By Ming Wu on Jun 3, 2021 7:21:18 AM
The benefits of diversity and inclusion are becoming widely accepted. Whilst companies are required to comply with legislation, many also want to run their businesses more ethically. Consumers and professionals increasingly favor organizations whose values reflect their own. Combine this with the increased knowledge and experience that a diverse team offers... It’s clear that a diverse and inclusive organization is also more likely to be a successful one. So how does a business become more diverse and inclusive? Let’s look at what workplace inclusion means to a blind person. In this article, we explore how employers and coworkers can begin to cultivate this through practical steps.
What are blindness and visual impairment?
For context, let’s discuss what being blind means. A common misconception is that blindness is binary and either a person is blind or they can see. In reality, there are endless variations of partial vision between sighted and profoundly blind. Some people who are visually impaired see nothing, and others have some form of vision. Perhaps they can detect light, see blurry shapes, have tunnel vision, or can only see in certain environments. Don’t be surprised if a person makes eye contact or looks at their phone whilst also using a white cane.
The definition of visual impairment is 'a decrease in the ability to see to a certain degree that causes problems not fixable by usual means, such as glasses.' The effects of vision impairment are varied and completely different from stereotypes. There are many phrases associated with different visual abilities, which we’ll discuss later, but in this article, we will predominantly use the word ‘blind’.
How to cultivate an inclusive workplace for blind employees
Inclusion for blind employees can be broken down into six areas: (1) recruiting a blind person, (2) accommodating a blind employee, (3) educating the organization on diversity and inclusion, (4) implementing open communication and inclusive language, (5) supporting blind employees in remote work, and (6) cultivating inclusion for blind employees.
1. Recruiting a blind person
In recent years, the employment rate of people with a visual impairment has been approximately 30-40% in North America, compared with 75-80% of the non-disabled population. Globally, figures vary but the trend is consistent. Therefore, the first step is to get more blind people (and the skills they can offer) into work. To enable blind people to get hired, they must first have access to the recruitment process. Here are some simple tips for hiring blind employees.
▪︎ Advertising. Ensure online adverts are accessible to blind candidates. Use uncluttered layouts, clear fonts, screen-reader compatible text, and contrasting colors. Always include contact details, should the application form be required in a different format.
▪︎ Candidate search. Place your job ads on job boards that reach a wider audience. Contact non-profits who work to find employment for people who are blind. Encourage recruiters to work in line with your diversity and inclusion objectives.
▪︎ Interview. As a general rule, ask a blind candidate the same questions you would ask any other candidate. All too often, blind candidates are asked inappropriate questions such as, 'Can you go to the bathroom on your own?' Not only are these types of questions inappropriate, but they can discourage candidates and reflect badly on your organization. If the candidate talks about their disability openly, then a discussion can take place. However, at this stage, focus on their skills, qualifications, and experience to assess their suitability for the role.
▪︎ Assessment. If the candidate is expected to complete an assessment, inform them beforehand and check with them which format they prefer for materials, such as large print or electronic copies.
▪︎ Appointment. An employer might still have concerns once a candidate who is blind has been appointed. A common concern is not fully understanding how the candidate will do their job. It’s not unusual that a sighted person finds it difficult to imagine how to do things without sight. Blind people simply use different techniques and assistive tools to get things done. A sighted person might not know how they would cook or raise children without sight, but blind people do those things every day. So just because you don’t know how a blind person manages a project, designs an app, or organizes an event, it doesn’t mean they can’t do it - and do it well!
#2 Accommodating a blind employee
Another concern employers have is about making accommodations. Making accommodations for a blind employee is essential to an inclusive workplace. However, employers are often unsure about the expense and effort that this involves. The following tips may alleviate such concerns.
▪︎ Advice and support. Governments and non-profits offer a range of support for businesses hiring blind employees. They may also offer advice, tax incentives, help with salaries, or funding for equipment. In the US, government programs offer tax incentives, and Germany’s quota scheme funds disability-specific accommodations. The UK’s Access to Work provides assessments and financial assistance. The Singaporean Open Door Scheme offers grants for training and support for employers and employees. In Israel, The Services For The Blind provides caseworkers who support blind candidates from application to job integration and advises employers on accommodations that may be needed. These are just a few examples, but wherever a business is based, there is support available.
▪︎ Consulting your employee. In addition to professional support, talk to your blind employee about what they need and their preferences. If they are not familiar with anything that has been recommended by a caseworker, they might require some training, or they may suggest alternatives.
