Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Blind Employees But Were Reluctant to Ask

By Nan Hawthorne


Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Blind Employees But Were Reluctant to Ask

By Nan Hawthorne


These candid questions about employment of people who are blind or visually impaired often go unasked — and, therefore, are generally unanswered. Here are some straight answers.

Question: What’s the correct term for blind people?

Answer: Some blind people are fine with being called “blind person.” Others who subscribe to the “people first” philosophy insist on “person who is blind.” Terminology confuses everyone. Someone may say “Don’t refer to us as “the blind,” but you will hear about a group called National Federation of the Blind. It really is a matter of taste. Terms eSight uses include “visually impaired,” “vision impaired,” “low vision,” and “partially sighted.” In general, the word “handicapped” is falling out of favor (it originally meant “beggar”), so avoid “visually handicapped.”

The terms that usually annoy people who are visually impaired include “sightless” — or any word you use that makes it sound like you are trying to avoid the subject. I personally detest terms like “special,” “differently-abled” and “visually challenged” because they seem to be this type of “avoidance” term, but I won’t jump down your throat if you use them. Other blind and otherwise disabled people love these expressions. Take your cue from how the blind person describes himself.

Question: What does “legally blind” mean?

Answer: Only about 10 percent of all people with a severe visual impairment have no vision at all. The term “legally blind” describes a specific level of visual impairment that is considered sufficient to be entitled to certain protections and services, such as Social Security Disability Insurance, special rates on public transportation, and legal recourse under the Americans with Disabilities Act and similar laws. A “legally blind” person also cannot get a standard driver’s license.

In the United States, “legal blindness” is defined as vision with an acuity of 20/200 or a range of vision of 20 degrees or less in the better eye after correction. I stress “after correction” because people have said to me, “I’m legally blind without my glasses.” That’s like saying you’re homeless when you leave your house to go to work. Legally blind refers to your level of vision after you put your glasses on.

The 20/200 or less can be most easily understood with this example. Someone with 20/200 vision sees something as well at 20 feet as someone with vision corrected to normal sees at 200. That is, the legally blind person must be at least 10 times closer to make out the image.

The 20 degrees or less refers to “tunnel” vision and the degree to which it is considered too narrow or too small. This means that about nine out of 10 people who are considered legally blind have some vision, ranging from a small window of perfect vision to very blurry to only being able to detect light.

See What types of visual impairment are there? below for more information.

Question: What types of visual impairment are there?

Answer: Blindness can be congenital and hereditary. It can be caused by disease. It can be the result of an accident. It can even be a manifestation of mental illness.

The most common cause of blindness in the United States is a disease called glaucoma, in which pressure builds up in the eye and that pressure damages it. The largest single group of adults of working age lost their sight due to diabetes. Most visually impaired seniors have age-related macular degeneration (ARMD), in which the part of the eye with the highest density of light receptors deteriorates and central vision is destroyed.

The following are all examples of visual impairment:

  • No vision at all
  • Perceive only light
  • Perceive only vague shapes
  • Perceive shapes and some color
  • Very blurry and indistinct
  • Consistently or randomly miss parts of an image
  • Unable to see detailed images, such as print, without magnification
  • Any level of vision but only a narrow view, like looking through a tube

You can see a diagram of the eye, simulations of what some common eye conditions “look like” and read about these conditions in “Understanding Your Employee’s Visual Impairment.”

Question: What work can blind people do?

Answer: This depends on the individual. In general, blind people can do any kind of work that does not involve piloting a vehicle — but only if the person has the training, skills, and experience (just like anybody else). That is, a qualified blind person can do almost anything. There are blind machinists, blind writers, blind software developers, blind teachers, blind stay-at-home parents, blind car mechanics, blind scientists, blind executives, blind nurses, blind athletes, blind performing artists, blind web designers, blind business owners, blind secretaries, blind stockbrokers, blind journalists ᅡ? well, you get the idea.

Whether a blind person can do a particular task depends on the following:

  • Whether he is qualified to perform the task or has an opportunity to learn how — like any other employee
  • Whether he wants to — like any other employee
  • Whether he needs and has the tools to perform the task — like any other employee
  • Whether he gets the opportunity to perform on the job — like any other employee

The only difference between “any other employee” and a blind person is that the blind person may need special tools to perform the task, tools that eliminate or lessen the need for eyesight. Fortunately, thanks to a lot of clever people and modern technology, those tools most likely exist.

Question: How do blind people use computers?

