Editor: RETHA STASSEN
Contact details: E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Cell no/SMS/WhatsApp: 082-442-0467
Dear parents, teachers, and other interested persons
I trust 2022 has started with a bang and that the rest of the year will bring you joy and fulfilment. May our efforts to guide our learners and adults with visual impairments to reach their full potential bear lovely fruit, and may those of us who can, support and encourage the family and professionals in their lives.
You are welcome to contact us for feedback or suggestions. Also, please send this Network Letter to any person/s who might benefit and send addresses of possible new subscribers to the editor. The Parents’ Network Letters since 2014, as well as an index of articles for easy reference, are available on http://blindsa.org.za/publications/. Thanks to Nokuzola Nges8-Mavubengwana, this network letter is translated into Xhosa since August 2021. Please let us know if there is a need for translation into other languages.
In this issue: we are proud of and share in the joy of a blind top achiever in the matric exams. The next article emphasises the caregiver’s involvement with the play activity of the infant with visual impairment and the mother of her blind kindergarten daughter describes their fascinating home-schooling during Covid-19 lockdown. A braille user explains how she learnt braille and how she uses it in her life. There are excellent tips for parents and teachers to assist the visually impaired learners gain job skills and we a look at wholistic rehabilitation and what teachers and other professionals should do to make people with visual disabilities “empowered citizens.” Lastly, a visually impaired journalist shares her experiences, especially how working from home benefits her.
“We all get report cards in many different ways, but the real excitement of what you’re doing is in the doing of it. It’s not what you’re gonna get in the end – it’s not the final curtain – it’s really in the doing it and loving what I’m doing.”
— Designer Ralph Lauren
MY STORY: Blinded by a cobra
I was still one of the top matrics of 2021
BY Melon Radebe
When Lethabo Maleka from Ga-Mphahlele in Limpopo opened the door to a pit toilet, he never imagined he would be greeted by a spitting cobra.
The snake’s venom blinded him, and he thought his life was over. Against the odds, the 19-year-old was one of the top 20 performing matriculants in the class of 2021, and he’s headed to university.
He tells YOU his story.
“[My school] principal Maggie Molepo called me with the news of my results. I was excited, and at the same time, it was unbelievable. I knew I had worked so hard but I felt like I was dreaming.
I was nine in November 2011 when I encountered a snake in our pit toilet. As I opened the door, the snake spat venom into my eyes. It felt watery and my eyes became itchy. I screamed and my father came to my rescue. He and other people in our area killed the snake and I was taken to a clinic. Everything seemed to be fine and I could see so we returned home.
Things changed in 2012, when I started Grade 5. On the first day of school, I sat at the back of the classroom and I struggled to see the blackboard. Sometimes other children would mock me but I was more concerned with my loss of vision.
Over time my vision worsened, and I was taken to hospital for an eye examination.
I was told that my eyesight was declining. I was given eye drops and by April or May of that year, I was completely blind. I felt so sad and thought the bright future I was dreaming of would never come to be.
The news also affected my parents, Kate and Matsobane, and my sisters, Batlile and Letsoba. My parents could not find any schools in our area that could accommodate blind learners. I dropped out of school for nearly two years and spent my days at home, listening to the radio.
When my parents heard about the Siloe School for the Blind in Polokwane, I was enrolled there in 2014. I finally had hope.
I had to learn Braille and how to use a braillewriter. I adapted quickly due to the support I received from other children and teachers, and I regained my confidence. It was recommended that I start at Grade 4 so I could catch up with other learners, but I was doing so well that by the second term I was moved to Grade 5.
I’m close to my father who is big on education. He always encouraged me to work hard. To prepare for my matric exams, I spent my days studying throughout the day. I went through books and study guides. I was also part of a study group at Setotolwane Secondary, the school I matriculated from. I really enjoyed writing business studies papers 1 and 2.
My hard work paid off, as my average pass mark was 87,61%. I was invited to a breakfast in celebration of the top-performing matriculants hosted by the minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, and her deputy, Makgabo Reginah Mhaule. I received a certificate, a laptop and a tablet.”
