I often hear from blind high school students who write to me asking what they should study in college in order to find themselves prepared for a highly competitive job market once they graduate. I also hear from a lot of people like myself who lose their vision later in life (I had past my 37th birthday when I started using a screen reader) who need to find new careers as their previous line of work became impossible without vision. I was fortunate in that I had almost 20 years professional experience in the software arts when I lost my vision so my transition brought me from making computer programs using my eyes to using JAWS but I didn’t have to learn an entirely new career.
The first thing I do when I talk to someone looking to choose a career is listen to them describe what they enjoy doing and where they think their talents lie. The next thing I do is recommend they find a professional career counselor with expertise in blindness as I have a fairly narrow level of knowledge in the field and tend to try to suggest that everyone find something to do that involves computing. The people who turn to me then often tell me that career counselors have done little more than discouraged them and that they wanted some advice from actual blind people who have pretty successful careers. I then remind them that I have only recently started working full time after a nearly two and a half year layoff so I don’t think “success” is the proper adjective for me but they usually insist so I do my best to help.
Over the past seven or eight years in which I have provided people with amateur career advice, I found that, no matter what the individual found interesting, that they would need at least some computer skills to achieve their goals. People with careers varying from freelance poet to insurance claims adjuster to call center employee to software engineer all need a screen reader to do their jobs. Yes, a poet can write their work on a manual Brailer or slate and stylus but sending their work in that form to a publisher would probably find itself causing strange questions in an editor’s office. Also, I write both professional and creative works and find that editing becomes far more efficient in MS Word with JAWS or Window-Eyes (I prefer WE in longer documents as it feels a bit more responsive but I like JAWS much better if I’m collaborating on a document as it works better with the sharing tools) than I could imagine it using paper and a slate or Brailler. Nonetheless, computer skills are virtually essential for a blind person to effectively compete in the workplace.
A few years ago, while working at FS, I coined the term, “JAWS generation.” Members of the JAWS Generation were the high school students I had started hearing from who had spent their entire lives, from Kindergarten and in some cases before, using JAWS or some other screen reader. These young people could not envision a world without talking computers and they bring a level of creativity and ideas to user interface metaphors that people who joined the talking computer world later can not. In the mainstream, the equivalent are the kids who cannot imagine a world without graphical computing environments who, today, are inventing super cool things that the old Greenblatt Windowing System or Xerox Star gang couldn’t even imagine.
At the same time, people who lose their vision later in life have far more experience using a computer in their sighted history so making the transition to a screen reader has a much less steep learning curve than it did even a decade ago.
Even with screen readers, though, the job market remains harder for us blinks to crack than it does for our sighted counterparts. The only fields in which I have hands on experience looking for jobs in the past couple of years involves the software arts and computing for people with disabilities. A restrictive covenant in my employee agreement kept me from working for any AT company for two years but I did look around in mainstream computing and research and worked in a variety of tasks in these areas.
So, for a blind person, I feel having very marketable and up to date skills is even more essential than our sighted counterparts. I feel that companies tend to be less likely to take a risk on a blind person with the intent of training them in a technology that has not been proven to be accessible. This is also why the work the people on the blind programming and other mailing lists that do work on JAWS scripts and Window-Eyes configurations are so important to our community. Over the past nine months or so, the scripting project for Visual Studio led by Jamal Mazrui has made the combination of JAWS and VS .Net profoundly more usable by blind people than ever before. This morning, Pratik Patel announced that he has put a wiki online on his web site to host the tutorial project for non-visual .Net development that I started last fall and that Jamal has taken over recently. This will go a long way to helping people in our community learn to develop Windows applications with JAWS and other screen readers.
[Editor’s Note: This article has fallen off its rails, I started talking about career advice and ended up talking about the software arts and screen readers with a diversion into my own job searching. That’s why it’s a blog and not actual formal essay as I don’t plan or edit these pieces, I just let them flow. Maybe I’ll do a best of BC and put them up as formally edited articles on hofstader.com when I revive that project in the future.]
Software jobs represent some of the highest paying positions that blind people can get. I do recommend that blind people looking for jobs in software engineering, computer programming, information technology or other computing related fields try to find the skills most desired by companies hiring. This morning, I read the article, “The top 10 dead (or dying) computer skills,” which provides a good list of skills that one shouldn’t look at. My friends on the blind programming list recently debated those which seem to have more value these days so I suggest looking in the archives to see their opinions.
Upon reread, this article really does wander. I hope it makes sense to some people.
BC may see some changes pretty soon. I am likely going to be joined by a friend of mine who will write articles here on topics more related to lifestyle and from a blind woman’s perspective. We are likely going to revive hofstader.com as an online magazine about blindness issues mostly unrelated to assistive technology but of interest to our community. We hope to bring a hip view of disability that does less pandering and has a more adult view of things and contains articles on topics on “Dating a Sightie if You Have a 100 Pound Guide Dog,” “The Accessible Strip Club” and more serious career oriented items. Obviously, today’s BC post will not find its way into this new online rag as the writing sucks.