An estimated 2 million people in the UK are living with sight loss. And of the 360,000 registered as blind or partially sighted, approx. 80,000 are of working age and capability. Could your organisation be missing out?

Imagine sitting at your desk one crisp, sunny, wintry day. You look up for a brief moment from your computer screen, catch a glimpse of a fox running across a field in the distance, blink away, and in the very next second … darkness. It may seem hard to believe, but this memorable and tragic story of his own instant onset blindness was relayed by a speaker at a disability awareness event recently.

Whether sudden or gradual, the onset of visual impairment can be a frightening prospect, fraught with both emotional and practical turmoil. Unless we are born without any sight, our vision is something we pretty much take for granted, and transitioning to a life with irretrievable loss of vision can be difficult to come to terms with. The very last thing anyone should have to worry about, under these circumstances, is financial and job security.

Equally, for employers, human nature dictates that we fear (and in some cases, avoid) what we don’t understand. And with that in mind, we thought we would address some common misunderstandings and assumptions about employing people with visual impairment.

‘We don’t have any employees who are registered blind, so it isn’t an issue for us.’

Maybe so, at the time of your last ‘audit’, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a duty of care towards the on-going wellbeing of your team. As in the story above, visual impairment can strike (gradually or suddenly) at any time, and as an employer you should address your duty of care to minimise that risk by conducting regular risk assessments, offering access to eye tests (especially for VDU operators), and ensuring your environment is suitably set up to manage any visual impairment issues that arise in the future (stick with us – there’s more on that later!). Equally importantly, consider the employees you haven’t yet met – your future hires! There may be no visual impairment issues in your business today, but that may not always be the case.

‘Our recruitment process isn’t tailored to suit visually impaired candidates.’

 Well, we won’t pull any punches. It should be. The RNIB’s (Royal National Institute of Blind People) website recommends some key steps (below) that every employer should take to make their recruitment process as inclusive as possible. How does yours measure up?

  • Advertise jobs where blind and partially sighted people can access them
  • Either ensure that application forms and information packs are available in an accessible format (such as large print or as an electronic document), or offer reasonable adjustment to your existing process (such as allowing someone to complete the application verbally over the phone). This is a requirement under the Equality Act.
  • Your application form can ask applicants if they need any support at the interview. However, the applicant is not required to disclose if they are blind or partially sighted at this stage.
  • Consider including an equal opportunities statement, and a disability statement in your advertisement, outlining your commitment to equality and diversity.
  • Make sure that all staff involved in selection and interviews understand equality and diversity.
  • Offer reasonable adjustments / facilities for the interview process (such as providing test material in large print).
  • Ask if the lighting level is suitable, or if the person wants to move towards or face away from a window.
  • Keep the room free of clutter and obstacles, particularly on the floor.
  • Offer to guide (most definitely not ‘steer’ – the difference is subtle but important) the candidate to the interview room and within the building.
  • Focus on the candidate’s abilities, rather than their sight loss.

‘We need people who can use the computer.’

 Great. All in hand. There’s an array of equipment available to support visually impaired people in using all the necessary technology, from big button or Braille telephones and keyboards, to voice recognition software and screen reading software which will read out emails, documents and text from the internet. Some of it is free, and some comes with a small fee. But there’s absolutely no reason to make technology a barrier.

‘We can’t afford to support lots of sickness absence.’

 Remember that blindness is not an illness. Research shows no evidence to suggest that visually impaired employees have a higher sickness absence rate than their colleagues. Chances are, the greater your support and commitment to ensuring their inclusivity, the stronger their work ethic and loyalty are likely to be.

‘Making the necessary adjustments will be costly.’

 Here’s the brilliant news! Grant schemes, like Access to Work, provide funding (amounts will depend on the size of the company) to cover the majority of the cost involved in adjusting the work environment. This can go towards equipment and adaptations, disability awareness training for your team, communicators at job interviews, and support workers to assist the employee in the workplace.

‘It will place extra pressure on other employees.’

This goes back to the ‘human nature’ point. We fear what we don’t know, and therein lies the case for awareness training. Providing your wider team with the awareness and capability to offer appropriate support to colleagues with any level of disability is an incredibly enabling thing to do. There is no reason to assume that, with the right workplace adjustments, a visually impaired worker will impose extra work onto his or her colleagues.

Above all, it is important to not make assumptions. Every individual’s experience of visual impairment will be unique, and will give rise to different needs. Ask the individual how their sight loss affects them in their day-to-day operations, and respond with appropriate and reasonable adjustments. Follow your duty of care to comply with health and safety and with the Equality Act 2010, and you are sure to create an environment that enables rather than excludes those with visual impairments.

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