He now plans to study a law degree at the University of Limpopo.
“I was awarded a bursary from the University of Limpopo. Next month I will start my studies towards a law degree, and I’m excited.
To other students with disabilities I would say, disability is not inability. Work hard towards your studies and befriend your books and your teachers. A disability will not stop you from achieving good things in your life.”
Teaching Your Blind or Visually Impaired Baby to Play with Toys
All babies go through a sequence of learning to play. The first thing an infant usually does with a toy is bring it to his mouth—he’s already had the pleasure of sucking on a nipple and getting milk from it, so maybe the toy will taste good too! While sighted babies frequently continue to suck or chew on objects, they have the advantage of knowing something is available and will reach for it because it looks appealing. But if your baby can’t see a toy, he may not know to reach for it unless you make him aware of what it is and where he can find it.
If your baby hasn’t started playing with toys the way other children his age do, the reason may be that he can’t see them clearly and doesn’t know what to do with them because he may not understand how they work. That could be why your 11-month-old hasn’t yet tried to turn the knobs on his busy box and waits for you to do it. Or perhaps your toddler is still putting his toy cars in his mouth at age two while other two-year-olds are pretending to drive their toy cars. Here are some tactics you might try to help your baby or toddler learn to enjoy toys and play independently.
1. Helping Your Child Learn How to Play
- Help your child become aware of the toys he has by helping him find them, giving him plenty of time to explore them, demonstrating how to play with them, and helping him replace the toy in a specific “home.” Handing him a toy and explaining what it is, encouraging him to explore it with his senses, and modelling how to play with it, can be a helpful introduction. Try to get him toys that make sounds and let him hear the noise, which will tell your baby where the toy is located. By holding a toy while calling him to move or turn toward it, you can also help him learn to find and reach for other things he wants.
- When you introduce your baby to a toy, describe it with words and touch. Sit behind him and after giving him time to explore the toy independently, using either the hand-under-hand or hand-over-hand approach, let him feel the toy while you demonstrate how to play with it. When you sit behind your baby, your hands are moving in the same direction as his, which makes the teaching process more natural for both of you. Hand-under-hand, in which you place your hand under his, may be more reassuring to your baby because you’re the one reaching out to touch something unfamiliar while his hands are “riding along” on the safety of your hands.
- Objects from the kitchen cabinet can be as entertaining as store-bought toys. For example, you can show and tell your baby how to make noise with pot covers. With his hands on the covers and your hands over his, you can tell him, “Let’s make a banging noise with these pot covers. We’ll bang them together like this,” as you guide his hands toward each other. After the two of you get tired of banging, you can also take a quieter step forward by showing him how to put the lids on top of the pots, again explaining what the two of you are doing, “These are pots that I cook your lunch in. Let’s put the covers back on the pots.”
- Watch how other babies play. If a friend or family member has a sighted child about the same age as your child, it might be helpful to watch how that baby plays with toys. You could then imitate what you see that baby doing with your baby to show him things he can do. As you enthusiastically model playing, you are teaching your child the joy of play, how to play with toys, and how to socially interact through play.
- Another helpful tactic to use when your child is playing nearby is to describe what he’s doing and suggest expanding that activity. For instance, you might say, “Marco, you’ve pulled all the cars out of the bucket—now let me see you put them back in the bucket.” Or “How about rolling the big car over to me,” to encourage your child to take turns in play, preparing him for play time with friends.
2. Helpful Tips
- When you put a toy in your child’s crib or playpen, make sure he knows it’s there. Let him feel it and leave it within easy reach.
- Before your baby can sit on his own, consider lining a laundry basket or box with a soft towel or blanket and putting him and some toys in it. This will give him a comfortable, confined space that will keep the toys close to him. At the same time, he can lean against the side of the basket or box to support him in a sitting position.
- Because your baby may not see where a toy goes when he drops it, consider using a play gym where toys hang down for him to feel. Toys that have a suction cup on the bottom are also useful because they can be put on a surface, such as a tray or table, and will stay put.
- When your child is old enough to crawl or walk, coax him to come and get a toy by letting him know you have it and calling to him from another part of the room.
