SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA CAREERS / THE PATCHWORK OFFICE : A Challenge for the Sight-Impaired: Dispelling Misperceptions

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 38 years of lawyering, Harward A. Stearns has waged many battles. But none of the courtroom fights has proved as difficult as landing his first job as a lawyer.

Educated at Stanford University Law School, a Phi Beta Kappa honors student and full of ambition, Stearns had hoped to join one of the large law firms in Downtown Los Angeles after he graduated in 1956. But one thing stood in his way: his lack of eyesight.

"I was told quite frankly that I couldn't get a job, even though my academic background warranted it," said Stearns, who lost his sight at age 12 when the retinal tissue in his eyes detached from the optic nerves. "They flat-out turned me down because I'm blind." He is now a partner at Whittier-based Stearns, Gross, Moore & Rusch.

Indeed, Stearns and others like him say that overcoming the misconceptions of employers and co-workers is often more challenging than visual impairment or blindness itself.

Outright discrimination based on disabilities is no longer legal. Still, many workers with little or no sight have difficulty convincing others that they are up to the job--whether it's being a lawyer, a typist or a stockbroker. Employers' apprehension is cited by job counselors as a major reason that the unemployment rate for the blind is believed to be as high as 75%.

"Many people think that if they can't do a particular task with their eyes closed, then a blind person can't do it," said Robert Perrone, director of career services at the Los Angeles Braille Institute. "That's just not true."

Indeed, few jobs--such as truck driver or airline pilot--are so sight-based that a visually impaired or blind person could not adapt.

The blind work in fields as diverse as computer programming, financial analysis, translating, psychology and electronics.

To help them cope in the sighted workplace, rehabilitation counselors from state and private agencies offer training in everything from telephone skills to operating a fax machine. The Braille Institute, for instance, has a number of career services, including classes in interviewing and office skills.

Computer technology also plays a major role.

Elvia Jauregui, who has very limited vision, fields questions and complaints about government housing aid for the Los Angeles County Community Development Commission. She said she relies on an array of equipment to perform her job more efficiently.

With the help of an optical character reader, Jauregui sorts through mail inquiries. A voice synthesizer on her personal computer, which transforms text on the screen into speech, helps her update the commission's database and write letters.

Likewise, Mary Gillespie, a transcriptionist at the Braille Institute who is blind and deaf, uses "refreshable Braille" on her PC. The device, which resembles a computer wrist rest, translates on-screen text into Braille by raising and lowering pins under a plastic membrane.

Such technology can be expensive, however: $700 or more per piece of equipment. Subsidies from the Braille Institute or other groups usually cover half the cost; financing through the state Department of Rehabilitation can help with the rest. But the workers themselves usually pay the balance themselves.

Overcoming the physical limitations of visual impairment or blindness is only part of the battle. The psychological hurdles have to be dealt with too. Anxiety can come into the workplace when a blind or partially sighted person is hired, counselors say, because co-workers often have not dealt with the disability before.

"I have to break people in," said Cindy Flerman, 42, who is blind. She has worked as a customer service representative for the Ramada hotel chain and as a disc jockey in Phoenix. "It takes a few weeks of them asking questions before they get comfortable."

Flerman, who has been looking for a job since moving to Los Angeles two years ago, said new co-workers are usually curious about her guide dog and her specialized computer equipment.

"They want to know: Can we play with the dog? Can we pet her? Can we play with your computer when you're not at work? The answer is usually no," she said.

The only time such questions become bothersome, Flerman said, is when they begin to distract her from work.

"It's good because they're learning something about blindness," Flerman said, "but it's bad because I have a job to do."

Some employers will call on the Braille Institute or other groups to educate workers about visual impairment.

When Jauregui started at the Community Development Commission a year ago, her colleagues took part in an open forum led by Braille Institute representatives.

"More than anything, people were worried about having a dog around," said Anne Kibler, a county human resources analyst. "They learned that the dog sits at Elvia's feet, under her desk, and that it's well-trained.

"It was a very frank session, and . . . it really cleared the air," she added.

Dispelling the misconceptions of employers is not as easy, counselors say, despite the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act and other legislation prohibiting discrimination.

Some businesses, for example, fear their insurance premiums will increase, Perrone said.

"Adding one employee is not going to change your insurance rate--your company's overall safety record will," he said. "And studies have indicated that blind workers don't have more accidents than their sighted counterparts."

Another common concern is that a visually impaired worker will necessitate expensive changes in the workplace. Often, though, such employees need only relatively inexpensive lighting or magnification devices to do their jobs, because most "blind" people actually have some degree of vision. In addition, a business may be eligible for state tax breaks or for federal credits for work-site improvements.

Dispelling the misconceptions of the blind or visually impaired themselves is also important. Some mistakenly believe they will lose government disability benefits by taking a job, counselors said.

"It's surprising how many people see that as a real disincentive to employment," Perrone said. "But they aren't going to lose that benefit by taking an entry-level job, and once they get moving up the ladder in a company, they won't need it anymore."

Ultimately, the secret to success in the workplace is no different for those who are totally blind than for those with 20-20 vision, Perrone and others said.

"As a blind person, I think you may have to be a bit more organized and know what you're doing a little better than most to get people's attention," Stearns said. "For example, I often have an advantage in the smaller cases I handle because I keep all the facts in my mind, whereas other lawyers are working off a sheet of paper.

"But that's not to say my colleagues don't have their tricks of the trade. What it boils down to in front of a judge, or really in life, is how well you're prepared and how hard you try."

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