Answer: It’s the computer that has opened up so many career opportunities for blind people. Think about what a computer does. It stores and manipulates information, such as names and addresses of customers, code for other computer applications, text and formatting for documents, images and layout for print or electronic publications, figures for calculations, recorded sounds for editing and playback, text and headers for e-mail communications, diagrams and equations for engineering, measurements for design, and much more. All of this happens in the central processing unit (CPU), which is the computer. That’s why everything else is lumped under the term, “peripherals.”

These peripherals include:

  • Devices for putting information into the CPU and telling it what you want it to do with the information
  • Devices for getting the stored or manipulated information back out of the CPU

You put information into the CPU and instruct the CPU by using keyboards, microphones, mouse, phone lines, scanners, cameras, and other such input devices. You get it back out with the monitor, speakers, phone lines, printers, headphones and other such output devices. For a blind person to use a computer, all he needs to do is find out which devices are purely visual and either enhance or replace them with others that are not. It’s as simple as that.

So here are some examples. You can enhance the image on a monitor with a bigger monitor, hardware or software that increases the size of images and text on the screen (screen magnifiers), or use a different device or software that turns the output into sound (screen reader) or tactile information (a refreshable braille display). So long as the blind computer user can get out of the computer the information he needs, it is essentially identical to a computer with no enhancements or alternative devices.

Computers have essentially created a level playing field for sighted and blind people (and people with other physical disabilities) — where the computer does what it does and people with differing physical abilities just use different tools and various techniques to direct the work.

According to the American Foundation for the Blind, “A minimal estimate is that there are 1.5 million visually impaired computer users, including those who are blind.”

To learn more about the enhancements and alternatives blind people use to direct the operations of a computer, see “eSight’s Adaptive Technology FAQ.”

Question: How will my blind employee get to work on time?

Answer: Getting to work is the blind person’s responsibility. Before he applies for a position at your company, he needs to find out if he has a way to get there on a dependable and on-time basis. Some blind workers take public transit. Some have family members or friends drive them. Some take taxi-cabs. Some arrange carpools. Some hire drivers. Some walk. And some telecommute from a home office.

You may find that you can be flexible about schedules, if public transit schedules aren’t cooperating, but the likelihood is that the subject will never even come up.

See “Going To Work: Transportation Options”

Question: Do blind people take a lot of sick days?

Answer: Blindness does not mean illness. One blind person may be as hearty and healthy as an ox, while another may have a chronic illness. A 25-year study conducted by the DuPont Corporation discovered that disabled workers at DuPont had equal or better attendance than 90 percent of their non-disabled co-workers. The odds are, therefore, in favor of a blind person being less likely to take time off than your other workers.

See also “Disability Employment: What Studies Show.”

Question: Do I have to hire a blind person?

Answer: If he is the best qualified person for the job, you should hire him. Why? Well, yes, it’s unlawful to discriminate against a blind person in employment in the U.S. and many other places just because of his disability. But there’s a much better reason. If you don’t, you’ll have hired the second best person for the job. Why would you want to do that?

See also “Employing, Serving All Equitably: The Nordstrom Way”

Question: What can I ask a blind person during a job interview?

Answer: This one is easy. You can describe the essential functions of the job for which he is interviewing, and then you can ask him if he can do the work and how he would do it for your company. That’s all.

See also “Best Practices for Interviewing a Blind or Print Impaired Job Candidate.”

Question: Will we have to pay for lots of expensive equipment for a blind employee?

Answer: Again, it depends. Does he need special equipment to do the work outlined in the job description? If he doesn’t, then, there are no costs for accommodations. If he does, the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) reports, “The average cost of hiring people with disabilities is the same as hiring a person without a disability, according to three-quarters of the employers surveyed.”

JAN also states that, for disabilities in general, the cost of reported accommodations breaks down like this:

31 percent cost nothing.
50 percent cost less than $50.
69 percent cost less than $500.
88 percent cost less than $1,000.

Even if the cost is higher in a particular case, you might find that you’ll share the cost with a state agency or other resource. If a current employee loses his vision, your insurance company will help.

The thing to do is to look at the essential functions of the position and decide — realistically — which would present challenges for someone with a visual disability. Then get help (from a consultant or state agency or the blind person himself) to figure out what changes or adaptations can overcome the challenges. These solutions may be as simple as turning a monitor away from the glare from a window to the addition of a talking readout on a machine shop caliper. The important thing is to find out if there is a reasonable accommodation and if your company can afford it. It is extremely likely that, yes, there is, and, yes, you can.

