Why Do We Fear the Blind?
By ROSEMARY MAHONEYJAN
BRISTOL, R.I. — A FEW years ago, when I mentioned to a woman I met at a party that I was teaching in a school for the blind, she seemed confused. “Can I just ask you one question?” she said. “How do you talk to your students?”
I explained that the students were blind, not deaf. Raising the palms of her hands at me, as if to stem further misunderstanding, she said: “Yes, I know they’re not deaf. But what I really mean is, how do you actually talk to them?”
I knew, because I had been asked this question before by reasonably intelligent people, that the woman didn’t know exactly what she meant. All she knew was that in her mind there existed a substantial intellectual barrier between the blind and the sighted. The blind could hear, yes. But could they properly understand?
Throughout history and across cultures the blind have been traduced by a host of mythologies such as this. They have variously been perceived as pitiable idiots incapable of learning, as artful masters of deception or as mystics possessed of supernatural powers.
One of the most persistent misconceptions about blindness is that it is a curse from God for misdeeds perpetrated in a past life, which cloaks the blind person in spiritual darkness and makes him not just dangerous but evil.
A majority of my blind students at the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs in Trivandrum, India, a branch of Braille Without Borders, came from the developing world: Madagascar, Colombia, Tibet, Liberia, Ghana, Kenya, Nepal and India.
One of my students, the 27-year-old Sahr, lost most of his eyesight to measles when he was a child. (Like many children in rural West Africa, Sahr had not been vaccinated.) The residents of Sahr’s village were certain that his blindness — surely the result of witchcraft or immoral actions on his family’s part — would adversely affect the entire village. They surrounded his house and shouted threats and abuse. They confiscated a considerable portion of his parents’ land. Eventually, the elders decreed that Sahr’s father must take the child out to the bush, “where the demons live,” and abandon him there. The parents refused and fled the village with their son.
Many of my students had similar experiences. Marco’s parents, devout Colombian Catholics, begged a priest to say a Mass so that their blind infant son would die before his existence brought shame and hardship on their household. The villagers in Kyile’s remote Tibetan village insisted that she, her two blind brothers and their blind father should all just commit suicide because they were nothing but a burden to the sighted members of the family. When, as a child in Sierra Leone, James began to see objects upside down because of an ocular disease, the villagers were certain that he was possessed by demons.
In these places, schools for blind children were deemed a preposterous waste of resources and effort. Teachers in regular schools refused to educate them. Sighted children ridiculed them, tricked them, spat at them and threw stones at them. And when they reached working age, no one would hire them.
During a visit to the Braille Without Borders training center in Tibet, I met blind children who had been beaten, told they were idiots, locked in rooms for years on end and abandoned by their parents. These stories, which would have been commonplace in the Dark Ages, took place in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. They are taking place now.
Nine out of 10 blind children in the developing world still have no access to education, many for no other reason than that they are blind.
The United States has one of the lowest rates of visual impairment in the world, and yet blindness is still among the most feared physical afflictions. Even in this country, the blind are perceived as a people apart.
Aversion toward the blind exists for the same reason that most prejudices exist: lack of knowledge. Ignorance is a powerful generator of fear. And fear slides easily into aggression and contempt.
Anyone who has not spent more than five minutes with a blind person might be forgiven for believing — like the woman I met at the party — that there is an unbridgeable gap between us and them.
For most of us, sight is the primary way we interpret the world. How can we even begin to conceive of a meaningful connection with a person who cannot see?
Before I began living and working among blind people, I, too, wondered this. Whenever I saw a blind person on the street I would stare, transfixed, hoping, out of a vague and visceral discomfort, that I wouldn’t have to engage with him.
In his 1930 book “The World of the Blind,” Pierre Villey, a blind French professor of literature, summarized the lurid carnival of prejudices and superstitions about the blind that were passed down the centuries. “The sighted person judges the blind not for what they are but by the fear blindness inspires. … The revolt of his sensibility in the face of ‘the most atrocious of maladies’ fills a sighted person with prejudice and gives rise to a thousand legends.”
