Hello Employers: How to successfully work with and integrate people who are blind or vision impaired in your team
People who are blind or vision impaired can be excellent employees and often have the capacity to demonstrate strong leadership skills, in part because of the barriers they face everyday which equip them to be flexible, creative and resourceful. People who are blind or vision impaired can and have worked in a range of occupations ranging from a car detailer to an accountant to a chemical manufacturer to an administration assistant, to name just a few careers.
A workplace which takes into account accessibility as part of good business enables a person who is blind or vision impaired to meaningfully contribute and enrich a business or organisation. The strategies below are intended to support you as an employer to successfully employ a person who is blind or vision impaired while meeting the demands of your business/organisation.
Safety in the workplace
Blind Citizens Australia, through our years of advocacy, is aware that there are many employers who would not consider hiring a person who is blind or vision impaired for fear that the person will be an occupational health and safety risk and potentially, a workplace liability. The truth is that is that this belief is far from the case and unfounded.
People with disability are far less likely to have an accident at work than their work peers and do not have a higher risk of occupational injury, contrary to common perception
- Australian research has clearly shown that:
- the number of OHS incidents is six times lower than that of an “average employee”, with the number of workers compensation incidents also four times lower (Graffam et al. 2002)
- Accrued OHS costs are lower for employees with disability as compared to an average employee ($64 vs. $180)
- Accrued cost associated with workers compensation claims is much lower for persons with disability ($82) compared to employees without disability ($1564)
- the accrued cost of sickness absence in employees with disability is less than half of the cost for an average employee ($408 vs. $881)
Workplace, Health and Safety or OH&S is not a valid reason not to hire a person who is blind or vision impaired
- Workplace, Health and Safety, or OH&S legislation as it has been formally known, should not be used as a barrier to the employment of a person who is blind or vision impaired. This should only be a consideration in roles where there would be a very significant risk of injury to the person who is blind or vision impaired and/or to other staff and where the issue cannot be resolved with an adjustment/s to the role. Workplace, Health and Safety responsibilities towards employees with disability are really no different to an employer’s responsibilities towards all other employees.
An obstacle free workplace means a safe workplace for all employees and visitors
- A clear, obstacle free workplace provides a safe working environment for all employees and for visitors to a workplace. Overhead obstacles should be removed, with floor space kept free of clutter. Staff should be reminded to regularly check their workspace to ensure that obstacles are kept to a minimum (eg. chairs tucked behind desks), which is good workplace safety practice for all employees.
Signage should be accessible
- Meeting rooms, floor numbers, lifts and toilets should be well signed and include large, well contrasted lettering and raised tactile letters and Braille. The use of signage in the workplace should comply with the Australian Standards 1428 Suite.
Evacuation procedures need to be clearly communicated and accessible
- Employers should have accessible procedures to ensure the safety of all employees, including those who are blind, during renovations or when people need to evacuate in an emergency (United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Article 9 Accessibility) and ensure that all staff are familiar with these procedures. This includes providing information to an employee who is blind or vision impaired about Workplace, Health and Safety procedures, including those to be used during an emergency, in a format which is accessible to them, such as large print or in electronic format. Evacuation drills should also involve people who are blind or vision impaired to ensure that the person is familiar with the evacuation point and the safest travel route to get there independently in the advent of an actual emergency.
Making sure systems are accessible
Do not introduce new technology until it is proven to be fully accessible
- New computer technology, including but not limited to, databases, booking systems and electronic mail systems, must not be introduced in a work setting until the systems have been shown to work with adaptive technology, such as screen reading software, which reads visual information displayed on a computer screen audibly. Phone systems, copying and printing devices should also be tested for their accessibility prior to purchase to make sure they can be used by all employees and to minimise problems in the long run.
Reasonable Adjustments, including how to make them
A reasonable adjustment does not have to be expensive and there is help available
- What one person who is blind or vision impaired may need can be quite different to another person with sight loss. Don’t make assumptions that the cost of making adjustments will be prohibitive – most adjustments are low in cost, with subsidies available from the Federal Government to make it a viable option for your business to consider. Government schemes like Job Access and utilising a DES provider can also help to navigate these options to make the path to hiring a person who is blind or vision impaired much smoother.