- By the time your child is walking, try putting his toys in a big basket or box that he can rummage through to find his current favourite. Just be sure the basket or box is always in the same place.
The World Is Our Classroom
by Michelle Murrey
From the Editor: Living through a pandemic has transformed each of us in small and profound ways. In this article Michelle Murrey describes her family’s choice to step away from the traditional school setting to discover a world of possibilities through home-schooling, bringing core curriculum and extended core curriculum goals to life through daily adventures.
In 2020 the world changed. School went virtual. Employees started working remotely. Restaurants shifted from dine-in service to delivery. During the pandemic creativity, flexibility, and stability were critical to survival.
Just as the world experienced significant changes in 2020, so did my family. In early March we celebrated with family and friends to honour my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary and my mom’s forthcoming retirement. A week later everything changed. My daughter’s Pre-kindergarten program closed. My mom’s job ended abruptly. My work trips were cancelled. We moved—twice.
There was a lot of upheaval in our home, especially for my five-year-old daughter. We did our best to accommodate Zoom calls for occupational and speech therapy. We went to the park as much as possible, and we learned to be flexible with what a school day and workday meant.
In the fall of 2020, when it was time for my daughter to start kindergarten, we tried a virtual school option for a semester. It seemed to be an adequate option, but slowly I saw the energetic spark in her fade. Her frustration grew as she dreaded every Zoom call, every virtual therapy session. And my anxiety increased as I advocated for her needs in a new district that was simultaneously figuring out how to provide an education for thousands of children during a pandemic.
Taking stock of our family’s situation at the end of 2020, I decided to discontinue the virtual school for the remainder of my daughter’s kindergarten year. It was a gut-wrenching decision, because leaving the district meant that we lost all possibilities of receiving special education support. But our family’s physical, emotional, and spiritual health was more important than trying to make the best of a difficult situation.
Although it was a daunting challenge, we took the plunge in January 2021, and we have not looked back since. It took creativity and networking to find the tools we needed, but we found a community of people willing to walk with us on this new adventure.
Home-school offered the most appropriate fit for my child ever since she was three years old. She has the time to practice skills repeatedly until she masters them—in her own time. Opportunities to refine mental mapping, navigation, the use of cardinal directions, and cane technique abound. Daily life offers moments to learn math through cooking, technology through AI devices, Braille displays, and an iPod. Literacy comes through audiobooks, podcasts, and trips to the library that complement her interests. Science experiments occur in our bathroom sink, in flowerpots, on our deck, or along trails at the state park.
Some days, PE class means my daughter riding her Micro Scooter for hours on our street. She learns to balance, brake, move backward, turn, and orient. On other days we go to the local park to travel the trails at my daughter’s own pace, discovering stick forts, bird calls, and weather changes along the way.
Social studies involve reading books or listening to music from various cultures or playing with neighbours from Cameroon, the Philippines, and Mexico. We try new restaurants to explore foods from Greece, Mexico, Germany, and Italy.
Some days we go to the shopping mall and work on self-advocacy while interacting with shop employees. My daughter is learning money recognition, and she is highly motivated to pay for a chocolate-chip cookie independently. Riding escalators and lifts or noticing the ever-changing surfaces of carpet, tile, concrete, ramps, and stairs offers ample chances for her to explore with her long white cane.
Learning Braille looks different, too. Instead of a set time to work on Braille with a teacher of blind students, we have the flexibility to find literacy opportunities in our daily lives. For example, this morning, while my daughter ate breakfast, I sat next to her and practiced my alphabet on the Braille Buzz.
Some days I listen to the creative stories my daughter tells me while she runs her fingers across a page of Braille. While she is learning the building blocks of literacy, she puts together the elements involved in reading, writing, storytelling, grammar, and more.
Last Thursday we went to Costco. While waiting to make a return, we discovered an ATM that had Braille instructions next to the keypad. My daughter was fascinated to learn that the machine had money inside.
I often have to remind myself that my daughter has only had six years on this planet. There is so much that she has yet to discover. So it is good to go slowly, to savour the moment and let her learn through life’s everyday events.
