It’s not difficult to work with people who are blind.
In fact, if you have coworkers who are visually impaired, or if your job takes you to companies with employees who are blind, following some simple guidelines will make your interactions more respectful and productive. While some of these suggestions may seem like basic common sense, others may not be so obvious.
- DO identify yourself when initiating a conversation. You shouldn’t assume the person will recognize your voice. Just as you identify yourself when conducting a phone conversation, it’s helpful to quickly identify yourself when speaking to someone who is visually impaired. You don’t need to formally introduce yourself each time. A quick, "Hi there, it’s Mary" is usually just fine. Similarly, when working with a group, it’s often helpful to go around the room and have everyone state their names so the individual who is blind knows who’s attending the meeting.
- DON’T censor your language when speaking to individuals with disabilities. It’s perfectly okay to use words like watch, look and see when talking to someone who is blind. For example, asking, "Did you see that show last night?" won’t offend most individuals who are blind.
- DO describe the layout of large rooms. When entering a meeting or conference room with someone who is blind or visually impaired, a brief description of how the furniture is arranged can make it easier for that person to navigate his or her surroundings. Generally, an extended description is not needed. A description such as “The table is U-shaped and we’re at the open end” or “The room is set up classroom style” works well.
- DON’T be afraid to ask questions. If you’re curious about the technology a person is using or if you want to know what they can or can’t see, don't be afraid to ask. Most people with a disability would rather have you ask questions than just make assumptions.
- DO give a verbal indication when you walk away from a conversation or leave the room. If the individual to whom you’re speaking can’t see you, they may not know you walked away. A quick word that you need to leave will eliminate any awkward moments.
- DON’T speak to or touch a guide dog. These dogs are working, and touching them or talking to them may distract them from their job. This could potentially result in injury to the individual being guided. Even if a dog is at rest, ask the owner for permission before petting the dog.
- DO provide electronic copies of materials you’ll be handing out in hard-copy form or presenting via PowerPoint prior to a meeting. This gives staff with disabilities the opportunity to load the documents onto their computer or other device and print them in an accessible format, or listen to them in auditory format. Providing copies ahead of time is simple courtesy. Just as you would never give a handout to all the tall people in the audience and tell anybody below 5'10" you’ll send them a copy later, don’t make people who are visually impaired be the last in line to receive essential information.
- DON’T use highly stylized typefaces. When preparing documents, avoid using stylized or graphical fonts, as these can be difficult for individuals with low vision to read. Instead, use easy-to-read, sans-serif fonts with clearly defined letters and clear spacing between the letters, such as Helvetica, Verdana or Arial.
- DO add alternative text tags to graphics. If you insert a graphic or photograph into your PowerPoint presentation, Word document or webpage, add alternative text tags which briefly describe the image. Depending on the software you’re using, this can usually be done by right-clicking on the graphic and choosing “Properties.”
In today’s high-tech workforce, it’s becoming more and more common to work with people who are visually impaired. So following these simple do’s and don’ts is not just good business etiquette – it’s good business.
Jim Denham, who is visually impaired, is director of assistive technology for Perkins’ Educational Programs. He has worked in the field of assistive technology for almost 20 years.