A workspace that works for everyone

For employees who are blind, a few simple tools get the job done

An office desk with assistive devices.

An accessible workspace doesn't have to be complicated. In fact, basic headphones are one of the most important tools for employees who are blind or visually impaired. Photo Credit: Anna Miller.

In his position as vice president of talent acquisition for State Street, a Boston-based investment company, Richard Curtis is always looking for the best candidate for the job. Period.

In the past few years, some of those candidates have been blind or have low vision. Just last fall, Curtis hired an intern for his department at a job fair for individuals with visual impairments. He is currently in the process of making a full-time job offer to another candidate who is blind.

“Once you educate yourself, you find out how easy it can be,” said Curtis, who has led recruiting efforts at major corporations for over a decade. “Individuals who have a visual impairment are as capable as anyone else as long as they have the correct support. They’re just like any other employee.”

Infographic: An interview is a necessary part of getting hired, but many candidates who are visually impaired never get that far because of barriers in the job-search process. Here are five ways to remove obstacles that keep talented professionals from competing for the job they deserve. 1. Driver’s License Don’t require documents that applicants who are blind won’t have. Use alternative methods to verify identity or legal employment status. 2. Job Fair Embrace the opportunity at job fairs to find applicants with disabilities who are qualified, dedicated and eager to work. 3. Websites Make your career website accessible to everyone by removing barriers like confusing navigation, inflexible font sizes, information identified only by color and more. 4. Disclosure Make it easy and comfortable for applicants to divulge a disability. Make it clear that your company welcomes employees with differing abilities and backgrounds. 5. Lack of Training Train hiring managers, especially ones with no previous experience working with people who are blind, to appreciate the skills and capabilities of every applicant.

Recent advances in assistive technology have made it easier than ever for people who are blind or visually impaired to thrive in the workplace. Magnification and screen-reading software allow some­one with limited or no vision to use email, word processing and data entry programs. To read paper documents, Curtis’ intern has a portable scanner that instantly converts text to audio or large print.

“Having that technology has been enlightening,” said Curtis. “It’s enabled individuals to have all of the benefits of someone with sight in terms of being able to do their jobs.”

In some states, organizations like the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB) provide technology free of charge for individuals who are blind to use in the workplace. This saves companies any additional expense and ensures that candidates can hit the ground running their first day on the job.

“Adaptive devices have really led to leveling the playing field for blind folks in the employment arena,” said Paul Saner, commissioner of MCB. “We presently have ample resources to ensure that it can be a win-win for both the employer and the employee.”

Infographic: Commuting in Boston is notoriously frustrating, but not everyone is stuck in traffic. For example, Amber Pearcy and her Seeing Eye dog, Faith, walk to work each day through downtown Boston. Employees who are blind utilize a variety of commuting methods, and technology gives them more options than ever before. Many employees travel to work the old-fashioned way – on foot. A GPS app on a smartphone can help them avoid wrong turns.  Boston’s bus and subway system welcomes all riders, whether they’re sighted or not. Several smart¬phone apps offer schedules, route information and estimated arrival times. Similar public transportation apps are available in most major cities. Ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft have been a major break-through for commuters who are visually impaired, allowing them to request rides quickly and easily from any location.  If a train is delayed, eligible employees can pick up the phone and call The Ride, the Bay State’s door-to-door transportation service for people with disabilities. Other states offer similar services.

Some of the most useful technology is also the easiest to acquire. A basic headset is one of the most-used devices among employees who are blind, said Cris Broyles, director of digital accessibility at Perkins Solutions.

“It’s so simple but it allows individuals who are using screen-reader technology to do that and not disturb people around them,” he said.

When setting up an accessible workspace, attention to detail goes a long way. Putting dimmers on florescent lighting or installing room-darkening shades can help employees who are sensitive to glare. An adjustable desk allows someone who uses a wheel­chair to raise or lower their workstation to a level that’s comfortable.

Infographic: Building an accessible workspace doesn’t need to be difficult. A few simple accessories and one key piece of technology can create a customized office where the only barrier to productivity is the occasional coffee break. Photo of a monitor. Magnification software enlarges text and images on a computer screen so they can be seen by individuals with low vision. Photo of a window. Room-darkening shades help an employee with light sensitivity reduce glare and adjust the brightness of the room. Photo of a refreshable braille display. With a refreshable braille display, an employee can use braille to read documents and emails, or browse the web. Photo of a desk. An adjustable desk makes it easy to raise or lower a workspace to accommodate an employee in a wheelchair. Photo of a headset. A simple headset allows individuals using screen-reading technology to work without disturbing colleagues.

But beyond the physical workspace, having a frank and open dialogue about accessibility is the most important ingredient for a successful employer/employee relationship, Broyles said.

“There has to be that conversation when a new employee comes on board,” he said. “The employee needs to feel empowered to go to their new employer and say, ‘Thank you for hiring me, I can’t wait to start, here is some of the technology that’s going to make me able to do my job.’ Communication is critical.”

At State Street, Curtis encourages all employees to be forthright when it comes to their abilities and challenges – an attitude that has helped foster an inclusive and productive work environment, he said. Today, when he interviews an employee who is blind, he’s evaluating their professional skills and experience, not their disability.

“Selfishly we see that this is another pipeline of talent,” he said. “And we want to keep that talent here in Boston.”