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Using the Skills of Blindness on the Job
Mary Ellen Gabias

Job Opportunities for the Blind (JOB)
National Federation of the Blind
1800 Johnson St.
Baltimore, MD 21230


Jim rises each morning at five. At six-thirty he takes his white cane from a hook beside the door and walks to the bus stop. During the ten-minute ride to work, he scans several articles in his Braille edition of the "New York Times Weekly."

Since it's the beginning of a new pay period, a coworker helps Jim find his time card. Jim quickly puts one Braille cell at the top of the card. Now he will locate his card in the rack independently. Sometimes, if his slate isn't handy, Jim tears a V at the top of the card. This works well most of the time, but the card gets more dog-eared, so he prefers marking it with the slate.

The morning whistle blows. Jim drops his styrofoam coffee cup in the trash and hurries from the lunchroom, through a factory crowded with machines, flats of material, and coworkers, to his workstation. There he leans his cane against his workbench and picks up his Braille micrometer.

Tolerances for machined parts must often be less than one thousandth of an inch. A Braille micrometer makes this sort of accuracy possible. Talking calipers also help for some jobs. Earphones make it easier to hear the synthesized voice of the calipers over the din of the machine shop.

Like all good machinists, Jim is extremely careful of safety procedures. His turret lathe has safety shutoff switches like the ones on every other electric device in the factory. He has not built any special jigs because of blindness, but he does use the jigs that have been created to speed production for everyone in the plant.

The shop foreman comes over to read Jim the spec sheets for the morning's work. Much of what is to be done is familiar-no notes required. That new part for the large aerospace company is different. The foreman brings it over for Jim to inspect. Jim jots quick notes as his foreman reads to him from the spec sheet. After he's made a few of the new parts, he will be able to toss those notes, but there's no point in winging it without a crib sheet when he doesn't have to.

It's lunchtime. "Hey, Joe," Jim says to the foreman, "I'm going to the corner for lunch. You want anything?"

"Sounds good. My wife sent a sandwich, but I think I'd rather have a Philly cheese steak with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. By the time tuna salad sits in a lunch box all morning it smells like cat food. I'll pay you when you get back."

On his way out the door Jim falls in step with Dick Johnston, another machinist. They talk about the Detroit Pistons and Dick takes great pleasure in reminding Jim just who bet on the Lakers. Jim is glad he'd brought an extra twenty-dollar bill with him this morning. Dick had bet him a chicken dinner on that basketball championship.

The man behind the counter at the deli hands Jim a five, a one, and some change. Jim quickly folds the bills so that he can distinguish among them later. "Dick, how much do you want to bet that the Orioles fold in August?"

The afternoon's work is interrupted when the plant manager calls a meeting to demonstrate the new computerized equipment the company has just received. Specifications for parts are entered into the system; the computer automatically repositions the machine. In effect, the computer creates automated jigs. Potentially, fewer people will be needed to do the same amount of work. On the other hand, the company will be able to increase the number of parts it produces. The skills of the machinists will have to be upgraded to make full use of the technology.

Jim looks at the new computer with some trepidation. It appears to be a keyboard with a computer screen. Jim wonders what it will take to get voice output. If the basic computer is compatible with adaptive equipment, providing speech access should be fairly straightforward. If not, it may be necessary for an engineer to go into the system to wire a speech synthesizer and to write a program to make the speech function efficiently. Jim is glad he can call the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind in Baltimore. The IBTCB can help him locate assistance if he needs it.


Joan's workday begins officially at 8:30, but in reality, she starts working when her boss picks her up in the morning. They've discovered that the car ride to work is just about their only uninterrupted planning session for the day.

At nine o'clock, Joan's secretary brings in several stacks of presorted incoming mail. They sit down together and the secretary begins to read. After each letter, Joan dictates instructions. She has written, "canned" responses to frequently asked questions, but she tries to vary her opening and closing paragraphs enough to personalize each letter. Often she is confronted with new questions. If she can, she dictates immediately to the secretary. If her response requires her to do research, she takes notes on a Perkins brailler and dictates her answer later on a Dictaphone.

