Special Edition - Sharing Findings From Focus Groups Exploring Technology Use in the Workplace

Inform & Connect, the American Foundation for the Blind’s live group conversation and podcast created to foster togetherness and camaraderie within the blindness community through informal storytelling and learning about relevant, interesting topics, returns December 9th. The episode will feature special guests Dr. L. Penny Rosenblum, AFB Director of Research; and Elizabeth: Bolander, teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI) and Ph.D. candidate at New Mexico State University.

Dr. Rosenblum and Ms. Bolander will be discussing "Mainstream and Assistive Technology Use in the Workplace,” sharing information from nine focus groups held in October and November. They will also cover how those with visual impairments can better position themselves to obtain and maintain employment, along with how the focus group findings provide valuable information to tech companies, employers, IT professionals, and those involved in hiring.

Melody Goodspeed, AFB Major Gifts Specialist, will guide the conversation.

Melody: So without further ado, I want to introduce Dr. Penny Rosenblum, who is with us here at AFB, director of research and Elizabeth Bolander, who is a vision impaired teacher and is working on her PhD at Mississippi. Is it Mississippi state?

Penny Rosenblum: New Mexico.

Melody: Mexico. Sorry about that. Well, thank you so much for being here, you guys.

Penny Rosenblum: Well, thanks for having us, Melody. So myself and Elizabeth are glad to be here and we're actually going to talk about the Workplace Technology Study that started with a focus group. So I don't know if you want me to kick it off and talk a little bit about that or...

Melody: Tell us the purpose of the study, Penny.

Penny Rosenblum: Sure. So I joined AFB actually 11 months ago. And one of the questions that was posed to me when I first came was we have some funding and we want to look at how individuals with visual impairment use mainstream and assistive technology in the workplace. But just not like a count of how many people use JAWS or how many people use screen magnification, but let's dive in a little deeper. What are the challenges? What are the successes? How do you as a visually impaired employee do that dance with IT and with HR to get the tools that you need to be a productive member of your organization, your company. And so, that's our real focus here with this Workplace Technology Study, which is actually a multi-part study. So the first part is focus groups. And that's what we're here to talk about today.

Melody: Thank you so much. Elizabeth, who in particular participated in the focus groups? [pause] Elizabeth, can you hear me okay?

Elizabeth: Yes, there we are. Okay. Sorry about that guys. We had nine total focus groups for this study and we had four focus groups that were people who will primarily use screen readers in their daily work performance tasks. And then we had three focus groups who were made up of people with low vision who use screen magnification. And then we had two focus groups that were made up of sighted individuals. And the purpose of these focus groups was to gather information about the successes and the challenges that employees with visual impairments face with both the assistive technology and using mainstream technology in their workplaces.

Melody: That is awesome. Thank you so much. Penny, can you walk us through the study? Kind of take us through it and how [inaudible 00:04:30]

Penny Rosenblum: So one of the first things we did was initially, Elizabeth and I did what's called a literature review. So we examine what's out there about people who are visually impaired around technology. There isn't a lot. So we then also looked at regular mainstream technology use and technology used by people with disabilities. Initially, we thought we would focus on three areas, finance, IT and healthcare. But as we started to advertise for participants, we decided, you know what? We want to talk to anybody who's using technology in the workplace. And so, we advertised, some of you may have gotten this on a Listserv or through an AFB email. And we recruited close to 100 people and we sorted through and wanted to try to represent both folks who quote-unquote are blind, meaning that they primarily use speech on folks with low vision, primarily use print with or without magnification. And then, we wanted some sighted folks and you may be wondering American Foundation for the Blind, what are they doing with sighted folks?

Melody: Yes, I was just about to ask.

Penny Rosenblum: I knew you were because I'm reading your mind.

Melody: You are. [crosstalk 00:05:47]

Penny Rosenblum: I'm a person with low vision myself, Melody and I know that you're a blind person. And so, sometimes we think, the issues we're having the challenges, the successes, that the things that help us be productive, help us or interfere with our productivity, or because we're visually impaired. And so, it was important for Elizabeth and I to understand, do folks who have typical vision like Mr. Mackin, our announcer here today? Do they have some of the same issues? Do they have to go through challenges every time Zoom updates just like visually impaired people do? How does that throw off your whole morning?