▪︎ Minimal accommodations. You may be surprised by how few accommodations are required. Common accommodations include one-time purchases such as scanners, screen readers, magnifiers, or desk lamps. A person who is blind with no other disabilities will seldom need any major adjustments to their physical workplace, but layouts should be kept consistent and free of obstacles.
#3 Educating the organization on diversity and inclusion
The most effective way to build an inclusive workplace for a blind employee is to educate the wider team. Raising awareness of relevant issues such as the following could really help cultivate inclusivity.
▪︎ What is blindness? Share resources and talk about the reality of visual impairment and how people who are blind may have some sort of vision. Discuss how blind people do things, the tools they might use, and how they are just like anyone else. Inclusion requires the absence of preconceptions and education has a major role in that.
▪︎ Maintaining high standards. Standards should not be lowered for a blind employee. Constructive feedback, positive or negative, should be given so they know how they are performing and how to improve, just like everyone else. There’s a difference between making accommodations to enable someone to work and lowering standards. The two should not be confused.
▪︎ Highlighting the advantages. People who have never worked with a blind person may not realize how much their new coworker has to offer. Everyone brings a unique set of skills and knowledge to a workplace, learned through education or experience. Blind people are likely to possess some skills because of their blindness. Being blind means problem solving, organization and planning are second nature. They are likely to be resilient, adaptable, and hardworking. They can also have great language skills. Without visual cues, a person who is blind capitalizes on language as their primary communication method.
▪︎ Working with a blind person. Because every individual with a visual impairment is different, it’s important to find out your coworker’s preferences. For example, do they prefer large print documents or electronic copies? Would they like presentation slides in advance of meetings? Is there a particular spot on their desk they would like you to leave paperwork, their stapler, or their drink? Is it acceptable to touch their elbow to get their attention in loud group situations? These kinds of questions need to be asked and you should never assume the answers. Don’t give someone a braille document if they don’t read braille, or guide them to the door when they don’t need you to.
▪︎ Seeing beyond the blindness. It is important to accommodate and be mindful of each other needs. However, defining a person this way is not helpful. Focus on their work or common interests, rather than on their blindness. If a colleague works certain hours to accommodate childcare, you would not define them by that accommodation. The same should be true of someone who uses a screen magnifier.
#4 Communication and inclusive language
Inclusive language is an integral part of workplace inclusion because, intentionally or not, words have the power to evoke emotion. If you are interested in learning more about diversity and inclusion, you can download our guide How to Manage Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace. Find valuable strategies and read our new chapter on how to implement inclusive language in your organization. Here are some pointers on inclusive language regarding a person who is blind:
▪︎ ‘Person-first’. While it’s not offensive to say ‘blind person’, it’s more respectful to say ‘person who is blind’. By putting the 'person first,' we acknowledge that blindness is a characteristic of the person, and the person is more important than the blindness. It’s not a faux-pas to say ‘blind person’ (you’ll notice it’s used in this article). It’s commonly used because it’s less cumbersome than person-first terminology, but it is more casual than saying ‘person who is blind’. For official documents and formal correspondence, it’s a distinction to be aware of.
▪︎ Tailored terminology. Numerous phrases such as ‘visually impaired’, ‘partially sighted’, and ‘sight impaired’ can all be used interchangeably, but your audience may have preferences. ‘Blind’ usually refers to someone with no vision and ‘legally blind’ means that -medically speaking- a person is considered blind but has a little remaining vision. ‘Sight loss’ or ‘vision loss’ refers to vision that is deteriorating. So you see - it can be a bit confusing, especially with the added complication of regional preferences. Clients or coworkers in other jurisdictions may be more comfortable with some phrases than others and marketing materials should be tailored to the target region. Consult websites of vision loss charities in the relevant countries to learn the most widely accepted terminology there.
▪︎ Considering all communications. Whether it’s an internal memo or a social media campaign, always review language to ensure it is inclusive.
▪︎ Avoiding sensational language. There’s no need to constantly point out how someone has overcome a disability to achieve something. Avoid referring to someone as courageous, amazing, or inspiring - unless you would use those same words if the person was not blind. Focus on their achievement, rather than their blindness.
▪︎ Conversational language. Use everyday words and questions like, 'Did you see that show last night?' or 'Let’s see if we can move this project forward today.' People who are blind use these words too, as there are no relevant alternatives. Perhaps, avoid using phrases like ‘blind as a bat’, as although it’s unlikely to cause great offense, we should remain conscious of how words can potentially affect people.
