National Technical Assistance Center on Blindness and Visual Impairment (NTAC-BVI)

Mississippi State University

More on... Employment

Building Relationships with Businesses

Research Takeaway: Increasingly, vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies are recognizing the importance of working closely with businesses in order to more effectively secure employment for consumers with blindness and visual impairments (B/VI). In this study, employers were asked about the best ways for VR counselors to build and maintain relationships with businesses. Employers reported that they appreciated one-on-one relationships with VR counselors who were available, easy to talk to, and who provided regular follow-up. When asked how VR counselors can develop relationships with new business partners, employers recommended more community outreach and attending business meetings or conferences to make them aware of the services VR has to offer.

What questions were we trying to answer?

With the passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), it is more important than ever for VR agencies to develop long-term partnerships with businesses to increase employment for individuals with B/VI. Such partnerships can help overcome one of the biggest barriers to employment for these individuals: negative employer attitudes.

This project explored the VR-business relationship from the employer’s point of view. A group of employers, identified by a VR agency as currently employing at least one previous agency consumer with B/VI, were asked to describe their relationships with the agency. They were also asked about the ingredients that go into a strong VR agency-employer relationship and to make recommendations on how VR agencies can develop new relationships with employers.

What were the most important things we learned?

Overall, employers reported very positive experiences with VR. However, the extent of the relationship varied considerably among employers, with half reporting an ongoing relationship with the VR agency. Employers who said they had a more limited relationship with VR agencies indicated that the primary relationship was between the employee with B/VI and the agency. Although they were happy with the services provided by VR, they did not consider themselves to have a relationship with the VR agency.

Only one of the employers reported having a negative experience with VR. When asked to describe their complaint, this employer said she placed several calls to the VR representative she’d worked with and never received a response. When the employer finally called the VR main line, she was told that the person had retired, and the agency had failed to inform the employer of this fact.

When asked specifically about the factors that facilitate strong employer-VR relationships, employers gave a variety of responses that could be sorted into themes. Employers appreciated working with VR counselors who:

  • Developed a personal, one-on-one relationship with the employer
  • Were supportive and responsive to the employer’s needs
  • Provided assistance with assistive technology (AT)
  • Fostered candid conversations with employers when questions and concerns arose
  • Provided regular follow-up services to ensure employees were doing well
  • Referred job candidates who were qualified and truly ready to work
  • Understood the business perspective and were aware of the employer’s needs

Employers were also asked how VR agencies could provide additional support that would enable businesses to hire and retain individuals with B/VI. Employers recommended that VR agencies provide more assistance with transportation, updated AT for employees, and more education to employers about blindness and available accommodations.

When asked how VR counselors could develop new relationships with businesses, employers recommended counselors provide community outreach and attend large gatherings of employers, such as Chamber of Commerce meetings or Society of Human Resources Management conferences. The employers indicated the belief that most businesses don’t know about VR and the services they can provide, and that if more employers knew about these services, they would be interested in using them. By attending employer gatherings, VR counselors can make large numbers of businesses aware of their services and also demonstrate for them the workplace capabilities of individuals with B/VI.

When approaching a business about hiring someone with B/VI, employers recommended VR counselors provide education about accommodations and discuss how the job candidate could perform the job. Several employers suggested that counselors make HR their first point of contact and that, whenever possible, the first contact should be face-to-face (rather than through cold calls or email).

How can I incorporate these findings into my practice?

  • The importance of a strong personal connection between VR agencies and employers suggests VR personnel should approach businesses from the perspective of getting to know them and understanding their needs, rather than from the perspective of trying to sell them something.
  • Employers appreciate having a strong relationship with a VR counselor that lasts beyond the initial placement process. Counselors should make a point of following up on the consumers they’ve placed. Such follow-up builds trust with employers and could potentially lead to additional job placements for future consumers.
  • In order to develop new relationships with businesses, VR counselors should network as much as possible. Attending meetings of employers and/or human resources officers can be highly beneficial. When possible, counselors can give presentations that highlight VR services and the workplace potential of individuals with B/VI.
  • When a counselor retires or leaves the agency, the agency should be sure to notify their employer contacts of this change. Better still, before the counselor leaves, he or she should introduce employers to the VR counselor who will serve as their new point of contact. VR agencies should ensure that the employer contacts of staff who retire or leave their positions are not forgotten.

