Published February 2004 — Download PDF of the original newspaper column
Byrd's-Eye View By U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd Opening Job Access to the Blind
For people with disabilities, accomplishing what others see as a simple task at work can be an immense challenge. Whether it is a lack of wheelchair access or an inability to communicate through standard workplace technologies, Americans with disabilities too often must struggle to be active, contributing members of society. The American Foundation for the Blind's Technology and Employment Center in Huntington (AFB Tech) is taking significant steps to break down the barriers between blind and visually impaired people and the communities in which they live. The Huntington center is instrumental in helping the American Foundation for the Blind to address two of the most critical issues facing the growing blind population -- employment and technology. The numbers are surprising. Every seven minutes, someone in America becomes blind or visually impaired. Five million Americans age 65 and older are severely visually impaired. As the enormous baby-boomer generation ages, the number of older visually impaired people will double. Furthermore than two-thirds of working age blind or severely visually impaired Americans are not employed, largely due to a lack of training opportunities and significant obstacles faced in the workforce. The American Foundation for the Blind works to eliminate these barriers and help the 10 million Americans who are blind or visually impaired from reaching their potential. The experts at AFB Tech evaluate essential workplace technologies -- such as copy and fax machines, computer software, and cell phones -- and then offer recommendations to the industries that design devices on ways to make them more user-friendly for blind individuals. In addition, AFB Tech operates the CareerConnect program, a free national resource that assists blind and visually impaired persons to develop employment skills. To enhance AFB Tech services, I recently won Congressional approval of $1 million that I added to appropriations legislation to expand and improve the services of the Huntington facility. This funding will enhance the Foundation's efforts to make employment opportunities and workplace technologies more accessible to the blind. This $1 million will allow AFB Tech to expand the CareerConnect program which pairs sight-challenged individuals with blind or visually impaired mentors already in the workplace. The program's support network assists blind individuals to find diverse and challenging employment opportunities that match their skills and interests. Barriers in communication and employment too often isolate people with physical disabilities. AFB Tech works to break through that isolation and open new opportunities for the blind and visually impaired, and I am proud to help this organization to accomplish its goals.