Can you relate to this story? A blind person has done well in school, applied for jobs with and without disclosing his blindness, repeatedly gotten rejected until it seemed like there was no end in sight, and finally found a job he didn’t really want? We can and we’re sure you can too. The system is broken, and many of us feel like very few people care and nothing can be done about it. The American Foundation for the Blind is one of the organizations working on this seemingly impossible problem, so we invited Dr. Kirk Adams, President and CEO of AFB to tell us his story and why he feels AFB is positioned to make a difference. Learn more about the American Foundation for the blind by visiting their web site at https://www.afb.org A full text transcript of this episode can be found at https://pennyforward.com/the-system-is-broken-can-we-fix-it/ The Penny Forward podcast is about blind people building bright futures one penny at a time. Subscribe by searching for “Penny Forward” using your favorite podcast app, ask your smart speaker to play the podcast, “Penny Forward”, check out the Penny Forward YouTube channel, or listen to all of our past episodes or read transcripts at https://pennyforward.com
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Kirk: I was born sighted, and when I was in kindergarten, both my retinas detached, so I became blind just over night, really. Within a couple days. I was the only blind student in any school I attended after third grade. I got an academic scholarship to a small school, Whitman college in Walla Walla, and graduated fi beta capa and cum lade 4 point in my field, which was economics, and started applying for jobs. I decided not to disclose my disability at the beginning of the process, so I'd send my cover letter and resume, and I'd get a phone interview, and they'd ask me to come in for the in person interview, and then I'd show up with my cane, and, you know, the confusion would set in in the room. I wasn't getting hired. I decided to disclose then, so I changed my cover letter. I said, "I'm totally blind. This is how I do what I do. This is how I'll do the job I'm applying for." Then I wasn't even getting phone interviews. So I've had the firsthand experience faced by so many blind people who are seeking employment.
Chris: What was it like doing the job application thing and getting rejected so many times, did you ever feel like there was just no end in sight to it?
Kirk: Oh, absolutely. I felt very frustrated, and like I said, I had very good academic accomplishments, and, you know, classmates of mine who didn't study as hard as I did, or get as good grades as I did were getting jobs. It's always obviously frustrating and angering to know that the reason you're not getting hired is not because you're not qualified, it's because you're blind.
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Chris: This is the Penny Forward podcast, a show about blind people building bright futures, one penny at a time.
Liz: I'm Liz Botner.
Chris: And I'm Chris Peterson.
Liz: We are blind people, learning what it takes to be successful in our personal, professional, and financial lives.
Chris: Can you relate to the story that we heard before the intro? A person who has done really, really well in school, applied for jobs, gotten rejected, tried disclosing his blindness, got rejected, tried not disclosing his blindness, still got rejected, struggled for years living with his parents, and it seemed like there was no end in sight? I can relate to that. I know many of you can too. The system is broken, we all know it, and I think a lot of us think that nothing is being done about it. Well, I wanted to see if there was something being done about it, and I found out about the American Foundation for the Blind. They're trying hard, and it's gonna take a lot of time and effort, but we brought on Dr. Kirk Adams, President and CEO of AFB, who is blind himself. You heard his voice at the beginning of the show. He gets it, and he's trying to fix it. But before we get started with Kirk, I want to tell you about Taylor's Accessibility Services. They provide web hosting for
and they can provide your web hosting as well. But they can do so much more. They can provide accessible web design, and they can help you to make your existing website more accessible to screen reader users. Visit their website at
to find out more, and get in touch with them, if that's something that you need. Now, let's get started with Kirk.
Chris: Kirk, thanks for being here.
Kirk: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Chris: Tell me about yourself.
Kirk: I was born sighted. My parents were in college. My dad was a college basketball player. They were studying to be teachers. And when I was in kindergarten, both my retinas detached, so, I'm sixty, so that was 1966 I guess, prior to laser surgery. You know, I became blind just over night really. Within a couple days. I had a lot of retinal surgeries over the following seven or eight years that were painful and unsuccessful. I spent plenty of time at the children's wing at the University of Oregon medical school. But at that time, my parents were told, "Kirk can't come back to school here. He has to go to the state school." We lived just north of Seattle. So they visited the Washington State School. They were not very pleased with what they saw as far as academics, so they visited the Oregon school on a recommendation. They really liked it, so, God bless them, they quit their jobs and moved the family to Silverton Oregon so I could be a day student at the Oregon State School for the Blind. And I went there for second and third grade and learned rock solid blindness skills. I still carry a slate and stylus. I have a Perkins beside me, and, you know, the eighty-character braille display in front of me and a braille note taker on my lap. So I learned how to read and write braille, use the cane, in third grade, I started going to public school half a day, and then public school starting in fourth grade. Went all the way through. I was the only blind student in any school I attended after third grade, but it was really sink or swim. We lived in small towns, there weren't a lot of supports, so my blindness skills came in very handy.