How was this study conducted?

Three state VR agencies were asked to provide contact information for employers with whom they have a positive relationship. These employers were contacted to participate in semi-structured interviews. A total of 12 interviews were used for this study.

Learn more

McDonnall, M. C., & Crudden, A. (2015). Building relationships with businesses: Recommendations from employers concerning persons who are blind/visually impaired. Journal of Rehabilitation, 81(3), 43-50.

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How Do VR Services Received by Consumers who are SSDI Recipients Impact Their Employment Outcomes?

Research Takeaway: The vocational rehabilitation (VR) services received by Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) recipients with blindness or visual impairments (BVI) can have a significant impact on the likelihood that these individuals will secure competitive employment. Receipt of some VR services increases the odds of finding employment, while others are associated with decreased odds. The services needed and received by an individual may serve as a signal to their VR counselors about where they are in the process of becoming job-ready and the level of effort that may be required to help that consumer successfully re-enter the workforce.

What were we trying to learn?

One-third of the individuals with BVI who enter the VR system are SSDI recipients. SSDI payments are provided to individuals with disabilities who are unable to work; in order to qualify, an individual must have substantial work experience. Traditionally, SSDI recipients have been viewed as less likely to become employed, due to the assumption that individuals who are receiving government benefits will be reluctant to give those up by taking a job.

This study sought to better understand the employment outcomes of individuals who are (a) BVI, (b) in the VR system, and (c) SSDI recipients by exploring whether the services received from VR are linked to whether an individual is more or less likely to find employment. Both the SSDI and VR programs face budgetary constraints, and these findings can be valuable for VR agencies helping individuals leave the benefit rolls to re-enter the workforce.

What are the most important things we learned?

Our analysis showed that VR services tend to be provided in four clusters or groupings:

  • Special and remedial services : Receiving services in this cluster was associated with lower odds of employment. Receiving more services in this category indicates that anindividual may be facing a substantial barrier to employment which requires intensive efforts to overcome.
    Services in this cluster include reader, personal attendant, and interpreter services; basic academic remedial or literacy training (“remedial services”); and college or university training.
  • Job-related services : Receiving more services in this cluster was associated with higher odds of employment, especially in states with high unemployment rates. These services are generally given to those who have demonstrated that they are “job-ready.” As a result, it is not surprising that receipt of these services strongly predicts employment success. Services in this cluster include job placement assistance, job search assistance, on-the-job supports, job readiness training, and on-the-job training.
  • Evaluation : Receiving more services in this cluster was not associated with employment, one way or another. Services in this cluster include information and referral services, VR counseling and guidance, technical assistance services, and assessment.
  • Training and supports : Receiving more services in this cluster was associated with greater odds of employment. This category of services may be used to provide job-seekers with the technology and extra assistance they need to secure a job, thus linking it to positive employment outcomes. Services in this cluster include rehabilitation technology, other services, transportation services, maintenance, occupational/vocational training, miscellaneous training, and disability-related augmentative skills training.

Our analysis also showed that some specific VR services within the four clusters are positively related to employment outcomes for SSDI recipients who are BVI. The following VR services were shown to indicate improved odds of securing competitive employment:

  • Job placement, such as a referral for a job interview
  • Job search assistance, such as identifying jobs or resume preparation
  • On-the-job supports, which are usually services to help an individual already on the job
  • On-the-job training, such as paid training in specific job skills
  • Counseling and guidance
  • Rehabilitation technology, such as assistive technology that can be used on the job
  • Other services, which could include a wide range of supports or medical care not included in other categories
  • Maintenance, such as monetary support for items related to job-seeking (e.g., clothing, relocation costs).