It might even be worth it to you to shell out the money — if the individual is the best qualified person for the job. After all companies buy cars and even homes as well as provide extra benefits, time off and special profit sharing plans to attract the best people. I don’t know of any adaptive equipment that goes beyond the costs of any of those extra benefits.

Learn more about what constitutes “reasonable accommodation” in I have more questions.

Question: How do I find and recruit blind people to work in my company?

Answer: It has been a slow and frustrating journey for both employers and job seekers who want to make the right employment connections. Employers don’t have experience with blind employees, so they are hesitant to hire qualified job candidates. Job seekers who are blind experience a lot of rejection, so they give up. As a result, few blind people apply for job openings, and employers never get a chance to experience working with blind employees. Get the picture?

Like recruiting in any other underutilized part of the job seeker pool, you need to go out and find and encourage blind people to apply for your positions. There are a number of ways to do this. Contact job training programs and university job placement programs that include or specifically serve disabled people. Attend disability job fairs. Talk to disability consumer groups such as chapters of the American Council of the Blind and National Federation of the Blind chapters. List your job openings in disability newspapers or send them to memberservices@esightcareers.net to be posted in eSight’s Job Alert.

You can get more detail about recruiting people with disabilities in “Make Sure Your Job Postings Reach Job Candidates With Disabilities” and “Use Job Fairs to Recruit Visually Impaired Candidates, Enhance Corporate Success.”

Question: Are there tax incentives for hiring blind people?

Answer: In the United States, yes. You can read about them in “The Icing on the Cake: Tax Breaks for Hiring Those With Disabilities.”

For other parts of the world, you may wish to contact your company’s tax accountant or an organization that tracks business tax law.

Question: Will hiring a blind person make our health insurance rates go up?

Answer: Not necessarily. Health insurance premiums are based on the health care costs (or “experience”) of an entire group, not just one person. And blind people don’t necessarily have higher medical expenses.

See “Health Insurance Rates: Will They Go Up If I Hire an Employee With a Disability?”

Question: How do I show a blind worker around our workplace?

Answer: Blind people generally receive some kind of “orientation and mobility” training before seeking a job. Most often that involves learning to navigate with a white cane. The cane is used primarily to provide, by touch and sound, what eyesight tells a sighted person about his environment. The purpose of the white cane, to a lesser degree, is also to identify the person as visually impaired for others around him. Once you have taken the new worker around your facilities, he will want to remember where things are and how to find them. Remember, he is probably used to doing this.

The standard technique for guiding a blind person is Sighted Guide. You can find full instructions about this technique at TravelVision’s “Sighted Guide Techniques.” The essence of Sighted Guide is offering your arm to the person and then relaxing. He will follow the movement of your body, and you need do little more than announce “steps up,” “handrail on your right,” and that sort of thing. Say, “May I offer you Sighted Guide?” Just ask him what he wants you to do.

Never grab or push a blind person. Sighted Guide is designed to preserve a blind person’s control over his body. He can let go of your arm, if he needs to. If you make a mistake, just apologize and keep going.

I’ve had people bump into me at a shopping mall, and you’d think by their panic they’d just impaled me with an umbrella. It is best practice to be aware of your surroundings and make sure unnecessary obstacles are moved out of the way — not only for the blind person’s safety and convenience but for the account executive who reads memos while he walks through the office.

If you are concerned about the blind person running into hazards, remember that he has training about how to avoid an obstacle once he knows about it and that you are required to provide safety equipment for all employees. Find the “Checklist for Workplace Safety” on the American Foundation for the Blind web site.

Question: Will the blind worker have a guide dog? Do I have to let him bring it to work?

Answer: Your blind or visually impaired employee may have a guide dog. About 7,000 visually impaired Americans use a guide dog (compared to 109,000 who use white canes for travel).

Yes, service dogs are permitted in all public places and in work settings. It is the dog owner’s responsibility to care for it, to keep it clean and out of everyone’s way, and to make sure it does not disrupt others’ work.

You can find information about guide dogs and related legal issues at Guide Dogs for the Blind. And check “Guide Dog Etiquette in the Workplace: What to Expect.”

Question: How does a blind person keep track of assignments as I give them to him or take notes during a meeting or a phone call?

Answer: Depending on his particular visual impairment and which tools he routinely uses, a blind person may take notes in a variety of ways. Those who use braille may use a little metal guide (a slate) and a stylus to braille his notes. He might also use a Braillewriter, which is something like a manual typewriter. Popular these days are braille notetakers, similar to a PDA or an electronic notebook with braille input and output.