The blind author Georgina Kleege, a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, more tersely wrote, “The blind are either supernatural or subhuman, alien or animal.”
WE take our eyesight so much for granted, cling to it so slavishly and are so overwhelmed by its superficial data, that even the most brilliant sighted person can take a stupidly long time to recognize the obvious: There is usually a perfectly healthy, active and normal human mind behind that pair of unseeing eyes.
Christopher Hitchens called blindness “one of the oldest and most tragic disorders known to man.” How horribly excluded and bereft we would feel to lose the world and the way of life that sight brings us.
Blindness can happen to any one of us. Myself, I used to be certain I’d rather die than be blind; I could not imagine how I would have the strength to go on in the face of such a loss.
And yet people do.
In 1749, the French philosopher Denis Diderot published an essay, “Letter on the Blind for the Benefit of Those Who See,” in which he described a visit he and a friend made to the house of a blind man, the son of a professor of philosophy at the University of Paris. The blind man was married, had a son, had many acquaintances, was versed in chemistry and botany, could read and write with an alphabet of raised type and made his living distilling liqueurs. Diderot wrote with wonder of the man’s “good solid sense,” of his tidiness, of his “surprising memory for sounds” and voices, of his ability to tell the weight of any object and the capacity of any vessel just by holding them in his hands, of his ability to dismantle and reassemble small machines, of his musical acuity and of his extreme sensitivity to atmospheric change.
The blind man, perhaps weary of being interrogated by Diderot and his friend as if he were a circus animal, eventually asked them a question of his own. “I perceive, gentlemen, that you are not blind. You are astonished at what I do, and why not as much at my speaking?”
More than any of his sensory skills, it was the blind man’s self-esteem that surprised Diderot most.
“This blind man,” he wrote, “values himself as much as, and perhaps more than, we who see.”
I’ve learned from my blind friends and colleagues that blindness doesn’t have to remain tragic. For those who can adapt to it, blindness becomes a path to an alternative and equally rich way of living.
One of the many misconceptions about the blind is that they have greater hearing, sense of smell and sense of touch than sighted people. This is not strictly true. Their blindness simply forces them to recognize gifts they always had but had heretofore largely ignored.
A few years ago, I allowed myself to be blindfolded and led through the streets of Lhasa by two blind Tibetan teenage girls, students at Braille Without Borders. The girls had not grown up in the city, and yet they traversed it with ease, without stumbling or getting lost. They had a specific destination in mind, and each time they announced, “Now we turn left” or “Now we turn right,” I was compelled to ask them how they knew this. Their answers startled me, chiefly because the clues they were following — the sound of many televisions in an electronics shop, the smell of leather in a shoe shop, the feel of cobblestones suddenly underfoot — though out in the open for anyone to perceive, were virtually hidden from me.
For the first time in my life, I realized how little notice I paid to sounds, to smells, indeed to the entire world that lay beyond my ability to see.
The French writer Jacques Lusseyran, who lost his sight at the age of 8, understood that those of us who have sight are, in some ways, deprived by it. “In return for all the benefits that sight brings we are forced to give up others whose existence we don’t even suspect.”
I do not intend to suggest there is something wonderful about blindness. There is only something wonderful about human resilience, adaptability and daring. The blind are no more or less otherworldly, stupid, evil, gloomy, pitiable or deceitful than the rest of us. It is only our ignorance that has cloaked them in these ridiculous garments.
When Helen Keller wrote, “It is more difficult to teach ignorance to think than to teach an intelligent blind man to see the grandeur of Niagara,” she was speaking, obviously, of the uplifting and equalizing value of knowledge.
Many of us are taught to make sure our sites can be used via keyboard. Why is that, and what is it like in practice? Chris Ashton did an experiment to find out.
— Read on www.smashingmagazine.com/2018/07/web-with-just-a-keyboard/
This is very relevant to Guide Dog users in British Columbia who want fair treatment when using ride sharing services.
I have been alerted about the Province having an all Party discussion with Uber about it starting up in BC. A short blurb was on the CBC recently. Someone contacted his/her MLA and was given a phone number to call to give input. Considering what we have seen about how Guide Dog Teams are treated in the Province, this seemed like a good issue for the Province to be contacted about.
