Misperceptions among employers about blind or visually-impaired job seekers have kept more than half of those adults out of the workforce. An estimated 44% of working-age people with full or partial vision loss are employed, compared to 79% of those without a disability.
One Michigan businessman is looking to change those statistics with a program he founded called Lean In!. Launched last fall, its mission is to help young college students who are blind or have low vision carve out a career path through a corporate internship.
At the same time, he’s making the case to employers that people who have vision loss bring unique skills to the workforce.
“You hire the seven-foot tall guy to play basketball because he’s seven foot tall. You hire the blind person because they think around corners. Because they see what you don’t see. Because they’re focused on what you might not be immediately focused on. And we think around corners,” says Gary Horton, founder and president of Vanward Consulting Services.
‘I believe the blind should lead the blind’
Horton lost his vision in 2017, something he knew was coming. He was born with a congenital defect and clearly recalls being told at the age of 11 that he would eventually lose his eyesight. Horton considers that moment his catalyst to pursue a different kind of success after a nearly 40-year career in consulting and project management.
Horton recalls doors closing on him as he lost his job after losing his sight, but he says he never lost his vision for success. He started his own consulting firm and then launched the Lean In! program for college students who are blind or low vision and who want to be employed.
He turned to other professionals who are blind or have low vision to advise and counsel the students. “We provide real-life experiences on how business really works and what job-readiness really is,” stresses Horton. He adds: “I believe the blind should lead the blind. People need exemplars.”
The nine month-long program includes workshops on interviewing, entrepreneurism, elevator pitches, and branding. Guest speakers are brought in and students are given assignments to complete, such as informational interviews with professionals in different industries. The ultimate goal is to land an internship.
“Along with the job-readiness is also building that confidence and helping these young people visualize what they can do with the degrees that they are pursuing,” explains Horton.
He also wants employers to understand that they shouldn’t overlook this talent pool, and with some work accommodations, they become vital members of any team.
Understanding Accommodations, Expanding Opportunities
Rangam Consultants is a global minority-, woman-, and disability-owned workforce solutions company. They’ve also partnered with Lean In! to provide work-based learning opportunities to program participants. They brought in their first IT intern this year. “We felt that we wanted to have greater expertise with the blind community,” says Larry Worth, head of global solutions at Rangam.
Worth says the company is exploring ways to expand its partnership with Horton’s Michigan program and give it a bigger footprint. As a workforce solutions company, he says, Rangam is looking to get a better understanding of the kinds of accommodations blind and lower-vision workers need so that it can approach employers with candidates from this talent pool.
“When it comes to people who are blind or lower vision, there are a lot of myths and there are a lot of misconceptions about what folks can do or what they need in able to be successful,” says Worth. “I think that the biggest one is that you have to be able to see to do the work.”
Opportunity in Today’s Hybrid Workforce
Horton stresses he’s not looking for sympathy for students in the Lean In! program.
“I don’t ask for anyone to give away jobs. I suggest that these young people will earn these positions because they are accomplished, because they work harder, because they have valuable skills that they can bring to the table.”
And with hybrid work so common among corporations, Horton sees opportunity. “The concept of remote work is a business reality and in that environment, blind people thrive.”