Looking beyond vision and breaking down barriers to employment

Earlier today I was in London for a series of meetings. I came out of the station near St Paul’s to walk the few hundred metres to my first meeting at The Bank of England. Stopping at a crossing, a fellow commuter let me know all was clear and then made me aware of some roadworks up ahead. He asked if I needed some help and we then walked the rest of the way together, me holding his arm as he guided the way.

Whilst talking, it turned out we both worked in Financial Services, him as a data analyst and me as a business analyst. I’ve been doing this role for almost 20 years, long before my sight started to fail and I am fortunate that I have been able to adapt my experience and working practices to my ever changing field of vision.

One thing that struck me as we chatted was him struggling to comprehend that someone who is registered blind is able to work as an analyst, trawling through reams of spreadsheets, eliciting the needs of business stakeholders and translating these desires into clear requirements for technical developers. This reminded me of an article written previously about the subject of the number of working age visually impaired people in paid employment. You can read the full piece below:

First published: 6 October 2021

After reading a report recently as part of the Vision Foundation’s #SeeMySkills campaign[i], it turns out that I am officially part of a minor demographic. Please let me explain, you see as some of you may know from previous articles, I am visually impaired.

Based on recent research[ii], only around 27% of all visually impaired people of working age are in some form of paid employment. That’s just 300,000 of us. To put that in perspective, 75% of the general population are in employment as are around 51% of the disabled community (excluding sight loss). 

I set up Axiom Sensory in 2020 but, whilst it remains in its infancy, I continue to work full-time as a freelance Business Analyst. According to my CV, I have about 20 years’ experience in gathering requirements, managing stakeholders and reviewing reams of data in spreadsheets. I’ve always had a visual impairment, but up until around 12 months ago it could be overcome through the usual glasses, increased font size and lower screen resolution. 

As things have got more difficult, magnifiers on both my laptop and iPhone were added to the mix and, in the last three months, some more specialist equipment. This recent addition has come from a little-known, but nonetheless essential government grant scheme called Access to Work. If it wasn’t for this, it is possible that, by now, I could be one of the 73%. 

Access to Work is designed to help employers (and the self-employed) to make reasonable adjustments thereby enabling the recipient to continue to work. The scheme has its flaws but, in the main, it is a great support and has been a lifeline for me to continue to work. Overall, the experience has been positive (there have been a few challenges but there is no need to bore you with the details right now) and, following an initial assessment, a range of recommendations were made. These have enabled me to set my office up with the necessary hardware (large monitors, ergonomic monitor arm and document reader) and my laptop with accessibility software (screen magnifier and reader) as well as all the necessary training.

I won’t say that this kit has transformed my working life, but for me that’s not the point, however, what it has done is enable me to continue to work in the way I always have. Learning to use my accessibility software has simply added another essential skill. Much like writing some code to extract data from a database, drawing a customer communication flowchart or writing a social story[iii], I can now configure my screen to change for each and every individual application I use. Excel will zoom to 4x normal size with an inverted background, PowerPoint changes one screen to magnified whilst keeping the other at normal size so I can see the whole of a presentation slide, not just the bit I’m working on, and Skype has a lovely blue haze to it! 

The point is, if Twitter and Instagram are anything to go by, no disabled person wants to be treated any differently, we just want the same opportunities and access as everyone else. This could be ensuring there is step-free access to a convention centre, a sign language interpreter for a meeting or a screen-reader friendly presentation.

According to the RNIB, 90% of employers believe it would be “impossible or extremely difficult” to employ a visually impaired person.[iv] This finding has no place in a time when politicians and business leaders continue to preach equality in the workplace. 

As a result of this drive, the work being done at a local and national level is made all the more important. Campaigns such as the Vision Foundation’s #SeeMySkills and RNIB’s input into the current Health and Disability Green Paper[v] are essential to make employers understand that much like a paraplegic runner needs a blade to complete the 100m in less than 11 seconds, with the right adjustments, we can still do our jobs. 

So where does this leave me, a Business Analyst with fading vision? Am I destined to become another statistic? We often read about how those of us who are disabled need support but that doesn’t mean we need wrapping up in cotton wool or pity. It means, in the words of Access to Work, we need reasonable adjustments. Look at Paralympic gold medallist Ellen Buttrick, comedian Chris McCausland and former Foreign Secretary David Blunkett to see that we don’t need wrapping up in cotton wool, we just need employers to look beyond our eyes and give us the opportunity and the tools to get on with things in our own way.

I can only hope that the barriers many of us face may begin to lift. There are glimmers that this is starting to happen as recently I had a great call with my client’s Employee Communications team about making their newsletters more accessible and I’ve been directed towards some online tools that do the same for websites. 

I could simply sit back and wait for the change to happen whilst satisfying myself with designing visuals and mapping processes… But wouldn’t it be awesome if I could be part of the solution? I hope that, in my own little way, I’m supporting that through these articles and some of the updates posted on Instagram and maybe this is just the beginning. 

I’ll leave that thought to ponder for now and until next time, take care.

Chris

If you know of a sight-loss initiative that may be of interest, then please contact me at chris@blindmanwithabackpack.uk

References

[i] https://www.visionfoundation.org.uk/support-us/see-my-skills/ 

[ii] https://www.visionfoundation.org.uk/see-my-skills-reports/

[iii] A social story is a tool to help autistic people of all ages understand and prepare for new situations that may be challenging, for example a bereavement or a change in family circumstances (such as a chronic illness).

[iv] https://www.rnib.org.uk/campaigning-policy-and-reports-hub/employment 

[v] https://www.rnib.org.uk/news/campaigning/experiences-claiming-benefits-employment-support 

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