In the US, 70% of blind or visually-impaired people are unemployed - that’s 2.6 million people aged 21-64. That’s a big number, especially considering there is technology available that means this demographic could do any number of jobs just as well – or indeed better – than others.
One organization championing this type of assistive technology to open up opportunities in the workplace is Indiana-based Bosma Enterprises. The firm operates a warehouse that packs and ships a variety of products, from medial equipment to ice melter, staffed almost entirely by people who are blind or visually impaired.
Of Bosma’s 200-plus employees, over half are considered legally blind. Legal blindness covers varying visual acuities, from someone who doesn’t see anything at all to somebody who may be visually impaired but still able to drive a car or read a newspaper with the aid of assistive technology. Brian Petraits, Director of Manufacturing at Bosma and one of the firm’s blind employees, says:
What we strive to do here at Bosma is pair the individual up with a piece of technology that's going to allow for them to succeed in the job that they are currently in, or a job that they want to be in in the future. And so we're on the forefront of technology, we believe in the ability that technology can create an equal playing field for all, regardless of visual acuity.
One of the most recent additions to levelling up the playing field is the OrCam MyEye wearable device. The hands-free, lightweight device looks similar to a Bluetooth earpiece, and clips onto a wearer’s glasses. It works by snapping a photo of whatever is in front of it – a printed or digital book, newspaper, sign on the wall, $5 bill, barcode, smartphone or computer screen, a person’s face, a street sign – and then either reads the text out loud to the wearer or describes what it’s seeing.
No data connectivity is required, so the MyEye can be used anywhere, whether on a plane thousands of miles above ground, underground on a train or in a corner of the supermarket with no mobile signal.
Bosma has started using the MyEye device in its warehouse, to support picking, packing and shipping supplies from surgical gloves to ambulance kits to its various customers. The largest of these is the Department of Veterans’ Affairs [VA] and the network of VA hospitals throughout the US, but it also partners with the State of Indiana and sells to other governmental and private organizations. The work sees staff accessing several different boxes to locate the correct items, often requiring use of a handheld magnifier to read the text on the boxes. Petraits says:
We do a lot of picking and packing of medical devices, and any time you're dealing with medical devices, lot number, lot traceability is so important. A lot of what we're doing is verifying lot numbers, verifying labels - we know what we should be getting, let us verify it - and through the help of the OrCam, we've been able to do that.
It’s quicker, more efficient and just less stressful too. You don't have to fumble with a handheld magnifier or a video magnifier, you can keep your hands free a little bit, and the satisfaction of being able to validate and verify - yes, this is what I think it is, there is definitely a time saving, there's a convenience factor as well. And then just the satisfaction of knowing you've done it on your own.
Bosma has been using the MyEye for around a year now and the devices have been a success to date, both in terms of enhancing productivity and offering new job opportunities for staff:
There have been a number of times where activities that have required in the past very good vision can now be done by somebody with a lot lower visual acuity. Whereas in the past, we either had to have somebody that can see a lot better to do the job, it's opened up some different jobs for individuals that may not have had those positions available to them in the past.
Beyond the workplace
Bosma employees are also able to borrow the MyEye devices for use outside of work, which is having a positive impact on their personal lives. Petraits gave the example of a colleage with low vision who had a doctor's appointment. The taxi dropped him off at the main door of the doctor's office, but when he got to the front door it was locked. He was able to use his OrCam to look at the door and ‘read’ a sign that said, ‘Door locked for construction, please use side door’.
In a matter of seconds, that gentleman was able to understand, here's what I need to do independently. He did not have to rely on somebody else to help him out. And it did not require a Wi-Fi network or anything like that.
At the grocery store, it can tell if you have a can of tomato soup or a can of chicken noodle soup. Just different things like that, they create a sense of independence, because we all want to be independent. So not only at the workplace, but also in the personal life setting, the OrCam has been a great tool for us.
Currently, Bosma has seven OrCam devices, funded by a grant from UPS, which are shared out among the workforce. However, the organization would invest in more of the devices if and when the opportunity arose to hire more people who are blind or visually impaired. The devices retail from $3,500 for the OrCam MyEye Smart, but funding can also be obtained through the VA and other state Vocational Rehabilitation organizations.
One of those who obtained funding through the latter was Jason Barber, a farmer in Tennessee. When Barber began losing his vision to the point he is now considered legally blind, he was afraid he would also lose the cattle farm that had been in his family for 155 years. However, the Tennessee Vocational Rehabilitation offered Barber access to an OrCam MyEye device, which he now uses to do everything from reading medication product labels for his cows to managing data on the herd.
Petraits has been at Bosma for 13 years now, having worked there as a summer intern and then joining straight after graduating. However, he is very aware of how fortunate and unusual his and Barber’s situations are, based on the high unemployment rate among the blind. He’d like to see more companies focus on developing assistive technologies to help more blind and visually impaired people into work:
Technology is the great equalizer. It has allowed for individuals who are blind to obtain and maintain employment. At Bosma, our CEO and many individuals on our executive leadership team are blind. The only way that individuals who are blind are able to be in that position and be successful is through technology.
Apple has put itself out there, saying that accessibility is going to be at the forefront of what we're doing. That’s allowed someone like myself to be on equal footing. I can send text messages, I can have a mobile device that can get on the internet and read emails just like a sighted peer. Other organizations like Uber and Lyft creating their platforms to be accessible so that an individual, regardless whether they can see or not, can utilize a ride-share program at the same time as a sighted peer - it really just puts individuals on an equal playing field.
There is still plenty of work to do on this aspect of inclusion, as highlighted by the fact that only 30% of blind or visually impaired Americans are in full-time employment. The more tech companies – whether that’s giants like Apple or niche specialists like OrCam – focus on accessibility and assistive products, the better chance there is that job opportunities will increase.
But it also requires buy-in from employers in general, to look at whether their diversity and inclusion policies could do more on opening up roles for people with disabilities. There has (rightly) been a huge amount of focus within the tech sector over recent years on women in technology, and more recently on racial equality. It would be good to see the inclusion aspect broadened out further regarding people with disabilities.