"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Disabilities in the Workplace: A Personalized Introduction

This post is the first on a subject I expect I may return to now and again. Since I have a disability and am in the process of adjusting to a new work setting, I’ve been thinking a lot about the subject lately and figured I’d start things off by introducing my perspective and raising some of the issues I want to consider in future posts. Ultimately, through this series of posts, I want to argue for the valuable role colleges and universities can play in creating equal opportunities for people with disabilities, both on campus and off.

Blindness Isn’t What You May Think
Although I am “legally blind,” if you met me at a conference, in a class, at a coffee shop, at a party, in line at the grocery store, or in any number of other everyday situations, you would never know that I couldn’t see very well. I don’t wear dark glasses (or any glasses at all, except when I’m reading or when everyone else is wearing sunglasses, too), don’t use a white cane, and don’t have a guide dog. I can read regular print in books and newspapers and on restaurant menus without accommodations, though my eyes get tired easily and I prefer some type of magnification (e-readers like the Kindle that offer text enlargement are the best invention ever!). While my visual acuity (what the eye doctor measures) is very poor, my functional vision (ability to use what I have) is very good. In most situations, I am able to “pass” as a sighted person, and, as a casual acquaintance, you would be surprised when I told you I couldn’t drive.

Georgina Kleege and Stephen Kuusisto have both written about their experiences as blind people passing for sighted, respectively in Sight Unseen and Planet of the Blind. I could write my own book on this subject (and may sometime, especially since some of my experiences differ from Kleege’s and Kuusisto’s), but there are some situations in which passing is impossible.

To give you a sense of what those situations might be, sit comfortably at your computer. Perhaps it is a laptop? Position yourself at a “normal” distance, so that you can easily read the screen and type. Now, slowly move away. Slide your chair back or get up and walk backwards, resting your laptop on a surface other than your lap but looking at the screen all the while. When you reach a point where you can tell that there are icons and text on the screen but cannot decipher the icons or read the text, you will have some idea of what I see when I am sitting a “normal” distance from a laptop. Cell phones are worse.

Blindness in the workplace
While many options do exist for making technology like laptops and cellphones accessible for the blind, someone who works in academia and has functional vision like mine can entirely evade them by evading the technology itself. I’ve never owned a laptop, because I have a desktop set-up at home that works excellently. With a 21” monitor positioned on a stand over my keyboard and just a few inches from my face, I can work comfortably without the need for text enlargement or text-to-audio software. When on campus, I would occasionally use computers in the adjunct office to check e-mail or in class to show a PowerPoint but never had to work for long periods of time on them. As I said in my previous post, in academia no one cares, as long as you get your work done. My dissertation director, who has normal vision, doesn’t have a laptop, either (nor a cellphone, unless something’s changed in the time since we last spoke).

However, when I showed up Friday for the first full day at my new job, it became immediately and painfully apparent to everyone just how blind I was. The laptop I am to use, besides just being a laptop, was configured in the worst way possible (icons and text on smallest settings, distracting wallpaper, transparent windows borders, along with room lighting that made the screen glare unmanageable). In addition to learning about my tasks while adjusting to Windows 7 and Office 2007 (I’ve been using XP and 2003), a modest challenge for anyone, I had to deal with an interface I could barely see.

The whole experience was overwhelming, awkward, and embarrassing.

I’ll end this post by saying that, after spending the weekend reconfiguring the view settings and getting comfortable with the software, I think things will be just fine. I have the option, if need be, of bringing in a monitor and keyboard and plugging them into the laptop and will be able to get a BlackBerry Bold, if it turns out the regular one doesn’t work out.

But disclosure remains a problem. How and when do people with “invisible” disabilities let employers know they might need reasonable accommodations? What if you aren’t even sure what you will need? What if “reasonable accommodations” aren’t possible?

To be continued…


  1. I just came across your blog and it's so helpful to read the experiences of someone who is going through/has had similar experiences with academia. I was particularly intrigued by this old post because my partner is visually impaired. Have you read Susan Krieger's work? She has some really great critical/personal explorations of blindness, similar to Georgina Kleege?

    ~Currer Bell,

  2. Welcome! I haven't read Susan Krieger. Thanks for the suggestion. I'll have to check her out! You know, the funny thing is I thought I'd be blogging about this subject a lot more (I was envisioning a series of posts), but after the first week or so, it was a non-issue. My coworkers seemed to forget that I don't see that well, and I had no problems once I got used to my new computer setup. But, of course, it's an isssue. No doubt one that will come up again whenever I move on to the next job ...