A Blind Co-Worker! What Do I Do Now?

JOB Employer's Bulletin / 1996

What happens AFTER you've hired that qualified person who is legally blind? Very often co-workers and supervisors have questions that center around wondering, "How do I work with him? How can I talk with her? What do I need to do differently?"

Blindness means that an individual has 10% or less of normal vision (80% of those who are legally blind have some degree of vision while 20% have none.) Yes, for some workers who are legally blind, some tasks will be done using sight. This can get confusing if co-workers or supervisors believe only "total blindness" fits the definition of "blind" and it can lead to misunderstandings.

For example, a saleswoman in a department store in New Jersey is doing all necessary tasks well using her sight along with some adaptive equipment (magnifiers), with one exception. She physically cannot read numbers on products for inventory purposes. Her immediate supervisor thought she was malingering and "gave her a hard time" until he understood the parameters on her vision loss. He appreciated her understanding that he just needed the facts. Now during inventory, when the work is divided among the associates, she is given a necessary task that fits her strengths.

Among those blind persons who have some sight, a few will read print, but will not have the ability to see people coming toward them on the other side of a hallway ("tunnel vision" or loss of field); some have "night blindness" but function with sighted techniques when there is enough light without glare; some will see general shapes and colors, or that lights are on.

Some are totally blind and use blind techniques all of the time. There are other variations.

What matters is not how much sight is left but the amount of skill the blind person has in using blind techniques when sighted techniques won't produce work on time, to the competitive level. A practical definition of blindness could be stated like this:

"You are blind if you find it more efficient, some or all of the time, to use blind techniques rather than sighted techniques to perform tasks to a competitive level."

There are two suggestions that are likely to fit every case. First, it often helps blind colleagues if you verbalize. (For instance, don't just point, say, "It's on the left.") Second, start with the assumption that the other adult is as competent as you are. Blind Americans who have had a chance to get decent training in blind techniques will be. Consider these true stories of treating blind adults "differently," as told by the blind persons involved:

"WHAT DOES HE WANT IN HIS COFFEE?"

[Blind Americans across the country know this phrase because sooner or later, if you are blind, it will happen to you. Here's one variation as told by the President Emeritus of the NFB]:

Not long ago when I went to a doctor's office for an examination, I had two or three things happen to me that showed me how far we still have to come in changing public attitudes about blindness. In the examining room I was taking off my shirt and getting ready to hang it on a hook on the back of the door. I had my hand on the hook, so there was no question that I knew where it was.

The nurse said, "If I close the door, will you be able to find it?"

I don't know whether she was talking about the door or the hook, but it really doesn't matter. I had my hand on both of them, and the door was only going to move for a short distance. There is no way that I could have lost it.

I later learned that the nurse had gone out to the waiting room and asked my secretary, who had come with me so that we could work while I was waiting, whether she wanted to come back and help me take my clothes off. That is not all.

When I was leaving, the receptionist said to my secretary: "Does he need another appointment?"

The nurse and the receptionist were doing the best they could to be of help to me. What should I have done?

"HOLD ON, SWEETIE"

[In the Midwest, a blind mother who works part-time answering a hotel chain's 800 number, writes]:

The other day my daughter and I were approaching a cab on our way to preschool. As the driver opened the door and my little girl climbed in with her usual energetic manner, the driver spoke to her: "Hold on, sweetie, help your mother. I bet you take real good care of your mommy all of the time, don't you sweetie?"

I wondered how shocked the driver was as I stepped up rather than down into the cab, sat my bottom onto the seat rather than the floor of the cab, and even proceeded to shut the door rather than open it."

[After observing a situation, if you still wonder whether help is needed, business and social etiquette permits us to ask certain questions of any adult]:

"Do you need help?"

"Shall I show you where it is?"

"What's the best way to work on this with you?"

"I'm really curious about how you handle all your correspondence. Would you mind telling me what your method is, perhaps during lunch?"

"Excuse me, sir. What would you like in your coffee?"

"NO ONE TALKS TO ME!"

[In Colorado, a policeman (blinded by gunshot) attended an NFB training center to learn how to handle blindness. After about six months of lessons and practice, he could handle himself well, using practical blind techniques in place of his sighted techniques. At that point, the center's job developer assisted him to rejoin the force in an office position. She says]:

Chris started the job. As I often do, about a week later I dropped in to check on how things were going with him and heard Chris answer the phone and give out information. He told the caller that Billie Bob was in jail and visiting hours were such and such. When he got off the phone, I told him how well he was doing with the computer. But it was clear that something was wrong. I said, "Chris, you don't sound good; what's going on?"

For a minute he didn't say anything. Then all of a sudden he said, "No one talks to me! I don't even go down to the cafeteria anymore. I just stay here because no one talks to me, and it's really uncomfortable."

We talked it over, and I told him he should talk to Captain Henn about what was going on, and maybe we could do some staff education. I said, "These guys are probably feeling a little uncomfortable. They knew you prior to the accident, and now they don't know what to say.

Chris admitted that he was afraid to talk to his boss for fear it would jeopardize his job, but he asked me to do it, and of course I agreed to.

Over the next two months or so I spent many hours educating the deputy sheriffs. It was actually a lot of fun. Some of the guys started saying, "I didn't know he knew I was standing there." Chris kept telling me that people would come in the door and stand there, before walking away. I assured him that they just didn't understand. I suggested that he say hi and start talking to them. I took a lot of information with me--JOB pamphlets, Braille alphabet cards, and so on. (JOB offers employers free educational programs.) Not only have they started talking to Chris, but a couple of the guys have purchased slates and styluses ($3.00/set) and are writing notes to him in Grade I Braille.

"It's okay to say 'Good morning' first."

"THEY'LL LOVE WHATEVER YOU DO."

[A blind woman who is very active in her community writes]:

It is often hard to know where to draw the line between acceptance of what is and the necessity to take a stand for change. One such instance involved my singing a solo in church.

During practice, when it came time to work on that anthem the choir director announced that I would be singing the first verse. She had all of the women sing it through one time, and I entered the words into my Braille 'n Speak (a computer) as they sang. There was one part I didn't understand, so I asked for clarification of it before singing it myself as she had requested. Her response both surprised and humiliated me.

"Oh, just sing the words you know, or sing la la la. They'll love whatever you do, and no one will know if you're singing what's written or not.

There it was again--the old "anything you do will be wonderful, honey" routine. Suddenly the most surprising thing to me was why I still, after all these years, find it catching me off guard. I sat for a moment in the silence of belittlement, thinking thoughts of the obvious: "She would know. The choir would know. God would know."

And as the silence seemed to be melting into the rustling of papers and shifting of weight on chairs, I heard my voice from somewhere saying, "I would know."

"Expect that competent blind adults will meet your standards by using their alternative techniques."

"WHENEVER WE GET UP TO MOVE AROUND"

Concerning the difficulties that come up after 3 years on his job, Mr. B--said that many of the newly hired people and some of the experienced people that work there still do not understand that blind persons are competent in a factory environment. As he put it, "They have knee-jerk problems whenever we get up to move around."

His company has published standards for the different jobs. He and the other two blind persons working there feel they have a decent chance to move up in the system, in spite of some resistance to the idea that blind workers could possibly do jobs other than the job for which they were hired.

"It's okay for a blind adult to travel independently--around the plant or up the career ladder."

Her friends know that among her many interests, she is an Anglophile with lots of funny stories about the years she lived in England, and when they are lucky, a baker who makes great desserts from scratch. She is known for much more than her skills in editing and writing.

A blind co-worker! What do you do know? Well, if she makes brownies, we'd advise you to get to coffee break early, before they're all gone.