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When HR Goes Blind

Human resource professionals must take off the blinders, exercise sensitivity, and walk the talk of inclusion and the embracing of diversity.

November 2, 2001
Related Topics: Disabilities, Diversity

e all know that human resources is a field that touts the virtues of inclusiveness and diversity. Well, let me share an enlightening story with you.

A few years back, I befriended a new neighbor, Michelle, who was visually impaired. After I got to know her better, she revealed that she was, in fact, totally blind. Soon thereafter, Michelle lost her job as a receptionist.

The company was going bankrupt and was forced to cut back on staff. However, Michelle was optimistic that she would find another job, since her experience with this company had been a positive one. She had the skills it took, experience and maturity, and a pleasant personality, and she came with her own computer equipment.

Michelle wasn't asking for any accommodations. She wasn't asking for a large salary, but did want a position with benefits. She went on several interviews, networked with friends, and used a "job developer" from the state. After Michelle had spent many months falling short of her goal, I let her know that I was in the human resources field and wouldn't mind helping her search for a job.

This should be a snap, I thought. The economy was at full employment, and people were always looking for good help. Michelle presented herself well. I could gently get her to touch up her résumé, look at a few want ads in the Sunday newspapers, and presto!

We met each Monday at the library. I would read over the want ads, and Michelle would take dictation on possible job fits. The following day, she would type cover letters and send her résumés out. After months of this, with Michelle getting interviews but still not finding a position, we were both becoming disillusioned.

Her unemployment checks had run out and COBRA would soon end as well. We tried job fairs. Michelle gave speeches at the Rotary and Lions Clubs. She networked through her church. Still she came up with nothing. At that point, Michelle told me that the average time for a blind person to find employment was three years.

Some of Michelle's interview mishaps horrified me. I couldn't believe that other human resources professionals could be so unprofessional.

At a local hospital, where Michelle was an acquaintance of a VP, the HR recruiter called in an attorney to conduct the interview with her. Michelle was told that part of her job as a receptionist would be to change light bulbs on other employees' desktops and trouble-shoot the reasons why the lights weren't working-following electrical cords along the floor to see if they were frayed, for example, or ensuring that the cords were properly inserted in their sockets.

During an interview with a national eyeglass firm, the manager told Michelle that she would not be able to see if a gunman came into the lobby with a hostage. Mind you, their location was in mid-America suburbia, an area not known for crime; and for six of the eight hours, the lobby was manned by two receptionists!

At a local agency whose primary business objective is helping the disabled, they narrowed down the receptionist candidates to two. One was Michelle and the other was a sighted person. The agency explained to Michelle that the other candidate had one more year of experience on her résumé, and therefore gave the job to that candidate. Michelle felt that she was a better role model for the agency and their clients. She thought she could better understand the needs of the clients and their families. And she wasn't convinced that one extra year of answering a telephone made the other candidate better qualified for the job. (Less than six months later, the job became open again.)

Needless to say, Michelle's story does have a happy ending. After a little "selling" of her skills and a description of her plight to upper management, Michelle was placed at my company for eight months, until our facility moved out-of-state (she was aware of the arrangement before she accepted the position).

After the facility closed, she quickly solidified another position with a medical billing company full-time with benefits! She is doing well, and the company appears to be stable in location and financial standing.

Our company loved having Michelle in the workplace and embraced her as "one of the gang." Her guide dog, Fudge, was a delight as well. Michelle used the opportunity to gain new skills at our facility, by faxing and using our e-mail system. This helped keep her résumé and skills fresh.

She also greeted visitors, answered incoming calls for more than 250 employees, typed correspondence for three managers, and made travel plans for them. Given more time and a little patience from the staff, she could have helped our company even more!

Human resource professionals, please take off the blinders, exercise sensitivity, walk the talk of inclusion and the embracing of diversity, and show a little patience and compassion. There are great potential employees out there who want to work and who can add strength to an organization, even though they may be physically or mentally challenged. Kudos to the medical billing company that took the blinders off and gave Michelle a chance! I'm sure they will enjoy having her contribute to their team as much as we did.

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