It is a privilege to work from home and have the family support to walk with us during this season. It is an honour to have the opportunity to learn alongside my daughter and to watch as the world unfolds before her. It is a blessing to have friends and colleagues who are willing to join the journey with us, offering tools, guidance, and resources as we learn to navigate this new path. The pandemic led us to make a choice that has brought us untold joy.
Future Reflections Summer 2021 TEACHING AND LEARNING
|Growing into Braille Technology|
At five years old, an age when most kindergarteners were just beginning to learn individual letter names and sounds, I remember working with the Perkins Brailler. The Perkins Brailler is similar to a typewriter and produces braille on paper instead of producing it electronically. At ten years old, I was proficient in braille and received a Braille N’ Speak 640 (an electronic braille note-taker). I was on cloud nine! Until this point, I had exclusively used my Perkins Brailler to do my homework. In order to make my homework accessible to my sighted teachers, I needed assistance from a paraprofessional or my father. They would interline all of my assignments, a process where they would transcribe in print below each braille line. Using the Braille n’ Speak was like having my own minicomputer, allowing me to create and edit documents and print homework for my teachers independently. The Braille n’ Speak was also a lot lighter and easier to carry around than the Perkins Brailler.
Over the years, I upgraded my braille technology with newer models. As an adult, I use a braille note-taker that runs on the Android platform called a Braille Note Touch Plus. The Braille Note Touch Plus is an Android tablet with a refreshable braille display attached. I also use a refreshable braille display called the Mantis which is a QWERTY keyboard with a refreshable Braille display attached. Both of these devices can pair with a laptop computer and I can easily read what is on the laptop screen using the braille display as well as listen to it.
Why all this complicated braille technology? Why not just use devices that talk? I will tell you why. Braille is critical to my independence. Taking braille out of my technology is like taking print away from a sighted person. Would you like to just listen to your favourite website or magazine? Would you rather receive a long audio message than a detailed email?
For young students today, there are many devices to learn braille at an early age. Devices like the Braille Buzz and Taptilo are designed to help teach braille through play. The Braille Buzz, made by American Printing House for the Blind, teaches both braille and phonics. As the name alludes to, the Braille Buzz is shaped to resemble a bumblebee, encouraging practice with braille characters and phonics, similar to a variety of audio-based toys that teach print writing. The Taptilo teaches the same thing; however, it uses a refreshable braille display and braille cells where the students can create their own braille to interact with the device.
Teaching Students with Visual Impairments
Career & Vocational Skills
Career education for students with visual impairments needs to begin as early as possible and include self-awareness and career exploration activities, job seeking skills instruction, information about job keeping, and encouraging opportunities for gaining work experience. Teaching skills in the area of career education can provide students with visual impairments of all ages with the opportunity to learn first-hand the work done by members of the home and community.
The students need to gain an understanding of the many jobs that are available from the bank teller, to the gardener, to the social worker, to the artist, and much more. The student who is blind or visually impaired should have the opportunity to explore a wide range of careers in a systematic, well-planned manner as they will not be able to casually observe these jobs as their sighted peers can.
Areas the student may need specific instruction in include:
- knowledge of relationship between work and play;
- understanding of the value of work;
- knowledge of characteristics of valued workers;
- awareness of the variety of jobs people hold;
- awareness of jobs people with visual impairments often hold;
- job acquisition skills (want ads, resumes, applications, interviews);
- typical job adaptations made by workers with visual impairments;
- in-depth knowledge of a variety of jobs of interest;
- work experience;
- laws related to employment;
- management of readers and drivers.
1. Job Awareness
Provide students with many opportunities in order to gain awareness of jobs. Provide opportunities for students to participate in field trips to work sites where a variety of tasks are expected of employees.
