Only 1 in 4 people of working age registered visually impaired or blind in the UK are in employment. According to my research that equates roughly to 0.06% of the workforce. It is a shocking statistic and in some cases is due to an absence of understanding, familiarity and experience on the part of employers. The lack of support offered to prospective candidates with impaired vision in the workplace, promotes exclusion rather than inclusion and, in many cases, seriously impacts their independence.
Having sight issues carries with it many challenges. Day to day life and everyday tasks can be infinitely harder and the disabled person can feel vulnerable and unwelcome. The world is not designed for people with vision problems which can lead to isolation, anxiety and depression. It is improving, but there is still a long way to go before people see the person first, rather than the disability.
I have made peace with my reality and I am accepting of how my disability makes me feel. How it makes others feel and influences how they react to me can be something quite different. Being Visually Impaired does not define who I am, or what I am capable of. But inevitably it sometimes can and does define how others perceive my ability, and consequently how they treat me. There can be a tendency for society to become so focused on the DIS part that we fail to see the ABILITY.
Pierre Villey, a French writer said, “A sighted person judges the blind, not for what they are, but by the fear that blindness inspires”. I don’t believe this is always true, but I have certainly experienced situations where it is. I have had many conversations with sighted, visually impaired and blind people about sight loss. As a result, I believe that in many cases, a sighted person’s opinion of what a visually impaired person can or cannot do, is driven by their own innate fear of losing their own sight. A study carried out by the American Medical Association found that the participants feared losing their sight more than life threatening events or conditions.”
I was once asked “Where do all the people like you go?” Which, at first, I dismissed as a ridiculous question. Afterwards, and since, I have thought about what that question means. It is still relatively unusual to meet someone with a white cane or guide dog, particularly in the workplace and the reality is that it is human to fear the unfamiliar. We don’t always know what to say or how to treat people different to ourselves.
Quite often in life we only know what we need to know. By not being around someone with a visual impairment, it is understandable that people do not know what they are capable of, assuming only that they know what they are not capable of.
“I hope you don’t mind, but….” Is a phrase I have heard so many times that I know what follows: questions about my sight. People are curious about the physical limitations, but also the mental impact it can have. I get it, it’s something different, unusual. I am always happy to answer questions or have a conversation about what it is like to lose my sight. I believe that people’s curiosity and honesty should be lauded. It gives me a chance to put people at their ease and pass on some knowledge. To do this, to show them that I am comfortable talking about it, I often use humour. I have learned that to engage with people about my sight loss, showing them that I am happy to talk about it is key. An amusing anecdote or two seems to work well to achieve that.
The simple truth is that I have good days and bad days, the same as everyone else. It is true, I and many with similar conditions, face different challenges. No better or worse, just different. I don’t expect special treatment, just acknowledgement and to be included in the world as a person. Because that is what we are, like anyone else, just differently abled.