What to Tell Your Employer When You’re Losing Your Sight

Two people talk at an office table

Work, Retire, or Take Disability Benefits?

First of all, it’s important to know you’re not alone. As more and more people are living longer, many are also experiencing declining vision. Some adults who are already working will question whether they should continue in their present jobs. The initial stages of losing your vision can be difficult, especially if you enjoy your work and don’t want to give it up, are concerned that your job may be in jeopardy, or know that you can’t afford early retirement.

Even though your first inclination may be to take early retirement and apply for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), keep in mind that it is often much easier to adapt your current work situation while employed rather than trying to re-enter the workforce.

Don’t make any fast decisions, and don’t assume that vision loss means job loss. It doesn’t! Here are some steps that may be helpful:

  • Learn as much as you can about your eye condition. What is the cause? What is the prognosis? If you have some remaining vision, have you had a low vision examination? This type of examination may result in a prescription for an optical device, such as a magnifier; a non-optical device, such as a reading stand or task lamp; or an electronic magnifying system, such as a desktop or portable digital magnifier.
  • If you meet with a low vision specialist, tell them what work you do, what you want to continue doing, and where and when you’re experiencing visual difficulties. The more help you can get to maximize your vision, the better you’ll be to continue working safely and effectively.

Workplace Adaptations

Remember that the individuals you work with, including your employer, may have limited experience with, or knowledge about, blindness and low vision. They’ll likely require your help to understand your specific visual needs better. In preparation for your meeting with your employer, try to be clear about where and when you’re experiencing problems:

  • Do you need to re-label your materials in large print?
  • If your workplace’s lighting levels are insufficient, try experimenting with different lighting.
  • Can you reposition your desk or control the lighting if there’s too much light or glare?
  • If you’re having problems reading or writing, will a low-vision device, such as a magnifier or a CCTV/video magnifier, help?
  • It’s equally important to analyze your job to determine if there are any duties you believe you can no longer perform; for example, do you need to drive a vehicle, move equipment, or handle potentially dangerous or hazardous items? Assess your job’s “essential functions” step-by-step, and consider how each problem or barrier can be resolved.
  • Perhaps a co-worker can perform a difficult task for you, and you, in turn, can take on one of his or her responsibilities—”job sharing.” Your employer, of course, would have the last say in this process, but it’s helpful if you can offer suggestions and negotiate options.
  • Learn more about workplace adaptations and technology that can be helpful.

Vision-Related Services

  • Initially, you’ll not likely have the answers to all your questions—so be sure to seek help. Contact your state rehabilitation agency for the blind or low vision and ask to meet with a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor responsible for obtaining your medical information and coordinating your service and training plan.
  • Suppose you’re having difficulties getting to and from work or moving around your job site. In that case, you’ll need to seek advice on addressing these issues from professionals who provide vision-related rehabilitation services. An orientation and mobility (O&M) specialist can teach you to orient yourself to your work environment and travel independently to and from your place of work. A vision rehabilitation therapist (VRT) can provide instruction in personal grooming, organizational skills, reading, and money management. Ask your Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor to refer you to these professionals.
  • Be sure to discuss any other concerns with your Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. For example, suppose your job involves computer work, and you have problems seeing the screen. In that case, your counselor can introduce you to the different types of software that allow you to access information and continue working independently. Your employer may be willing (or even legally required) to provide funding for any adaptive equipment you need to do your job. Tell your counselor what your job requires, and let them guide you to the most appropriate solutions. See Using a Computer for more information about the range of assistive technology that is available to you,
  • With the help of family and friends and guidance from your Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, learn as much as you can about other helpful resources. Many agencies and organizations offer a wide range of supportive services. Reach out to them. Describe your vision situation and the problems you’re having. Ask for their assistance and support. Arrange a visit to discuss the best ways to address your particular needs. Persevere! Learn to be your own advocate and involve your family and friends in the process, too.
  • Finally, after completing this research, you’ll be ready to sit with your employer and explain your situation. By planning ahead, you’ll have resolved many issues that could prevent you from continuing to work.
  • By John Zamora, M.S., CDMS