Some of her mail is newsletters and some of it is "junk" mail. She is interested in a professional journal and instructs her secretary to begin by reading the table of contents. Once she has picked articles she wants to read more closely, Joan skims them by interrupting the reading to say "skip." The secretary jumps immediately to the next paragraph. Joan sometimes instructs her secretary to read only headings or those items that are in bold type, italics, or some other print style designed to give emphasis.

By eleven, Joan has read through fifty pieces of mail. Some will take more work; she has finished with most.

With a sigh, she turns her attention to the proposal for the new day care program for the children of employees. Union contract negotiations will begin soon and she must have something to present to the Board of Trustees so management can offer a coherent benefits package.

She's been gathering data for weeks now. She's attended numerous employee relations meetings, read dozens of reproofs of research on the topic, and analyzed cost-benefit statistical projections on the computer. Now she must synthesize the mound of data and condense it into a one-page summary for the Board.

She turns to her computer, grabs the rough braille outline she's developed, and begins typing. Thank goodness for word processors. The final document which emerges after and hour's effort is clear and concise, but it bears little resemblance to the original outline. The Speakqualizer connected to Joan's computer makes it easy for her to review her work and to locate spots where revisions are needed. She could certainly work with her secretary to draft this one-page synopsis, but Joan has discovered that it is more efficient to craft precisely worded documents on the computer.

Though it's possible for her to use the Speaqualizer to proofread her own work, it is faster to read it through for content and run a quick spell check before taking the disk to her secretary to be printed. Joan's boss does all the proofreading for everyone in the office. In fact, one of the few unbreakable organizational rules is that final proofing of any document must be done by someone who had no hand in its creation. It's simply too easy for someone who has helped write or type a work to overlook errors in grammar, syntax, spelling, or punctuation.

It's time for Joan to leave for the airport. She's flying to Seattle to deliver a paper at a Business and Professional Women's conference. Her Braille 'Speak and four-track cassette recorder/player fit neatly into a camera bag. Her notes on the conference and on pending correspondence nearly fill her briefcase. She will have plenty of work to occupy her on the flight.

The taxi drops her at the terminal entrance where she checks her suitcases. The nervous skycap finally gives her directions, though he would have preferred to take her to her gate in a wheelchair. Joan is a frequent traveler, so she is familiar with the general layout of the airport. Since this flight is one she has never taken before, she stops fellow passengers on the way to the gate to confirm her directions.

"We'll preboard you," the gate agent informs Joan.

"No, thanks. I'll board when my row is called."

Joan settles into her assigned seat and prepares to go to work. Perhaps she can finish one section of the budget justification she's submitting as backup data for her child care proposal.

"Honey, have you flown before?" The flight attendant interrupts Joan's concentration.

"Innumerable times."

"I have to give you a special briefing. Do you know how to fasten your seatbelt?"

"Yes, ma'am. I need you to tell me the row number of the overwing emergency exit. That's the only thing not covered in your standard briefing."

"Just a minute, honey. I don't know. I'll have to go check."

Before the flight attendant's return, Joan turns on the Braille 'n Speak and begins work on the budget document.

"The exits are at row nine and row eleven. What is that you're holding?"

"A braille laptop computer. I'm on a business trip and have a deadline to meet, so I thought I'd work on the plane. Thanks for the exit row information."

The business women's conference is large enough to fill several hotels. Joan strikes up a conversation with Cynthia, an insurance company executive from Connecticut, while waiting in a registration line. They take the conference agenda into the coffee shop. Cynthia reads descriptions of the concurrent workshops and the two women discuss the relative merits of each option.

The workshop at which Joan is giving her presentation is well attended. She walks to the podium, greets the audience, and begins speaking. The podium has a small shelf which is perfect for concealing Joan's 3 by 5 index cards with her Braille notes on them. At the end of her talk, several people congratulate Joan for her ability to make such an organized presentation without using notes.


Ted rises each morning in time to make breakfast for himself and to feed his golden retriever guide dog. He packs today's class materials, which he prepared last night, into a large satchel, and walks the five blocks to the elementary school where he teaches.