Help the student develop an awareness of jobs by providing students the opportunities to:
- discuss with others about how adults and teenagers learn about the jobs they hold;
- ask questions of workers whom they encounter during a specified period about the ways they found their jobs and write down or record the responses, along with information about the general ages and genders of the workers and the types of jobs they have;
- shadow workers with jobs having household tasks while they work, and perhaps even try the tasks in the work situations;
- consider whether there are particular jobs they would like to have and why they would like to have them;
- describe the workers they have met and to explain the relationships between the chores they perform at home and the duties of these workers;
- observe the work duties of employees for one hour with an explanation of the job duties required in the entire office, not just for one job. Then help the student come up with adaptive devices or tasks that could be done by people who are blind or have low vision;
- discuss how people find jobs;
- gain access to help-wanted ads in newspapers, search job postings online, and obtain applications from businesses that have help-wanted signs.
2. Practice Job Skills
After students have had an opportunity to observe different types of jobs, provide tools used at those jobs and encourage the students to practice the skills used on the job sites. Help the student practice job skills by encouraging them to:
- role play or create a drama describing the jobs they have observed and any interactions the employees might have had with customers, superiors, and co-workers;
- measure and record an activity that they mastered, such as collating and stapling papers, alphabetizing student work, or erasing the chalkboards. Have the student start a list of skills they learned in order to add it to their “resume”;
- establish a goal for personal improvement on a mastered activity. For example, the student may be able to do the task, but they may need to improve their accuracy or speed. Discuss the importance of working quickly, or at a pace that approximates the speed at which others perform the same tasks and identify (using the process that was described at the beginning of this section) strategies for increasing the students working rates.
3. Receiving Payment for Service
Provide many opportunities for students to discuss, list and practice ways to receive payment for service. It may be appropriate to ask the parents or other family members at this time to assist in setting up jobs that the student can do for neighbours in advance and then have the students “sell” their services and role-play their marketing pitch at school or at their home.
Help the student practice this skill by encouraging the student to:
- determine their skills and evaluate the potential marketability of the skills and introduce the concept of selling one’s services to family members and neighbours – that there are some tasks that adults occasionally are willing to pay children to perform for them;
- ask his employer for letters of reference for use when searching for additional work for work has been commendable;
- create a list of tangible rewards in appropriate media and post them in easily accessible locations.
4. Rules for Jobs
As a member of society, there are rules that people are expected to follow. Similarly, students have to follow rules when they are at school and different work sites have different rules and expectations of their employees. Help students understand the importance of following rules by having the students:
- discuss, list and practice rules for home, school, and jobs;
- list the jobs for which they receive an allowance as well as the rules related to earning the allowance. Generate a list of types of work done in and around the home and gradually shape their ability to perform the work well and in a timely way;
- establish a classroom list of rules that are developmentally appropriate, such as, “listen to others,” and “keep hands to yourselves.” Discuss the purpose of the rules;
- discuss a problem and identify possible solutions, for example, “What could we do if two children want to ride the same tricycle?”
- participate in a volunteer project, either for a single student or for a group such as: hold a car wash and give proceeds to a charity; help at a local charity’s office (for example, answer phones, collate materials, and stuff envelopes); make solicitation calls for a school fund drive; collect magazines to donate to fire stations, senior citizens’ centres, or shelters for homeless people; shop for groceries for people who are housebound.
5. Work Behaviour
Students should be encouraged to develop positive work behaviours. Students must learn these interpersonal and work skills in order to be successful in the workplace and not only obtain a job but maintain a job. The following is a list of critical work behaviours. The student must learn to:
- Get along with their classmates;
- Come to school on time;
- Observe the classroom rules;
- Follow directions;
- Attempt to finish their work;
- Do not waste time;
- Respect authority;
- Be courteous and honest;
- Be dependable;
- Control their emotions;
- Work to the best of their abilities.
Life with vision loss: South Africans explain what they need from rehabilitation
By Michelle Botha – Postdoctoral Research Fellow Institute for Life Course Health Research , Stellenbosch University
Disclosure statement BY THE AUTHOR
The research was conducted at the Division of Disability Studies, UCT; I am currently affiliated to the Institute for Life Course Health Research at Stellenbosch University. The research was funded by the National Research Foundation and the Ian Fraser Memorial Bursary Fund. I volunteer for the Western Cape Network on Disability.
