Before I get to the meat of my post, I want to say that this article is in no way meant to disparage my current employer and the strides they’ve made, and continue to make, in employing the blind. They are a truly awesome company in many regards, and I recommend them as an employee and a consumer. They will remain nameless, though those who know me personally or on social media know where I work. This is being written on my own time, off the clock. The opinions expressed here are mine, and do not necessarily represent any other entities.
This, to my mind, is more about what happens and the disadvantage at which employees are put when some employees of the agencies tasked with training people who are blind and advocating for us end up hindering instead of helping the clients they’re tasked with serving. With that said, this may ruffle a few feathers. Hopefully, the feather-ruffling will result in positive actions being taken going forward. Also, I hope other blind and disabled individuals will find things they can relate to in their own working life in this post.
Before we get started, for readers who may not be blind or visually impaired, many references will be made to the JAWS for windows software used by myself and other blind employees in my company, and many other companies around the world. I don’t want to spend a lot of time explaining JAWS, but you can go Here to learn more from the manufacturer.
A Bit of Background On Why I’m Writing This Piece
I work for a wonderful company. When I first came on-board, I was told by the job coach provided by a local agency tasked with helping the blind and other disabled individuals gain and maintain employment that as a JAWS user, there were two departments in which I’d be able to work as their software was already scripted for JAWS. I worked in both of those departments and did well. About seven months in, the position I’m in now came open. At the time, I was unsure as to whether or not I should apply. Though I know longer had the assistance of the job coach, I went for it, knowing that my JAWS skills were such that if the software I needed to use wwas accessible with the screen reader, I’d learn how to use it. The company brought in our JAWS scripter, and now, there are more JAWS users in a department that, until last October, had never had a blind employee. Even without the scripts, the software works well with standard web commands familiar to most JAWS users, so blind employees could’ve feasibly joined the department long before I came along if they’d been inclined to do so. That said, the scripts make the job a thousand times easier.
In my prior work, I’d never had a specialized job coach from an outside agency. It was an interesting experience that I may write about someday. However, my work with her has a lot to do with the remainder of this post. I will say she and her colleagues are genuinely good people…However, in her case, she tries to be helpful, but for those of us who are more technically inclined, her input can put us at a disadvantage, as will be explained in the rest of this article.
In the workplace, pretty much everything we do is web-based. This is generally a good thing because JAWS works wonderfully with Internet Explorer, the primary browser we use for our job-related systems. As there are some specialized functions of the web-based programs we use, as mentioned earlier, a JAWS scripter has been brought in to make certain aspects of the programs for three of our departments more user-friendly than they might otherwise be, particularly elements of a page that normal JAWS commands may not easily let one access.
The problem As I See It
Included in these web-based tools that we use is our system for managing our time. Everything from checking schedules to requesting time off to seeing how much personal time an employee has available, as well as how much time is in each department’s allotment for staff to be able to take off that day is housed in this system. Each department, and each shift in departments with multiple shifts, has a certain amount of time in what’s known as the
bucket for each day. These are hours available to employees with available PTO to use, and are granted on a first-come first-serve basis.
When I initially joined the company, I was told by my well-meaning coach that the system, known as WFO or WFM, part of the Aspect system, was mostly inaccessible and that most JAWS users just had their supervisors put in their time requests. Being independent, I pushed harder and wanted to know what made the system inaccessible. A lot of people mis-use that term when it comes to technology. Often, it’s not so much that the program in question is inaccessible. it’s that it may require more advanced knowledge of the screen reader than some other programs. After some persuasion, she set aside time to show me the system. She thought it was going to be very time-consuming. It wasn’t. It wasn’t that the system was inaccessible; it was that the system was a standard web interface with no special JAWS-related scripting. Not a big deal; I was able to navigate it, put in PTO and VTO requests, and submit them successfully using standard JAWS navigation commands already built in to the software.
