Just under one in four visually impaired people of working age are in employment in the UK, according to the RNIB. And yet many more are queuing up to take on skilled and responsible jobs and hold their own with fully-sighted colleagues. There is only one proviso - access to the right kind of assistive technology.
The recent Global [digital] Accessibility Awareness Day marked last month helped highlight the massive skills pool of thousands with sight impairments that are still largely untapped by UK employers, including our own FE sector.
Colleges are coming under growing pressure to fill the skills gap left by the double whammy of Brexit and covid. Add to that other conditions affecting vision such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism and ME, and the potential number of people who would benefit from assistive technology becomes vast.
Such a waste of talent is “so unnecessary!” says the RNIB’s Stacy Scott, who supports people with all kinds of sight disabilities to get into and stay in employment. Only recently she helped launch an RNIB campaign looking at how and where employers can market jobs to those with disabilities and sight loss.
Stacy lists off compelling reasons why employers should actually take on visually impaired (VI) staff. “VI people have often had to work really hard to get even to interview stage. They may have done a degree - and struggled to get there.” Typically they often work so much harder [than sighted colleagues] as they have to keep proving themselves.
“Once employed, they need to do well in that job and take the opportunities open to them - they can’t just easily get something else if this job doesn’t work out. They’ll look for a good job they can do well and stay in. And if you treat them well, they’ll give great service. That’s something many employers [who worry about taking on someone with VI] just don’t know about.”
Back in the 1970s and 80s, many very capable, visually impaired people would have worked in call centres or, in earlier decades, stuffed mattresses or done basket-weaving as the only jobs they could get, says Stacy. But now modern magnification apps and speech-to-text/text-to-speech ‘screen-reading’ software have led to many computer programs catering for very clever, able yet sight-impaired people who are now at last able to use their previously untapped talent to work, say, as teachers or lawyers.
So just how does a visually-impaired person ensure they convert the coveted offer of a college job interview into a permanent, full-time job with long-term prospects and opportunities?
First off, just how accessible are the college buildings you would be using, your potential work station, and the assistive technology best suited to help you become a fully active member of your department, whether in a teaching or non-teaching role?
When indicating your IT requirements, check how familiar the college is with the government’s Access to Work scheme that pays out grants to an employer to buy in any necessary assistive technology you need to do your job. The scheme can also buy in up to 10 hours of outside human support if needed to help on certain aspects of your work.
There is no cost to the employer. To access state funds, staff have to make the first approach to their college. However, be warned that colleges have to finance any improvements in access to physical buildings themselves.
Teresa Allen is the partially sighted teacher in charge of IT skills and development at the Royal National College for the Blind, which takes students aged 16-25. She urges candidates to ask about the level of VI awareness training at a college. Is there enough understanding - and thus readiness to help - among potential colleagues about what your VI needs are?
Application letters and interviews also offer candidates the chance, particularly those with visual impairment, to trumpet some of the remarkable lifelong skills they have gained to compensate for lack of vision - skills that can so effectively be used to manage a classroom and thus reassure an anxious interviewer. “Rather than having a better memory than fully sighted people per se, we just use our memory better,” says Teresa. “Visually impaired people are also generally very good touch typists and will much prefer to work through a keyboard rather than talk to a computer.”
Fellow IT teacher Leanne Moore, who has no vision and uses a screen reader, says: “Blind people do sense things better, with better directional hearing. And you’ll also get students who are really good at making others toe the line!”
Above all, both emphasise the need to get to know your students. “You have to earn their respect and part of that is how you manage them and set your ground rules - so ask questions as well,” says Teresa. “Be open about your visibility, explain what the difficulties are and also say what you can do and what they can’t get away with!”
At a more general level Carol Redfearn, an NEU rep and business and law lecturer at Leeds City College who is fully sighted but has spina bifida urges candidates: “Don’t be afraid to talk to a person about your needs and do ask questions in interview.
“Ask things like are there private rest areas to meet health needs such as taking medication; it can be difficult in a staffroom full of people. Is hot-desking part of the job requirements? How does that suit your particular assistive technology needs?”
She also urges applicants to ensure the policies and procedures for staff and students with disabilities that were hopefully present on the college website are actually in place, fully inclusive and not merely a tick-box exercise.
Last thought. Although VI inevitably reduces people’s speed of working, most interviewers will hardly remain unimpressed by claims that Braille readers can read quicker than sighted readers. And to top that, the RNIB’s Stacy Scott says some visually impaired people have ramped up the speed of text-to-speech screen-reading technology so much that it becomes completely incomprehensible to anyone but them! Who said anything about visual impairment slowing you down?