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Blind and visually impaired

While estimates vary as to the number of individuals who are blind and visually impaired in the United States, According to one estimate, there are approximately 10 million people with some degree of visual impairment.  Over the next 30 years, as the baby-boomer generation ages, the number of adults with visual impairments is expected to double.  Recent figures also indicate that only 46% of working-age adults with vision impairments and 32% of legally blind working-age adults are working.

The workforce includes many individuals with some form and degree of visual impairment or vision loss who, with the appropriate accommodations, can be both successful and productive on the job.  These employees can bring unique skills and sensitivities that can add considerably to the quality and diversity of the workplace.  Accommodations will not always be necessary, nor will they always be effective.  As with all employees, employers need to assess the qualifications and performance of workers who are blind or visually impaired on an individual basis, and accommodations need to be made on a case-by-case basis, taking in to consideration each employee’s individual limitations and accommodation needs.

Types of visual impairments

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define "vision impairment" to mean that a person's eyesight cannot be corrected to a "normal level".  Vision impairment can result in a loss of visual acuity, where a person does not see objects as clearly as the average person, and/or has a loss of visual field, meaning that the person cannot see as wide an area as the average person without moving the eyes or turning the head.

Some people are born with no vision or significantly reduced vision.  Other people may lose their vision due to an accident or the natural aging process, which usually starts in the 40's.  For some people vision loss is sudden, while for others it may be gradual.  Some medical conditions, like diabetes, can cause vision loss to fluctuate from day to day.

There are varying degrees of visual impairments, and the terms used to describe them are not always consistent.

  • The term "low vision" usually describes a person whose best-corrected visual acuity is between 20/70 and 20/400, or a visual field of 20 degrees or less.
  •   The term "legally blind" usually describes a person with a visual acuity of 20/200 in the better eye with the best correction, or a person who has a field of vision that is restricted to 20 degrees or less.
  •   The term "total blindness" is used to describe a person who has no usable vision at all.

Some people can see better than others with the same visual acuity, so the visual problems a person faces cannot be described simply by using the visual acuity numbers.

There are many possible causes for vision impairment, including damage to the eye and the failure of the brain to interpret messages from the eyes completely.  The most common causes of vision impairment in American adults are:

  • Diabetic retinopathy--a condition that affects the blood circulation of the retina, which causes blotchy vision.
  •   Age-related macular degeneration--a disturbance of blood vessels in the eye resulting in progressive loss of central vision.
  •   Cataracts--clouding of the eye's that causes loss of vision.
  •   Glaucoma--pressure inside the eye becomes elevated and can result in damage to the optic nerve causing damage to peripheral (side) vision.

Accommodation solutions

Reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities must be determined on a case-by-case basis because workplaces and jobs vary, and so do people with disabilities.  And as usual, the person with the disability will generally be our best resource for identifying potential barriers and the accommodations that eliminate them.

Examples of accommodations that people with vision impairments may need include:

  • Assistive technology such as hand/stand magnifiers, a closed circuit television system for enlarging and reading printed materials, an external computer screen magnifier, software that will read information on the computer screen, and cassette or digital recorders.
  •  Written materials in an accessible format such as large print, Braille, audio cassette or computer disk.
  •  Modification of employer policies to allow the use of a guide dog in the workplace.
  •  A qualified reader.  The term "qualified reader" means that the person is capable of reading the information and is familiar with the terminology of the subject matter.  This person could be someone on staff; a volunteer or someone hired for that purpose.
  •  A driver or payment for the cost of transportation to enable the person to perform the essential job functions.
  •  Alternative lighting options if a person is affected by glare or has sensitivity to light.

For more information on worksite accommodations click here to go to the Job Accommodation Network's publication entitled Work-Site Accommodation Ideas For

Individuals with Vision Impairments.

Questions an employer might consider when determining accommodations include:

  • What type of vision loss is the individual experiencing?
  •  Does the individual benefit from magnification?
  •  Does the individual use corrective lenses or assistive devices?
  •  Does the individual use a cane or animal to assist with mobility?
  •  Does the individual read Braille?
  •  What job tasks are performed and which of these tasks is difficult because of the visual impairment?
  • Does the individual need equipment or devices to perform the functions of the job?
  • What, if any accommodations have already been implemented?