If anyone wants to get involved, the Ministry of Transportation is the relevant respondant, at 250 387 1978. From past experience we know that if you are calling from outside Victoria, you can call 1 800 663 7867 and get them to connect you without having to pay Long Distance charges.
This is a long read, and shows how one person can make a huge difference in the lives of those who are touched.
Cherished Teacher, Mentor, Author, Advocate, and Leader
From the Editor: Unlike most articles that appear in the Braille Monitor, this one does not begin with a byline. The person who helped put it together chose to express her love for Jerry Whittle by organizing the heartfelt tributes that follow, and Rosie Carranza should know that we see her handiwork in this article and the love it represents. One other person has worked to coordinate this collection of the tributes that spring from love, and you will not be surprised to learn that this silent contributor is none other than Pam Allen. I am taking the liberty of including the remarks she sent in forwarding this article in the tributes that follow this introduction.
What is abundantly clear is that many of Jerry’s starfish have returned to the sea. They have not taken their new lease on life for granted; they have taken the time to say thank you. They have recognized the blessings received and have made a conscious choice to pass on and add to those blessings with their own commitment of energy, love, dedication, and passion.
Jerry and I shared one thing in common; we both enjoy reading and writing. Debbie and I had the joy of vacationing once with Merilynn and Jerry, and both of us spent a lot of time on benches while our wives searched the stores of North Carolina looking for treasures that begged for a new home. I hope you enjoy reading this tribute to Jerry Whittle as much as I have enjoyed editing it. Thank God for this man, and thank God for the people who cared enough to stop and say thank you.
In 1985 the Louisiana state legislature gave funding to the NFB of Louisiana to establish the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Inspired by my own life-changing rehabilitation experience, I wanted to replicate the ground-breaking training model that Dr. Jernigan used to teach me and countless other blind people in Iowa. My search for Center staff led me to Jerry and Merilynn Whittle, whom I heard about through the “blind grapevine.” I called them up, explaining that we were only awarded one year of funding and that we had no building, no equipment, and no students. Essentially our empowering NFB philosophy and our nonvisual training methods were the two forces pushing our dream forward.
Jerry and Merilynn did not hesitate; they immediately agreed to become part of our pioneering team of instructors. Jerry came first, and when her job concluded, Merilynn arrived in Louisiana. They brought with them an unwavering belief in blind people, a deep loyalty to the Federation, a joyous energy, and a willingness to sacrifice and give to others. They were dependable and so hardworking; they worked day and night to launch the Center.
Soon we had our inaugural group of students. Our first training center operated out of a four-room house. Mismatched donated furniture and lively chatter filled the space. The Braille classroom that Jerry and his students occupied had a large table that was made by attaching legs to an old door.
Even in the early years of his teaching career, Jerry recognized that his job as Braille instructor was just the beginning. He fulfilled the roles of counselor and mentor. He spoke with students about their futures, what jobs they could do, and what they could become as blind people.
With great enjoyment, Jerry also dispensed love advice to those seeking a partner. For instance, he warned, “You should never marry someone unless you have traveled with them on a trip. You learn a lot on these trips that might influence your decision.” More broadly, he told students “If you want to succeed in life, you must look at your fatal flaws and change them. We all have them.” Jerry had such a tremendous sense of humor. When crossing a street, you could hear Jerry shouting, “Oh, feet, don’t fail me now!” And, oh my, did Jerry get after students if they were slacking or not fulfilling their potential. These are just some of the phrases and techniques that I witnessed Jerry using as tools to create bridges to the lives of his students.
The most significant thing that Jerry gave us was the “minor ingredients,” the invaluable elements that made our dream of creating a fun and productive training center come true. Jerry developed many traditions and pursued projects that engaged the varied interests of Center students. He started a garden, devised creative fundraising activities, and organized many trips to festivals, movies, concerts, flea markets, and sporting events. He formed a blind football team and wrote many plays. He started a Toastmasters group to provide students the opportunity to enhance their public speaking skills. He planted trees with the students to beautify the city and to memorialize students or staff who had passed away. Jerry also awarded “Whittle sticks” to recognize the Braille achievements of his students. He carefully selected tree branches that he lovingly made into beautiful walking sticks that his students eagerly worked to earn.