Chris: You decided to swim I guess.
Kirk: Yeah. I decided to swim hard and fast. Right. So, you know, moved back to Washington and graduated from high school. My dad was a basketball coach, so his children were expected to turn out for sports, so I wrestled and I ran cross country. I got an academic scholarship to a small school, Whitman college in Walla Walla, and graduated fi beta capa and cum lade 4 point in my field, which was economics, and started applying for jobs, and I decided not to disclose my disability at the beginning of the process, so I'd send my cover letter and resume, and I'd get a phone interview, and they'd ask me to come in for the in person interview, and then I'd show up with my cane, and my little folder with braille paper and my slate and stylus, and, you know, the confusion would set in in the room, and I wasn't getting hired. I decided to disclose then, so I changed my cover letter. I said, "I'm totally blind. This is how I do what I do. This is how I'll do the job I'm applying for." Then I wasn't even getting phone interviews. So I've had the firsthand experience faced by so many blind people who are seeking employment. I did finally get a job in banking and finance on the sales side selling tax free municipal bonds on commission, which I did for ten years. When I turned thirty, I decided I wanted to make a change. I felt I should be working in the nonprofit sector helping create opportunities for other blind people. So I became a development director, which is a fund raising director, went back to school, got a masters in Not For Profit leadership, became eventually the CEO of the lighthouse for the Blind here in Seattle, joined the board of the American Foundation for the Blind, and when they did their nation wide search five ... six years ago, identified me as the sixth President and CEO of the American Foundation of the Blind here in year 100, and one really cool fun fact, the first blind director leader of AFB was Robert Erwin, he was also born in Washington State, and also became blind when he was five years old. So we've come in a big circle over the hundred years.
Chris: What was it like doing the job application thing and getting rejected so many times, did you ever feel like there was just no end in sight to it?
Kirk: Oh, absolutely. I felt very frustrated, and like I said, I had very good academic accomplishments, and, you know, classmates of mine who didn't study as hard as I did, or get as good grades as I did were getting jobs, and getting hired. You know, my fellow econ majors, so I just started casting my net wider and wider and wider, and quite frankly, I took the job I could get. I didn't want to keep living in my parents' basement. So like a lot of blind people, I settled for a job that wasn't optimal. Truth be told, a lot of people need to do that in their first job out of college, but selling tax free bonds over the phone was not what I had in mind. I really wanted to be in kind of the financial analysis side of things. But, you know, it was a job, I made a living, I was able to get married and buy a house and have kids, but yeah. It's always obviously frustrating and angering to know that the reason you're not getting hired is not because you're not qualified, it's because you're blind.
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Chris: What is AFB and what do you do there?
Kirk: We are a private nonprofit. So we're very often confused with the National Federation of the Blind, the American Council of the Blind, American Foundation for the Blind, many people get us confused. So, the main differentiation is that we are not a membership organization. We're a private nonprofit with a national board, and we have a really broad charter, which says, basically, "Improve the lives of blind people in America," So we get to decide at any given time what that means. And we were founded in 1921 by the American Association of Teachers of the Blind, American Association of Workers for the Blind, they both decided there needed to be a new central nonprofit that could do research, and gather data, and convene dialogs to identify the greatest barriers faced by people who are blind, the greatest opportunities for inclusion of people who are blind, and then facilitate addressing those problems. So that's still what we do. If you go to our website,
there's a good description of what we do, but we have researchers, we have PH.D researchers, so if we identify an issue, we can really dig into it and understand it, and then we can have data that we can use when we talk to policy makers and funders. We publish the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness which is peer reviewed research in the field. We're very focused on employment and leadership. We have a blind leaders development program. Applications are open for year 2, so we're looking for twenty blind leadership fellows who would like to do a year long, all expenses paid, leadership development course. People who are employed, have been employed between two and eight years, and looking for twenty blind mentors, successful blind professionals. And we use the Leadership Practices Inventory curriculum from the leadership challenge by Cusas and Posner, and it's great. We have a consulting practice where we work with mostly companies to make sure their digital environment is accessible, and we've just started an internship program for college students to do paid internships with AFB consulting for two years to learn skills around accessibility engineering. We have a leadership conference every year, which is great. When I was first hired by the Lighthouse for the Blind in Seattle, they told me if I wanted to know the blindness field, I should go to the AFB conference. So I went to my first one in 2001 and I've never missed. So that will be in Arlington Virginia May first, second and third. We publish Access World. If people want to subscribe to that, it's free, and it is blind people reviewing mainstream and assistive technology. So we really try to change systems, to gather data, make cases, scale the concept that blind people can be extraordinary contributors to the bottom line for an employer. So one concept that we're working to scale is the fact that living every day as a blind person, you develop remarkable skills in areas like creative problem solving, analyzing and managing risk, working in teams, communication, and those are the exact same attributes that employers say that they want. So where is that disconnect between the skills and motivation of people who are blind and the employers' need for talent? So we're looking to bridge those things, again through really analyzing the landscape, gathering data, and making good decisions based on data about where we should focus our resources.
