Of the 84,000 registered blind and partially sighted people of working age in the UK, just one in four is in work – a rapid decline from the already paltry one in three in 2005. Coupled with this, a Department for Work and Pensions survey revealed that 92% of UK employers believed it was either “difficult” or “impossible” to employ someone with impaired vision.
According to the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), 30% of those out of work (but who had been in work) believed they “maybe” or “definitely” could have continued in their job given the right support.
“Although employment rates are at a record high, just one in four blind or partially sighted people are in work, which is a waste of valuable talent and skills in the UK workforce,” says David Clarke, Director of Services at RNIB.
“With the right support, visually impaired people can thrive in the workplace and make a significant contribution to businesses in almost all employment sectors. We just need employers to realise the unique commercial value that blind and partially sighted employees can undoubtedly bring to their businesses.”
As Carri Walker, a sales and marketing manager (who has progressive sight loss), says in This IS Working, a series of employment success stories from people living with sight loss: “You are employing a human being with skills, abilities, and knowledge and not just a pair of eyes.”
The recruitment process
While in the past jobs available to blind and partially sighted people tended to be restricted to a select type of job, such as a switchboard operator or piano tuner, technological advancements have opened up the workplace.
While government schemes, such as Access to Work, assist employers with any extra costs involved with employing a person with a disability, including the interview stage.
Employers should review their recruitment practices to make them more accessible to people with visual impairment, says the RNIB, which has recently launched a new suite of resources to help employers support blind and partially sighted people in the workplace. There are a number of reasonable adjustments that can be made, starting with ensuring all job adverts are placed on accessible websites (which work with screen magnification and screen reading software) or via a local disability employment adviser. Application packs should be made available electronically and in large print – a requirement under the Equality Act – while adjustments can be made to the process itself, such as allowing a person to apply over the phone.
Once at the interview stage, applicants should be asked if they need any support at the meeting to ensure a fair assessment – for example, allowing extra time for written tests. Other considerations should include offering to guide the candidate to the interview room, checking the lighting is suitable for them, and that the room is free from obstacles.
Retaining employees with sight loss
The increase in accessible technology, along with financial support from Access to Work, has made employing and retaining a blind or partially sighted person easier and more cost-effective for companies.
Assistive technologies enable people with low or no vision to use computers and read printed material. Adaptations that companies can make include using large monitors to enable increases in font size or the use of magnification software, providing adapted keyboards or installing software that converts text on the screen into speech. There are also scanners with optical character recognition that convert print into electronic text that is read aloud.
Organisations such as the RNIB and the government-funded Fit for Work, offer a number of support services for companies. These include providing work-based assessments, one to one access technology training, and visual and disability awareness training for staff.
A work-based assessment involves a visit to the workplace by a specialist, who can recommend equipment, software, and adjustments that would better allow an employee with visual impairment to fulfil their role. The assessment may consider simple adjustments that can be made to offices and surroundings to make them more accessible; recommend appropriate modified equipment and access technologies; provide specialist training for the person with sight loss and members of staff working with them; and suggest ways to make work-related systems more accessible.
Removing the fear factor
Visual awareness training offers practical advice for colleagues on how to support blind and partially sighted employees, including communication and etiquette, and how to guide a sight-impaired colleague.
Introducing yourself by name when you begin a conversation so a blind person knows who they are talking to, acknowledging them when they are walking around the workplace so they know you are there, and telling them when you are leaving so they aren’t left talking to empty space, are all invaluable practices when it comes to creating a comfortable working environment.
Lighting is another area to consider, both in terms of quality and quantity. For some, it is about creating a comfortable workspace, while, for others, poor lighting can pose a barrier to effective working.
Most importantly, involve the person concerned in helping to determine what approach is required to enable them to do the job.
While admitting that employing people with visual impairment was “a massive learning curve”, Karen Nunn, a business manager for Zurich Municipal, has found her involvement with a Work Skills programme that helps get people with sight loss back to work to be a rewarding experience. “It was crucial in our understanding of disability and taught us many little things that we were able to take forward as an organisation,” she says.
Nunn cites the sight-awareness training provided through Access to Work as invaluable, in enabling colleagues to best assist a person with sight loss; while simple adjustments, such as ensuring vending machines have the same configuration throughout all the company’s offices, can “make a difference”.
She concludes: “We need to take the fear factor out of disability in the workplace and stop consciously or subconsciously opting for the easier recruitment options.”