Speak with the person seeking reasonable adjustments about their specific needs
- People who are blind or vision impaired may require some reasonable adjustments to be able to perform the ‘inherent’ or key requirements of a role to their full potential. Consult the employee (who may want to involve an advocate and/or professional who works with people with vision impairments to find out what is needed and involve them in decision making. Remember, reasonable adjustments are not about doing less work, but rather working effectively as part of a team by trading tasks between team members, being allocated other tasks that meet their specific skill set or discussing alternate tasks which could be allocated.
Take a proactive role to ensure that an employee has the adjustments they need, including training and technical support
- Employers should take proactive steps and work with the employee and/or DES provider, where applicable, to apply for modifications from the Employment Assistance Fund (Workplace Modifications Scheme) and Job Access Schemes to access the adaptive equipment an employee needs to be work ready. These schemes are free, easy to use and offer great support to an employer and employee. Any equipment or software purchased through the program should belong to the person. Technical support and training for the equipment should be provided to employers and individuals.
Workplace assessments should be timely, independent and meet an employee’s specific needs
- Workplace assessments required by an employee should be independent, follow clear guidelines and occur as soon as possible after an person who is blind or vision impaired has been offered a position of employment. Modifications should be approved in a timely manner. The best workplace options to meet the person’s needs, rather than the least expensive, should be chosen as this will ensure that the employee is most effective. Ideally, employees should have access to loaned equipment until the purchased equipment arrives to ensure that the employee is able to efficiently complete their role.
In the case of voluntary work/work experience, the accessibility of an organisation’s systems should be reviewed prior to the placement to determine what, if any, changes may need to be made.
Think outside of the square about how visual tasks are completed
- Some tasks within a role can be very visual and can be very difficult for people who are blind or vision impaired to complete independently, no matter how skilled they are in other areas. This can include reading print mail, filling out printed forms, entry of data from a print copy into a database, accessing data from an inaccessible database, sorting of printing or photocopying or accessing printed research. Some administration or volunteer assistance, such as to read labels or handwriting, can aid an employee to complete a task efficiently and effectively in instances where technology cannot assist. Assistance can also be a very effective tool to enable employees who are blind to best do what they are employed to do. Job modification and the tailoring of a role to meet the strengths of the individual are an important alternative.
Employment is a partnership – it’s ok to discuss problems like you would with any other employee
- Successful employment involves a working partnership between an employee who is able to perform the key requirements of a role (after adjustments have been made) and an employer whose expectations are being reasonably met. If an employee is unable to meet the inherent requirements of a role after adjustments and further investigations have been made, it is reasonable for a discussion to occur between the employee and employer to determine if the working partnership should continue. This should be no different to the process that would be used for any other employee within the workplace.
If you have concerns, document these as you would with any other employee
- As with any employee, dissatisfaction with an employee’s work performance should be documented, include clear examples and be accessible to the employee. The employee should be entitled to seek the support of an advocate, disability employment consultant or other nominated representative to review these concerns and have the opportunity to respond.
Work experience programs
Think outside of the square whether you offer a work experience program or internship – a flexible program can lead to a great employee fit
- Work experience programs, graduate programs, cadetships and internships, including those offered by government departments, can be a great way to see the work of a person who is blind or vision impaired in action. It is important that programs have some flexibility built in – some students who are blind or vision impaired may not be able to complete their studies in the same timeframe as students without disability. Programs should also be open to students who study part-time, students who are mature age and students who may have completed their studies greater than twelve months prior. Graduate programs developed specifically for people with disability should provide graduates with the skills and knowledge to prepare them for the world of work, including effective communication, presentation, behaviour and expectations in the workplace.
Mature age workers out of the workforce benefit from work experience too
- Work experience is not just important for younger people. Most vision loss occurs as people age, with people becoming unemployed later in life as an indirect result of losing their sight. Structured work experience programs should be developed to enable people to learn new skills and to help them find their way back into employment. Work experience should not be used to justify unwaged work, but to build up skills, confidence and self esteem.
