Individuals who are visually impaired can work in a wide variety of jobs. Workplace technology can be expanded to incorporate assistive features that enable low vision employees to accomplish tasks comparable to their fully sighted co-workers.
Advances in technology, laws that protect the disabled from discrimination, and public education about disabilities have changed the lives of those who live with vision impairments (and other disabilities.)
Still, a large percentage of those with low vision and blindness are unemployed. The US Department of Labor 2021 statistics indicate that those with disabilities (all, not just vision) are less likely to be employed across all age and educational groups. They are also more likely to be part-time or seasonal employees versus those without disabilities. Interestingly, they also noted that employed persons with a disability were more likely to be self-employed than those with no disability. (Ref: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics )
Here in the states, the civil rights of those with disabilities are protected by the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA outlines laws prohibiting the discrimination of those with disabilities and ensures equal opportunity in work, school, transportation, public accommodations, and state and local government services.
Here is a must-read for those with vision disabilities, looking for work, and for those employers looking to be compliant with the ADA: U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission This document outlines your rights as a visually impaired employee and the responsibilities of the employer.
How visually impaired employment continues to be a challenge
The visually impaired are not any different. They have the same intellectual capabilities to learn and develop skills as their sighted peers. What can make them exceptional is that they are natural problem solvers. Daily, life hands them challenges that they have to analyze and solve. “Where there is a will, there is a way.”
Everything is just a little bit more difficult and requires a little bit more effort. This is the theme for the life of those who live with vision loss. Those who want to have a job are willing to work a little bit harder.
But there are barriers for the visually impaired to work:
Employers’ Lack of Understanding
Employers, like most of the public, have stereotypical preconceptions about the capabilities of those with vision loss. These misconceptions arise from their heavy reliance on their excellent vision and they can’t imagine doing the same job any other way.
They also don’t understand that low vision, or even legally blind, does not necessarily mean without any vision.
Employers most likely are not educated about advances in vision technology that enables those with a sub-normal vision to ‘see.’
Because they are not aware of the capabilities of the visually impaired, there may be an element of fear:
Employers’ Concerns about Safety
A very logical concern. Certainly, a visually impaired person understands that professions like airline pilot, brain surgeon, and long-distance trucker are not safe or practical choices for both themselves and others.
For the average job, a visually impaired person is not necessarily a greater risk to themselves or others than the average worker. Living with low vision means learning to navigate and perform tasks with focus and awareness.
Transportation as a barrier to employment
Transportation is always an issue for the visually impaired. Unless the vision loss is mild, it is unlikely they have driving privileges.
It is difficult to be reliant on a friend or family member to take on the responsibility of getting you to work every day.
Public transportation is often inconvenient and can be costly. (Check if your city or community has special public transportation services or rates for those with disabilities.) Depending on where you are located, public transportation may be subject to delays making the visually impaired late. The employer needs to understand that this is a variable that a disabled employee cannot control and there needs to be some flexibility.
The employer may also, at times, expect the employee to travel to another location and may view this as a negative for hiring the visually impaired.
Lack of training and skills
Here is the paradox for the visually disabled: They may lack training and skills and they lack access to training and skill development.
From the start, low vision job applicants are discouraged with job applications that are not in an accessible format. Access to job applications and job-related information are best provided in digital formats that are accessible by digital magnification or screen readers. The low-tech option is a large print format or to delegate a sighted assistant to help with the application process.
Training literature or computer training programs may not be accessible to the low vision employee because it was not designed with them in mind. Formats, like images of PDFs, are incompatible with screen reading or font resizing programs. Images and videos need alt text descriptions included to be accessible.
This requires the employer/manager trainer to take the extra steps to make these forms, applications, websites, and training materials accessible.
The Disabled do not want to give up disability benefits.
Here in the states, there are both federal and state benefits for those with qualifying disabilities. You are permitted to work and maintain benefits up to a certain monthly amount of income, an amount that is higher for the blind. Here is a must-read for those with benefits looking to go to work: Working While Disabled
How the Visually Impaired can Prepare for Joining the Workforce
Consider first what you are interested in doing. Just because you have a disability, does not mean you shouldn’t attempt to find a job that interests you in some way.
Research how to get the skills and training to help you get that job. State or local career training programs may be available through community colleges or local agencies like state vocational rehabilitation agency or local private blindness agency. A search of the internet comes up with online skills and training programs, most of which are for computer-based employment.
