According to the World Health Organization, one billion people have moderate/severe vision impairment or blindness globally. Similarly, according to the Centers for Disease Control website and Varma et al., approximately one million people were blind in 2015. It is projected that 2 million Americans will have severe visual impairment by 2050. Vision loss is one of the top 10 disabilities among adults ages 18 years old or older.
“My job title is dev ops engineer. I take on some of the toughest issues. It can be quite taxing and breaks are sometimes necessary.” - Nick (not his real name)
I had the opportunity to chat with Nick, a talented young developer who is blind, about accessibility in the workplace for people with physical disabilities. Nick described his early life as having been somewhat positive as he had some sight during his childhood and teenage years. Nick had varying support from family but exhibited remarkable resilience throughout his childhood. Because of his vision impairment, he was not encouraged to play contact sports by his doctors or family members. This is something that he has regretted to this day.
Nick instead largely taught himself about computers during the time he would have spent on a sports team as a teenager. He studied extremely diligently and started working as early as 15 years old. At around 16 years old Nick lost all his sight. Nick told me that he prefers the term blind in his case: “Blind is the more correct term because blind means no vision.”
“Once you get out of the blind school the world is a hard core place. It was in 5th or 6th grade I almost got hit by a car for the first time. I was crossing with the help of a walk sign. The driver almost hit me... He was texting and driving. You make peace with death really quickly because if you don’t you will never do anything. Silent cars make it that much more dangerous for us.”
What types of special technology do you use to do your job?
“I have a screen reader. I read around 150, 200 words per minute. I sit here with my headphones on and it reads to me everything on the screen. I find myself speed reading through documentation and other resources. My comprehension level is pretty good for the speed at which I read.”
What draws you to programming?
“Being a developer is amazing because I get to create things that work. I love the power that comes with it. That is the nature of development. You sit down and you get a new challenge every day. It's not stale and it keeps me interested. What more could you want from a job?"
"I started making my first website at 14 years old. I did tech support for about one year."
"Accessibility development came next. I made the company’s website more accessible. My job was to make sure the screen readers were accessible with the website. I ended up working in backend development.”
“I thought: ‘Can I do this, let's see. System administration sounds fun, let's try it. And I taught myself about servers.’”
Even while working remotely full time, Nick found ways to improve his knowledge despite not having a college degree. He is currently taking college classes, and he contributes to open-source projects as well. Nick talked to me about his considerable drive and ambition:
“I approached the CTO and said you should give me a shot [at more responsibility]. I was begging. He finally did.”
What frustrations are you dealing with right now?
“Accessibility and equal opportunity employment are not terms I get to use because they are false in the IT world. Most companies knew I had a visual condition due to the [school for the blind] listed on my resume and always found a reason to not hire me. A company that will go unnamed for now gave me a 35-minute interview. The first half-hour was great. I talked about all the [my] experience I had and how I could write back-end code all day long. The last 5 minutes, I said: ‘The only thing I can't do for you is make the little styling adjustments on the front-end.’ The interview was over right there. No more questions, no more comments, just over.”
“Companies don't give me a fair shot. They come up with excuses. I would never hear back from them. It was just nothing.”
What is an example of when a hiring manager treated you well?
Nick stated that at a specific company with whom he interviewed, the manager in charge of hiring was outstanding.
“He told me why I did not get the job. They were not looking for entry-level people. All this happened in the course of a week. It was so professional. They were honest and forthcoming - and punctual. They treated me with respect.”
What do you see as your strengths?
“I have a very loud voice. No one will ever stand in my way. That is by far my biggest strength.”
Nick remarked that many of the people who went to school with him were not working. Unlike him, they were drawing disability payments. Nick is fiercely independent and wants to work. He has worked remotely for 5 years.
What are some of your future plans?
Nick has decided to take certification exams in various computer fields. He found that requesting accommodations for his blindness to be a cumbersome and complex process. A sighted person would be able to go online and with a few clicks just schedule and pay for the test. Requesting accommodations for his blindness is a multistep process that means he has to be on hold on the phone for hours. He said that very often he has to call back and no one can give him an answer about his test status for days. The whole process to schedule one test can take almost a month. He has to do that over and over again every year despite the fact that his blindness is permanent.
There are many things that people don’t consider when creating technology and systems.
For example, Uber and Lyft were not running as frequently in the location where he lived during the Covid pandemic in 2020. Bus services were not reliable in the area either. He could not get transportation to the grocery store or to do errands. Nick felt trapped and frustrated in his home. This situation became so bad that Nick decided he had to move to another state so that he could get his basic needs met! Now in his new living situation, Nick still finds it frustrating when he cannot get help with buying his groceries in person. He needs a salesperson to assist him with purchasing his items from the shelves. True to his resilient and brave nature, he found a solution in getting grocery delivery from Walmart. These are just simple things that sighted people take for granted.
My one-hour interview with Nick showed me how much I take for granted as a sighted person, but more importantly, it helped me empathize with Nick’s frustrations. Why do things have to be so hard for people with disabilities who have drive, talent, and an interest in working? Nick’s experience with accessibility and the workplace is a bitter one, but he does it because he loves what he does. He loves building things with code.