A brilliant volunteer can become a brilliant employee
- Volunteering can provide valuable experience to people who are blind or vision impaired. Volunteering can lead to paid employment or provide the skills and confidence to gain paid employment in the future. All businesses or organisations which have a volunteer program, and volunteer co-ordinators in particular, must ensure that the process to register as a volunteer and the opportunities available to volunteers are accessible and take into account the needs of people who are blind or vision impaired. Agencies which provide volunteers to other businesses should become familiar with local government supports and small grants which can assist in providing adjustments.
Professional development, training and career advancement
Ensure that training delivered in your workplace, including by external organisations, caters for all participants
- External training providers contracted to provide training and professional development should ensure that the training to be delivered is accessible to all attendees. This includes providing training materials in formats such as large print, audio or Braille and checking that learning activities can be undertaken by training participants who are blind. Adjustments to training delivery and content should be discussed with the individual receiving training to find out what could work best.
Introduce career advancement programs to build the skills of your employees
- Large employers in the private and public sectors should introduce tailored career advancement programs to develop talented staff with disability. There is a strong business case for this investment as in the long-term it will assist businesses and organisations to become better placed to communicate with the broadest cross section of the community, better meet the needs of customers and clients with a disability and to have the developed skills to meet their needs. Existing programs designed to develop talented Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff provide a useful model, such as the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Executive Leadership Fellowship.
Don’t use a one size fits all approach when assessing performance
- Standard performance templates should be reviewed on a case by case basis to recognise that some employees who are blind or vision impaired may not be able to complete all tasks, particularly tasks that are visual. This ensures that people who are blind or vision impaired are not unfairly disadvantaged when competing for career promotion.
Disclosure of disability
Create an environment where employees feel safe to disclose their disability and have clear policies to back this up
- People who are blind or vision impaired should be encouraged to talk with their employer about their disability related needs as soon as these needs have been identified, without fear that their job will be at risk. Clear policies should be developed by employers which outline: a step by step process of the actions that will be taken once a person has disclosed their disability, who within the workplace is required to know about the person’s disability in order to accommodate their needs and how this information will be communicated. Employers should consult with a DES or groups specialising in disability employment to determine what will work best in their business or organisation.
- An employer should respect the right of a person who is blind or vision impaired to choose whether to disclose their disability to others in the workplace.
Supporting employees during vision loss
Don’t lose a good worker simply because there has been a change in their sight
- It makes more sense to modify a role to retain a good worker than to replace them with someone who may not have the same skills, knowledge and experience and who will need to be trained from scratch. Losing your sight is one of the most difficult transitions and challenges a person can experience. A common experience among our members is difficulty holding on to employment during this very distressing time. Losing a job at the same time as losing your sight can trap people into poverty and social and financial exclusion that statistics and experience show is very hard to escape again. And this also leaves a gap for your business.
Be a flexible and supportive employer
- Governments, blindness agencies and DES providers can all play a part in more effectively helping people who are losing their sight to remain in employment or acquire new skills to move into other sectors of the labour market. Tap into these services to support your employee and get them ready to return to work.
- Support services and blindness specific service providers can help people new to vision loss to obtain the blindness skills needed to do their work in a different way. This might include orientation and mobility, grief counselling, adaptive technology training and support accessing mainstream education and training opportunities.
- An employee may need some flexibility and time to grieve their vision loss, re-train and acquire the new skills needed in the workplace. A supportive employer might consider the redesign of work roles to maximise the contribution someone new to vision loss can make or continue to make.
A loss of sight does not necessarily mean that the person has lost the ability to do their job
- Empathy and looking beyond the immediate challenges is important. When a valued employee loses their sight it does not necessarily mean that he or she has lost the ability to do their job, but it does mean there will be a transition period and the need to start doing some things a little differently. This approach can lessen the cost of re-training and rehiring in the longer term.
Awareness of disability within the workplace
Implement workplace training which busts myths about what people with disability can do
- Large, medium and community organisations should develop staff training resources and team building exercises which dispel myths about people with disability, including people who are blind or vision impaired. Training should be compulsory for all staff and occur during induction for new employees. Refresher training should also be implemented periodically.
