Despite a sterling academic record, magna cum laude honors, and hearty recommendations from his professors, Naveen James was unable to land a job after graduating from California State Polytechnic University Pomona in 2015.
Interview after interview, James would come up empty. No callback. And it became hard not to believe that employment had eluded him because no one would give him, a blind man, the opportunity to prove himself.
“I'd been getting a lot of interviews based on my résumé,” said James. "But after I’d walk in, I did feel as though… they were kind of hesitant. Maybe they were wondering how would this employee perform the job.”
After some time, his dreams of landing a private-sector job dissipated. “I thought I would get a job without any problem. I lost faith."
Born prematurely in India, James developed a rare congenital eye condition called persistent hyperplastic primary vitreous. Essentially, certain fetal vascular structures that are supposed to regress after birth never did, due to excessive levels of oxygen in his incubator. His left eye was left completely sightless, while his right has limited vision – enough to count fingers on a hand. “Let's say I take a pic of a newspaper and put it close to my eyes, I can see the headlines. No problem. But I cannot read the fine print of the article itself,” said James.
Such challenges can make it hard to find work – which is why National Industries for the Blind (NIB) last month officially launched a new enterprise called NSITE, designed to connect businesses with qualified job seekers who are blind or visually impaired (BVI), and/or military veterans.
For 82 years, the non-profit organization has assisted BVI individuals with job training and placement through its own workforce program – in fact, the organization helped James ultimately land a job – but NIB’s efforts have primarily been tied to government programs and contracts. By spinning off NSITE, there is now an organization that can wholly focus on generating BVI workforce development opportunities in the private sector, expanding on NIB’s original efforts. As of late January, NIB was in talks with about a half-dozen private organizations in such sectors as cybersecurity, banking and energy.
The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) counts more than 25 million U.S. adults who are blind or have low vision. And roughly 70 percent of working-age BVI individuals in the U.S. are unemployed, according to Jonathan Lucus, head of NSITE, even as industries such as cybersecurity desperately seek sources of new talent.
“A large percentage of them are unemployed because of those misconceptions or preconceptions that companies have, employers have, hiring managers have, of the abilities that these people bring to the table,” said Lucus, who is also NIB’s senior director of workforce development.
“Even those who are employed are often limited to a narrow band of occupations that underutilize their skills and potential, due to social stigma and attitudinal barriers that undermine their opportunities for career advancement,” said Megan Aragon, chief program officer at the AFB.
NSITE was created to “change hearts and minds,” Lucus continued, “to help corporations understand that there's a strategic advantage to hiring people who are blind or visually impaired because there is a large swath of the country who aren't getting jobs, yet bring a diverse skill set to the workforce and a diverse way of thinking, and are extremely great problem solvers. They had to overcome their disability, right?”
“So, we're providing that conduit for taking this unused talent, and placing them in jobs where employers are seeking to find that talent.”
Having the perspective of BVI workers on staff even help software developers avoid certain security and privacy missteps that they might otherwise overlook, according to Darren Burton, a sales consultant with AFB Consulting (a division of the AFB) and former director of AFB Tech.
Burton, who became blind in his young adulthood as the result of a tumor, worked for over four years at Yahoo! as an accessibility specialist. “I personally often worked with… our cybersecurity team at Yahoo!, making sure we [would] keep accessibility in mind when creating secure systems,” Burton told SC Media. “For people with disabilities to have any digital security whatsoever, we must have accessibility. When we have to ask for help from friend or relatives, our privacy and security go right out the window. Having blind people in these types of jobs will help to ensure that does not happen.”
Officially launched in January, NSITE offers a multitude of employment-based services for employer and employee, including a cloud-based talent management system (including pre-screening and onboarding services), temp and outsourcing services, accessibility and accommodation support, and consulting and advisory services. Consulting includes corporate training for working with BVI individuals, recognizing unconscious bias and inclusive leadership and team building.
The organization also provides pre-training and certification programs for candidates, and will help matched skilled candidates with the right job for them.
