Active and informed allies in the workplace are crucial to creating an inclusive and respectful culture for all, especially for a community that most know very little about. In part two of our employer toolkit, we outline actionable ways that allies can support their colleagues in the workplace. Want to learn more? Read part one of our series.
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Disability inclusion in the workplace not only boosts business outcomes — it’s the right thing to do. Here’s the business case for inclusion and why it matters for your workforce.
Part 2: How can allies help visually impaired colleagues be successful?
Blindness is a relatively rare disability, and most of us haven’t had the opportunity to live, study, or work with someone who is blind or visually impaired. And it is uncommon for books, films, shows, or plays to feature a person who is visually impaired. If they do, it’s often inaccurately portrayed.
So, most of us don’t know what we can do to ensure that a person who is blind or visually impaired (B/VI) feels a sense of belonging, and gets whatever assistance they might need to be at their best in the workplace.
You can be that active ally, helping to bridge the ignorance gap, by being a positive role model in your workplace and beyond. You’ll also be relieving your B/VI colleague of having to do all the explaining themselves. It can be exhausting for a person with a disclosed disability to always be the one to explain the situation.
The most important and fundamental thing to know is this: people who are B/VI are simply people who happen to gather information from the world differently than you might.
Rather than relying on sight, they gather information in other ways, which may include:
Software that reads their screen to them (at a blistering pace!)
A white cane, a guide dog or other mobility devices
Listening to their surroundings
Using a magnifier (physical or software) or an app on their phone
A friend serving as a sighted guide or narrator
Most people use a mix depending on their preferences and circumstances.
Ways you can help as an ally
Start by doing some research on your own. There are a number of good blogs and podcasts that focus on this community:
Chris Downey’s TED Talk discusses inclusive design – and how designing with people who are blind in mind creates accessibility for everyone.
Academy Award-nominated short film Feeling Through explores a chance encounter between a sighted, unhoused teenager and a man who is deafblind.
And remember, Google is free.
When most sighted people think “blindness,” they think of a world in total darkness. But, this is far from accurate. A variety of eye diseases, genetic disorders, and birth defects, as well as aging or suffering an injury, can interfere with healthy vision. Learn more about the spectrum of blindness.
Every person is an individual. To understand how best to support your new colleague, do not be afraid to ask well-intentioned questions. Don’t let the fear of making a mistake hold you back. Find a quiet time, explain that you’d like to learn more, and see if they are ok with you asking a few questions. Chances are they’ll be happy to talk.
There is a lot to learn, so expect this to be a process, not a one-time event.
As your understanding increases, be sure to find opportunities to share relevant things that you learn with your colleagues, friends and family.
Here’s what model inclusion looks like:
There are lots of simple things you can do to include your B/VI colleagues; some are more important for a person with little or no usable vision, others are helpful to everyone. Use your best judgment and empathy to guide your actions.
In everyday interactions
Introduce yourself when approaching or leaving: “Hi Jenny, it’s Felipe!” or “Ok, I’m heading off now.”
Don’t leave a person guessing who you are based on your voice, or continuing to chat with you after you left the room.
Announce when you’d like to shake hands by saying something like, “I’m reaching out to shake your hand.”
Help people who can’t pick up on visual cues so that they can still participate:
Use words with your gestures. Don’t just roll your eyes, for example, accompany it with “Can you believe it?”.
Narrate what is happening: “Bob, you are blushing!” or “Everyone seems to be nodding in agreement.”
Leave space in the conversation so that someone who cannot pick up the visual clues can still easily jump in.
Invite people who won’t visually notice a gathering to join impromptu huddles. If someone can’t see the informal chatting around the water cooler or the team sitting together in the break room or a group leaving together for a drink or meals after work, they may be inadvertently left out of these unofficial gatherings.
Discreetly help a colleague who may be unaware of an awkward situation. For example:
Send a private chat or text to a B/VI colleague to let them know that her computer is not pointing to her face during a video call.
Get a quiet, private moment with a B/VI colleague to let them know that they dripped ketchup on their shirt.
I am no different than you are, you can treat me just like you would any other colleague. I will just probably do things via a different method than you would.
– Nick C.
When helping your colleague navigate space
Getting oriented to a new workplace is part of the regular onboarding process for all employees, and a B/VI employee may need extra assistance.
Remember that visual impairment includes a spectrum. Some people with a visual impairment may not need help orienting themselves in space, nor in navigating their way around. Other people with little or no usable vision will need help getting oriented to a new space so they can know where they are and how to get around – but once oriented, they may not require or want much assistance.