Give your staff practical information about how to work with people with disability via your publications
- To ensure that staff are aware of the needs of people with disability, staff publications might include articles on how to provide accessible information, how to communicate information effectively (both in writing and when speaking) and include information about workplace subsidies and schemes that can assist employees with disability to meet the duties of their role. An employee who is blind or vision impaired should not be identified as an example within training material without their consent.
Best practice dos:
- Thinking of taking on a work placement? Give it a go! You will not only be providing valuable skills to a person who is blind or vision impaired but provide a great opportunity for your business or organisation to assess how it operates, review its accessibility and improve the knowledge and understanding of your staff of the abilities of people who are blind
- Every role requires some modifications for a new employee, irrespective of whether the employee has a disability. A new sighted employee may need a headset to work more efficiently and reduce neck strain, may prefer to handwrite case notes or need flexible arrangements to pick up children from school. Modifications for a person who is blind or vision impaired should not be viewed as an onerous burden but simply as enhancement to ensure the effectiveness of your new employee.
Speak with a person who is blind or vision impaired in the same way that you would speak with any other employee. Using the word ‘see’ and ‘look’ in sentences is ok – people who are blind or vision impaired use these words too. An added tip is to provide good verbal information, rather than pointing or nodding.
Worst practice don’ts
- Don’t immediately assume that a person who has lost some or all of their sight can no longer complete their role. A significant loss of sight or the onset of a disability can happen to anyone. An employer should work alongside employees to determine what valuable knowledge and skills they have and how these qualities can still be utilised. Role modifications, or the development of new roles which will be of equal value to the business or organisation, should be discussed with the employee to find a workable solution.
- Don’t forget about the needs of all employees when purchasing new office
software, hardware and equipment. It’s important to consult with employees with disability to find out their specific needs to ensure that access is built in from the start.
- Don’t assume that technology alone will solve all problems and make a role completely accessible. Whilst adaptive technology can be very effective, it may not always be a workable solution (eg. scanners do not always work well on handwriting). Allow for other strategies, such as periodic sighted assistance and team work, to cater for limitations in technology.
Case study: Work experience leading to a great employment outcome
In her final year of secondary education, Susie was given an opportunity to be involved in SWEAT (Supported Work Experience and Training) Program developed by EDGE Employment Solutions, a DES provider. The program is designed to assist students with disability to secure a one-day per week supported work placement in industry over a 15 week period as a prelude to entering a school-based traineeship or apprenticeship.
Suzie chose a business administration placement; as Suzie is a student who is blind she needed appropriate adaptive solutions in place to assist her. Work stations set up for people who are blind or vision impaired are not common, and this scarcity is a real barrier in giving more students who are blind or vision impaired an opportunity to experience the environment of a workplace when looking at transitioning from school to work.
Fortunately, Greg, an administrator at the University of Western Australia (UWA), had developed a work station and office procedures with adaptive solutions such as a screen reader to voice computer output, text to speech scanning software to access printed material and Braille labelling to assist with hard copy filing and information distribution.
Suzie’s school, Edge Employment Solutions, Greg and the UWA designed a program to give Susie a 1 day per week work experience for the 15 weeks of the program.
Given that the work station was already set-up for someone who was blind and with Greg able to use his 10 years of business administration experience and the adapted processes he had developed to undertake the work, Greg was able to mentor Susie throughout her experience. Susie was soon comfortable undertaking the work tasks she was assigned. In fact, towards the end of the 15 week program Greg was able to take some leave and have Susie fill in for him.
The program was a great experience for Suzie, giving her invaluable exposure to work experience in an environment that catered for her needs. UWA was exposed to a bright potential employee and Edge Employment Solutions was able to gain further experience with placing someone with a vision impairment in a role which enhanced their program.
At the end of the 15 weeks, UWA offered Suzie a part time assistant administration position whilst completing her education. Susie has now finished her schooling, a Business Administration TAFE course and is now in full time employment at UWA.