A Blind Workforce and Problem Solving

A while ago, my local NBC affiliate ran a news story about the Northeastern Association of the Blind at Albany (NABA). The story focused on NABA’s manufacturing program, which employees blind people, other visually impaired people, and sighted people. More specifically, the story focused on that program’s work making safety vests and neck tabs for women’s military uniforms; work that involves both sewing and ironing. The story makes it clear that there are challenges to this—the sewing machines need minor accommodations, and at least one of the employees was a little worried about using the iron when she started—but that it is also an important program in a population with a 70% unemployment rate.

And I like a few things about this program:

First, it’s just awesome to provide blind and other visually impaired people with meaningful work.

Second, the jobs that it provides don’t seem like stereotypical jobs for blind and visually impaired people, though on reflection I have no idea what the stereotypical jobs would be. Giving people jobs that don’t fit into a stereotypical mold helps show that those people can do more than sighted people often think that they can.

Third, NABA makes sure that blind, visually impaired, and sighted people work together, and that kind of integration is important.

But the fourth is the most important: NABA actually solved the problem that they set out to solve. That’s not exactly right: the blind and visually impaired community still has a very high unemployment rate and NABA hasn’t solved that problem. But what I mean is that NABA decided to approach unemployment in the community in a straightforward way: by hiring people.

Too often, when we try to solve big social problems—especially when they’re related to things like employment and poverty—we try to solve them from the edges. We create classes that teach people ‘soft skills’ or budgeting or how to manage a checking account. NABA also offers programs like that, but when they saw that blind and visually-impaired people needed jobs, they started providing jobs.

And that’s important. As I’ve written elsewhere, organizations that work with people living in poverty often get the direction of causation wrong. They think that some maladaptive behaviors cause poverty. And while they’re not wrong in every case, it’s also true that poverty causes maladaptive behaviors. In fact, it’s more likely that poverty will cause maladaptive behaviors than vice versa. And that means that trying to fix the behavior without directly addressing the poverty is a lot harder; and that addressing the poverty will probably also fix the behavior.

In other words, if the problem is that someone is unemployed, it is probably more helpful to just give them a job—even if that requires some accommodation—than to focus on soft skills or budgeting or whatever.

NABA’s approach is the right one: if blind and visually impaired people need jobs, the best approach is to give them jobs.

Now we just need to approach the broader unemployment and underemployment problems the same way: create employment opportunities, give people jobs.

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