If you have doubts about hiring an employee who is blind, then meet Karen Knight.
Blind since birth, the Vision Australia General Manager of Client Services has established a career in transforming the lives of vulnerable people.
The MBA graduate and parent proves what can happen when an employer sees what is possible.
She shares her candid employment experiences.
Where did you start your career?
I volunteered at the Victims of Crime Association. I wanted to prove to the world and myself that I could do whatever I wanted. The people I helped felt they could relate to me and could tell I’d also gone through tough times.
What’s been some of the hardest times of your career?
I gained my first paid work of any significance when I was 24 years old.
It was very hard for me to get paid work because of my disability.
After graduating as a psychologist, I applied for 200 jobs and got 10 interviews. Eventually, I secured work in a mental health hospital. My employer knew I had the skills, training and technologies to be an efficient employee, just like my sighted peers.
You have steered Vision Australia through the national disability insurance scheme and aged care reform. What are some of the most significant impacts you have made?
These reforms completely overhauled how Vision Australia and other disability and aged care providers measured profitability and service engagement.
The shift away from a block-funded model of support, to a fee for service market-based approach, meant we had to completely redesign our service model to remain competitive.
One of the most significant transitions was to stop free services. Of course, there are situations of hardship and we will always support the client. But it is the last choice, not the first.
As we're supporting more than 25,000 clients across Australia, we had to be highly ambitious with adapting our business model to align with the rapid roll-out schedules of these reforms.
How have the reforms changed Vision Australia’s workforce?
We had to learn how to market to clients. And to do that, staff had to embrace the notion of dignity of risk. So, we now offer clients advice and guidance, but ultimately, it's the client's choice to choose and pay for the things they want.
What's one of the challenges staff are still navigating?
Vision Australia has always taken a person-centred approach, however the move to individualise funding did challenge our mindset around that. In the former funding environment, we were a little prescriptive in the services we offered, but now our clients have much more influence around that. Ultimately, this has been a benefit as our staff are empowered to be more person-centred and transdisciplinary in their approach.
Also, staff enter this line of work because they're passionate about helping people. Having conversations about payment for service and marketing to them is still challenging.
How have the reforms changed client expectations?
Clients are learning to be much more discerning about their services, particularly the when, where, and who is needed to make their service experience what they want it to be. This is where our need to modernise our marketing and client acquisition processes has grown from.
Can you describe some of the service changes you’ve led?
I am proud of having expanded our service footprint significantly, and embracing telehealth has enabled us to do this even more.
Service providers have been encouraged to develop group programs to teach new skills which offer clients new learning opportunities and to meet other people who are blind or have low vision.
We have centralised our intake process and developed the right technology to give us significant data about who and where our clients are and what services they want.
Aged care funding was expanded during my time, with specialised services such as ours recognised as a specific service subtype under the funding framework. Vision Australia played a significant role in advocating for this and it means more older Australians are able to access our services.
Most employers believe blind employees are a safety and productivity business risk. What’s the reality?
The staff who are blind or have low vision have fewer injuries than the sighted staff at Vision Australia. That’s significant, considering we make up 15 percent of the workforce.
The reality is people with a vision condition who apply for work have spent years developing a range of skills to be competitive candidates. If the person doesn’t have these skills, the task of finding employment will be a lot longer and a lot more challenging. People who are blind or have low vision are able to participate in the workplace just like anyone else.
Do you travel much in your role?
Absolutely. I use a white cane and other assistive technologies to reach my destinations safety.
I travel alone interstate and work remotely in various environments on any given week.
If I’m visiting a work site, someone will greet me and show me around so that I can familiarise myself – I imagine that’s the same for anyone visiting a new environment.
What are some other common misconceptions about employees who are blind or have low vision.
There's a strong misconception that very few jobs are suited to people who are blind or have low vision. It will surprise a lot of employers to know that people who are blind are employed as physiotherapists, teachers, psychologists, company directors, bankers, chefs, musicians and so much more.
Being open to candidates with lived experience could lead you to the right candidate that you have never considered.