Working with people who are blind or have low vision

More than 500,000 Australians are blind or have low vision – a number that is rising as Australia's population ages.

There are many different conditions that can cause vision impairment. Only a small percentage of people have no sight at all. People with a vision impairment see things in different ways. Some may see light but can’t recognise an object or a person's face.

Others can see during the day but are blind at night. Some even have enough sight to read a book or computer screen but can’t see the numbers displayed on a bus.

If you have someone join your organisation who is blind or has low vision, ask them if they have preferences on how you could adapt your workplace and activities so that they can comfortably and easily participate.

Communicating

People who are blind or have low vision are used to getting around and carrying out daily tasks. Take the time to get them used to the workspace and the people around them when you do their induction.

Getting settled

  • Take a tour of the workplace and describe and identify key landmarks along the way. When you first start working together, identify yourself when speaking and, in group discussions, make it clear who is speaking – it won't be long before the volunteer recognises your voices
  • Always let  the person know when you are leaving a conversation – don't just walk away
  • Give accurate and specific directions, for example, 'the second door on your left' rather than 'that door over there'
  • If you work in a multi-story building, check if your lifts have a voice announcement to tell you which floor you are arriving on. If it does not, you might need to use something tactile in and around the lift so that your volunteer can find their way.

Remember: people who are blind or have low vision are not deaf. It is not necessary to raise your voice or slow down when speaking. Continue to use body language. In other words, just be yourself.

In meetings

  • Give verbal indications of how discussions or activities are proceeding, by saying aloud who has raised their hand to speak, summarise what you see on people's face (agreement, incomprehension)
  • Read out all the things you show or do, such as when you write something on a flipchart, when you stick signs on the wall, if you take a vote
  • The person will usually seat themselves. If they need assistance, tell them where the chair is located and place their hand on the back of the chair so that they can seat themselves
  • If you leave the person alone, never leave them standing in the middle of a room. Always make sure that they have contact with an object such as a chair, table or wall
  • If you are working on a project, look for ways to involve the volunteer. Is it possible to prepare 'three dimensional flipcharts' using textured items (tape, paint, fabrics)? Encourage your staff to think innovatively about how they work.

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Guiding

Sometimes people who are blind or have low vision find it useful to be guided by a person with sight.

One way to do this safely and efficiently is to use 'sighted guide'. Sighted guide is a technique which enables a person who is blind to use a person with sight as a guide. The technique follows a specific form and has specific applications.

Not all people with little or no sight will use these methods, so it is important to ask what (if any) assistance your volunteer requires.

The following sites have clear, illustrated instructions on how to guide a person:

Just remember, it's important to be relaxed and natural and move at a comfortable pace.

Follow these three basic steps to get started:

  1. Ask if assistance is needed. If it is, touch the back of the person's hand with the back of yours. The person should then hold your arm just above the elbow.
  2. When you start walking make sure the person is half a step behind you and slightly to the side. Walk at a pace that is comfortable for both of you. Look ahead for obstacles, at foot level, head height and to the side.
  3. When you reach a chair, place your guiding arm on the chair and explain which part of the chair you are touching. The person you are guiding can then move their hand down your arm to locate the chair and seat themselves.

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Guide dog etiquette

Guides dogs, or seeing eye dogs, are also working when they come into your workplace, and should be treated appropriately. Just because they're cute doesn't mean you can cuddle, play or feed them treats! (When they are out of harness, guide dogs are just like any other pet and get time to romp).

When a guide dog is wearing its harness, it is working. Don't distract the dog by talking to or patting the dog, but ask the owner, if or when, it is okay to do so. Their guide dog might need water or breaks to go outside, so work this into the daily schedule.

When you provide guiding assistance, please walk on the person's opposite side to the guide dog.

Where can guides dogs go?

Under Victorian State Law, a person who is blind or has low vision accompanied by a guide dog is permitted to:

  • Enter any public place
  • Eat in any restaurant, and shop in any store (including supermarkets and food stores)
  • Travel on any form of public transport including taxis, buses, trams and trains
  • Visit any theatre.

See the Access for guide dogs section on the Vision Australia website for more information.

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Making changes to the workplace

Office layout

Once you have given your volunteer a tour of the workplace, speak to other staff about making sure there are no obstacles left around the place – put all bins under desks, put bags and personal belongings away.

Talk to other staff about letting your volunteer know if furniture has been moved around or if there are items in the workplace temporarily (such as a tradesperson working or an event is set up).

Use your organisational Work, Health and Safety guidelines to determine individual requirements for work space design. Contact Vision Australia who can provide verbal advice on design principles for people who are blind or have low vision in the workplace.

Visit the Vision Australia website for more information regarding accessibility.

Lighting

In general, people who have low vision require two to three times the amount of light required by the sighted population. Ask your volunteer what kind of lighting suits them best.

Have a look at the lighting in the workspace and try to reduce glare, or supplement general room lighting by introducing spot lighting in specific areas such as at a public telephone, reading area or above mirrors in a bathroom.

Tactile markers

Contrasting textures can also be helpful for people who use touch to identify objects and move around. Commonly-used tactile markers include:

  • Ground surface indicators, commonly seen at stairs, ramps and at the edges of railway platforms
  • Textured buttons on switches or doors
  • Tactile maps
  • Domed buttons on handrails to indicate the end of the stairway or ramp is approaching.

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Assistive technology

People who are blind or have low vision may use a variety of assistive technology equipment on the job to access a computer, to read printed material, and to write and take notes.

One of the main barriers is accessing printed information. There are now many solutions to minimise these barriers through the use of assistive (or adaptive) technology. Assistive technology refers to any device that helps compensate for the effects of a disability, and includes:

  • Computers with speech output
  • Computers with screen magnification
  • Low vision keyboards
  • Electronic braille terminals or printers
  • Electronic note takers
  • Devices for electronically scanning printed material.

You might need to consider purchasing the following items to accommodate your volunteer's vision impairment, but speak to them first to find out if they have specific needs or are more comfortable using one product over another.

See the Adaptive technology guide on the Vision Australia website for more information.

Mainstream devices and applications

There are a variety of mainstream devices and applications that feature in-build accessibility tools including screen readers, screen magnification and options that enhance the visibility of the screen.

Screen magnification

Specific screen magnification software increases the size of the image displayed on the screen so that only a portion of the original screen image can be seen at one time. All aspects of the screen including icons, tool bars etc are increased to the magnification choice of the user.

Screen readers

A screen reader, usually called JAWS, is a program which reproduces the text on a computer screen into speech. A screen reader will also read back other information that may be present on the screen such as menu options on a website or the contents of a document.

Low vision keyboards

Low vision keyboards provide numbers and letters that are bigger and bolder. They have the normal size and layout, but feature large characters on the keys and are available in high-contrast white on black or black on yellow colours.

Instead of buying a new keyboard you can also purchase large letter stick-ons that you put on the individual keys of an existing keyword.

Magnifiers

Magnifiers enlarge the size of images such as print or pictures. Magnifiers are commonly used by people with central vision loss to assist with near tasks. Your volunteer may use a hand held magnifier to read short documents.

Video magnifiers

Video magnifiers and print scanners are the most commonly used electronic reading systems for people with low vision. These devices can be used to magnify print, handwriting and graphics from two to 60 times. Video magnifiers come as both desk-based and portable systems.

A lady with low vision uses a high contrast keyboard and computer screen