After I achieved this, a few other JAWS users followed my lead and learned to do this for themselves. Unfortunately, that all came to an end in May of 2016 when the company did some necessary upgrades to the VOIP and WFO systems.
At this point, we were told that as JAWS users, we’d need to revert back to having the supervisors enter our time-off requests and check our PTO balances for us. I assumed this would be temporary, so at first, though I asked about accessibility, I didn’t make too much noise and actually sort of let it go for a while. Anyone who knows me knows that’s not my normal M.O. I try to be polite, but I’m also not afraid to let someone know when something they’ve done is a barrier to my or other people’s independence.
Over the past year, however, this system has not been made any more JAWS-friendly. I’ve been using the screen reading software off and on for about 24 years in my professional, personal, and educational life, so consider myself to be something of a power user. I’m not a scripter or programmer of any sort, but I can find my way around most programs in a Windows environment and browse most things on the web with success, and rarely require sighted assistance. I don’t say that to brag; it’s simply a statement of my abilities and why I feel qualified to discuss the topic.
With the WFO system as it currently stands, I’ve figured out how to see the next four days of my schedule, including breaks…And that’s about it. Punching the “Add Segment” button, which is what we used to press to enter PTO, holiday, or VTO requests, does nothing. At least, nothing that JAWS or my braille display can tell me.
Today, during a discussion on a JAWS users email list we have for work, we were discussing some things that are inaccessible at times in the job, so I again brought this up. This was my first time bringing it to the JAWS user group as a whole, because I wanted to see if I’m just a crazy lone wolf, or if others feel like I do, and think that like our sighted colleagues, we should be able to enter our own time-off requests. Some of what I learned shocked me.
This same person, tasked with coaching most of us when we started at the company, and who is partly responsible for helping us advocate for what we need, informed us that she had figured out how to use the system with JAWS. She is sighted, and I honestly can’t say how advanced her JAWS skills are or are not, and I will make no claims of knowledge in that area. That said, she went on to say she found it very time-consuming and complex, so made the decision that we should just have our supervisory staff enter such requests for us. She did say that she could try to make the information available to those of us who are interested, but would have to do so on her personal time as she has other job coaching responsibilities outside our company, so it could be a while. Remember, she’s from an outside agency, but she does do a lot of placement and training with us, and other companies in the state. I responded and stated I would be interested in the information as soon as she could make it available, and a couple other users at last check had responded that they, too, would like to learn and have that option of furthering their independence. I did see one response from someone who is happy to let the supervisors keep entering her requests. If that’s what she’s comfortable with, that’s great. But, for those of us who have the skills, and the desire to do it on our own, give us the opportunity.
The final part of this that makes it a problem for me is this. Why should this person, not a member of our company, not a supervisor, and also not a blind JAWS user, be allowed to unilaterally make the decision of what is too complex for all of us who use JAWS to learn? Why should this person have the power to tell the supervisors the program isn’t usable by the JAWS users, when really, she just felt it was too complicated? Should we not be treated as individuals, and those of us who can learn the software be given the opportunity to do so? One size does not fit all. Unfortunately, that was this person’s style as a job coach as well. Because she was used to working with people who learned at a much slower pace than I, we did butt heads quite a bit because I went at my pace, not hers, and was generally a few steps ahead of where she thought I should be on most things during the training’s in which we participated.
So…Why Not Take the Easy Road?
I’m sure some of you are asking
Why not take the easy road and let the supervisors enter the stuff? It’s one less thing you have to learn.. First, anyone who knows me knows that if I believe I’m capable of doing something, even if it may take me a bit longer than it does someone else, I’m bound and determined to learn how to do it.
Second, though our supervisors are awesome and never mind doing this for us, they also have other work to do, and other team members to assist. That said, they may not always see a request quickly.