Chris: Are there any conclusions that have been drawn from that data that you find particularly interesting or surprising?
Kirk: Well, a couple things. If you go to our website, there's a survey called "Flatten Inaccessibility." We did it right when Covid kind of started turning the world up-side-down, and we had over 1900 valid responses to a fairly long survey. And that is a really good data sample size because blindness is a low incidence disability. But, you know, it was a survey that was done on the computer, so by definition, the people who responded needed to have pretty decent computer skills, and access to Wi-Fi and the hardware in order to fill out the survey. Even though the sample was pre-filtered to have those technology skills, still, of the working age blind adults who responded, only twenty-nine percent were employed. And we keep saying "seven out of ten blind people aren't working," and that's based on comparing some big national data sets, but that is a very recent real sample of real people that verified and confirmed that number. And of those twenty-nine percent, more than a quarter said that they had accessibility challenges. That the jobs they were hired to do weren't completely accessible. So that means a pretty small percentage of working age blind adults are in jobs where their jobs are fully accessible.
Chris: You said something that I think is really profound, and I want to make sure I understood it correctly. There are people that are getting hired, so they're getting through that first barrier, and then the job's not accessible, they can't do it, so they're essentially getting fired?
Kirk: Well, that happens. Some people quit, some people, the job doesn't work out. You know, also people take work home. They spend more hours than their sighted colleagues to get their work done. They have to come up with work arounds. They need to get sighted assistance even from a family member after hours. So, you know, there are people who are making it work even though their jobs aren't fully accessible, but they're not able to be as efficient as they should be, so they have to put in extra time and effort, and again, it's very challenging.
Chris: Since you joined AFB, what are some of the accomplishments that you and AFB have had that you're most proud of?
Kirk: I think just getting focused on employment and on systems change. So I was hired in May of 2016 and AFB had 18 separate programs. Including publishing textbooks with AFB Press that were used in the university programs, training blindness professionals, we had a big family of websites, Family Connect, Families with Blind Kids, Career Connect for blind job seekers, Vision Aware for people new to blindness, we had an E-learning platform, we had a low vision clinic, low vision services in Dallas, and we had the research and the leadership conference and all that stuff. So I think the greatest accomplishment was, a month after I came on board, we planned a strategic planning committee. The next month we hired a consultant, and we did a year long strategic plan. We gathered our internal data, had focus groups of all of our employees, of which there are about 65 or so when I came on board. And then gathered external data, interviewed thought leaders, sixty different thought leaders in the blindness field, technology, academia, medical, and analyzed that data, came up with three potential future models for AFB, had our board look at those, and then did a brave thing and during our leadership conference in 2017, we had an open session, and we showed the attendees models and asked for their opinion, and fortunate for our process, the conference attendees and our board chose the same model. And that was really focused on systems change, and not trying to serve individual blind people, individual families or individual blindness professionals, but trying to facilitate support for them through public policy, through influencing corporate practice and hiring, you know, trying to change the landscape. So we then took a year to transition the programs that didn't fit the model and we found new homes for all of them, because they were good programs. But that allowed us to focus all of our resources. We had a big office in midtown Manhattan, which we closed about three and a half years ago, pre-covid. We sold the building in Dallas. We intentionally went virtual. We formed a committee of blind and sighted employees to analyze the productivity tools and choose the tools we would use. So we were using Zoom and Slack a lot before Covid descended upon us. And now we have forty employees. So we had sixty-five, we have forty, twenty are new, so really moved the organization into a more focused place, and we think a more impactful place, using what we have. We have some financial resources, we have some staff, we've got a great history, a great brand, we've got great relationships, and we have the research capacity, we have a really strong, a long standing public policy function. So how can we use what we have to make the most difference in creating a world of no limits for people who are blind?
Chris: What is next for AFB then in your mind?