In the same way, other individual services within the clusters were shown to indicate decreased odds an individual will find competitive employment:

  • Reader services, such as reading aloud or transcription into braille
  • Interpreter services, which are usually received by individuals who are deaf-blind
  • Job readiness training, including basic training on appropriate work behavior, timeliness, and dress and grooming
  • Augmentative skills training, including orientation and mobility, braille, and use of low vision aids
  • Assessment, which includes determination of eligibility for VR services and/or determining details of which services are needed.

How can I incorporate these findings into practice?

The services that were shown to decrease the odds of employment for SSDI recipients who are BVI can serve as “red flags” for VR service providers. If a consumer requires one or more of these services, it may be an indication that they will need extra time and effort to find employment. However, although receipt of these services may signal a consumer who is “at risk,” they can still achieve success. For example, an analysis of consumers who received job-readiness training found that consumers who were younger or had more work experience were still able to achieve employment at normal rates.

Our analysis found that job-related services are especially meaningful when unemployment (and thus competition for jobs) is high. Service providers in states with tight economies may want to consider boosting provision of job-related services to provide their clients with the extra edge they need to compete successfully in the workforce.

The results of this study also reinforce that idea that, rather than SSDI recipients being unpromising job candidates, they can experience great success on the job market. In our study, SSDI recipients with BVI had an employment rate of 45%, compared to a 52% employment rate for non-SSDI recipients. This demonstrates that, contrary to popular belief, SSDI recipients are able to achieve employment success at rates close to those of their non-recipient peers. Service providers serving clients who are SSDI-recipients should maintain high expectations for their employment success. Staff interactions with employers proved to be far more important for employment outcomes than agency policy or practice. This drives home the point that regular, positive contact with employers is the best way to improve employment outcomes for consumers who are BVI. VR counselors in particular should be encouraged to consider interacting with employers to be an essential part of their job, and VR agency administrators should ensure that counselors have the resources, training, and time they need to make this happen.

How was this project carried out?

We studied 3,610 SSDI recipients with BVI who were closed by a VR agency in FY 2011. Our data came from case service records in the RSA-911 data set. Various analysis techniques were used to determine patterns in service delivery and which services predict employment.

Learn More

Giesen, J. M., & Hierholzer, A. (in press). Vocational rehabilitation services and employment for SSDI beneficiaries with visual impairments. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation

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Study of Employment Outcomes for SSDI Beneficiaries Reveals Better Employment Outcomes for Consumers Served in Blind Agencies, Importance of Work Experience in Obtaining a Job

Research Takeaway- Employment outcomes were similar across all races and ethnicities for individuals with blindness or low vision who also receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits. This suggests that prior work experience (which an individual must have in order to receive SSDI benefits) has a positive influence on the chances of getting a job. In addition, some individuals from specific groups were more likely to have competitive employment outcomes when they were served by a blind (rather than a combined) Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) agency. Thus, services oriented specifically for consumers who are blind or visually impaired seem to be most effective for this population.

Research Question

What are the factors affecting competitive employment outcomes for individuals with blindness and low vision who receive SSDI benefits?

Project Description

This project used 2010 data from the Rehabilitation Services Administration to track employment outcomes for 4,478 individuals with blindness or low vision who were receiving both vocational rehabilitation services and SSDI benefits.

