From Surviving to Thriving at Work – It’s All About the Culture 

Conference room with a long, narrow table surrounded by rolling chairs


When we think about career planning, we often think about the work we want to do, the organizations willing to bring us aboard, and the business we might want to establish and run independently. We also evaluate the degree we might need to earn, the licenses and certifications that might be required, and the training we’ll need to complete. These aspects of career planning are relatively easy to identify. We can map them out. We can plan a calendar of the weeks, months, or years it will take us to complete all these steps in our career journey. Likewise, we can sit down with career coaches, rehabilitation counselors, and others to discuss them and get assistance. 

Fitting in while at work 

One thing that we may not always think about is how we might be able to fit into the world that our career choices will create for us. Our “career world” may not be as essential or encompassing as the one that includes our family, close friends, or even blindness consumer organizations or service providers. However, the world we will create through our career choices will be vast. It will include coworkers and colleagues and a variety of different types of organizations.  

It may include companies, non-profit organizations, educational institutions, unions, trade associations, and government agencies. There may be conferences, conventions, and trade shows. We may write papers, make presentations, lead or serve on committees and task forces, and lead discussions. And with all of these people, organizations, and interactions, there are opportunities to interact with other people in all sorts of settings—many of which are informal. They range from conversations in the lunch room to the time before and after meetings, to those so-called bonding activities over putt-putt golf, in NBA sky boxes, on ropes courses, and in virtually every other scenario imaginable. 

Going beyond the knowledge of work 

Having the proper knowledge, experience, skills, and training for a chosen career is essential. However, in my opinion (based on thirty years in the same industry), our ability to navigate the culture and society of a chosen career may be even more important. It affects our job satisfaction, ability to gain friends and influence people, and ultimately, our ability to advance beyond entry-level positions. Navigating work culture is critical to get into managerial, executive, and other leadership roles. While the rehabilitation system may do a relatively good job supporting our needs for training and technology, the rehabilitation system (at least in my opinion) is shockingly incapable of helping us to navigate within the culture and society of our chosen fields of work. 

Last year, I attended an industry conference. It was hosted by an organization whose entire mission is increasing the representation of minority groups within the transit industry; the organization specifically includes people with disabilities within that mission. The group has a standing committee focused on accessibility; I’m a member. They provided their program in braille. They went out of their way to offer assistance whenever I, or one of the other attendees with a disability, requested it. And yet, there were profound failures of accessibility.  

Transportation to and from an off-site event was incredibly difficult to use. The venue itself was a disaster from an accessibility standpoint. Every meal was a buffet, which we all know is very difficult for those unable to see the food and then navigate. I struggled through the formal event and, worst of all when the events wrapped up for the day. The other attendees went to receptions that were not listed on the program. Likewise, when they went out for dinner or drinks, I was alone, trying to occupy the time till bedtime so I could get some sleep and do it all over again. 

Feeling isolated when there are so many people around 

This isolation, coming as it did during a conference focused on inclusion, hit really hard, and I used some of that spare time to share my sadness in a Facebook post that reached a large number of other people with disabilities, including blindness or low-vision. There were many comments, and virtually all of them said the same thing: “I’m disabled, and this happens to me all the time. I’m always alone, and it hurts.” 

In one way, reading all those comments made me feel better. It’s the old adage: “Misery loves company.” But once I finished the self-pity, it began to really irk me. Why are so many of us spending time alone when our so-called “able-bodied” colleagues are hanging out together and having fun? And how can we change this dynamic? I don’t have the answers. But here’s what I do know. 

Coping while at conferences 

First, we need to recognize the importance of workplace society and culture. In the past, I think that, as a community, we’ve tried to pretend that workplace culture is not essential. We say, “As long as I’m good at my job, the rest doesn’t matter.” In my opinion, this is a form of denial, and it’s unhealthy. We need to recognize that we are all hurting from the lack of acceptance and inclusion that many of us feel, and we need to validate people when they express those feelings. After all, we can’t try to fix what we’re unwilling to acknowledge. 

Second, we need to ask this question: “How can blind and low-vision people, in collaboration with consumer groups, rehab agencies, and other appropriate experts, take this on? Are there trainings we can develop, either for blind and low vision workers or for the organizations who onboard them? Are there skills we need to teach, such as how to be extraverted—even when you don’t feel like it? In short, how can we move the dial? 

What else can we do? 

Finally, are there ways of organizing work to make this an easier battle to fight? For example, should entrepreneurs who are blind begin forming companies that focus on hiring as many blind and low-vision people as they can? We could establish the dominant workplace culture and then protect the vulnerable feelings of the handful of sighted people we bring into our organizations in the spirit of inclusion. (Tongue-in-cheek tone is intentional.) The short answer is yes; we should consider increasing the number of blind-owned and blind-led organizations. In the meantime, we should look to current examples of how they might deal with the issue of workplace culture and society. 

The reasons we each work and choose to take on a specific job or work at a particular organization are important. But let’s not forget the adage about “all work and no play.” Workplace culture and society are important, and we must start thinking about supporting each other as we strive to do more than survive.