Kirk: What's next is really maturing all the things that we have. So continuing to strengthen JVIB, continue to increase the circulation so there's more research in the blindness field read by more people, to continue to build the leadership conference as a place where all the stakeholder groups come together, so we want to have corporate folks, governments, people from academia, blind individuals, coming together to collectively address issues, and the next conference will be very clearly focused on employment. Then we will continue to focus on the employment programs I mentioned earlier, and get them strengthened and up and running. So our internship program with consulting, our blind leaders development program, and we're really going to be focusing energy on registered apprenticeship programs, which are great vehicles for careers, and they're largely developed to bring underrepresented communities into these careers. Mostly based on race and gender, but we are designing interventions where we will work with registered apprenticeship programs to help them be more inclusive of people who are blind. So a great example is Accenture stood up a cyber security apprenticeship program, one in Chicago, one in Austen, and again, focused on bringing people of color and women into cyber security, but we would love to partner with them on being inclusive of people who are blind. So a person applies to a registered apprenticeship program, they're hired, they start working, they're getting paid from day one, they're assigned a mentor, there is an academic course of study, usually through a community or technical college, they're usually four years, and at the end of four years, you have a certification that can be transferable across that industry and you're very hirable. And we're very excited about registered apprenticeship programs. So, in employment, we budgeted these three programs with the intention of having them up and running and strong at the end of 24 months, and we determined that that would cost about four million dollars to do, and we have had a wonderful development in that Mr. Gordon Gund, who started the Foundation Fighting Blindness, believes in these programs, to the extent that he made a personal two million dollar gift about a month ago, designated to support employment programs, and then he challenged AFB to raise an additional two million dollars over the next year, and if we do that, then the Gordon and Laura Gund Foundation will kick in a fifth million. We will have the resources needed to staff up and get these programs up and running. So that's what I see the future of AFB over the next two years, is getting these employment programs clicking along.
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Chris: What advice do you have for younger up and coming blind people that you might want to share, as I think we could argue you're one of the more successful blind people in our community right now.
Kirk: Well, I’ll tell you, I was not very well prepared, honestly. I did have early work experience as a predicter of successful employment as a blind adult. I was fortunate enough to have early work experience. I was really into sports. I thought I wanted to be a journalist. I was the sports writer for our high school newspaper, and in that small town, the sports editor of the high school paper got to write a weekly high school sports column for the weekly city paper. So I got that job by default, but it was a job. And I filled out a timesheet, and I got a paycheck, and having that early work experience is really important, but again, we're research folks, so research shows that paid work, or volunteer work, is equally as predictive of success in future. So only 29 percent of blind people, before the age of 23, have some sort of structured work experience, and seventy percent of sighted young people do. So, I would say to young people, if you're not able to find a paid job, find a volunteer job. Think about what you're interested in. There is an organization focused on whatever you're interested in. There's an association, an organization, ... You have tools that I couldn't have dreamed of, so google it or Bing it, and find a volunteer opportunity. The other thing I would say is, find successful blind adults. I knew none. I wasn't connected with the Federation or the Council. I would recommend reaching out to both if you're not already affiliated, and checking them out, and if one of them works for you, I think that can really be an asset. If you're interested in a career, people love to give informational interviews. If you want to be an archaeologist, if you want to be a chef, find a blind person who's doing that job. Because there is one. And ask them for an informational interview. And 99.99 percent of the people will be so happy that you contacted them and that they can share with you. Those are things I can recommend really highly. I think also mobility is so important. So if you don't have good O and M skills, you really need good O and M skills. So work on that. And obviously, you know, being able to use technology is just table steaks. If you can't use technology, it's gonna be very challenging for you. You know, the fact of the matter is, to be successful, a blind person has to work harder and work more than a sighted person, and that starts in elementary school. There's a concept called the expanded core curriculum, and it says that the blind kid has to learn all the stuff the sighted kid needs to learn, but then like 9 more things. Technology, self advocacy, O and M, you know, all the things. All the blindness skills that you need.
Chris: Where can people find out more and maybe contact you, or AFB, if they want to find out?
Kirk: Yeah. So the website,
is a place where there's tons of basic information, and then for me, my email address is my first initial, K, and my last name, Adams, so
so feel free to pop me an email and I would love to connect. I will just emphasize again that this is our centennial year. We're turning 100. Hellen Keller was our brand ambassador for 45 years. She bequeathed her estate to us, so we've digitized all of her writings, correspondence, it's in a totally accessible, searchable archive. And it's really fun to put search terms in the Hellen Keller archive. So feel free to go to
and check out the Helen Keller Archives.
Chris: Well, Kirk, thank you so much for being here.
Kirk: Yeah. Absolutely. It's a pleasure.
Chris: If you enjoy the Penny Forward podcast, please rate, review, and share it with your friends. We're supported by your donations. Please help us to continue producing Penny Forward by following the tip jar link in the show notes, or by visiting
Liz: The Penny forward Podcast is produced by Liz Botner and Chris Peterson. Audio editing and postproduction is provided by Byron Lee, and transcription is provided by Anne Verduin. Music was composed and performed by Andre Loui, and web hosting is provided by Taylor's Accessibility Services.
Chris: Penny Forward is a community of blind people building bright futures, one penny at a time. Visit
to learn more about who we are, and what we do. Until next time, for all of us in the Penny Forward community, I'm Chris Peterson.
Liz: And I'm Liz Botner. Thanks for listening, and have a great week.