Blind & Visually Impaired Job Applicants, Part 1: Would you hire a redhead?

An Ambutech white cane only partly unfolded so that its five sections are visible.

About 1% to 4% of people have vision impairments that aren’t corrected and/or can’t be corrected. Call it 2%. If fewer than 1 in 50 people in your organization have vision impairments, could your organization be overlooking qualified people?

About 1% to 2% of people worldwide have red hair.

Are there more redheads than visually impaired people in your organization?

Vision and Hair Color

Whether someone has red hair, or no hair at all, should not affect that person’s chance of being hired for a job.

Whether someone has impaired vision, or no vision at all, should not affect that person’s chance of being hired for a job.

A colleague’s vision impairment is no more relevant to work than their hair color. Wouldn’t it be awful for a hiring manager to presume a job applicant couldn’t do a job because of the applicant’s redheadedness?

More people understand redheadedness than understand vision impairment even though redheads and people with visual impairments represent roughly the same percentage of people. To kick off this series on hiring and working with people with vision impairments, we first need to address what vision impairment is.

Blind and Visually Impaired (BVI)

Collectively, people who are blind, low vision, or have some other visual impairment belong to the blind and visually impaired (BVI) community.

Terminology changes over time, and will differ even amongst countries that share a language, but “BVI” is commonly used by English speakers in the U.S.

We’ll consider just three categories of visual impairment: legal blindness, low vision, and other visual impairment.

Legal Blindness

Legal blindness encompasses a variety of vision impairments that in one or more ways meet a country’s legal threshold for blindness.

Blindness does not mean a complete absence of sight. Only 10% of legally blind people are totally blind, meaning they have no sight whatsoever. People born without experience of sight don’t “see black.” They simply don’t experience the world through sight any more than you (or any other human) experience the world through ultrasound-based echolocation.

Some legally blind people have “light perception.” They can tell when a room’s lights are on or off, or whether the sun is shining through a window on one side of a room or through a window on the other side of a room. Someone with light perception may be able to identify the color of a light: “What’s this blue thing in front of me?” But someone who has only light perception can’t recognize a friend by sight or read printed text.

Someone with vision across a limited or broken field, but with good visual sharpness within that field, is considered blind.

If you have typical vision, imagine wearing a black mask over your eyes and seeing the world through narrow holes centered on each eye. This would simulate the experience of someone who lacks peripheral vision. To gain a more complete sense of their surroundings, people with a limited field of vision may continually scan their environment with their eyes.

A blind person may have peripheral vision but lack central vision. Some people lacking central vision are aware of a “hole” or dark spot in the center of what they see. Others see a continuous image stitched together by their brain, and objects directly in front may seem to pop into and out of existence.

Other blind people have patchy vision with a mixture of spots with vision and spots without. Imagine looking through a black piece of paper that has holes of random sizes at random locations: you see the world, and possibly even in good focus, but only in bits and pieces.

Many legally blind people have extreme near-sightedness: the world beyond a certain distance is blurred even when seen through eyeglasses with a strong prescription.

For some people, quality of vision may vary throughout the day, and can depend on changes in body chemistry.

Yet another category of people see shapes and colors unrelated to what lies in front of them. These aren’t hallucinations, but rather atypical function of the vision system.

Most people who are legally blind have some usable vision, although their vision is limited enough that they need to learn accommodations to perform tasks that sighted people take for granted.

Could You Spot a Blind Person in a Crowd?

Probably not.

Not all blind people wear sunglasses.

A large fraction of all people were eyeglasses, including people who are legally blind even when they wear glasses with the strongest prescriptions.

In the U.S., only 10% to 11% of legally blind people use a white cane.

Only about 2% of blind people in the U.S. have a guide dog.

Roughly 90% of legally blind people don’t have a white cane or a guide dog. If you regularly walk around areas crowded with pedestrians, you may pass hundreds or even thousands of legally blind people in a month.

Low Vision

Low vision is sometimes called partial blindness. Low vision people may have blurry vision, patchy sight, or some other condition that qualifies as impairment, but that doesn’t meet a country’s definition of legal blindness.

People with low vision may require large text to read, or may need to use magnifiers for everyday tasks. They may also use magnifying or zooming features on computers and smart phones.

Other Types of Impairment

By setting limits on legal blindness and low vision, a country’s laws and medical practices will exclude people with vision impairments that make it difficult or impractical for someone to read, or to drive, or to play sports.

For example, I’m stereoblind due to strabismus (misaligned eyes). Although I have sight in both eyes, my brain doesn’t combine the images from my two eyes into one image. I’ve heard that stereovision is cool, but I’ve never experienced it, although I’ve certainly experienced being unable to catch a ball that a grade schooler could catch easily.

I have uncommonly poor depth perception, but testing in my late teens revealed that I have an uncommonly good ability to visual in 3D. For years I worked in 3D vision for robot guidance, and I have three patents so far in the field even though I lack typical 3D vision.

My personal experience of impaired vision, along with my experience working with BVI colleagues, leads me to my final point.

Pay Attention to Uncommon Applicants

If you go looking for someone with a mix of uncommon skills, you’re likely to be disappointed. You might find that person, but perhaps only by sifting through many dozens of resumes. In the meantime you may pass over many applicants who could help your organization.

But if you recognize an applicant as being uncommon, consider yourself fortunate. If a BVI person applies for a job, then consider what uncommon effort may have been involved in that person’s education, and what uncommon experience they may have. Consider carefully how their uncommonness could become your organization’s uncommon advantage.

We’ll get into specifics when I bolster the notion that “diversity = profitability” in a future post.

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Gary Bartos

Gary Bartos

Founder of Echobatix, developing assistive technology for the blind. echobatix@gmail.com