People with vision impairment still face discrimination when looking for work, survey finds

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When Lee Chong tried to find a workplace that would support her disability and see her as a “whole person”, the experience left her feeling “deflated and defeated”.

The 49-year-old, originally from Malaysia, was diagnosed with the degenerative eye disorder retinitis pigmentosa when she was 26 years old.

In 2017 she took a redundancy and decided to change jobs when her vision deteriorated.

Ms Chong knew she had a lot to offer an employer after more than two decades as an accountant for various high-profile companies.

It would be an 18-month search with many setbacks.

“It was such a patronising experience,” Ms Chong said.

“My skills, profession and my dignity were trampled all over.”

While Ms Chong found she would secure a second interview, when she told them about her disability she said the mood always changed.

“I disclosed that I have low vision and I used adaptive technology to help do my work, and I also offered to answer any questions that they might have,” Ms Chong said.

“But the silence from the panel interviewers was so loud.”

Ms Chong decided not to disclose her disability at her next interview. She got the job.

On her first day, she told the company about her low vision and requested approval for adaptive software.

“I chose to do a soft disclosure to make it less confronting,” Ms Chong said.

“But things just didn’t go down the right way.”

One colleague laughed at her magnified mouse and she experienced discrimination.

“There was never any communication but suddenly I got told there was concern if I could do the job,” Ms Chong said.

She made the decision to resign in just the third week of the role.

“I was up against a huge perception,” Ms Chong said.

“I’d learnt an important lesson though: It’s never a good time to disclose [a disability], but any delay will just complicate things further because it’s detrimental to building trust.”

Businesses’ attitudes ‘disappointing’

Vision Australia said Ms Chong’s experience was common. Research from Ernst & Young found “institutional systematic barriers” to blind and low vision people finding employment.

Chief executive Ron Hooton said they had regularly surveyed employers over the last decade and the “poor mindset” continued, with little change in employers’ attitudes.

“It really disappoints me. I don’t think that employers out in Australia are doing anywhere near enough,” Mr Hooton said.

“I see a lot of tokenism — ‘We’ve hired one person with a disability, we’ve done our job’ — that type of virtue signalling drives me nuts.”

The survey of 1,000 employers found only 30 per cent of businesses were willing to adapt job requirements to suit a person who was qualified for the role but had a vision impairment.

It revealed 49 per cent of recruiting staff had never thought about hiring a person who was blind or had low vision.

And 83 per cent said they lacked the confidence to employ a vision-impaired person.

Mr Hooton said because low vision and blind people faced prejudice they struggled to disclose their disability to employers.

“My advice to people is disclose early because if a person’s going to discriminate against you, you don’t want to work in that organisation,” Mr Hooton said.

The survey revealed 67 per cent of employers thought workplace safety would be an issue if they employed blind and low-vision people.

Mr Hooton said Vision Australia, which employs 100 people who are blind or have low vision, had not had an employee with “even a bump” in the last six years.

“I think people believe that because a person can’t see, that they’re incompetent to move around safely within the lived environment, but what we know is that people train for years to be able to do that,” Mr Hooton said.

More diverse = more successful

After her 18-month job search, Ms Chong finally gained employment in 2019 in risk assessment and compliance with Hireup, an organisation that provides support workers for people with disability.

Hireup’s Harriet Dwyer described Ms Chong as “conscientious and capable” but also a “good cultural fit” for the organisation.

“She has a disability that is represented in our customer base,” Ms Dwyer said.

“It’s really important for us to have that perspective shared within our team so that as we deliver our service it really resonates with those that will be using it.”

Ms Dwyer said employing Ms Chong also made good business sense.

“Apart from the fact that it’s the right thing to do, it’s also increasingly the smart thing to do,” Ms Dwyer said.

“We’re starting to see results that show that the more diverse your team is, the more successful your business is.”

Of Hireup’s 216 permanent staff, 9 per cent self-report as having a disability. The organisation hopes it will be 13 per cent by mid-2024.

Ms Chong hoped her experience would encourage employers to challenge the myths around hiring people who are vision impaired.

“I’m not just a consumer, I’m a contributor and I can make a difference to the operations of the business,” Ms Chong said.

“It’s good for the mind and it’s good for the heart.”

By disability affairs reporter Nas Campanella and the Specialist Reporting Team’s Celina Edmonds (Original ABC Article)