Reading information from printed materials

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Having equal and timely access to written information is absolutely critical for blind and sighted employees alike, to enable them to do their jobs most effectively and efficiently.  Every day information is communicated through printed and electronic formats, and this same information needs to be available to our employees with vision impairments in a variety of accessible formats. Individuals who have limited vision or are totally blind have unique access needs.  These needs depend on the amount of vision each person has for reading.  Some people have usable vision, allowing them to read large print.  Others choose to read braille on paper, while a third group prefers to use a computer with synthetic speech, or refreshable braille display, to read electronic documents.

Alternate formats include large print, braille, audio tape, and electronic file. The process of developing alternate format documents can initially seem somewhat daunting and difficult.  Some formats are easier to produce than others, but all formats need to be considered since some of the ones that take more effort to produce may be the most effective accommodation for the employee needing them.  Regardless

Of the alternate format(s) you as an employer are producing or having produced, the process will be easier if it is thought about early, perhaps even during the writing phase.  Fortunately, modern computers, when properly used, can make this task easier.

Some examples of documents that may need to be provided in an alternate format for an employee include a new employee handbook, policy and procedure manuals and training materials.

Tips for producing large print

Large print is a term typically associated with providing information in alternative format.  The American Foundation for the Blind recommends that:                                                                          

  • The font size be at least 16 point but preferably 18 point.  Scalable fonts on the computer make this easy to do.
  • The font style should be plain like standard Roman or Sans Serif fonts.  An example of a plain font is Arial.  Avoid decorative fonts.  Use bold type because the thickness of the letters makes the print easier to read.  Avoid using Italics or all capital letters.  Both of these forms of print make it more difficult to differentiate among letters.
  • The use of different colored lettering for headings and emphasis can be difficult to read, but when used, dark blues and greens are most effective.
  • Text should be printed with the best possible contrast.  For many older people light lettering-either white or light yellow-on a dark background, usually black, is easier to read than black lettering on a white or light yellow background.
  • Avoid using glossy finish papers such as that typically used in magazines.  Glossy pages create excess glare, which makes it more difficult to read.
  • The recommended spacing between lines of text is 1.5, rather than single space.  Many people with visual impairments have difficulty finding the beginning of the next line when single spacing is used.

For additional information click here to go to the American Foundation for the Blind's information on Tips for Making Print More Readable.

Creating documents for braille production

Braille is a system of raised-dot combinations that represent print letters both to blind and deaf-blind readers.  These dot formations or combinations do not correspond precisely to print.  Rather, most people who read braille are accustomed to reading a sort of shorthand, called Grade II braille, in which many contractions are used.  Because of these contractions and various other common format modifications, braille translation software is a necessary part of the process of providing braille.

Though the population of braille readers may be comparatively small, it is important that this format be provided to an individual who needs it.  This format will usually be requested when the individual needs to refer to a document in a meeting or to be able to follow along with the text and fully participate.  Braille might also be the preferred format if the individual wants to be able to review the text periodically and refer to it over time.

Major software packages for braille translation are able to handle many file types, to include, word processing programs such as Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect, HTML documents prepared for the Web, and information generated by spreadsheet packages.  Braille translation software cannot currently translate documents produced using graphical desktop publishing packages, PageMaker, or an Adobe product that generates Portable Document Format files.  Braille translation must be performed on text-based characters, rather than graphical images of those characters.

Principles of proper word processing are important to follow when producing documents for brailling because braille translation software takes word processing styles and other specialized indicators into account.  Braille translation software renders bulleted points, italics, bolding, underlining, and other similar word processing styles into specialized dot configurations recognizable to braille readers.  Pictures, diagrams, tables, charts, and graphs are usually more difficult to translate into braille than are basic text documents.  Since pictures can't be translated, it is important to include text descriptions of them, and making sure that captions are descriptive and translate correctly will be helpful.  The information conveyed in diagrams and graphs needs to be adequately conveyed, so inserting notes into the text can be valuable.