Lucus said NSITE will take “a very wholistic approach to supporting employers across the country. We provide talent, we train that talent, we place that talent. And then we provide post-placement support. So corporations are not just getting somebody and saying. ‘Okay, good luck.’ We’re making sure that frontline managers, the hiring managers and the new employees are successful in their roles.”
NSITE will place job candidates across a variety of trades, but the organization has placed a particularly strong emphasis on the infosec space. “Our big push this year is to support the cybersecurity industry,” said Lucus. Headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, “we're…surrounded by cybersecurity firms, and we feel like we really good position to support these companies.”
The AFB offers similar programs. It’s AFB Consulting arm offers advisory services to assist organizations looking to hiring employees with disabilities, helping them with “increasing their revenue, creating an inclusive work culture, and ensuring disability inclusion across mobile apps and websites,” said Aragon. And the AFB Blind Leaders Development Program aims to solve the lack of BVI representation in corporate leadership positions through professional coaching, mentoring, networking and soft skills and communication training.
Meanwhile, NIB will continue to support the cause in its own way. Just last November, NIB became the first organization to launch a Cisco Networking Academy CCNA (Cisco Certificated Network Associate) training program designed specifically for BVI people.
“One of our participants already got a six-figure job offer even before he completed the course, so we are very confident that we are on the right track," said Lucus. And other BVI cyber pros who have gone through some of NIB’s other training, fellowship and scholarship programs “are now CEOs of organizations.”
James is among those interested in taking the new Cisco Academy training course. Indeed, it was through an NIB job listing through that he landed a job at Global Connections to Employment (GCE), one of the largest employers of people with disabilities under the federal government’s AbilityOne Program. Offering jobs in the areas of IT, business services, facilities maintenance and more, GCE employs approximately 1,800 people across the U.S.
Since January 2020, James has been working for GCE’s California branch as a quality assurance specialist, though he is qualified to work jobs in cyber as well. As part of his responsibilities, he reviews code using a special connected device called a braille display. As he reads through each line for errors, physical braille dots emerge from the device, allowing him to scroll character by character with his fingers and fix any mistakes. It’s one of several technology-based accommodations that NIB and NSITE can help secure for the BVI community, such as screen magnification software for those with limited vision.
“With technology now, our folks can be in any job anyone else can be in and actually excel,” said Lucus. “We have a number of individuals who have gone through our training programs who are now CEOs of organizations.”
A better understanding of how such technologies can help might even dispel unfair presumptions employers have about the efficacy of visually impaired workers.
“Misconceptions are always a roadblock to employment,” said Burton. “Employers are often flabbergasted when they see a blind person using a computer. Too many employers, regardless of the industry, have no idea how our screen readers and other digital tools give us the ability to work in nearly any industry.”
However, “The more we in the BVI community are seen out in the world using these powerful tools, the faster these unfortunate misconceptions will begin to fade away,” he added.
Other accessibility and accommodation tools include desktop and mobile screen readers that audibly recite words and code aloud. “They allow us to read any text or data onscreen, and to access the structural interface of a website or software product,” said Burton. “We also have techniques for accessing the content and descriptions of images onscreen [and] powerful optical character recognition software to access non-text elements and images of text.”
Additionally, some BVI workers have access to remotely-based human assistants who look through the user’s phone “to see what is in front of us and interpret anything visual,” added Burton.
“Even after I got a job on you know from GCE, the NIB were really helpful… making sure that the environment, all the accommodations, are up to par,” said James, who also requires a screen reader along with a special accompanying component that can work with Citrix.
James reflected back to his youth in India, when he wasn’t even aware he could use a screen reader to navigate around a computer environment. At the time, he was using a slate and stylus and a braille typewriter to compose his schoolwork.
“So what I was hoping then was that maybe I would become a social worker,” said James. But in 12th grade, James moved to the U.S. and was introduced to technology that made computers accessible to the blind, and a whole new world opened to him. He decided to pursue computers as a career, knowing this is an area where he could excel.
And now James can gladly say that he landed a dream job, adding that his coworkers and management “stick up for their employees as much as they do for their customers.”
“I’m really happy working here and I think that NIB has done a great job,” said James. And once its NSITE initiative is fully up and running, “it will do even… better.”