Next, consider how you will configure the job with accessibility tools (optical, digital, and/or non-optical aids) to enable you to perform that job. Keep in mind, that employers may not be knowledgeable about accessibility options that will help. In this respect, you can advocate for yourself by learning about the adaptations and technology that will help you to best perform that job.
Consider your transportation options for how you will get back and forth to work. Therefore, the location of the potential job is important. After the worldwide Covid pandemic, employers have realized that employees can be trusted to work remotely. This is a great option for the visually disabled who are looking for computer-based jobs.
What types of adaptations and assistive technology are available for the visually impaired to work?
There is no one set of tools that works for all. The assistive technology depends on the level of vision loss and the job requirements. Someone who multi-tasks, for example, looks at papers, then looks at a computer or tablet, then needs to navigate to another location has different requirements and will use different adaptation tools than someone whose entire job is computer-based.
Someone with a mild vision loss may only occasionally need some magnification with print versus someone who is ‘legally blind’ and requires a higher level of magnification and/or screen reading technology.
The visually impaired will acknowledge that the greatest challenge is the printed word. The other challenges are poor environmental lighting, low contrast, and overly bright situations which cause glare.
What are the adaptations for the working visually impaired?
1. Environmental modifications,
2. non-optical assistive devices,
3. optical magnification, and
4. computer technology.
Workplace Adaptations using Environmental Modifications
These modifications are to enhance the working environment. These can be easy, inexpensive changes.
Lighting. The change that can make the biggest difference is lighting. Appropriate lighting can increase visual function.
While those without eye disease are able to adjust and function in a wide range of light levels, the visually impaired have a narrow range of light levels that help them to function optimally. This varies by the individual. Some need more light to see better, while others are light sensitive and the brightness disrupts their vision.
Consider the level of illumination, location of the light, and distance. Fluorescent lights set 8 to 10 feet (2.4 to 3 m) above the work surface may not be optimal. They also change color appearances.
Lighting on surfaces can cause reflections and glare that are disruptive to vision, resulting in eyestrain, fatigue, and headaches. (This is true for the sighted as well.)
An environmental adaptation would be to use task lighting set over the shoulder or on top of the surface. Make sure the surface is not reflective by using a dark, contrasting mat.
For example: A cook in a restaurant kitchen would benefit from under-counter lighting or a task lamp clamped to the edge of the counter.
For example: Someone working in a warehouse where lighting is uneven and sometimes dim would be helped by a headlamp or chest-mounted flashlight to be used as needed.
Learn more about lighting modifications: What is the Best Lighting for Low Vision?
Increase contrast. Contrast is what makes an object stand out from the background. It is that difference in the reflected light from the objects versus the background.
Environmental adaption for the work area would be to have matte, non-reflective surfaces in a solid color. ‘Busy’ patterned surfaces make it difficult to ‘find’ objects that are small and of similar color.
For example: Someone working at a service counter or cashier could use a black or white mat to contrast the items or cash placed on the counter. A task light would also help with contrast and color identification.
Working Distances. Small changes in work areas should accommodate how the visually impaired uses their vision and optical aids. Eyeglasses prescribed for low vision and optical aids will often require a closer working distance.
The environmental adjustment is to have flexibility in chair placement and the location and height of work surfaces may need to be adjusted to accommodate the closer working distance. The same is true for the computer workstation.
When working with others they may need a little more working area for the placement and use of optical aids and digital technology.
For example: Someone working alongside others in a row of computer terminals will have additional electronic technology needed to view documents that require additional space and a larger monitor they can move closer to the edge of the table for a closer viewing distance.
Workplace Adaptations Using Non-optical Devices
Non-optical aids are those changes and devices that utilize:
1. Enlargement of print and symbols,
2. color and contrast, and/or
3. devices that use the other senses of touch and hearing.
Large print can make the visually impaired more efficient and can facilitate communication. A desktop phone with large numbered buttons and a visible display helps the worker to use a desktop phone. There are also stickers for keyboards with large print lettering and symbols. Large print stickers can be used for bins, drawers, and doors to help with organization. Large print modifications may need to be made for interoffice notes and billboard notices. The visually impaired may need access to a photocopier that can make enlarged print copies.
Different colors and contrasts can be used for rapid identification by the visually impaired without having to read. This can also be used for the identification and organization of objects, bins, drawers, and doors.
