9 ways to set up your home office when you're blind or visually impaired

Working from home? We've got you covered

A man sits at a computer.

Brian Switzer is an assistive technology instructor with Career Launch @ Perkins.

June 4, 2020

If you are like me, you went to bed one night in March and awoke the next day to a whole new reality. On the work side of things, it was exciting. Instead of commuting to work, we got to sleep in a little bit longer and work from home! Whoo! As working from home continued, a lot of us have been asking “How can I make my work from home space more effective for me?” Luckily, I’m here to help! Here are the top lessons I’ve learned in my work from home adventure.

  1. Transform Your Laptop. A laptop is designed with two things in mind: portability and looking cool. Have you noticed that the keys on a laptop are difficult to type on? They are designed to be sleek-looking. As an assistive technology instructor, I could rant all day about the problems of travel and discoverability with a laptop keyboard, but I will not bore you with the science of keyboards. Instead, I suggest buying a mechanical keyboard. They allow you to type as if you are on a typical desktop keyboard. And good news: you can find them fairly cheaply.
  2. Invest in a microphone. Another common problem with laptops is that the microphones are not great. When you are spending time in virtual meetings, your co-workers want to hear your lovely voice. Personally, I like using headphones with a USB microphone. However, a headset with a built-in microphone will do the trick as well. Added benefits of a headset are that it doesn’t pick up as much keyboard typing noise and it takes up less space on your desk.
  3. Reduce Complexity. Our quickly assembled pandemic home offices often resemble a college dorm room. If you are like me, you might have towels hanging on closet doors, shoes in the middle of the room, and a dirty cookie sheet under the bed. Really! For someone who is blind or visually impaired, the more cluttered a space is, the more overwhelming it feels, and the more difficult it is to find the tools you need to do your work. My desk has a computer, a printer, and a pile of Ritz crackers to keep me energized as I work through the day. The room is largely empty except for an enormous pile of papers sitting next to the wall. This works for me, as someone who only has light perception, but the pile of papers might be overwhelming for someone who has some functional vision. To create simplicity, place decorative objects or objects that you do not use often in a drawer, a file cabinet, a closet, or behind a curtain.
  4. Control Ambient Lighting. Bright lights hurt my eyes, as it does for a lot of people with visual impairments. In my home office, I am able to control the light from outside with black-out shades. I always like to keep them closed, but my wife likes to open them up at times. Somehow, sitting in the dark does not work for her! *shrugs* There are many types of bulbs that you can select for the artificial lighting, including LED, natural lighting, and fluorescent bulbs. There are also 3-way bulbs that allow you to select between different levels of lighting. If you are feeling particularly opulent, you can invest in a dimmer switch. Figure out what works best for you.
  5. Control Device Lighting. There is one last source of light which is the light from our technology. Laptops and cell phones have built-in features that allow you to dim and brighten your screen. These devices also allow you to turn down the level of blue light. Blue light can be harmful to our retinas, especially for those of us with retinal deterioration. These features often appear in the settings in other terms like “warmer tones” or “bedtime mode”, so they might take a little bit of digging to find, but they are in most devices and worth the effort.
  6. Use Containers. Put what you can in containers, as a way to keep your space clean and functional. For example, I “containerize” my coffee by using a Yeti or Continga mug that has a secure lid. While these products advertise themselves as being “unspillable”, I have spilled even these mugs, so be careful! Another way to “containerize” is to use boxes with lids for your office supplies.
  7. Use High Contrast. If you have some usable vision, high contrast makes things so much easier. When I was younger and had functional vision, for instance, drinking out of a coffee mug that was a high contrast from the desk made it less likely that I would knock it over. Create contrast by putting a solid colored piece of cloth behind objects that you keep on your desk. Also, select office supplies that are high contrast. I say, if it helps you, then buy the neon pink stapler!
  8. Get Comfortable. You will be sitting at your desk between 7.5 and 8 hours a day. It should be a place where you feel comfortable. I like to keep snacks and coffee close by to help me feel energized. Depending on your job, you may also be able to listen to music or a podcast while you work. A friend uses a pillow for extra back support.  Do what works for you.
  9. Build Exercise into Your Work Day. At work, it is easy to get up and move throughout the day. Often my guide dog, Intrigue, and I would stretch our legs as we traveled to meetings across the Perkins campus or on the other side of Boston. When you are home, you get significantly less exercise as everything you need is located in one place. This means that we need to pay extra attention to getting exercise throughout the day. Set reminders on your phone to get you up every hour or two. You might walk around your apartment or block, stretch, do jumping jacks or crunches. You pick!  And mix it up. Who knows, you might even like to do wall push-ups, like me (pictured below). Just make sure that your Brailler is far enough away that you do not land on it!

A man does pushups in a handstand position.

Brian does wall pushups from  handstand position.

I hope these tips and ideas help you be your best self at work today, and every day!

 

Brian Switzer is the Access Technology Instructor for Career Launch @ Perkins, a training and career services program helping adults ages 18-35 land career-track jobs. 

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