There are voice devices too, such as notetakers which record information as you type but provide speech on playback. I have used a tape recorder for keeping notes or recording whole meetings.

Some blind people will just use pen and paper. I take notes during interviews for eSight Careers Network article by entering them straight into my PC.

Find out more about accessible tools at AbleData.com as well as numerous articles in the eSight Careers Network index.

Question: How will a blind employee read memos and other printed material?

Answer: Again, this depends on his level of vision. Some will use a handheld magnifier. Others will use more complex magnification devices, such as closed-circuit television (CCTV). Some may ask to have memos enlarged on a photocopier or printed in larger print. You can ask another employee to read them to him. Or you can send memos via e-mail and let the worker’s adapted computer deliver your messages.

Also see the resources listed in the question above: How does a blind person keep track of assignments as I give them to him or take notes during a meeting or a phone call?.

Question: How do I effectively supervise a blind employee?

Answer: In principle, exactly the same way you supervise others. For more detail, though, see “How to Supervise Visually Impaired Employees.”

Question: What kind of turnover rate can I expect from a blind worker?

Answer: The DuPont study cited in the answer above to the question: “Do blind people take a lot of sick days?” shows disabled workers have equal or higher longevity and loyalty than do 90 percent of other workers.

In fact, hiring qualified blind or visually impaired people can actually help decrease your overall turnover. See “High Turnover Antidote: Hire Employees With Disabilities.”

Question: Will I need to give a blind worker an assistant?

Answer: No, he should be able to do the work himself. And he should be part of the team and give as well as get help — like any other team player.

Question: What if other workers don’t want to deal with a blind person?

Answer: Diversity awareness and disability awareness to build and enhance harmonious cooperation and teamwork are the responsibility of the employer. The employer also must model and enforce proper behavior.

If you ignore inappropriate behavior towards the blind employee, you can — and probably should — be sued for permitting a hostile environment to exist. It is in your best interest (for many reasons which relate back to the bottom line) to foster harmony, not division.

For a number of useful articles on this topic, see:

How To Foster a Work Environment That Values Employees With Disabilities
Disability Awareness: Essential to Any Diversity Program
Choosing The Right Disability Awareness Trainer for Your Organization

Question: How do I avoid offending a blind person when I offer him help?

Answer: Some blind people are impossible to offend. Others are offended by anything and everything. Most are in between. That’s being human. If you are courteous and respectful, you’ve done your job. If the individual is offended, that’s his responsibility.

Here is my favorite story on the subject. Pam Retzloff and I used to work together in the community relations department of a social services agency. She occasionally had to travel on business. Pam has very low vision and used a white cane at the time of the story.

She recounts how, when one day she was walking around downtown San Francisco, she stopped at a crosswalk to wait until she could cross the busy street. As she stood quietly listening for the clues she had been taught to use to decide when it was safe to cross, she heard a soft voice at her side. In a lovely British accent, a man offered, “If you should happen to be in need of assistance, don’t be afraid to ask.” The respect and recognition that she might not need any help impressed her. And there’s your answer. Tell the blind person that you are available if he needs any help.

By the way, the blind person has every bit as much responsibility to treat you and others courteously and respectfully. Lower standards for behavior are not necessary. If a blind person is rude or presumptive, call him on it.

Question: Can I lay off or fire a blind employee?

Answer: If he is incompetent or commits any offense that calls for firing under your employment policies, you can most certainly fire him. If you have to lay off staff, you need not keep a blind person on just because he’s blind. The point is that, unless you are firing a worker because he is blind or otherwise disabled, there is no prohibition.

If you are really asking, “How do I fire a blind person without feeling like a monster?”, then all I add is that it’s never easy to fire someone. A blind person deserves no less and no more fairness. Until we, as a society, stop treating blind people like fragile children, we will not truly have equal employment opportunities.

Question: What myths/facts should I know about visual impairment?

Answer: You can find myths about blind people on the Very Special Arts web site. Also see the essay “Blindness: Myths and the Image” on the National Federation of the Blind web site.

Question: I have more questions. Where can I find more answers?

Answer: You can learn more about blindness from:

The blind person you hired
Content on eSight. Use the search function on eSight.
Send us your comments (or questions) by using the “Share your opinions with eSight Careers Network:” you’ll find below. “We’ll have eSight members reply to your queries about this topic.

eSight Careers Network, The cross-disability, online community addressing disability employment issues is a service of The Associated Blind, Inc.

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