Penny Rosenblum: So it was important for us to kind of use the sighted folks as a yardstick. So once we identified the people we wanted to have in the focus groups, we invited them to join us for an hour and a half to two hours. Elizabeth and I had a set of questions we worked on together, which were a combination from what we learned from the literature, from common sense, from some of the questions that the companies that sponsored our research had. And we ran through these questions so we asked each group pretty much the same questions so that way we could look at the answers across the groups.

Melody: That is quite impressive, I like that. I can't wait to see the results are [inaudible 00:07:09]. So, Elizabeth, what kinds of assistive technology did the focus groups, focus members use and how did they use it?

Elizabeth:: Well, we had our screen reader group and 61% of them use JAWS. And then 56% of them use voiceover. But actually, most of the people in our screen reader group use three or more tools in their daily work tasks and for personal use also, but we were mainly focused on their work tasks. So in addition to the mainstream technology, they use also Microsoft products, Zoom, Google platforms, Citrix Salesforce. And then, we also had many companies that have their own proprietary software. And so, we had questions pertaining to how the proprietary software interacted with their assistive technology software too. And then from our low vision group, we had a lot of enlargement. So people used a lot of their built-in software in their computers that could enlarge the screen too on Mac computers, Windows computers, Chromebooks. And then, we also had products such as ZoomText and Magic. And then some of our participants also noted that they use CCTVs and monoculars to access their work documents or to better view things such as trainings.

Melody: That was great. Thank you so much, Elizabeth. Penny, to add to that, what kind of mainstream technology was used in each of these organizations?

Penny Rosenblum: That is a great question. And I realized, before I answer that question, Melody, it might help you and our listeners as well. If I just give you a little bit of background about these folks in the nine focus groups, it occurred to me that would be interesting to folks. So, as Elizabeth mentioned, we had folks who quote-unquote are blind, we had eight sighted folks. So we're not going to talk about those eight sighted folks today. So the 44 visually impaired folks, 29% or 66% of them were blind. And the 34% or 15 of them have low vision. We were really well-represented in gender, not deliberately, but we ended up with 24 females and 20 males and our folks range. Now, these are employed folks from age 22 to the age of 78. And the average age was 46 years.

Penny Rosenblum: We try really hard here at AFB as do all researchers to be ethnically diverse. We didn't do as great as we would have liked, 68% white and then we had folks from other ethnic groups. I'm including somebody who was native American, three Hispanics, five people who identified themselves as black or African-American, two people identified themselves as Asian. And one of the things that I think is important for us to talk about, and we don't have to do right now, Melody, but I do want to talk about that. We really got some themes as well, that emerged, but to answer your real question, which was about mainstream technology. This the gamut, a lot of people use Microsoft products. A lot of people use Google products, a lot of people because of this change to working at home, were using zoom, WebEx, Microsoft. I'm sorry, Google Meets. Those types of tools.

Penny Rosenblum: We also, as Elizabeth alluded to, have people who had proprietary software. So, for example, our folks who were in the healthcare industry talked about electronic health records, different systems that let you manage patient care. We had folks who worked for companies where the company had developed their own software that allowed people to do jobs. And we had some folks in sales where they were on a sales floor. And so, there were tools that they use to record sales, to document what questions customers were asking, those types of things. We also had a few people who work customer service. So we're having to go to a database to be able to answer why doesn't my refrigerator work kind of question. So we really ran the gamut.

Melody: Now, that's really interesting. So moving into those areas that you've looked at, mainstream proprietary technology and all the assistive technologies that are used by people that are blind or vision impaired, coupled with the high unemployment rate that we're facing in this community. Did you find that technology was a major barrier?

Penny Rosenblum: I think it's too early for us to say whether technology is a barrier to employment per se, from these focus groups. And that's why we're going to do a survey in February, Melody. So I hope all your listeners, when they get a blast from AFB saying, "Hey, take part in the survey." We'll be able to give us some input. What we did find in this data right now is that there were 10 themes that emerged from talking to these 52 people, including these 44 people who were visually impaired and some of those definitely tied to employment. So just so we're all on the same page, I'm going to run through the themes that we learned about. And I think that will be interesting to hear. So the first theme is learning to use assistive technology. How do I actually learn to use this stuff?

Penny Rosenblum: JAWS, ZoomText, whatever it may be. Our second theme where a lot of our folks talked and this does have to do with employment is the actual hiring process, working with HR and then initial onboarding. I don't know about you, but when I came on to AFB, here came all these DocuSign things for me to sign, is that accessible. For some people, yes. For some people, no. We also had a lot of people talk about software and hardware and the accessibility around that. Then there was this fourth issue of procurement. So we regard this of who you work for, at some point, something new is going to come along. So AFB is getting ready to move into Salesforce, for example. So that's going to be new for us. So there's going to be a training. Is that training accessible to me as a person who is visually impaired? We also found that some of our folks had additional accessibility needs that they talked about.

