What I've learned working with people who are blind

Look both ways before entering a hallway (and other practical advice from a new HR director)

Julie DeLillo smiles and holds a resume while talking to an African-American man at a job fair for people who are blind.

Working at Perkins with so many talented employees who are visually impaired helped me understand the importance of removing barriers that could prevent other qualified people who are blind from getting hired.

February 5, 2016

I still remember my first day at Perkins School for the Blind. I was starting a new job as director of human resources and I was anxious about how I was going to interact with students and staff who were blind. 

With any new job there is excitement, but with this job there was also trepidation. I had never known anyone with a visual impairment – and suddenly I was going to work at a place with hundreds of students and dozens of staff members who were blind.

My office was in the main hallway of the building where our Secondary Program students attended class. All day, students and staff walked by my office. So what did I quickly learn?

  1. Look both ways before entering a hallway! Yep, I learned this the hard way when I almost ran into a student. They can’t see me, so it’s my responsibility to stay out of the way.
  2. Introduce yourself when you approach someone with a visual impairment. For instance, I’d say, “Hi Jerry, it’s Julie from HR.” This way they know who’s speaking to them. This took me a few times of someone asking, “Who am I talking to?” to remember to do this. Fortunately, most visually impaired people are very patient with us newbies.
  3. If someone with a visual impairment needs help from a sighted person, they will ask. For example, in a meeting where there is food or beverage, a visually impaired person may ask for help getting a cup of coffee or some food. Everyone, sighted or blind, occasionally needs a helping hand.
  4. It’s also OK to politely ask if someone needs help. Many buildings at Perkins are difficult to find your way around in even if you can see, so it’s not surprising that some new staff members need assistance. I’ve encountered many who come right out and ask me where a particular room is located, and whether I can guide them there.  It was difficult at first trying to figure out whether to ask someone if they needed help, or wait for them to ask me. I’ve learned that asking is absolutely fine, especially if someone looks like they’re lost.
  5. An occasional faux pas is no big deal. I’ve been at Perkins for four years now, and every so often I still say something I wish I could take back. For example, I once pointed to someone across the room and asked a blind co-worker, “Do you know who that is over there?” I quickly apologized, but my co-worker just laughed. Soon we were laughing together because she knew I was just talking fast while trying to get something organized. Most people who are blind are understanding, and know we sighted folks may not always do or say the right thing.

Working with such a large number of talented employees with visual impairments also helped me understand the importance of removing barriers that might prevent other qualified people who are blind from getting hired.

One of my first actions as HR director was to review our job descriptions, where I found several jobs where we required a state driver’s license as a condition of employment. Unless driving was essential to the job, we removed that requirement, because it had the unintentional effect of excluding qualified candidates who were blind.

Looking back at what I’ve learned over the years, it’s normal to fear the unknown. If you’ve never interacted or worked with a person who is visually impaired, your fear of offending or making a mistake may be high. 

But take it from me, it’s nothing to be scared of. Any visually impaired person working in your organization will help you navigate their world – just as you will help them integrate into the organization. In the end, it will be worth it for both of you.

Julie DeLillo is director of human resources at Perkins School for the Blind.