Up to two million people in the United Kingdom have a visual impairment and, of these, approximately 350,000 are legally blindi. In statistical terms, these people account for over five percent of the UK’s working population. Therefore, it is important for human resources (HR) staff to understand the condition and what an employee needs to succeed.

The term ‘visual impairment’ covers a broad range of different impairments and refers specifically to people with irretrievable sight loss. It does not include people with sight problems that can be corrected through contact lenses or glasses.

Most people with visual impairments live full and independent lives but it is important, and an organisation’s legal responsibility under the Equality Act 2010, to make the adjustments which meet the needs of the employee.

This will not only ensure that all legal requirements are met but will also allow the employee to succeed for both their own benefit as well as the benefit of the whole organisation.

Understanding the employee’s support needs

Unlike many other hidden disabilities, such as dyslexia and dyspraxia, most people with a visual impairment are fully aware of their condition and will have been diagnosed at early age. However, this does not mean that they will have been given the appropriate support which would help them succeed both educationally and professionally.

While obvious signs such as a white cane or a guide dog will help identify a person with a visual impairment, it needs to be noted that without the aforementioned aides there are no outward signs of the type or level of sight loss the employee has or the support they may require.

The first step in establishing the level of support the employee requires is to consult with them. They are the only people who know exactly what they can and cannot see and although this may seem to be an uncomfortable conversation, it is vital for HR to hold it early in a person’s employment.

Computer accessibility

Computers and other assistive technologies provide the greatest amount of support for visually impaired employees. Therefore, it is vital that once the level of support required is determined, that HR look into the assistive technologies that are currently available.

There are a number of low cost and easily accessible applications that can greatly improve a visually impaired employee’s productivity. Screen readers and speech synthesisers enable visually impaired users to access a computer independently. These programmes often have a set of keyboard commands which mean the user does not need a mouse to perform functions.

Other simple and low-cost yet successful strategies include the provision of a larger monitor which will allow more information to be visible while also using larger font sizes. There are also extra large and illuminated keyboards available.

HR management should also look into equipment that create documents in Braille. For further information on Braille and resources available, please visit The Royal National Institute for the Blind’s website at www.rnib.org.uk

Workplace environment and communication

HR needs to ensure that the important paths the employee will be using - from the main door to their desk, from their desk to meeting rooms or bathrooms, for example - are cleared and remain unobstructed by any obstacles. In addition, the use of low wattage bulbs in overhead lights will help to reduce glare on the employee’s computer screen.

Open and clear communication is vital to making the employee as comfortable as possible. When speaking to new employees, always let them know who you are before starting the conversation. Also, it is important to let the employee know when the conversation is over as well as when you have left the room.

Funding

As visual impairments are recognised as official disabilities under the Equality Act 2010, Government-funded grants are available through Access to Work (AtW), which is operated by Job Centre Plus. If an employee applies for funding within the first six weeks they are employed with you, AtW will cover up 100% of the costs of the reasonable adjustments. If the application is made after the 6 weeks, then AtW may cover a significant amount of the costs but this is dependent on the type and size of your organisation. Check this out at www.jobcentreplus.gov.uk

By Sharon Goldie, Consultant At Assistive Technology Specialist iansyst Ltd

Sharon Goldie, Consultant at assistive technology specialist iansyst Ltd (www.re-adjust.co.uk), provides some simple strategies and advice for human resources personnel on how to adapt their organisations for visually impaired employees

iansyst Ltd has specialised in the area of disability for over 27 years and delivers a range of advice, software and computer technologies to enable people to achieve their potential. For further information, please contact iansyst Ltd on Tel: +44 (0)1223 420 101 or visit the website www.re-adjust.co.uk