Penny Rosenblum: We had one participant who didn't have use of his hands and had a device that he used that allowed him to do input. We had a participant with a hearing impairment. So how do those additional needs impact your use of technology? Our sixth area is a big area, which is working with the IT professionals. Most of the time, your IT professional has never tripped over a human that is a screen reader user, or has issues around print access because of a visual impairment. And so, how do you make that work? We also asked about wishes. What do you wish for? I'm almost done here. Our eighth area was a really big one, which was the social emotional impact of being a worker with a visual impairment in technology. Our ninth area was around productivity. How do I be productive? How do I do my piece of the job at the same time, learning these tools and getting all my accessibility in place.

Penny Rosenblum: And especially, when JAWS updates and my company software doesn't or my company software updates and JAWS doesn't. That takes a lot of my time to figure it out, I might need a new script, so productivity. And the final area that we learned about was employer initiated training. What do I do when I go to that all day training to learn how to use product X and the person up there is saying, "Now on this screen, you click over here or look at the red button." And that could be on video, or it could be in a document, but when that training's not accessible, how do I deal with it? So those were the things we really talked to our folks about that came out from the discussions.

Melody: In those discussions, Penny or Elizabeth, who wants to take this question? What did you find the participants say how they navigated those barriers? Because we all are doing that, right? I mean, that's something we can all agree on. We're constantly looking to navigate.

Penny Rosenblum: Well, I mean, here's an example from a quote from one of our participants about learning to use assistive technology, "I have to maneuver around on my own. I joined a rider circle group and had to set up my profile and lots of tech issues I had. I reached out to their help desk as JAWS wasn't giving me any feedback. They were apologetic. It is a process for me to work with them. I am so used to it and I've had to find my own ways to troubleshoot and work around. When I worked for an employer, we did not have a robust IT department. So I had to do my own thing there. I use the same strategies here in my home office." We heard over and over and over again that the onus was on you, the visually impaired employee. And that you had to figure out how to make it happen because the help desk, the product developer, your IT department, they didn't know, wasn't in their repertoire.

Melody: That is going to kind of lead me to my next question, it's really wonderful to AFB that we've done that study, but what is it going to do for the mainstream companies?

Penny Rosenblum: I think that is the big question of the day, whether we're talking about workplace technology, AFB is also been involved with some educational research about access to education for our students, with visual impairments. We have to, as individuals who are visually impaired, individuals who advocate for those with visual impairments, we have to get these companies on board. And many of them are onboard. They want their product to be accessible. But one thing, we had one of our participants share with us. Elizabeth and I both started to listen after the first one. And we're like, "I keep hearing this over and over again." Accessibility doesn't equate to usability. We had a participant who was very well-versed. You could tell from the conversation, the individual knew the field that that person worked in, was a hardworking employee.

Penny Rosenblum: And several times talked about, I can't get promoted because even though the company I work for it to its accessibility at the wazoo, all the backend stuff, or much of the backend stuff is not accessible. So I can't advance because there are things that I cannot do because there are things are not accessible. And even when I get company x to make things accessible, I have to go through 10 swipes in three clicks to make something happen that a sighted person taps once and it's done. So it takes me so much longer to do it, that my productivity goes down. So accessibility, Melody doesn't equate to usability. And I think that's the piece for many companies that they don't get. They're like, "Oh, well, it'll speak." It's gibberish, that may be productive if it tells me button, button, button...

Melody: And it's not really, and you don't know what that button is or if it does say the button did it, it's not really an active button. No, I completely understand usability. That kind of rolls me to such great points that you're making here that we really appreciate. I like how AFB looks at things as a usability, as opposed to an accessibility. And as we move into that and you grab that individual with promotion. What did you kind of find when people... When they want to communicate their assistive technology needs or usability needs. You are teetering that fine line of being pushy or seeming incompetent because I know that's how a lot of us have felt that are working at points. Did they come and talk about that in this study?

Penny Rosenblum: Absolutely. One of my favorite quotes, "In order to be independent, you need to know that sometimes you need to be dependent." Another person said, "I'm learning that I'm learning to separate self-esteem from issues that are beyond my control." So they were talking about it. But a lot of folks talked about that dance with the IT professionals, one participant shared, "We changed contracting companies for IT. Every one to two years, I have to retrain IT staff on a regular basis. I've gotten them to give me administrative privileges. They mean well, but don't understand. So they gave me my administrative privileges permanently. That has been a very positive solution." So we heard that you spend a lot of time advocating for yourself as a person with a visual impairment.

