Dreams to Foster Equity and Empower People in Wisconsin: Education and Employment

Equity written in scrabble letters

This is Part 2 of the Council’s legislative dreams series. The series focuses on the Council’s vision for 2027, when the organization will celebrate its seventy-fifth anniversary of promoting the dignity and empowerment of the people in Wisconsin who are blind or visually impaired.

Last month, transportation and civil rights/ADA were discussed, which require public awareness to bring about change. This month’s topics, education and employment, require self-empowerment. It is our hope that by clearly stating objectives to aspire to, individuals and organizations will have a clear target to strive for when advocating for change.

Education:

Dream: Recruit and train qualified vision services professionals to serve in K-12 settings.

Why this matters: Vision services professionals in the school setting include teachers of the visually impaired (TVIs) and Orientation and Mobility Specialists (O&Ms). TVIs are educators who have received specialized training to work with visually impaired students. This includes helping students live in a sighted world and become as independent as possible. Education offered via a TVI is more likely to prepare blind or visually impaired (BVI) students for the workforce, combatting the un- and under-employment rates mentioned later in this article. O&Ms can offer school-age children the practical skills they need to safely and confidently navigate their surroundings. Orientation and mobility skills are key to helping students fulfill their post-secondary education and career goals.

A boy and woman sit at a table with wooden blocks.
A boy learns math with a Teacher of the Visually Impaired. Photo courtesy of Perkins School for the Blind eLearning.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s IDEA Child Count 2015-16, there are 511 BVI students who are blind or visually impaired in Wisconsin public schools. However, there is a shortage of trained TVIs and O&Ms. Currently, there are 19 open positions for TVIs and O&Ms in schools throughout Wisconsin on TVIJobs.org, a job board for certified teachers of the visually impaired and certified Orientation and Mobility Specialists. This means needs are going unfulfilled in school districts with TVI openings. Wisconsin does not currently have a training program for TVIs and O&Ms, further compounding the problem.

What the Council is doing to make it a reality: The Council is growing awareness about these issues among the public and legislators.

What individuals can do: Learn how students who are BVI are served in your school district and raise any questions or concerns to school administrators. You can also attend school board candidate forums and help candidates to become aware of the needs of BVI students in their districts. Most school board candidates will be unaware of these issues, so this education could be enlightening.

Employment

Dreams: (1) Increased resources are allocated to the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) so that it can provide vital services including: counselor training across differences in disability, increased follow-up of case management after DVR consumers acquire a job to assure a successful transition to work and long-term job retention. Long-term employment depends upon a longer period of coverage of employment-related transportation expenses. (2) The Business Enterprise Program (BEP) is seen as viable employment for people who are blind or visually impaired across the state. This includes making jobs attractive to younger workers.

Why these Dreams Matter:

According to the American Community Survey, people with disabilities have a 60 percent unemployment rate nationally. People who are blind and visually impaired have a 70 percent unemployment rate, and a 22 percent underemployment rate. Increased professional development opportunities could benefit DVR counselors and the people who receive services. Changes in technology, for example, have brought about new concerns, such as company software and screen-reader compatibility issues. Ongoing training could assist in the development of Individualized Plans for Employment and job placement.

A man shakes a woman's hand while another smiles.
A DVR counselor can help build relationships between consumers and potential employers. Photo courtesy of AFC Insurance of Pennsylvania.

Currently, a DVR counselor follows up with a client/consumer during the first 90 days of employment. The counselor calls the client each month to assess how things are going. After 90 days, if the person remains employed, the DVR case is closed. The Council recommends a longer period before a case is closed. A longer follow-up period would allow the counselor and consumer to explore what adaptive equipment and assistive technology might be helpful for an employee to successfully fulfill job responsibilities.

Transportation assistance is provided to DVR consumers to assist them in getting to work during the first 90 days of employment. When transportation assistance ends, people with disabilities may be at greater risk of leaving their jobs. The Council would like to see this assistance extended beyond 90 days.

These dreams will ultimately help DVR clients reach their career goals. They will assist people across all disability groups in acquiring and keeping jobs. Since more people will be participating in the economy and utilizing their talents and skills, a ripple effect of benefits will extend out into the greater community.

Wisconsin’s Business Enterprise Program (BEP) trains people who are blind or visually impaired in Wisconsin to own their own businesses in cafeteria and vending services settings. BEP business owners not only support themselves, they employ others at around 100 vending sites statewide.

The Council hopes the BEP can employ even more vendors and expand to more vending sites over the next decade. A vending job could be lucrative to employees entering the workforce because it offers flexible hours to raise a family, retirement and education reimbursement plans.

What the Council is doing to make these dreams a reality: The Council is strengthening its working relationship with the DWD, DVR and BEP. BEP vendors are encouraged to participate in Legislative Day each April so they have the opportunity and audience to meet with legislators. The Council is helping to promote the program as an excellent opportunity for employment. The Council offers the assistive technology training through DVR that is required for vendors to be successful.

What individuals can do: Learn about the BEP by watching this video on the wivending.com website. If you or someone you know is considering becoming a BEP operator, entertain moving forward with that idea. Participate in Legislative Day, especially if you are a BEP vendor, so you can educate your legislator about the program’s existence.

Individuals can ask new businesses moving into the communities what their commitment is to hiring people with disabilities. Educate business owners in your community about how to receive a tax credit for hiring people with disabilities, through the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC). For more information about the WOTC, visit dwd.wisconsin.gov/jobservice/taxcredit/wotc.htm.

Think about your own experiences with education and employment and what you could do to help others. What is a story you could share in a public hearing? Consider talking to friends about your experience and compare the ways in which it was similar or different from their experiences. Find mentors and connect with people in the BVI community, especially if you are looking for a job or thinking about furthering your education.

Watch for the final part of this series: Healthcare and Long-Term Care in March.

 

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