If you had to work with your eyes closed, could you do it? Step out of the world of the sighted and take a walk with someone who is visually impaired. It might open your eyes.
Trials of the visually impaired
Under most circumstances, prescription eyewear corrects visual impairments, but can you imagine how your life would change if your glasses stopped working? It is estimated that over 100,000 people in the United States have Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), mainly caused by mutated genes that are passed down from one or both parents. Simply stated, the rods in their eyes are disintegrating, which prevents their eyes from processing light and seeing peripherally. It's like looking through a pair of black straws, under water, in a room with little light. RP also affects depth perception, so multi-dimensional structures, such as curbs and dips, look flat to them.
For people with RP, working with others can be challenging because they must educate my co-workers about their visual condition how to best work together. This article offers a few tips to practice when working with the visually impaired.
When planning a meeting
Meetings are especially challenging for people who are visually impaired. Here are a few tips that might help.
For people with low vision, light plays a very important role in the ability to see. For example, some people can't tolerate reflected light. This often occurs in conference rooms that have whiteboards. The effect is similar to having a camera flash in your eyes. Pretty soon, all you can see is a big black spot in your field of sight.
Other people, require natural sunlight or full-spectrum lighting to see detail. If you are facilitating a meeting that includes a visually impaired person, check to see what type of lighting is best for him or her prior to the meeting so that you can plan accordingly.
Being prepared with handouts is a popular way to distribute information during a meeting. Unfortunately, those of us who cannot read them are left out. This often makes it difficult to follow and contribute to what is being discussed. Some of us use screen readers, which require our complete concentration. It is difficult to listen to our computer and stay engaged in the conversation simultaneously. Fortunately, it's easy to get that information to your visually impaired co-worker: send it to them in an e-mail message, at least one day prior to the meeting. This enables her or him to review the material beforehand and come prepared.
Illustrations and presentations
A picture is worth a thousand words — unless you are visually impaired. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to build a visual image based on the conversation during a presentation. When presenting illustrative material, use carefully-chosen, descriptive words to allow a visually-impaired person to envision what is being shown on the screen or the whiteboard. A good way to ensure that your words are descriptive is to ask another person to close his or her eyes and listen to your presentation. You might find that honing this skill improves many areas of communication in your life.
Have you ever wondered how blind people find their way to a meeting room? For example, at Microsoft, the location of the card reader for opening doors can be different for every building and every door. And every building has its own layout.
As the meeting organizer, it is helpful to provide explicit directions to the conference room prior to the meeting. Most visually-impaired persons can count doors and hallways. At Microsoft, each room offers a Braille sign that signifies the name and number of the conference room beside the door. If building directories are not offered in Braille, you might arrange to guide the visually-impaired person to the meeting.
When you cannot see, it is very difficult to find a vacant chair in a room full of people, unless you are accompanied by a guide dog. If you notice a blind person entering the room, you can offer to guide him or her to an empty chair, preferably one close to the door.
Meetings that take place online can be fabulous — ideal for the remote worker. However, for the visually impaired, they can be difficult to access. Screen readers, such as JAWS or Windows Eyes are great, but they have their limitations. When a presentation is shown in one pane, and conversations are shown in another, it is hard for a visually-impaired person to keep up. Imagine sitting at a table where multiple conversations are occurring at the same time. If you concentrate on one, the other conversations get lost in the noise. Presentations that occur in online meetings are not interpreted by screen readers. Unless the visually-impaired person has a human interpreter nearby, it is unrealistic to ask him or her to participate in an online meeting.
When you encounter a visually-impaired person
Most visually-impaired people are very aware of their surroundings. If you see one walking down the hall with a dog or a cane, it is not necessary to pin yourself against the wall. Simply step out of our path of travel. You can even say, "Hi," to let the person know that you are there and that you acknowledge them.
Offering to open the door is a polite gesture no matter the circumstance. But when doing so for visually-impaired persons, it is helpful to say something like, "I have the door for you," so that we are not reaching for an expected door handle. It’s fine to offer other assistance, too. And please do not feel shy about asking us to join you for lunch or a break, or even a brief hallway chat.