▪︎ Being descriptive: Ensure a coworker who is blind receives the same level of information as everyone else by describing visual information. Saying ‘get drinks over there’ or ‘the graph shows changes in revenue’ is not specific enough. Instead, ‘the water cooler is to the left of the kitchen’ and ‘the graph shows revenue went up by 15% in February’ are much more meaningful to someone who is blind.
These are just a few points that demonstrate how language plays a crucial role in an inclusive workplace. If your team does not have either the confidence or the language skills needed to keep communication inclusive, communications training in this area would be a valuable investment.
#5 Supporting blind employees in remote work
Workplace inclusion doesn’t exist only in the office. As more of us are working from home, employers should consider how to support blind employees in remote working.
▪︎ Accessibility. If you are unsure about the accessibility of your chosen online meeting platform, project management system, or any online content, consult your coworker who is blind and offer training if needed.
▪︎ Sending materials ahead of time. Give your blind coworker time to familiarize themselves with information before a meeting. Using screen readers or magnifiers might not be practical during a meeting.
▪︎ Virtual meetings. Begin with a roll call to let blind coworkers know who’s on the call. Use names to direct questions or be clear if it is a question for the whole team. Describe presentation graphics or what is happening during screen sharing. Remember to note when someone leaves or joins the meeting. You could also offer to have a one-on-one call to help set up their meeting space if needed. Suggest how they can adjust their camera angle to get the best light, where to sit to ensure they are in the frame, and check what is visible in their background.
▪︎ Space to talk. Without visual cues, it’s harder to know when to speak without interrupting. This is even more difficult for a blind person working remotely. To help with this, facilitators or speakers should invite comments at intervals and encourage team members to use ‘raise hand’ features.
▪︎ Inviting feedback. Chances are, your coworker who is blind knows more about accessibility than your HR team, so welcome their ideas. Remember an inclusive workplace is not achieved when something seems accessible, it evolves and requires continual cultivation.
#6 Cultivating inclusion for blind employees
Cultivating inclusion is a journey, and Inclusive organizations at every stage of that journey can work on developing in the following areas:
▪︎ Equality. A blind employee must have access to the same level of training, support, and career progression as their sighted coworkers. Do not assume that something is not for them just because they cannot see like you, and ask them instead.
▪︎ Respect. A blind coworker should be treated the same as everyone else. Their opinions should be valued and language used towards and about them should be respectful.
▪︎ Open communication. A blind coworker should feel they’re part of the conversation and open communication encourages this. Importantly, it also cultivates cohesion across the wider team. Ensuring the whole team is proficient in a common language is key to creating a cohesive and inclusive workplace. There are few assets more valuable to a company than employees who confidently and appropriately communicate with each other and clients. Share resources regularly to help them enhance their communication skills.
▪︎ Education. Coworkers should be encouraged to learn about and value the characteristics that make the team diverse. Whether it’s learning about a festival someone celebrates, a country where someone is from, an industry someone worked in, or about someone’s blindness, it all contributes to a deeper appreciation of the people we work with. and an inclusive and collaborative environment.
▪︎ Immersion. Inclusion should be at the heart of a business. It should shine through in all areas. It’s part of the culture that filters through employees and the leadership, suppliers and contractors, products and services, and marketing and sales.
▪︎ Authenticity. Inclusion allows everyone to be unapologetically themselves. They feel their workplace is where their authenticity is not only accepted but valued.
▪︎ The bigger picture. The principles described here apply not only to blind employees but to any employee, regardless of whether or not they’re considered ‘diverse.’ Companies must work on diversity, but we must all keep the wider goal in mind - inclusion. Inclusion, in its entirety, is not just about accommodating one minority group - that’s just the beginning. It’s about everyone. Who wouldn’t benefit from equality, respect, education, and everything else we’ve discussed?
Hopefully, we have demonstrated that cultivating an inclusive workplace for a blind employee can be relatively simple, yet highly rewarding. By examining this specific example, it’s been possible to offer practical advice and highlight the support that’s available to employers who are serious about workplace inclusion and the many benefits that it brings.
About the author: Ming Wu is a freelance writer specializing in long-form articles and blog posts related to diversity and inclusion and accessibility. She offers specialist knowledge on visual impairment and blindness. Ming writes copy to enhance her clients’ D&I practices and get readers talking. Learn more at ablindinglight.com.
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