Jerry started our freedom bell tradition. He began ringing the bell whenever a student conquered a challenge or met an important milestone—crossing a busy street, reading at a certain speed in Braille, getting married, or becoming employed. He would say, “When the bell sounds, all blind people have gained new ground.”
Yes, Jerry, you have and will continue to help the blind gain new ground. Your life is a real tribute to our dream.
Jerry Whittle’s life was changed when he found the National Federation of the Blind, and the lives of thousands of blind people were changed as well. I first met Jerry while organizing a chapter of the NFB of South Carolina near Jerry’s hometown of Central located in the northwest corner of the state. Jerry served in numerous leadership roles both nationally and in the NFB of South Carolina and was integral in the development of programs at the Federation Center of the Blind (the NFB of South Carolina headquarters) and Rocky Bottom Retreat and Conference Center of the Blind. His penultimate (Jerry’s favorite word) achievement, however, was his over thirty years of service as the Braille instructor at the Louisiana Center for the Blind.
As a young man, Jerry played his beloved sport of baseball. He discovered his blindness while playing one night in a lighted stadium and finding that he could not see the ball as it sailed to him at second base. This was a whole new world to Jerry and one in which he struggled to adapt. Early on, he found little encouragement about his future from his vocational rehabilitation counselor who, as Jerry once told me, suggested that he go into a workshop or janitorial work. But Jerry knew intuitively that he could do more with his life. He responded to a public service announcement by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, and thus began the journey to realizing his dreams for a literary career. He graduated from Clemson University, and his academic success led to graduate school at the University of Tennessee where he earned a masters in creative writing.
Jerry and I shared so many memorable times as friends and colleagues. I remember most vividly our NFB work and the adventures around our pioneering establishment of the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston under the leadership of Joanne Wilson. Always at his side, Merilynn shared in all of our triumphs as we celebrated the accomplishments of our students and the growth of the Center. From the acorn grew the strong oak of Jerry Whittle.
He brought the gift of Braille literacy to thousands of blind people, sprinkling his lessons with philosophy and high expectations. Throughout his tenure as a teacher and beyond, Jerry continued to pursue his love of writing, producing plays to inspire and engage blind actors and publishing a number of fictional and autobiographical works. Jerry was Godfather to my oldest son, Nicholas, and we are blessed to have many of his original manuscripts of his plays. How grateful we all are that Jerry did not succumb to the low expectations of the early guidance about his career choices. How fortuitous that he found the NFB, and how truly fortunate that the world and thousands of blind people found him. By knowing Jerry and loving him, our lives have been enriched beyond measure, and he will always reside in our hearts and minds.
Roland Allen (LCB alumnus, 1987)
It is so hard to describe adequately the impact Jerry Whittle had on me. When I enrolled at the Louisiana Center for the Blind shortly after my high school graduation, I did not consider myself to be blind, and I was not sure what to think about the idea of blind instructors. Jerry had a unique way of meeting people where they were and helping them to discover themselves, conquer their fears, and build self-confidence—to realize that it was respectable to be blind. Regardless of a person’s life experiences, he would find a way to connect. I knew early on in my training how important the National Federation of the Blind was to him, how it had changed his life in ways he shared with us. Though we certainly worked on Braille, and I learned to read and write with confidence, we also tackled other philosophical topics in Braille and outside of class. Jerry and Merilynn were always ready for an adventure and encouraged all of us to join in, even if it was something we might never have experienced before. They showed us how to seek and find beauty in the small miracles of life and how to live each day to the fullest. Jerry was always honest and genuine. He listened and gave advice and was not afraid to challenge me and my fellow students to push the boundaries imposed by society and the low expectations about blindness we faced.