South African census data from 2011 estimate a disabled population of 7.5%. The census approaches disability as levels of difficulty in six areas – seeing, hearing, communicating, remembering or concentrating, walking and self-care. According to this data, about 1.7% of South Africans experience severe visual difficulty.
The definition of legal blindness includes an array of conditions and levels of visual difficulty. Essentially, a blind person will not be able to see at 3 metres what a sighted person could see at 60 metres.
South Africa has 22 special schools for the blind, but a 2015 report revealed that they are short of resources and the standard of education offered to visually impaired learners is low. As a result, entrance into tertiary education is low.
It is estimated that 97% of visually impaired South Africans are unemployed.
Another challenge is the cultural beliefs that people encounter. These beliefs connect blindness to ideas about fear, ignorance, incapability and dependence. Negative ideas influence the way that society interacts with blind people.
This may be the experience of people who lose their sight gradually. The majority of visual impairment in South Africa results from preventable or treatable conditions. These include glaucoma and cataracts, which cause gradual vision loss if not correctly treated.
When people begin to lose their sight they might well lose their job and be isolated from other people.
Rehabilitation services play an important role, providing essential skills for adjusting to life with visual impairment. These skills include white cane mobility training, coping with daily living (such as cooking and household management), computer literacy with assistive software and Braille literacy. Rehabilitation services may also include courses in life skills, office administration and work readiness.
This practical training is certainly important. But my PhD research found that rehabilitation services for visually impaired adults need to focus more on identity and building a positive sense of self and belonging. People who experience sight loss are likely to have been exposed to negative ideas about the status and capabilities of blind people, and they may have experienced discrimination and exclusion. They have to deal with not only the practical implications of vision loss but a sense of what it might mean for their future.
3. Better rehabilitation
I conducted in-depth interviews with people who used and offered rehabilitation services. The users were adults who had experienced vision loss later in life. The service providers included occupational therapists, social workers and training facilitators.
I found that rehabilitation services that focus on the practical challenges of visual impairment do not adequately support individuals who may be experiencing significant trauma.
Service users’ accounts also suggested that undergoing rehabilitation could further destabilise their sense of self and belonging. One participant said:
“The way they treated adults was really taking something from them.”
Others expressed their feelings about the type of support they needed:
“ You need to not just learn how to cook and learn how to read Braille and learn how to walk with a cane, you need to be given the tools to live a well-rounded, mentally well life.”
‘I’ve just been on a mission of trying to find a way for me to sustain myself and also for me to move forward and to develop.”
The way in which rehabilitation services are approached may unintentionally strengthen a negative view of blind people. Service user accounts describe an imbalance of power in rehabilitation organisations, where they felt as though they were not able to exercise choice. They often felt they were not valued as stakeholders in rehabilitation and that they were not able to choose how to move forward in their lives.
In South Africa, rehabilitation services operate as charities funded in part by government but relying increasingly on donations from the corporate sector and the public. This can also be damaging to service users’ sense of self as they become viewed as recipients of goodwill rather than as active participants in a process of skills development.
4. Sense of empowerment
To make rehabilitation more holistic, it is important to consider what is being imparted to visually impaired people about who they are. These ideas will be carried forward into their lives. To be empowered citizens, they need more than special skills and assistive devices. They need a positive sense of themselves as valuable, whole people who are able to contribute and participate in their families and communities.
To address the identified gaps in rehabilitation services for visually impaired adults, the training of rehabilitation workers must include greater emphasis on the internal negotiations of self and place.
In addition, rehabilitation service users must be viewed as central stakeholders in their own processes of rehabilitation and empowered to make their own decisions.
Remote work has finally made me — a legally-blind person — feel like I can thrive at my job. I’m sad it took this long.
BY Rachel Christian
Rachel Christian is a journalist and personal finance writer based Central Florida.
As someone who is legally blind, Christian says remote work has been a game-changer for her career. At home, she can control her work environment and not worry about transportation or feeling self-conscious in front of co-workers. As someone in the blind and low-vision community, the expansion of remote work has been an economic game-changer.
