Interacting with a Person Who Is Blind or Low Vision in the Workforce
What Is Blindness or Low Vision?
Individuals can be born with blindness or low vision or develop it later in life due to an accident or eye condition. Many different terms describe the varying degrees of blindness an individual may have. The term “visually impaired” was formerly used to include all individuals with decreased vision, regardless of the extent of low vision; we now use the terms “blind” or “low vision”. The following blindness terms and descriptions explain an individual’s functional vision.
A person with low vision has a decreased ability to see, even with corrective lenses, which adversely affects visual access or interferes with processing visual information. An individual’s vision can range from a lack of sharp vision, a lack of central vision, a lack of peripheral vision, distorted vision, a lack of depth perception, night blindness, sensitivity to glare, and/or fluctuating vision. Visual challenges may include not being able to recognize a friend in a room until standing within arm’s reach, not being able to read print or see fine details, or not being able to detect low-lying obstacles without using a white cane.
A person with normal vision typically has a visual acuity of 20/20 in both eyes and a visual field of approximately 160 to 180 degrees. An individual with low vision may have a visual acuity of 20/70 or worse and a visual field of 20 to 40 degrees or less. Individuals with low vision can often use optical, nonoptical, and environmental modifications to increase their visual functioning.
The term “blindness” has historically been used to describe individuals with no usable vision or the ability to perceive light. However, blindness is a spectrum, and many with low vision consider themselves blind.
The term “legally blind” is used to determine if individuals are eligible for government or other benefits as determined by the classification of legal blindness. Persons classified as legally blind have a central visual acuity of 20/200 or worse in the better eye with the best possible correction and/or a visual field of 20 degrees or less. For example, someone with an acuity of 20/200 may see something at 20 feet, the same as someone with normal vision can see at 200 feet.
About Blindness/Low Vision
Blindness/ low vision may be due to eye conditions, age-related eye disorders, or normal vision changes to the aging eye. Age-related visual conditions may affect performance but be very difficult to recognize. This can result in an employee’s productivity decreasing, with no one knowing why. One of the most difficult limitations is fluctuating vision. Fluctuations may depend on the time of day, the environment, or how the person feels physically or emotionally. The condition is hard to explain to others and can result in significant changes in a person’s ability to function consistently daily.
Normal Changes to the Aging Eye
- Diminished focusing power
- Need for more light
- Increased sensitivity to glare
- Fluctuating vision
- Difficulty with light/dark adaptation
- Reduced sensitivity to color perception and contrast; reduced depth perception
- Macular degeneration: affects central vision
- Diabetic retinopathy: makes vision distorted
- Glaucoma: affects peripheral vision
- Cataracts: makes vision cloudy
How to Interact with a Person Who is Blind/ Low Vision at Work
An employer or coworker may feel uncomfortable or awkward when first meeting a colleague who is blind/ low vision. Still, it is important to understand that people who are blind/ low vision want others to interact with them in the same manner as they interact with sighted individuals in the workplace. Here are some tips that can facilitate positive interactions at work between coworkers who are sighted and blind/ low vision:
- When meeting a person who is blind/ low vision, wait for the individual to extend their hand for a handshake.
- Coworkers should identify themselves by name when speaking to individuals who are blind/ low vision.
- Speak with a normal tone of voice. Do not shout.
- When there are several people in a room, such as during a staff meeting, each individual should identify themselves to the person who is blind/ low vision.
- Indicate the end of a conversation before walking away.
- Feel free to use vision-oriented words such as “see,” “look,” and” watch.”
- Be specific when giving directions or descriptions. Saying, “The copy machine is located outside the break room to the left of the door,” is more helpful than saying, “It’s over there.” Similarly, avoid using hand gestures to communicate messages.
- Don’t assume a person who is blind/ low vision always needs assistance and can’t do things for themselves.
- If an individual who is blind/ low vision needs assistance walking to a destination, a sighted coworker can offer an arm as a sighted guide. The guide shouldn’t grab the person’s arm and try to steer them in a certain direction. Individuals who are blind/ low vision may use a long white cane or dog guide. Don’t interfere with the person’s cane or dog guide.