He stops along the way to relieve his dog. From the rounded position of the animal's back, Ted knows he must pick up after the dog. He slips his hand into a baggie and checks the ground where the dog had been until he finds what he's looking for. He picks it up in his covered hand, turns the baggie inside out so that what it contains is completely enclosed, and ties the baggie closed. Now it can be dropped into the nearest public trash barrel.

Ted has twenty minutes to set up the classroom before his students arrive. He arranges twenty chairs in a circle. The first activity of the morning is always a quiet game to get the children settled down.

Ted says good morning to each child coming into the room. When everyone is seated, Ted gives each student a picture of a piece of fruit which he has labeled in Braille on the back.

"Tony," he says as he hands a little boy a picture of an apple, "What is the thing in this picture called? Can you tell me what you do with it?"

"It's an apple, Mr. Stonesman. I eat the inside, but the outside is yucky. My mom peels it for me."

"Good. It's an apple and some people like the peel. Can any of the rest of you think of other ways people eat apples?"

Each child says his or her own name to attract Ted's attention. Ted calls on volunteers to start things off, but then he turns to the quieter children and makes sure they get a chance, too.

After about ten minutes, Ted collects the pictures and tells the children to gather around the big worktable in the back of the room. He's laid out ingredients for making cupcakes. Ted decides to handle filling the cupcake papers himself; five-year-olds only believe they can do all things. Ted dips a one-eighth cup measure into the batter and moves it carefully to the lined muffin tin. His method minimizes mess. The children have already done enough with their vigorous stirring.

Once the cupcakes are in the oven in the home economics room, Ted distributes pencils and paper to the class. He goes to the blackboard and prints a large letter M. He calls on each child by name and asks for a word that begins with the "mmm" sound. Then each child takes a few minutes to write a line or two of M's.

After five or ten minutes of quiet writing, the children begin to get restless. It's time for more physical activity.

The Kindergarten room has its own tiny playground area that is separate from the space used by the other grades. Ted lines the children up and they walk to the playground. Ted uses his white cane during recess. His dog is splendidly trained, but golden retrievers find it practical impossible to witness a ball being thrown without wanting to fetch it.

Ted's guide dog will not be able to stay quietly under the teacher's desk during the afternoon session as it does in the morning. The animal is endlessly patient with children and endures stick-fingered caresses stoically. However, one child in the afternoon class seems to think that dog ears and tails were meant to be pulled. For several weeks Ted tried to keep the naughty child and patient dog separated, but now he simply takes the animal to the teachers' lounge and attaches the leash to the leg of a sofa there.

On the playground, Ted and the children bounce balls and play "Follow the Leader."

It's time to retrieve the cupcakes from the Home Economics room. Ted whistles for the children's attention and calls roll as they line up to go back into the building.

Ted has picked two class helpers for the day. Each child gets a chance to be helper about once every two weeks. The children know who has been helper because each name is on a chart on the wall. If a child does a good job helping, he or she gets a gold star on the chart.

The helpers pass out the cupcakes which Ted has taken from the oven. They also bring the milk cartons from the machine down the hall.

The children line up at the sink and wash their hands before eating their snack. After a trip to the bathroom, the children get their quiet time mats and spread out on the floor. Ted picks a Twin Vision book from the bookshelf and begins reading to the class. He holds the book up to show the children the illustrations, and every once in a while he passes the book around so the children can examine the pictures more closely.

Sometimes, during the lessons on letters, Ted shows his students both the Braille and the print letter. A few children have tried writing letters in Braille on Ted's slate.

When quiet time is over, the children take smocks from the cupboard and bring their chairs to the large worktable. Ted distributes clay to each child. The holidays are coming and the children are making clay candy dishes with their handprints to give to their mothers.

Ted checks his Braille watch and ends the work with the clay fifteen minutes before the bell rings to end the morning session. The children need time to get cleaned up to go home. Tomorrow the children will paint the gifts they've made.

As Ted says goodbye to each of his morning students, his mind is racing ahead to the afternoon session-twenty new children with twenty entirely unique personalities.


