Welcome to the third and final part of this series where I’m discussing how to interact with a blind person in the workplace.
When a blind person starts a new job, or someone who is already employed loses their vision, there are a few things colleagues can do that will make things run smoother for everyone. Like my previous posts in the series, these tips are a mix of common sense and things I have found helpful along the way. Individuals differ, as do workplaces. I am legally blind but retain some central vision in certain light and my workplace has mainly been law firms’ offices. These tips might not apply universally, but if you have a blind colleague, a tailored version of these tips could ensure the whole team can work to their full potential. The following ideas serve as a starting point, so find out which of them work for your colleague – don’t guide their hand to their coffee cup if they don’t need you to – that’s just awkward! You might also find some of these points overlap with some things mentioned in earlier posts in this series because some things are important and can be applied in all settings. The following post does not intend to address a blind employee’s workplace requirements from a management perspective. The level of responsibility would be different and that would be a different article. Instead, this post is for anyone who is interested in the topic of working with a blind or visually impaired colleague.
1. Blindness is different for everyone
Don’t make assumptions. The most important thing is to be aware that some, though not all, blind people have some vision. Some can perceive light, some see only outlines of objects, some have tunnel vision and can only see in particular lighting conditions (like me) and the list goes on. The point is, it’s not helpful to assume what we can and can’t see. Some days I see more than on other days, so I adapt accordingly. Bear in mind the changeability of vision and don’t be surprised when you see the effects of this.
2. Talk about it
I am usually happy to discuss my eyesight with colleagues who ask. I find it makes life easier if people around me have an understanding of what I can see and what tools and techniques I use in a work setting. You’ll probably find the adjustments you have to make as a team are less than you’d think. Not everyone is comfortable talking about their blindness but you’re not likely to cause offence by politely asking if there’s anything you can do to make working together better. You’d probably ask any new colleague a similar question anyway, right?
3. Introduce yourself
Before launching into a conversation or asking a question, just say who you are. It eliminates the need to spend time and effort figuring out who is talking and allows us to focus on the matter at hand. After a while we might ask you to stop doing it, which means we are familiar with your voice.
4. Are you coming or going?
A quick “Just off to a meeting,” or on your return, “It’s Sally, I’m back” can make all the difference to us. If we don’t know you’ve left, we end up talking to ourselves. If we don’t know you’re back and we hear movements, we ask, “who’s there?” which always feels a bit strange.
5. Who’s at the table?
At the beginning of a meeting let us know who is in the room. The quickest way is to go around the table and everyone simply says their name. It needn’t be awkward and only takes seconds. Some prefer one person to list off everyone’s names around the table. I don’t think this method is as effective as we can’t put voices to names and we don’t get an idea of where everyone is sitting. If someone joins or leaves mid-meeting, it’s also helpful to let us know.
6. Accessible information
Find out what format is best for sharing information. If you plan to use hard copy handouts at a meeting, it’s good to check how your colleague can best access the information. This might mean providing a large print copy if this is appropriate or sending a softcopy beforehand so we can read it using our preferred software. If you are presenting, you can briefly describe graphs and images and read out headline figures that feature on your slides.
7. Tea rounds
If you make a hot drink for a blind colleague let them know you’re about to put it down in front of them. There might be a spot on their desk they prefer to put their cup so put it there for consistency. If it’s a cold drink, it might be easier to place it straight into their hand. Remember not all visually impaired people need you to do this, so do ask your colleague what they prefer!
8. Guiding your colleague
Visually impaired people memorise routes and have their own ways of moving around. However good your intentions, please don’t grab, push or pull us thinking you are helping. It’s uncomfortable at best and terrifying at worst. By all means ask if we need assistance, that’s a thoughtful thing to do and I would always be appreciative of the kind offer whether I need it or not, but don’t start to guide us before asking. It is however, a good idea to let us know if you notice something different about your office layout, like a stack of archive boxes has appeared by the door or there’s a wet floor sign in reception. Sure, we can find these things with a cane or a guide dog, but it’s always good to have a heads up.
9. Everything in its place
Please don’t move things on our desk or shared items that we use regularly. We place things deliberately, so we can find them quickly and it can really slow us down if they’re moved. When passing something to a blind colleague, place it into their hand if possible, unless you know both know the designated space for the item.
10. See beyond the sightloss
Don’t spend too long thinking about the fact your colleague is blind. Questions need to be asked in the beginning and it is great to be considerate and mindful, but focusing on your colleague’s blindness too much is counterproductive. It is more important to see beyond the blindness. Concentrate on the work they deliver and how they are contributing to the team. Think about this new colleague who you will get to know like any other new joiners and the rapport you will build. You’ll probably have lunch together and maybe drinks. You’ll chat and get to know each other, find out what’s for dinner, what they’re doing at the weekend and rest of it. As time goes on, you will notice less and less that they’re blind, in a good way. You’ll forget all about the list you’ve just read and the relevant points I mentioned will become second nature, or ‘normal’.
When you reach this stage, working with a blind person won’t feel like anything in particular to you. We’re just another colleague. But it will be a win for those who want so much, to see more blind people in work. We want having a blind colleague to be ‘normal’ in more and more workplaces. We’ve got a way to go, but as we raise awareness of this important topic, more people will share this goal, and we will work towards it together.
I hope you have enjoyed this mini-series on ‘How to Interact with a Blind Person’. You might like to catch up on previous posts on Offering Assistance and Socialising. If you have any thoughts on what I have talked about or have any other tips you would like to share, these are always welcome in the comments below.
As always, thank you so much for reading.