People with visual impairments can use a wide variety of tools including canes, guide dogs, auditory landmarks, and typically sighted colleagues to help them navigate.
If your colleague seems unsure about where they are or are going, simply ask the person if they need help or if they would like sighted guide help. If they request assistance, you can offer your arm or ask if they would like verbal guidance. When giving your arm, be sure to verbally announce any obstacles or turns.
If they prefer for you to verbally guide them, remember to use words like “Curving right, sharp turn left, at 2 o’clock on the dial, in about 10 steps” rather than words like “This way, over there, soon….”. This is easier said than done and may take a little practice.
Never push, pull, or grab a visually impaired person, except in the case of an emergency.
Common speech patterns that use visual references are fine to use, and won’t insult anyone. It’s fine to say, for example, “I’ll see you tomorrow” or “Let’s see what the market research tells us.”
On the other hand, don’t use ableist language. Ableist language includes terms that refer to abilities as pejoratives – for example, saying something at work was “crazy” when we might have meant “overwhelming” or “out of control.” Ableist language perpetuates the false idea that having a disability is so horrible that it can be used as an insult. The term “blind spot,” for example, suggests that being blind equates with being uninformed, which is not true. Use more specific words that explain your point clearly.
Use the words the colleague prefers when referring to their visual status. Some people prefer “person who is blind” to “blind person.” This is called “person-first language.” Other people don’t care either way. Listen and follow their lead.
Around the work environment
Help ensure the physical environment is and remains easy and safe to navigate. This guide will help you create a disability-inclusive workplace.
Ensure labelling is provided if needed. This could mean adding braille labels to microwave buttons or tea boxes in the shared kitchen. Ask your colleague if they would like help with this. Many visually impaired people don’t need this, but others do.
If needed, your new colleague will learn the office space, including their workspace, rest rooms, kitchen, meeting rooms, elevators, emergency exits and so on, with the support of an Orientation & Mobility Instructor when they first arrive. It may take a week or two for them to become completely familiar with the space, so let them know you are available to help if they wish.
When planning social or special events
When planning a special event such as a conference or party, consider lighting, labeling, layout, an area for service animals, and so on. Share a map or directions to the cloakroom, restroom, or offer to be available early to accompany someone around so that they know the layout before the event begins. If food is served in a buffet, they may also appreciate someone narrating the offerings and preparing a plate.
Consider a buddy system for offsite meetings and events.
For work meals out at restaurants, let people know which restaurant you’re going to in advance so that your colleague can read the menu in advance. (Braille and digital menus are often not available or accessible. Plus, not all people who are blind read braille.)
Colleagues should feel comfortable asking if I need assistance, and should be understanding if I say I’m all set.
– Timothy V.
When in the presence of a guide dog
Guide dogs are the guiding eyes for people who are blind or visually impaired. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), people with disabilities are allowed to be accompanied by their guide or service dog in all places the public is permitted. To allow for the safety of the dog and its handler, be sure to observe these guidelines from The Guide Dog Foundation.
As your colleague settles into the job
Social and interpersonal communication is critical when it comes to fitting into the team and workplace culture. Good communication and relationships lead to all kinds of informal learning, bonding, and opportunities. Since much of communication is non-verbal, take the time to explain the culture of your team, and company. There may be visual clues that they aren’t able to pick up on. For example, if you work in a jeans and t-shirt kind of place, and they’re coming in wearing a shirt and tie, it may be that no one has told them what is typical, and they would appreciate the option of dressing more casually.
Your colleague may need to advocate for certain accommodations in order to be able to perform at their best. This might include changes to lighting, or perhaps breaks from Zoom calls due to eye fatigue. It’s their right under the ADA to receive these types of accommodations, and it is their responsibility to ask for them. Be a supportive listener if they talk this through with you – not all people are comfortable asking, particularly when they are new on the job. Encourage and support them in this process, if they ask you to do so.
Ensure that documents and slides for meetings are shared in advance. Most screen share options on conferencing platforms are not accessible to someone who uses a screen reader, which means they’ll be unable to listen to the content as it’s presented. Sharing documents in advance is very important.
About this guide
Career Launch @ Perkins is an innovative job training program and career services program helping young adults who are blind or visually impaired land career-track jobs.
We developed this guide in cooperation with our supporters at Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation as a resource for our program’s diverse Employer Partners and organizations committed to equity and inclusion in the workplace.
The best practices in this guide can easily be implemented by individual employees, teams, and managers at large and small organizations alike. Partner with us in order to find trained and qualified candidates for roles in the field of customer success.
Help us close the disability employment gap.
Get in touch to learn more about becoming a Career Launch employer partner.