Felt tip pens, gel pens, and ‘bold’ (1.6 mm) ballpoint pens in black are used for high contrast and more easily seen handwriting.
There are numerous talking devices such as talking clocks, calculators, color identifiers, and currency identifiers. (National Library Service iBill Program) These devices can help the visually impaired to respond and interact more quickly and efficiently.
Tactile cues are things like raised embossed printing and ‘bumps.’ Bump-ons (or bump dots)are self-adhesive 3-dimensional dots applied to help the visually impaired to locate and label buttons of frequently used settings on electronics, dials, keyboards, telephone buttons, keys, and light switches. These dots can be brightly colored or have a texture for tactile identification.
For example: A cook in a restaurant will be helped with large print labeling on food canisters, bump-ons for dial settings on the stove, different colored bins for organizing goods, and talking timers and a talking microwave.
For example: An employee that has problems with color identification can be helped with a color identifier device or a cell phone app that identifies color.
Workplace Adaptations Using Magnification
As mentioned before, the greatest difficulty for those with low vision is the printed word. Commonly, the solution has been low-tech hand-held optical magnifiers. This is no longer the only option. There is a wide range of high-tech digital magnifiers available to the visually impaired.
Employers might imagine the low vision employee hovering over a glass optical magnifier like Sherlock Holmes. There are modern options for optical magnification that are used by many with vision loss. These options tend to be less expensive. They are most practical for short-term reading tasks.
Optical magnifiers are things like:
- Hand-held magnifiers, illuminated,
- stand magnifiers, illumined,
- low vision spectacles; high-powered ‘microscopes’, spectacle-clip loupes, and
- telescopes, including binoculars, hand-held or head-mounted.
There is a wide range of digital magnification options. They range from small pocket-size video magnifiers to large desk-top CCTVs. These units do not have some of the limitations of optical magnification like the small field of view, aberrations, and lack of flexibility. The digital options tend to be more expensive.
The types of digital magnification available for those with vision loss:
- Hand-held video magnifiers. These range in size from 3 inches to about 12 inches (7.8 to 25 cm) video screens.
- CCTV (closed-circuit television). These units range in size from portable 12 inches (25 cm) to desktop 24 inch (61 cm) screens.
- Electronic glasses (similar to smart glasses). These are head-borne assistive devices that can magnify for distance and near .
Digital assistive devices are incredibly flexible. They have many magnification levels and options like different color modes, contrast levels, brightness control, OCR/TTS, and computer compatibility.
These, of course, are the more expensive option. But for a working person, these digital aids are more responsive, flexible, and easier to use. Because of these controls they can be used in locations where lighting is not ideal.
I have more detailed articles on these technologies and optical telescopes:
What are Portable Hand-held Video Magnifiers?
For example: Someone that works at a receiving dock in a warehouse can use a pocket-size video magnifier to check invoices and shipping labels when needed.
A low vision worker in a mailroom can sort mail beneath a CCTV into colored bins for distribution.
Workplace Computer Technology Adaptations
Computer-assisted technology has opened up job opportunities for the visually impaired. Computer accessible features and programs can result in a low vision employee with the same capability and efficiency as sighted employees. It does require training and an understanding of the complexity of these systems and how best to use them.
Technologies for computer access for the visually impaired :
- Screen magnification,
- document scanner,
- screen reading programs (OCR/TTS), and
- speech recognition programs (speech-to-text (STT).
Which technologies are needed by the visually impaired worker depends on the level of vision loss. Someone with a mild central vision loss may do well with the built-in accessibility features of the computer operating system. Someone with a more severe vision loss may require a screen reader and speech-to-text technology.
The starting point for computer accessibility:
- Large monitor allows for larger font types.
- Large print keyboard (or apply stickers for large print)
- Look for the operating system accessibility features to enlarge the font, cursor, and pointer. Customize by changing contrast, invert mode, grayscale, and display settings to optimize for your visual needs.
- Learn to use the system’s magnifier and screen reader.
- Use a monitor anti-glare screen to reduce eye strain and headaches. Consider getting ‘computer eyeglass’ lenses with blue-blocking technology for protection. There are also monitor blue-light protection screens. (These suggestions also apply to the sighted computer worker.)
