September 28, 2020

BY JESSICA REDIKER

This is the final instalment of a five-part series on visual impairment and what it is like for the people living with it.

In what world is it acceptable that 75 per cent of workforce-aged people are actively seeking work that they know they will never find? The answer: our world.

This is the case for blind and partially sighted people in developed countries and it is one of the primary focuses of World Blind Union (WBU), the umbrella organization for all blindness organizations in the world.

WBU strives to improve the quality of life for visually impaired people through the support of global and local initiatives that focus on creating equal opportunity for education, overall safety and employment.

One of the primary focuses of WBU is an initiative called Right to Work which focuses on bridging the employment gap that has been created by a lack of meaningful positions available for visually impaired people. According to WBU, in developing countries, only 10 per cent of workforce-aged people with limited sight have a job that can sustain their lifestyle.

Marianne McQuillan, manager of fund development and communications at WBU, says this is not an issue of capabilities, but of people’s misconceptions.

“People’s perception is that visually impaired people can’t do the same thing,” she said, adding the jobs that partially sighted people get are often more introverted work such as legal work, research, banking and insurance – but there are very few limitations on what they could do if employers took additional steps to make their workplaces inclusive.

“There can be a wide variety of jobs if materials are made accessible for them. It depends on your level of blindness because the public has to understand that blindness is varied, it’s not either black or white,” she said. “If you have some vision, you can still do certain things and anyone who wears a pair of glasses has a visual impairment that’s been corrected by glasses, so they can function normally.”

Some of the simple accommodations that could be made to create more positions for partially sighted people would be to install screen-reading software like JAWS on computers, having work-related reading materials available in large print and having carpool options available since, according to McQuillan, there isn’t a lot of good public transportation for blind or visually impaired people.

In addition to the limitations that are externally being placed on a visually impaired person’s career success, McQuillan said self-imposed restrictions, such as convincing oneself that they aren’t as capable as a fully sighted person, can be just as, if not more, hindering.

In addition to fighting for the right to work, WBU focuses on one of the foundations of being employable – literacy.

Right to Read is an initiative that focuses on putting books in the hands of visually impaired people across the world – something that McQuillan explains isn’t as simple as it sounds.

“Even though the Canadian National Institute for the Blind creates a lot of English Braille books and materials, we can’t ship them to other English-speaking countries because that’s copyright infringement,” she said, adding this book famine affects a person’s ability to be educated and literate in society, making the person less hireable.

According to WBU, over 90 per cent of all published materials cannot be accessed to be read by blind or low vision people due to these copyright issues.

WBU’s overall mission is to make society more accessible and inclusive.

One of their most recent successes was championing a new amendment that was adopted by the European Parliament in early February that requires car manufacturers to equip their silent cars, such as electric and hybrid cars, with an Acoustic Vehicle Alerting System that ensures the vehicle can be heard by people with sight loss.

According to a press release from the European Blind Union, the crash rate of silent vehicles is twice as high as that of cars with internal combustion engines when moving slowly, stopping, backing up or entering a parking space, which puts not only visually impaired, but all pedestrians at risk if they are not paying attention.

In addition to this progress, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was a monumental success for not only those who are partially sighted or blind, but people with any disability.

“People with all kinds of disabilities went to (UN headquarters in) New York City and said, ‘You can’t make up something that talks about my rights without me saying what my rights are,’” McQuillan said. “‘Nothing about us, without us’ was their slogan.”

The UN website outlines the mission of the convention as the movement from viewing persons with disabilities as charity cases and medical burdens toward viewing them as “subjects” with rights, who are capable of claiming those rights and making decisions about their lives.

As long as the world gets on board with this viewpoint and people continue to fight for these basic rights, the future of those with a visual impairment is a promising one.