Donna takes the subway to work each morning. Fellow commuters are visibly shaken as she uses her cane to find the edge of the platform. They're even more nervous when she walks along the platform near the edge. Her reasoning is simple. If she stays near one edge of the platform, she can avoid benches, other obstacles, and fellow passengers in the middle. She has discovered this is the quickest and the safest way to walk down a crowded platform.

When the train pulls into the station, Donna follows the side of the car until her cane finds an opening. A quick sweep of the opening assures her that it's a door, and not the space between two cars.

The conductor calls stops, but Donna is sure that the muffled voice could not be saying English words. It's a good thing she can recognize her stop by the turn the train makes just before getting there.

Donna's "office" is divided from the workspace of her colleagues by four-foot high partitions. The state planners who built the building thought such an arrangement would contribute to flexibility and economy. It certainly doesn't contribute to privacy.

This is Tuesday, so Donna will be spending her morning interviewing clients and her afternoon answering telephone inquiries from the public.

Each job seeker is handed registration forms by the receptionist. When those forms are complete, the applicant is assigned a number and asked to wait to be called by a counselor. This means that the counselors get a random caseload. In any given day, Donna may see would-be janitors, secretaries, factory workers, or sales representatives. A few clients are seeking entry level professional jobs.

The receptionist hands Donna the paperwork for the first client of the morning. Donna takes the forms back to her desk and looks them over using her closed circuit TV magnifier. The applicant is a woman who graduated from high school twelve years ago, worked four years as a clerk-typist, and has been without paid employment for eight years. Donna can see that the handwriting is neat and the spelling accurate.

Donna takes her Dymo slate and labels the folder. This client will be her responsibility, along with approximately one hundred fifty others. It is quicker to find the right folders by checking Braille labels than by taking each folder and looking at it under the CCTV.

The applicant is personable, neat, and almost totally lacking in word processing and other modern office skills. She's trying to re-enter the workforce now that her youngest child is in school, just as Donna had guessed. After they talk for fifteen minutes, Donna remembers a job listing for a file clerk position with a large company. The job does not pay well, but the company has an excellent employee training program. If this job applicant is going to have a chance at a really good job, she'll need to upgrade her skills.

Donna looks through her Braille index file of job listings and finds the card with the summary of this position, including its job number. She switches her CCTV to computer mode and calls up the job number on her terminal. She learns that the vacancy still exists and that a basic clerical test is required. Since the state employment agency administers screening tests, Donna sends the applicant to testing. If the results are good, as she suspects they will be, Donna will call the employer and set up an interview for the applicant.

Donna meets with five applicants this morning. She is able to refer two to jobs. (One of the two is hired. The other will call Donna daily for referrals and will get a job within the week.) Donna refers two applicants to job training programs. The fifth applicant has no skills and only knows that he wants to be paid at least thirty thousand dollars a year. He will need more counseling than Donna has time to give him.

Donna and a friend from the office decide to spend their lunch hour shopping. Donna carries a set of swatches of material with her. These are her colors. She will buy nothing which is not the color of one of the swatches. They browse through racks of blouses. Donna can see colors fairly well, but she asks her friend to back up her judgment.

Donna returns to the office with two new blouses and a slightly blown budget. She doesn't have much time to lament her extravagance. The phone begins ringing as soon as she reaches her desk.

Calls are varied. She handles general information requests immediately. Job orders from employers take a little more time. She must fill out a computerized agency job order form. Her CCTV enlarger helps, but she is glad that her computer also has speech access. Sometimes it's more accurate to use both. By the end of the day, when Donna's eyes are tired, the speech output is a godsend.

Ah! Four thirty! Donna logs in her last call, picks up her purse, cane, and new blouses and is about to head for the subway. Just as she's almost out the door, the phone rings.

"Leave it, Donna," a coworker says as Donna begins to answer. "The work day's over."

"I know, but I'm compulsive." She picks up the phone. "Employment service, may I help you?"

Donna's smile broadens as she listens. "Sounds terrific! I'll meet you at Giuseppe's. After all, it's not every night that a lady's husband offers to take her to dinner AND a movie."




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