Normally, people with visual impairments face major hurdles in the workforce, from overcoming hiring discrimination to securing reliable transportation — less than half of US adults with visual impairments were in the labour force in 2019. Transportation is often a major barrier to steady employment for the blind and visually impaired. A research review by the American Foundation for the Blind found that 38% of people with blindness or low vision had turned down a job due to transportation concerns.
I experienced this first-hand as a 21-year-old college student. I was a year-and-a-half from graduation and a prestigious daily newspaper internship was at my fingertips. I’d been freelancing for the paper for a semester and had built a rapport with the news editor. I submitted my resumé and clips and cinched the interview. Completing an online application was the final step. It was just a formality, the editor told me.
I breezed through it until I hit a seemingly mundane question: Do you have a valid driver’s license? My heart sank. My vision has been deteriorating since I was 15 years old due to a rare retinal disease called cone dystrophy. There’s no cure. But I’ve adapted. I learned how to adjust the contrast, brightness, and zoom on my computer and smartphone to be able to excel in college.
Despite overcoming these challenges, I still didn’t have a driver’s license. I still don’t. I’ve never even driven a car.
I told the truth on the application. A few days later, the editor informed me the internship was off the table. The driver’s license requirement was corporate policy. Interns often went out on assignment — you had to have a car. His hands were tied, he said.
I went on to land a different internship, but that missed position still haunted me. I’d been so close to my goal and was disqualified simply because I couldn’t drive. Transportation remained a chronic pain point throughout my career. Without a car, certain opportunities were eliminated. If a job wasn’t near a bus or train stop, it didn’t matter how well qualified I was. It wasn’t an option.
About six months after starting a job at the marketing firm, the pandemic hit. My company went fully remote, like so many others across the country.
The transition to remote work changed my life — for the first time, I could completely control my work environment. I no longer struggled to see my computer screen in the sun-drenched window-filled office. I could keep my apartment as dark as a cave without inconveniencing anyone, and if I needed to lean forward and squint at my monitor, I didn’t feel self-conscious or worry about what my co-workers might think.
My writing speed spiked. I made fewer mistakes. I picked up extra assignments and added two hours to my day previously lost to commuting.
The shift to remote work can make disabilities much less visible. My accommodations are already on my computer, so my co-workers don’t even realize assistive technology is in place.
In the past, companies only hired people who lived within commuting distance of the office. This capped the pool of candidates to a tight geographic area, limiting the employment options and the earning potential of workers — especially those with low vision.
Due to the pandemic, that’s no longer the case. Now, having a polished online portfolio and web presence goes much further than handshakes at happy hour meet-ups.
I experienced this first-hand about a month ago when a recruiter messaged me on LinkedIn about a senior writer position with a personal finance website. The office was an hour and a half away, but to attract qualified candidates, the company had made the position fully remote.
I applied and got the job because of my experience, skillset, and personality — the way it’s supposed to be. I haven’t told my new employer about my vision impairment because, for the first time, it doesn’t matter. My home office is customized and adapted to my needs. I’ve mastered the technology that helps me do my job. I still have occasional hiccups with Zoom, but hey, don’t we all?
There’s no need to hide my disability — but there’s no need to disclose it yet either. A lack of transportation won’t hinder my ability to write or get to work on time.
Of course, the pandemic hasn’t levelled the playing field for all blind workers — only those who are proficient with technology and work a desk job. Still, more jobs than ever are going remote, from customer service to writing to data entry.
To expand inclusivity to more people in the blind and low-vision community, companies need to do their part. Employers should audit their own accessibility capabilities and establish inclusive initiatives for remote employees with disabilities.
It’s also on the employee to educate themselves and their employers on accessible technology. If you have low vision, work with state agencies and non-profits such as the Lighthouse to gain the proper training, education, and equipment you need to succeed. Don’t be afraid to ask what low-vision aids or other devices your company may provide you.
Working with a disability is never easy. But the current labour market positions people impacted by vision loss to excel in a remote work world. For the millions adults with a vision impairment, inclusion and newfound economic opportunity may be the greatest perk of a remote work world.