Penny Rosenblum: Starting from that hiring process, we had folks who talked about part of the interview was to demonstrate ability to use program x. And you had to negotiate, well, if you booked program x on my computer that I'm bringing in for this interview, then I will have my screen reading software. And I can demonstrate my ability with program x. But if you asked me to sit down at your terminal, that has program x on it and doesn't have my screen reading software, I can't demonstrate that. And so, there was this song and dance with HR because HR didn't always get it.

Melody: Right. We've all been there and completely understand that. Well, you guy and the ladies, this has been wonderful as we grow up into questions before we get there because we're already there. Elizabeth, what were your biggest key takeaways from this study? I'm going to ask you first and then you, Penny.

Elizabeth:: Well, Penny already kind of talked about one of my biggest takeaway, which was that people with visual impairments really had to figure out a lot on their own, how to perform the job tasks without any direct support from official channels within their organization and trainings. When they do receive trainings, they're very much more general about how everyone in the company can use that software or whatever it is that they're wanting them to train on. And then the person with a visual impairment is needing to figure out the accessibility of that on their own. So there's a whole nother layer of learning that they have to do in order to access that technology. Although these, the people in the it department really want to be helpful, they are often unsure how to really assist with the accessibility part of whatever the need is. And so, the person with the visual impairment has to seek out other channels of support to make sure that they're able to do their daily work tasks.

Penny Rosenblum: Thanks, Elizabeth.

Melody: Thank you so much. Thank you, Elizabeth. And you, Penny?

Penny Rosenblum: Yeah, I really have to say, I think one thing that came through for me is that we have a disconnect between vocational rehabilitation training and what people actually need in order to be successful. It sounded to me, like our folks were saying was that I, as the employee need to have the knowledge and the problem solving skills to be able to deal with whatever comes my way. I love this quote from one of our participants, "As an [inaudible 00:23:28] user, I have to have a plan D. I have to have lots of different ways of taking things on. I will use my iPad as a magnifier.

Penny Rosenblum: If I'm going to do anything new, I have to give myself plenty of time. I try to be prepared and have many different options at my disposal." And if we don't help, if we're in the helping mode as indirect service providers, if we don't help people recognize that nobody in your company is going to come up and say, "How can we help you today to be more productive in your job?" That's how I knew that the employee, whether you're a wheelchair user, whether you're a cane user, whether you're typically sighted, you have to be a good problem solver.

Penny Rosenblum: The second message for me is we also have a disconnect between technology developers who many are trying very hard. And I want to be very positive about that. But many also aren't even thinking about accessibility, several of our participants shared, if you're a company, little company, big company, I don't care who you are. I'm developing a product that is going to be sold, from the start, you need to be thinking about universal design. And you need to think about having a diverse group of people be part of your testing at every beta stage of your product development before you bring it to market. And if we could get companies to recognize that from the get-go, we wouldn't be doing a lot of this backdoor trying to fix the problem. We wouldn't have a problem to begin with, Melody.

Melody: Well, thank you so much. This has been really great. Both Penny and Elizabeth, thank you so much. John, I'm going to kick it off to you for questions. This has been really informative. Thank you ladies.

John Mackin: Sure. Thank you, Melody. Thank you, Penny and Elizabeth. Just to the audience, if you have any questions, feel free to pop them into the chat. I do have a couple of privately submitted ones right here. So I think this will probably go to you, Penny. My company has developed software for backend use. It's totally not accessible to me. I've talked to my supervisor, but I haven't gotten anywhere. What do you think I should do?

Penny Rosenblum: Wow. That is a really good question. And we did hear from folks in the focus group about that frustration of where do I take my issue? If I take it to my supervisor, then am I seen as a whiner? If I go to HR, am I seen as a double whiner? If I go to IT and they can't help me, am I seen as a complainer? One thing I think it's really important is that as an employee, if that's developed within house, trying to get back to who in the house was the developer of that product that your company is using and get with that person. Another thing is you might not be able to solve product X that's here today, but if your company is going to continue to develop things, can you become part of the group that gets to be the beta tester?

