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The oldest historical documents relating to blind people describe efforts to place them in jobs that could be performed without eyesight. An ancient Chinese ruler decreed that the occupations of soothsayer and masseur would be reserved exclusively for blind persons, and special schools were established to prepare them for these trades.
In ancient Rome, blind boys were employed as oarsmen.
Around 1800, the French government established a program to incorporate blind people into their society by separating them according to five levels of economic functioning: those who engaged in business and professions such as law, music, or teaching; those who performed skilled crafts, such as piano tuning; those who engaged in home industry; those who worked and lived in sheltered workshops attached to communal living facilities; and those blind persons who, because of additional disabilities or age, were unable to do any significant work and were housed in what we might term group homes today. When we remember that Emperor Napoleon was involved in the greatest military expansion in European history, it seems remarkable that the French government would have had the compassion or resources to engage in such an elaborate employment program for a relatively small group of its disabled citizens. However, this relationship between militarism and the expansion of employment opportunities for the blind has continued down to the present century.
Due to the sedentary and repetitive nature of assembly-line work, leaders in work for the blind recognized the opportunities for their clients in manufacturing in the early part of the twentieth century. During World War I, for example, the Crocker Wheeler Company, a manufacturing firm in Newark, New Jersey, employed one hundred blind workers in a special unit that inspected and packed finished products.
Following World War II, the Radio Corporation of America established the practice of employing one blind worker for every thousand sighted workers.
Because the public had little understanding or tolerance of disabled people in the early twentieth century, it is difficult to understand how workers for the blind were able to persuade employers to permit blind persons to tour their factories, let alone actually allow them to operate machinery. This seemingly impossible task of securing industrial employment for blind persons was accomplished largely through the direct demonstration of capable placement agents who were blind themselves, such as Joe Klunk. Klunk was so successful in talking his way into factories, where he would demonstrate the performance of selected jobs without sight, that he became the first director of the U.S. Office of Vocational Rehabilitation for the Blind.
With the establishment of
college training programs in rehabilitation counseling, it was possible to
combine the academic knowledge of college-trained counselors with the job
placement skills devised by such pioneers as Joe Klunk to provide agencies for
the blind with placement counselors who could address the psychological problems
of adjusting to blindness and confront the practical problems of securing
employment for blind persons.
Learning To Work With Blindness: Vocational Counseling