To learn more about low visual eyestrain and headaches see my other article: Why Those with Low Vision Suffer from Eyestrain and Headaches
If the demands of the job exceed the standard accessibility features offered by the computer’s operating system, additional technology will be needed. Screen reading programs and additional screen magnifying programs can be added.
Screen Reading and Magnifying Programs
The accessibility features included with computer operating systems provide for basic magnification and text-to-speech usage (screen reader).
Third-party magnification and screen reading software can be added to your system. These software applications offer more flexibility in options, are more refined in personal customization, and offer high-quality performance versus the magnification and screen reading software included with your computer’s operating system.
The magnified text will appear clearer, less pixilated with higher magnification, and therefore, will be easier to read. The screen reader software will have more voice choices that may be more natural sounding than the ‘robotic’-sounding operating system narrator.
Those software packages can be purchased as either a stand-alone screen magnifier or screen reader software or purchased as a bundle(magnifier plus screen reader).
MAGic by Freedom Scientific. Screen reader and screen magnifier.
Zoom Text by Freedom Scientific. 2 programs: magnifier or magnifier + reader.
SuperNova by Dolphin. Screen magnifier and reader.
JAWS by Freedom Scientific. Screen reader for non-visual students/workers.
NVDA, by nvaccess.org Open source, (free) globally accessible screen reader for the visually impaired and blind.
These programs can be expensive. Check for a free trial option on the sellers’ website. Be sure it is compatible with your computer operating system.
How to convert paper printed documents to accessible print for the visually impaired
A low vision employee may have to read printed documents. There are several options depending on how the information on the printed paper, presumably in small 12pt print, is to be used. The document can either be read aloud and/or magnified by connecting to a PC.
The technology that transforms a scanned image into speech is called optical character recognition (OCR) and then converts it to speech (TTS).
Here is an article that outlines OCR/TTS and STT technology: Electronic Technology: OCR, TTS, and STT
There are several ways to have printed material read aloud (can use headphones if there is an output jack):
- Small portable, handheld reader.
- Reading machine. Essentially is a scanner that then converts the scanned information into synthesized speech. These are stand-alone units that do not need to be connected to a computer.
- CCTV and video magnifiers. There are some models of these low vision devices that have the OCR/TTS technology. The advantage is that there is a magnified image on the video screen.
- Cell phone applications. These apps use the camera to take a picture, then the software app converts the printed word characters into speech.
- Scanners with output to a PC. This requires OCR software added to the computer. This is the workhorse option for the office and students. The scanned document can be manipulated by the user to be saved, modified, exported, or edited. The user can also follow along as the system reads the magnified text on the screen.
Speech Recognition Software (STT, speech-to-text)
Like the magnification and screen reading programs of your computer, phone, and tablet operating systems, there is built-in speech recognition software. This allows the user to interact with the technology, bypassing the keyboard and using their voice. Its function is 2 fold:
1. Controls the system by using simple commands to open apps and navigate through pages and applications, and
2. translates the spoken word into text for emails and document creation. The user can dictate, edit, correct, and format text.
This application does require a microphone. The app is launched from the settings accessibility options. Using speech recognition programs requires some training and practice.
For workers and students that need a workhorse software program, there is third-party software available. They are designed for business and classrooms for ease of use to boost productivity with greater functionality, flexibility, and accuracy.
The best known third-party speech recognition software is by Nuance (now Microsoft) Dragon suite of software programs.
In the end…
Innovations and technology have changed greatly in recent history. Awareness and understanding by the visually impaired and the general public can make those with disabilities a part of the mainstream workforce. Given the right tools, those with vision loss can be as productive as their sighted colleagues. But, the visually impaired must advocate for themselves and learn as much as they can about what options and assistive technology are available.
Start by looking for community services and government agencies that can help with finding the right low vision specialists, optometrists, occupational therapists, and counselors, who in turn can help with finding job skill programs and financial help with accessibility technologies.
Job Accommodation Network Resource for disabled employees and employers:
Finding services by state or Canadian Province: The Visionaware website. From the’ Search the Directory’ dropdown menu: go to Low Vision Services. Next dropdown beneath it, go to state or province. Click your state or province to get a list of services.
US Federal: US Equal Employment Opportunity
Austrilia Vision Australia Employment assistance website.
New Zealand Blind Low Vision NZ
Resources for purchasing Low Vision Products featured here: (I have no affiliation with these sellers)