Major Research Findings

  1. Across diverse backgrounds, having prior work experience increases consumers’ chances of finding competitive employment. In contrast to typical findings of race differences in employment outcomes, this study found that SSDI recipients who are African American, Hispanic, white, or multirace had almost identical levels of competitive sector employment after receiving VR services. This surprising finding suggests that no matter an individual’s race or ethnicity, prior work experience can level the playing field and help overcome barriers to employment.
  2. Higher amounts of SSDI benefits are associated with finding a job. Researchers found that individuals receiving higher amounts of SSDI benefits at the time they applied for VR services had a greater likelihood of finding a job than applicants who were receiving lower amounts of benefits. Because SSDI benefit amounts are based on an individual’s previous earnings, this means that individuals with significant past work experience had better employment outcomes than their peers with lower levels of previous experience on the job.
  3. Some consumers served in blind agencies had a better chance of a competitive employment outcome than their peers served in combined agencies. Consumers tend to see a decline in competitive employment as they age. However, this study found the decline in employment was much less dramatic and mostly eliminated for older, SSDI recipient consumers who were served by a blind agency. Female and Asian Americans individuals who are blind also had better employment outcomes when served by blind agencies. Blind agencies provide categorical services that are oriented specifically for consumers who are visually impaired, and these services are provided by counselors experienced with and focused on serving consumers who are visually impaired. Thus we expect that categorical blindness services wherever provided—even those provided in agencies other than blind agencies—will be most beneficial to blind consumers receiving SSDI and probably to blind consumers in general.

Implications for Practice

  1. Encourage work experience for consumers whenever and wherever you can. Even work experiences such as internships (both paid and unpaid), apprenticeships, and job shadowing can allow individuals to gain some experience in the workplace. A focus on work experience opportunities for transition-age consumers as they enter the VR system, perhaps through partnerships with education agencies or through summer transition programs that include work components, could be particularly beneficial.
  2. Consumers who receive SSDI make excellent job candidates due to their previous employment experience, but they may need help understanding how returning to work impacts their benefits. Although SSDI benefits may be lost due to employment, there are a number of supports (e.g., Medicaid buy-in programs) in place to help individuals return to work without suffering a large financial blow. When working with a consumer who receives SSDI, try offering benefits planning services to help reduce their uncertainty and fear about returning to work. The many resources available at are a great place to start.

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Findings taken from the following article:

Giesen, J. M., & Cavenaugh, B. S. (2013). Disability insurance beneficiaries with visual impairments in vocational rehabilitation: Socio-demographic influences on employment. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 107(6), 453-467.

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Exploring the Most Effective Strategies for Working with Employers to Improve Employment for Consumers with Blindness and Low Vision

Research Takeaway: The way Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) counselors and business relations (BR) staff interact with employers matters. Employment outcomes for individuals who are blind or visually impaired (BVI) are improved when VR counselors treat employers like customers and when BR staff use blindness-specific techniques when working with employers.

What were we trying to learn?

Employment rates for individuals who are BVI are currently, and have been historically, much lower than the employment rate for the general population. Therefore, it is essential to understand what people who work with the BVI population can do to more effectively help them find jobs.

A big part a VR counselor’s job is to work with employers, and there is an increased focus on emphasizing employer engagement within the VR system. We wanted to know if the way counselors interact with employers makes a difference in employment rates for VR consumers who are BVI. This study focused on the Business Relations Model (BRM), which posits that counselors should treat employers as customers and consider their unique needs. Although the BRM approach is anecdotally considered to be effective, there is very little research to back up this claim.

We were also interested in the way BR staff work with employers. Some VR agencies employ BR staff to serve as the primary liaisons with local employers. However, many BR staff don’t have specific training in BVI, so we wanted to see how effective they were at helping individuals who are BVI secure employment. We looked to see if employment rates for consumers who are BVI were affected by BR staff use of three blindness-specific techniques:

  • Providing education about how individuals who are BVI function on the job
  • Exposing businesses to people who are BVI
  • Providing referrals to other businesses that employ someone who is BVI

What are the most important things we learned?

  1. The approach VR counselors use when working with employers does indeed influence employment rates for consumers who are BVI. Consumers had better employment outcomes when their VR counselors used the BRM approach when working with employers.
  2. Consumers who are BVI also had better employment outcomes when BR staff used blindness-specific techniques, such as talking about how workers who are BVI complete workplace tasks.
  3. Agencies that reported creating BRM-inspired policies did not necessarily have better employment outcomes for their consumers. This indicates that the way individual VR counselors and BR staff interact with employers is more important than overall agency policy.