Resources to assist with production of braille documents

There are many commercial organizations that can generate braille documents.  Some companies are national in their focus, while other braille transcribers can provide local or statewide braille production services.

In-State Resources


Located at the Washington State School for the Blind, Vancouver, Washington.

Provides braille transcription to state government and the private sector on a fee for service basis.  Call or e-mail to get pricing information.

  • 360-696-6321 ext. 183
  • FAX 360-737-2120
  • 1-800-562-4176 ext. 183
  • FAX 1-800-562-4176 ext. 187
  • E-mail:


  • Provides braille translation and tactile graphics production using the latest software and techniques.  The turn around time for small projects is approximately three days.  Call or e-mail to get pricing information.
  • Contact Sharon Von See
  • Phone:  360-306-1676
  • E-mail:

Nation-Wide Resources


The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) maintains the Accessible Media Producers Database, which consists of individuals and companies that produce documents in accessible media such as braille, large print, sound recordings, and computer braille files.


  • 88 St. Stephen Street
  • Boston, MA 02115
  • (617) 266-6160 - direct line; (800) 548-7323 - toll free
  • (617) 437-0456 - fax
  • E-mail:


The National Braille Press provides braille to a variety of customers from organizations, government, and private businesses. They have a Desktop Division

for a few copies and Full-scale Pressing Services for 50 or more copies. Their catalog, "Individual Braille Transcription Services" contains a nationwide

listing of more than 35 individuals who do braille transcription. This catalog may be downloaded. Price quotes are available upon request.

Tips for providing audio recordings

Since a lot of people who are blind or visually impaired are accustomed to listening to recorded texts, this alternate format also needs to be considered.  It is also important to understand that people who have learning disabilities may also benefit from listening to information on tape.

Things to consider: The person who records the text should be someone who has a clear, pleasant reading voice.  Besides speaking clearly and reading at an even pace, the individual who records the text may need to be familiar with its content.  If the document is a manual, or something that is technical in nature, all terms should be pronounced correctly, and unfamiliar words should be spelled.  Using a tape recorder of good quality with an external microphone generally produces satisfactory results.  It is important to eliminate as much background noise as possible.

Generally, when someone is recording a text they read all of the printed information contained in it.  If the document is complicated, it may be necessary to include notes to the reader, and when a note is inserted, the reader should be made aware of it.  It is important that visual information in the text is described so that the meaning will be clear to the person listening to the audio version.

If the information being recorded is going to remain unchanged over several years, it will be worthwhile to record it in a format that can easily be transformed into other audio media types.  Creating and retaining a high quality master archive copy is recommended.

The American Council of the Blind (ACB) has published a technical assistance guide entitled

A guide to Making Documents Accessible.  This technical assistance guide provides a wealth of information on how to design documents with access in mind, formatting and printing for large print readers, providing documents in braille, providing an audio version of the text, and providing electronic documents.

Additional Resources

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The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is a service of the Office of Disability Employment Policy of the US Department of Labor.  JAN's mission is to facilitate the employment and retention of workers with disabilities by providing employers, employment providers, and people with disabilities with information on job accommodations.  JAN represents the most comprehensive resource for job accommodations available.

Click here to get accommodation and resource information by disability.

The Job Accommodation Network's Searchable Online Accommodation Resource (SOAR) system is designed to assist users in exploring various accommodation options for people with disabilities in work settings.  These accommodation ideas are not all inclusive, however.  The SOAR system allows the user to search by disability to get information on corresponding limitations, job functions, and accommodations.

Click here to begin your accommodation resource search.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has produced a document entitled Questions and Answers about Blindness and Vision Impairment in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act.  This is part of a series of question-and-answer documents addressing particular disabilities in the workplace.

Click here to see the factsheet in its entirety.

The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) is a national nonprofit organization that expands possibilities for people with vision loss.

Click here for more resources on hiring and retaining workers who are blind or visually impaired.

The Washington State Department of Services for the Blind (DSB) is a state vocational rehabilitation agency that offers assistance to persons who are blind or visually impaired.  They also provide various services for employers interested in accommodating or hiring workers with vision loss.

Click here to learn more about the resources this agency can provide to employers.




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