Here’s where it puts us as blind employees at a disadvantage, from my perspective:
Remember the time buckets I mentioned above? Let’s say your department has 16 hours available on a given day. Let’s say you, the blind employee, wake up feeling like absolute crud and need to take a sick day. You have the time available…But, unless you can call in and get a supervisor, you don’t know if time is available in that bucket, and you can’t put in your own request. If your department isn’t open yet, as has happened to me a couple times, you have to call one of the other departments, explain the situation to one of their supervisors, and assure them it’s okay to enter your request if the time is available. Many of them, understandably so, want you to talk to your own escalation team for the request as a JAWS user.
Where this can cause problems is if, let’s say two other employees wake up that same morning. One is ill, but one just wants to take a day off. If they get their requests in while you’re waiting for a response from the supervisors, you’re out of luck. You either go to work sick, or take the time, and get hit with an unexcused absence. If the JAWS users were offered proper training on the system, and this supposed job coach who figured it out but thought it too complicated had shared her instructions over a year ago, the JAWS user would have the same chance at getting his PTO request in first as his sighted counterpart.
This may sound far-fetched, but I’ll offer an example. When I was working another department, I woke up in the middle of the night feeling awful. I couldn’t reach anyone in Escalation by phone, so I emailed our Escalation team, and explained the situation. Someone else had put in for eight hours of leave after I sent my email, but before a supervisor got my request entered. So, the person who technically requested after me got the time, and I did get paid for the day, but also got hit with my first and only unexcused absence. If I’d been able to enter my own time as the other employee did, I would’ve gotten the day approved and not had a UA on my record as the process is fairly automated.
Understand me. I am not trying to be a disability rights warrior. I’m not trying to be a militant. I simply want equal access and equal opportunity in the work place. I’m blessed that this is really one of very few accessibility barriers at our company, but I think it’s a pretty significant one.
I realize this has been long, and I appreciate those who have read until the end. In this wrap-up, I pose a few questions.
- Am I wrong to think that as blind employees, we should have the same access to a system as our sighted counterparts?
- Since, to my knowledge, the company acted in good faith on the recommendation of this job coach, who is responsible for creating the accessibility barrier?
I blame the job coach from the outside agency, not the employer. The outside agency, tasked with providing job coaching service for blind and other disabled employees made the decision, without the benefit of letting the JAWS users try it for themselves, that entering requests would be too time-consuming. I’m not saying the coach is right or wrong. I’m simply saying that since we were never given an opportunity to view the instructions and to receive the training, we truly don’t know if it will work or not. In my personal opinion, she made an error in her attempt at advocacy.
- If it does prove too difficult once we receive the instructions, how should this be remedied? Should we keep going with the current system of having supervisors enter the blind employees’ requests, or should the company be required to do something to find an accessible work-around that gives JAWS-using employees the same opportunity to request time off, even at the last minute, as sighted employees?
- If, after we receive the instruction, we find it’s workable for those of us with good JAWS skills and isn’t the difficulty the coach expected, should something possibly be said to her employer regarding her work with the blind and her decision making and advocacy skills on our behalf?
To me, the answer is simple. Just as every sighted person, white person, black person, Hispanic person is an individual, so is every blind person. Just because one blind computer user finds something too difficult doesn’t mean we will allfind it difficult. On the flip side, just because I might find the system easy to use, it doesn’t mean all other JAWS users will. Everyone’s experience is different. But, don’t make our choices for us. We are not children, and we are not invalids.
- How much time should we give it before raising the issue again?
The system was upgraded in May of 2016; we learned today that it actually can be done with JAWS…We just need the instructions for doing so, which might come when the person who tried it and decided it was too difficult has time to put them together.
- Finally, am I expecting too much to have equal access? Am I making a fuss about something that’s not a big deal?
I welcome any comments and feedback. If you’re posting on the page, keep it civil, or your comment may bbe deleted. If you contact me privately, again, let’s keep it civil, even if you think I’m way out in left field. I’m frustrated, but want to find a way to fix the issue to benefit myself, our current crop of JAWS users, and any future blind employees who may encounter this type of issue at our company or any other employer.