The Braille Monitor                                                                                              February, 2004

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Open Letter to Agency Directors and Managers
Hiring Competent Blind People

by Mike Bullis

Mike Bullis
Mike Bullis

From the Editor: Last month Mike Bullis offered some sound advice to blind job seekers. This month he has turned his attention to those who hire blind staff members in agencies providing services to blind people. As always he is honest and straight-talking. And he always speaks from his own experience. This is what he says:

One often hears conversations in the field of work with the blind about the perceived need to have more blind teachers and managers. It is fair to say that the goal of hiring competent, qualified blind people eludes many program directors. So how, when they start with the best of intentions, do agency management staff often end up with few or no blind people in management and supervisory positions or as teachers? How is it that so many agencies recognize the need for competent blind role models as essential, yet large numbers of programs fall demonstrably short of the mark?

The answer is not simple, and the cure will not be easy. As with most pervasive problems, weeding out the underlying negative behaviors will take much thought and time. Rather than looking at the leaves on the tree, we need to look at the roots to understand why things are the way they are.

The unfortunate fact is that many professionals in the field of work with the blind became interested because of their desire to help others. This desire to help was tinged with a sense that blind people need a great deal of assistance from the sighted, and these professionals wanted to be a part of that indispensable support network. Underlying their involvement with blind people was a sense that they, the able-bodied, wanted to help the disabled. One side of the equation is able, and the other side isn't. The unfortunate truth is that, as long as this underlying attitude prevails, society in general will not come to see blind people as equals. At an emotional level they remain the people to be helped, and the professional is the helper.

With few exceptions, university programs make little or no effort to cull out people with this attitude. They fear that, if they did, not enough students would be left to fill the programs and populate the field. "Besides," they might respond, "what's wrong with training people for the field who want to help those less able than themselves? Can't people be educated over time to understand that blind people are their equals? Can't this underlying caring be converted into useful energy to help blind people matriculate into all levels of society?"

My answer is: usually not. It is very difficult to change what, for lack of a better phrase, I shall call primary motivations. If a person's initial attraction to the blindness field was to help the less fortunate, it is likely to require passing through the dark night of the soul for that person to come to see blind people as normal folks who happen to be blind and as colleagues on the road to adult self-realization. If deep in the person's heart is a need to help the blind, it will be difficult to work with satisfaction in the field without fulfilling that underlying need. Unless he or she comes to a true recognition of these motives and develops the willingness to reshape them, little progress will be possible, and the status quo will be perpetuated.

This problem is seldom expressed openly; in fact, most agencies cling to the assumption that we professionals have been trained and understand that blind people are our equals. Agency personnel yearn to believe that we are all singing from the same hymnal when in fact we are not. Attempts to hire competent blind people seem always to run into road blocks. Managers just can't seem to find any blind people who they believe are good enough. There always seems to be some reason why a particular blind person just doesn't measure up. Somehow no blind people are ever available when the agency needs them. And there is never time to focus on the problem.

So sighted people or blind people with poor skills are hired and promoted for what seem like perfectly rational and logical reasons, and the existing problems and behaviors are perpetuated and reinforced. Every time an organization hires an incompetent person, human nature requires some rationalization for the action, and it thus becomes more likely that the next time things will happen the same way. I will make one final observation before moving on. All this usually happens with the best of intentions and complete good will. Nobody sets out to harm blind people, limit their involvement, or keep them underemployed--exactly the opposite is true. Though the results may not be positive, the intentions are truly laudable.

In discussions among agency managers one hears a sense of real frustration. "We hired this blind guy to manage our program, and, though he talked a good game, it turned out that he didn't have good skills of blindness and wasn't able to travel on his own or accomplish tasks in a timely manner. Now we have to keep him because he is our only blind manager, and how would it look if we fired him?" This kind of hiring is usually the result of a very narrow search. The agency looks through the list of the blind people it knows best--its past clients. They hire somebody, hoping against hope that things will work out, but they usually do not. Again the agency manager could say, "Something must be wrong with my methods," but unfortunately (and more likely) the manager will conclude, "There just aren't many competent blind folks out there."

So how is it that some programs have high numbers of competent blind staff at all levels? How do they manage to have a large cadre of blind people waiting for the opportunity to work in their programs?

The simple truth is that successful leadership teams are doing many things right, and those that are not achieving success are doing many things wrong. Here are some dos and don'ts to help programs build a competent blind workforce. These have been gleaned from my thirty years of work in and observation of public and private agency rehabilitation programs and industries for the blind.

1. Successful recruitment is an ongoing process which begins before the need for employees arises. The time to recruit is not when you need someone. The odds that a qualified blind person will be available and will apply for your job are not good. Competent managers should be developing lists of prospective qualified employees far in advance of their need. Attendance at conventions and college training programs and tours of other rehabilitation programs should be used as opportunities to identify those who are competent and to establish ongoing communication with them.

2. Good managers steal employees. It is always best to buy a known quantity. Look at people who are doing work at other programs, and get to know them. Almost everyone is looking for a job if given the right incentives. Figure out what those incentives are and lure new employees to your organization.

3. Associate with blind people. Hang around enough folks, and you will spot the ones who have the skills you need or who can be trained to meet those needs.

4. Avoid hiring past clients of your rehabilitation program as management staff or instructors until they have gone out into the working world and proven to themselves that they can be successful. Sometime during training every blind person considers becoming a teacher of the blind. This is natural. But, until they have been out there and learned for themselves that they really can be successful in the rough and tumble of the workplace, you don't want them serving as blind role models.

5. Get to know blind people outside the field of blindness rehabilitation. Thousands of folks working in every walk of life might be persuaded to move into the blindness field. The nice thing about hiring a blind personnel manager away from the local bank is that he or she is unlikely to be accepting your job solely to help the blind. And you probably won't have to begin by eradicating lots of past bad work habits or attitudes about blindness before you can develop a proper perspective in them.

6. Hire blind people who seem a little cocky to you. I don't mean people who are downright difficult to get along with. Successful blind people have usually learned that, if they had listened to what others thought they could or should do, they would never have done much. The result is that they are just a little cocky, occasionally breaking rules, and they have an underlying independent streak that most organizations say they want in managers. If you find such people a bit abrasive and therefore you tend to shy away from them, ask yourself if perhaps you are actually looking for managers who are yes-people and your preference for the easygoing is merely a symptom. Also consider the possibility that you prefer passive blind people because that's the way you are used to having them behave.

7. Your goal as a director should be to reach a critical mass of competent blind people. One or two blind people with good skills in an organization can be written off as amazing individuals. Eight or ten, on the other hand, become the norm, and their behavior becomes the standard for future employees. Reaching a critical mass is essential if training programs are to be successful. When most blind people come to agencies for training, they have a very limited concept of what is possible for them. If they are shown enough competent blind staff, they will come to believe that competence is the norm. For the blind as well as the sighted, seeing is believing. Your goal should be to have enough competent blind people on staff that students will say, "If that person can do it, so can I." This realization usually comes only through consistent exposure to competent blind people over a long period of time.

8. Another value gained from hiring competent blind staff is that they will spot others and help you lure them into the organization. Their testimony will be far better than yours because the truth is that they are blind and you are not.

As directors and managers you have a role in charting the course of work with the blind for the next generation. As the baby-boomers retire and new employees come into the field, they will represent your legacy. In the human services arena you can make no more valuable contribution than to hire the best. Agency policy can and does change; funding goes up and down. However, the people you are hiring now will in all likelihood be around for the next twenty-five years.

Basing our hiring decisions on sound principles and demanding excellence will help make major change in our field, and you will be proud to have truly helped change what it means to be blind.

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