Penny Rosenblum: So saying, "Hey, I recognize that we've invested $2 million in product A and that's what we're using, but if we're going to develop product B, I'd really like to be on the ground floor so I don't have those problems." If it's not something that can be quote-unquote fixed immediately. I would definitely go to your technology company for your assistive tech so freedom scientific, human ware, whoever you're using to see if they can help you working with your company to come up with a solution. There are going to be times in a job whether we're sighted or we're visually impaired, that there are parts of the job that you can't do for whatever reason. And so, then I think the next thing, at least short-term until we can come up with a solution is being able to negotiate with your supervisor because bottom line, you need to be a productive member of the company, or you're going to be out the door. So can another person take on the part of the job that isn't accessible to you and you take on some of their responsibilities as we work together to come up with a solution?

Melody: That was a great answer. Thank you, Penny.

John Mackin: We probably have time for about one more?

Melody: Yes.

John Mackin: I'm not sure in an interview when I should tell an employer, I need ZoomText and would also need to use Aira.

Penny Rosenblum: Wow. So that's a great question. So Aira for everybody is a visual interpreting service so it's like an app you can put on your iPhone and you can point it at something and say, "Hey, can you read this to me?" And we found a lot of our folks in our focus groups use Aira or another app called Be My Eyes to help them access visual things on their job site or as part of their job responsibility. I think the issue of disclosing, especially for folks like myself with low vision, who it may not initially be obvious to the person interviewing you, that you have a visual impairment is a challenge.

Penny Rosenblum: So I have found that it's not so much my blurting out, "Hi, I'm visually impaired, and these are the things I need." But rather talking about the job responsibilities and then saying, "In my case, I'm a researcher and I use software called SPSS." So in my case, as I might be giving the explanation of how I use SPSS, I might say, "For me to use SPSS efficiently, because I have a visual impairment, I use a screen enlargement program called ZoomText that I'll be able to load onto the machine, or that I'll be able to have HR purchase for me. So that I can use SPSS to be as efficient as anybody else here at the company who's using SPSS."

Melody: Thanks, Penny. That was great. I think we all do kind of struggle with, I, you know, have experiences in our lives just [inaudible 00:29:40], let's just say of needing that extra assistance, but also understanding that there are many factors of our lives for technology, such a huge part. And that usability is points, which would always... That universal design that you all talked about is key to opening up that world of no limits.

Penny Rosenblum: Thank you. I fully agree, Melody. And I really hope when folks listen to this podcast, that they'll go to the AFB website. And since I don't off the top of my head know the actual URL. If you type in Workplace Technology Study in the search field, you're going to come to a webpage that talks about our research. And there's a button there that asks you if you'd like to be notified when we're going to do our survey, it's most likely in February 2021. So I hope folks will sign up for that and maybe John Mackin might be able to read us that URL.

John Mackin: afb.org/workplacetech, all one word.

Penny Rosenblum: Thank you, John Mackin.

Melody: Thanks, John.

Penny Rosenblum: So, always good to have a sighted person around and honestly, the other thing that our folks said in the focus groups is knowing when to ask somebody who's sighted so that you're not infringing on them or their work and not seeming too dependent. But at the same time, recognizing that as one of our [inaudible 00:31:12] was saying, you are sitting there staring at his screen. And for about 10 minutes, Linda said, "Why are you going to log in?" And he's like, "Well, I'm waiting for it to boot." JAWS hadn't told him that the login screen was up. So he lost 10 minutes worth of work.

Melody: No, I totally understand completely. And one other point is, I just want to say before I go, because I was going to ask you where they could go. Everybody wants to be a part of that survey in February to keep going on. Yes, check us out or you can contact our [inaudible 00:00:31:39], Penny's email as that on our afb.org website. So is mine if you have any questions after this, and also just to go back to the quote of the individual who said, "I always have to have a plan." I've heard you say it, I think I said D.

Penny Rosenblum: Yes.

Melody: I want to recognize that because I really think it does say that we being blind or vision impaired, you are constantly looking and we're so innovative and innovative ways to make sure you have plan A, B, C, and D really does make a statement that we are very cognizant of the accessibility or usability issues that we face in our world. And we are very much advocates constantly. And I can't think of a better type of employee to have than someone who's always looking at different ways to be at work rounds and be successful. So thank you so much for your time today. I just want to thank you all for joining us, I'm really excited to have you today and check us out afb.org, learn more about what we're doing, our programs, our upcoming centennial, and we thank you so much. And we are better together at creating life with no limits if we work together and advocate. Thank you so much and have a great rest of your day, everybody. Bye.