The shocking treatment of people with sight loss

25 Nov 2022 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 25 Nov 2022

Pic: Taras Chernus, Unsplash

Just one in four blind and partially sighted people of working age are in employment, according to a new report which explores how that shocking statistic can be rectified.

The Eye Work With You Too Report was prepared by the Vision Impairment Centre for Teaching and Research at the University of Birmingham for the RNIB.

It examines the experiences of blind and partially sighted people in Northern Ireland in three areas: the time when they are preparing to move from education or training; the experiences of those who develop sight loss later in life; and actions of stakeholders who have an impact on the employment of people with sight issues.

The purpose was to see what needed to be done to improve employment prospects and it has produced nine recommendations for consideration.

The research relied on a series of focus groups who were tasked with:

· Exploring the barriers, and enablers to the blind and partially sighted getting work in Northern Ireland;

· Mapping what works when supporting of blind and partially sighted people to get work;

· Identifying the gaps in employment-related services for blind and partially sighted people and those involved in supporting them.

Some of the advice currently been given by those who should know better is shocking. For example during discussions about transition from education into work one person said: “A careers officer told me that I should go to Tech because university wasn’t for, and this is a quote, ‘for people like me’. I was fuming! It’s just sort of fuelled me to go and prove them wrong!”

One crucial issue uncovered was the basic lack of understanding of sight loss coupled with a failure to cater for what people actually want to do to earn a living.

Another individual said: “Like if I said I wanted to do aromatherapy, somebody would have said, oh no, you would have been better at teaching, like teaching the blind. And that just kind of threw me a bit because it’s not what I want to do. I’m old enough to make my own decisions on what I want. No one asked.”

So there is a need for, and a current lack of, person-centred support for moving into the workplace which takes account of what people affected actually want to do.

The fact that is currently lacking is a serious omission which is harming the interests of those affected for whom tailored support should not be an add-on but offered as a matter of course.

As in so many other areas it is clear that different organisations are also not currently working together as well as they should be in order to provide improved person-centred support.

Participants who took part in this research suggested there should be greater partnership between schools, careers advisors and education specialists to create a properly joined-up approach.

More also needs to be done to help young people with sight issues gain work experience.

Time and again the focus groups heard of poor experiences: “The worst experience was when I got a job, done the training and one part of the training I couldn’t see. They brought me up to the main big boss, and he shook my hand, said I was the most qualified person in the room, but they would no longer be requiring my services.”

This implies a need for more to be done to educate employers. Related to this several participants spoke of experiencing, or witnessing, discrimination against individuals because of their disability. These often included employers not being prepared to work with an employee, or potential employee, to support them in the workplace.

Often this is down to ignorance, but this very basic lack of understanding extends to some individuals who have no excuse.

For example, what happened to this individual appears inexcusable. “I was a nurse, and as soon as they heard that I had this [medical condition] which affected my vision, I was called into the occupational health and the occupational doctor said to me, ‘I take it, you want to retire now because what can a blind person do?’ And that was a doctor! That was a doctor that said that to me!”

It appears that much of the discriminatory actions and negative attitudes which participants experienced was due to a general lack of understanding of vision impairment across society and especially of the types of support which can be put into place to support blind or partially sighted workers. Often employers and colleagues would make assumptions about an individual, the support they would need and that individual’s limitations. This meant that often it was difficult for the person to receive the reasonable adjustments they required.

Clare Dixon, an Employment Officer with RNIB in Northern Ireland, said: “People with sight loss face many barriers when looking for work. Assumptions from employers, or concerns about the cost of adjustments, are common misconceptions and inaccessible job adverts and application processes further compound the challenges.

“When thinking about reasonable adjustments for a person with sight loss, first think about all the things you can plug in - the technical adjustments such as assistive software, magnification, screen readers, braille displays or dictation. Then think about what you don’t plug in, the non-technical adjustments, and those can be very small adjustments, such as flexibility around start or finishing times, adequate screen breaks, review of job duties, support with smaller administrative tasks, review of targets or workload.

“It is a combination of both that ensures someone with sight loss is able to do their job, as well as good awareness and understanding from their employer, and not making assumptions about what someone can or can’t do.”

Further information is available from the RNIB to help employers make informed decisions about what is required.

The lack of understanding about the measures required and cost of reasonable adjustment has another consequence.

As one person explained: “The opportunities aren’t there and then people’s confidence is shattered, and the stigma of disability, it’s putting people off from getting out there and achieving their best.”

What seems to be required seems simple enough to achieve: supportive and flexible managers and colleagues.

One participant defined it well: “Being treated like everyone else. No deliberate, sort of special treatment if that makes sense, just because I can’t see as well as someone else you know, the same expectations as my sighted colleagues, same workload, same standards, that’s very much what I would consider a positive work outcome.”

Then there’s the need to advocates people who can act on their behalf and also provide guidance on the support that individual might require. This might include technology and mobility training, as well as counselling support to boost their self-confidence.

What is so frustrating, and shameful about this is that even if the same general awareness about sight issues were achieved as that which has been achieved for autism, it would make a significant difference.

What is beyond dispute is that there is currently a cohort of people who are unable to work not because of their disability but because of the collective ignorance of the rest of us. Some of us have no excuse for not knowing basic facts about the blind and partially sighted. Others will need help. Either way the result is discrimination and the resulting appalling unemployment rates among the blind and partially sighted.

In any event it would be good to see the authorities doing much more to combat the ignorance that lies at the root of this form of discrimination.

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