What does this mean for me?

  1. Many VR counselors report feeling uncomfortable and unsure of themselves when interacting with employers. However, this is one of the most important aspects of their job. Using the BRM approach and treating employers like customers can create positive outcomes for consumers. Counselors may wish to receive training in using BRM from BR staff or from more experienced counselors.
  2. BR staff might be experts in BRM, but they may not know much about blindness and low vision. Blindness is a unique disability that requires alternative techniques and technology to accommodate it. In order to help them be more effective at creating successful placements for consumers who are BVI, BR staff need training in issues related to blindness, such as blindness-specific technology and the ways employees who are BVI complete workplace tasks. BR staff can then pass this information along to employers, thus improving employment outcomes for BVI individuals.
  3. This study demonstrated the effectiveness of the BRM approach, and VR agency administrators should strongly consider emphasizing this technique. However, administrators should keep in mind that real change has to happen with individual counselors. Simply setting agency policy or creating new guidelines won’t be enough to boost employment outcomes for consumers who are BVI. Individual counselors need to buy into the changes and modify their approaches to employers.
  4. In VR agencies that serve consumers with a broad range of disabilities, it may be worthwhile to track employment outcomes for BVI consumers separately. This would allow agencies to determine which counselors and BR staff are most effective at working with this unique population.
  5. Staff interactions with employers proved to be far more important for employment outcomes than agency policy or practice. This drives home the point that regular, positive contact with employers is the best way to improve employment outcomes for consumers who are BVI. VR counselors in particular should be encouraged to consider interacting with employers to be an essential part of their job, and VR agency administrators should ensure that counselors have the resources, training, and time they need to make this happen.

How was this project carried out?

We surveyed over 200 VR counselors and BR staff across the country about their approaches to interacting with employers. The surveys focused on the BRM approach and blindness-specific approaches. We then linked this data with outcome data (RSA-911 case service) for consumers who are BVI in the VR system in order to determine how approaches to working with employers impacted employment outcomes.

Learn More

McDonnall, M.C. (2015). The relationship between vocational rehabilitation professionals' interactions with businesses and employment outcomes for consumers who are blind or visually impaired. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0034355215586389

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Utilizing Mentors in the Job Placement Process

One strategy for improving the employment success of graduates is connecting them with successful mentors who are blind in their profession of interest.

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Mentors can help students with visual impairments develop skills, knowledge, and motivation as they transition from college to employment.

Approximately 40% of high school students who are blind or visually impaired attend a 4-year college—the highest rate of post-secondary school attendance among students with disabilities.* Unfortunately for many of these students, a college degree does not always lead to a rewarding career in their chosen profession. College students with visual impairments may lack a clear understanding of what specific careers require on a day-to-day basis. Students may also lack understanding about how their blindness could impact job seeking activities and on-the-job performance. Students will often graduate from college without having had the chance to get on-the-job experiences. Graduates may have difficulty finding employment or be underemployed.

Learn how to assist consumers transitioning to employment by exploring our resources below.

Download and read our Mentoring Manual to learn:

  • About the mentoring relationship
  • How job seekers can benefit from a mentoring relationship
  • How to set up a mentoring relationship
  • Tips for making a mentoring relationship successful

If you’re working with a consumer with blindness or low vision who is looking for employment, our Job Seeker’s Resource Sheet can provide them with information such as:

  • Information on the Americans with Disabilities Act, disclosing a disability, and asking for an accommodation at work
  • Websites to connect with local job openings and job search tools
  • Self-paced classes to improve soft skills and knowledge of job-seeking activities

*Newman, L., Wagner, M., Cameto, R., & Knokey, A. (2009). The post-high school outcomes of youth with disabilities up to 4 years after high school: A report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

For other NRTC publications on employment:


Funded by:
Funded by the United States Department of Education, National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) Grant #H133B10022.
Grant 90RT5011-01-00