, and 9% thought it likely that it would be introduced in the future.

Teleworking undoubtedly allows greater control of the working environment for visually impaired people, but it is not an easy option. It requires a comfortable and well-equipped home working environment, a high degree of self-imposed personal organisation, and good literacy and communication skills. For those of us who go to work as much for the social interaction it allows as for the financial rewards, teleworking could be perceived as being isolated. But for appropriate people it is a development worth tracking.

Professionals working with visually impaired people would do well to follow closely these and other trends in the labour market. We need to understand the changing skill requirements within occupations; the increased business competition; the enormous advances in technology; and the changing structure of organisations. Only then are we in a position to maximise the opportunities of our students or clients and move on towards breaking down the other barriers in the workplace which they undoubtedly face.

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