Learning About Blindness: Interacting with a Person Who Is Blind or Visually Impaired in the Workforce
What Is Blindness or Low Vision?
Individuals who are visually impaired may be born with vision loss or develop a visual impairment later in life as a result of an accident or eye disease. Many different terms are used to describe the varying degrees of vision loss an individual may have. The terms “visually impaired” and “visual impairment” are used to include all individuals with decreased vision, regardless of the severity of vision loss or blindness. However, the following blindness terms and descriptions provide a better explanation of an individual’s functional vision.
Visually Impaired: A person who is visually impaired has a decreased ability to see, even with corrective lenses, that adversely affects his visual access or interferes with processing visual information. The visual challenges an individual may have can range from not being able to see newspaper print to not being able to read print at all. Other challenges may include not being able to recognize a friend in a room until she is standing within arm’s reach or until she identifies herself.
Blindness: The term “blindness” is typically used to describe individuals with no usable vision or only the ability to perceive light.
Legally Blind: The term “legally blind” is a definition used to determine if individuals are eligible for government or other benefits as determined by the classification of legal blindness. Persons classified as legally blind have a central visual acuity of 20/200 or worse in the better eye with the best possible correction and/or a visual field of 20 degrees or less. For example, someone with an acuity of 20/200 may see something at 20 feet the same as what someone with normal vision can see at 200 feet.
Low Vision: A person with normal vision typically has a visual acuity of 20/20 in both eyes and a visual field of approximately 160 to 180 degrees. An individual with low vision may have a visual acuity of 20/70 or worse and a visual field of 20 to 40 degrees or less. Individuals with low vision can often use optical devices, nonoptical devices, and environmental modifications to increase their visual functioning.
How to Interact with a Blind Person at Work
An employer or coworker may feel uncomfortable or awkward when first meeting a colleague who is visually impaired, but it is important to understand that people who are blind want others to interact with them in the same manner as they interact with sighted individuals in the workplace. Here are some tips that can facilitate positive interactions at work between visually impaired and sighted coworkers:
- When meeting a blind person, wait for him to extend his hand for a handshake.
- Coworkers should identify themselves by name when speaking to individuals with visual impairments.
- Speak with a normal tone of voice. Do not shout.
- When there are several people in a room, such as during a staff meeting, each individual should identify himself to the person who is blind.
- Indicate the end of a conversation before walking away.
- Feel free to use vision-oriented words such as “see,” “look,” and ” watch.”
- Be specific when giving directions or descriptions. Saying, “the copy machine is located outside the break room to the left of the door,” is more helpful than saying, “it’s over there.” Similarly, avoid using hand gestures to communicate messages.
- Don’t assume a blind person always needs assistance and can’t do things for himself.
- If an individual with vision loss needs assistance walking to a destination, a sighted coworker can offer her arm as a sighted guide. The guide shouldn’t grab the person’s arm and try to steer him in a certain direction.
- Individuals who are blind or visually impaired may use a long white cane or dog guide. Don’t interfere with the person’s cane or dog guide.
Myths About Employing Individuals Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
Myth #1: People who are visually impaired are limited in the jobs they can perform and the careers they can pursue.
Reality: Contrary to the myth that blind people can only hold low wage jobs, people who are visually impaired can perform many of the same jobs and pursue the same careers as those who are sighted.
Myth #2: An employer is responsible for providing all of the accommodations an employee who is visually impaired requests, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Reality: The ultimate decision of which accommodations to provide is up to the employer, as long as the section effectively removes necessary barriers for the employee. Learn more about reasonable accommodations.
Myth #3: Accommodations are expensive for an employer to provide for an employee who is visually impaired.
Reality: According to the Job Accommodation Network, 15 percent of job accommodations cost nothing. The typical one-time expenditure by employers to provide an accommodation is approximately $500, and employers reported the accommodations are effective in increasing an employee’s productivity.
Myth #4: Employees who are visually impaired need more supervision than other employees.
Reality: Employees who are visually impaired do not need more supervision. With proper training on completing the functions of a job and provision of accommodations, individuals with vision loss will perform competitively and successfully in the workforce.
Myth #5: People who are visually impaired can’t read printed or handwritten material.
Reality: The availability of assistive technology has made nearly any kind of printed document accessible to people who are visually impaired. Learn more about assistive technology.
Myth #6: If an employee experiences a sudden or gradual loss of vision while working, the employee will not be able to continue to perform the functions and duties of his job.
Reality: State Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies and private organizations are available to provide orientation and mobility training, career counseling, and skill development to help clients continue performing their current job duties or to qualify for other employment opportunities.
Myth #7: An employee who is visually impaired will have a higher absentee rate than employees without a disability.
Reality: People with vision loss usually have better attendance rates than their non-disabled coworkers and are often loyal workers to the company resulting in longevity with the company.
Myth #8: If an employer hires an employee who is visually impaired, their insurance rates will increase.
Reality: Insurance premiums are based on overall actuarial events. A single individual, even if he or she is visually impaired, does not make an impact. Many states have passed regulations prohibiting differentiation in premiums on the basis of blindness without full actuarial evidence to support the distinction.
Myth #9: The ADA shields a visually impaired employee from disciplinary action at work.
Reality: An employer is always at liberty to discipline an employee who does not follow company policies or adhere to standards. The employee who is visually impaired should be held to the same standards in the same way as all other employees.
Myth #10: Blind people have special gifts such as a “sixth sense.”
Reality: Although a very common and popular myth, people who are visually impaired are not endowed with a sharper sense of touch, hearing, taste, or smell. To compensate for their loss of vision, many blind people learn to listen more carefully or develop skills to increase their directional acumen.
Myth #11: An employee who is blind will need his materials in braille at work.
Reality: Some employees, especially those who were born blind, will be excellent braille readers and may use braille when they determine it is the most efficient way to complete a task at work. However, only a small percentage of blind or visually impaired people read braille. Many know enough braille to be functional, such as making notes and labels for themselves, but they may not need any materials transcribed. Learn more about braille in the workplace.