Like Jerry, I have retinitis pigmentosa, and I was reluctant to travel in unfamiliar places, especially at night or in dimly lit venues like movie theaters. Jerry and I had discussed this at length, and he knew that I would always go to the movies with a friend or sibling. He invited me and some other students to the movies one evening. Before the movie began, he showed me how to use my cane to navigate around the theater and find my seat. Because of his encouragement and belief in me, I applied what he taught and independently found my own seat. I can remember the pride I felt as I turned to yell to him from several rows ahead “I did it!” Jerry knew that accomplishing this “little thing” in life would be one of the many building blocks that allowed me to grow and achieve those “big milestones” later in life. I had no idea then that I would ultimately become a cane travel instructor helping people overcome their fears and replace self-doubt with hope as he did for me. Jerry was, and still is, an amazing role model for me in the ways he gave above and beyond the call of duty. He always took time to listen, to give without counting the costs, to share his love of the Federation, and to find ways to cultivate talents in others. Later, when I began to work at the Center, I continued to learn from him as a colleague and peer. He kept dispensing advice and wisdom and even gave a toast at my wedding.
Most importantly, Jerry was my beloved friend! I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I could count on him. And I know today that he knows he can count on me to continue to challenge myself and push myself and my students beyond what we thought was possible, to share the lessons he taught me and so many, and to continue his legacy through my work at LCB and in the National Federation of the Blind. Every time Pam and I see a movie, one of our favorite pastimes, we will smile and think of him. I will forever be indebted.
Jesse Hartle (LCB alumnus, 1997)
While attending my church service tonight, my priest said that we know God loves his children because he always provides for them. If that is true, then I can only assume that it is also true that Jerry Whittle loved his students, because he always gave to them. When we had concerns, he gave us his counsel. If we were having a rough day, he gave us his humor. When we thought we would never improve our reading or writing skills, he gave us encouragement. When we accomplished a goal, he gave us a pat on the back for a job well done. If we were slacking off, he gave us a swift kick in the pants. He gave us knowledge through Braille. He gave us Austen, Brontë, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, Faulkner, Tolstoy, Steinbeck, and many more. Jerry Whittle was never just an eight-to-five instructor. He gave us his time.
Students were always welcome to join the Whittles for a Friday night trip to the movies, a Louisiana Tech football game, a night at the theater, an afternoon at the flea markets, or a myriad of activities outside of normal class time at the LCB. He gave us challenges that would make us better the next day than we were before, whether that meant stepping out on stage or stepping on to the football field. He gave us a view of his faith, and he certainly showed us his love for Ms. Merilynn. Every single day, Jerry Whittle gave us his all so that we might succeed.
When I was twelve years old, I was a quitter. I was accepted into the Louisiana Center for the Blind’s Buddy Program, but after three weeks I decided to quit. Frankly, it was just too hard to learn the nonvisual skills my counselors were trying to teach. This decision of course was a mistake, but from mistakes come opportunities to learn. While waiting on my parents to come and take me home, I was invited to go to lunch with Mr. Whittle. Knowing what I now know about Jerry Whittle, this was not just a kind gesture. It was another opportunity to do what he loved—to do his best to teach blind people that blindness did not have to dictate the terms of their life. That day I heard the story of someone who had experienced all that I was experiencing at that moment. Mr. Whittle had been told by sighted people about the limited jobs available to a blind person. Only he had a different plan which did not include settling for such low expectations. He discussed the important role that the training he received played in accomplishing his goals. I remember admitting to him at some point in the conversation that I could understand how the cane could be useful for me, but I could not see the point in learning Braille. He explained that a blind person had to develop a well-rounded set of skills to maximize chances for success. For example, if you were the best traveler in the world, but you could not read, you would probably not be able to get a job. Likewise, if you had great technology skills, but you did not have the ability to match your own clothes, you probably were not going to keep a job. While I now understand this thought process, to a stubborn twelve-year-old boy, this man clearly did not realize that he was talking to me, the exception to the rule.
However, during the next year his words would come back to me. I began to question myself when certain situations came up. Was I choosing not to go to the movies like other people my age because I really didn’t like movies or because I did not have the travel skills to maneuver in dark places? Was reading just stupid, or did I not like it because I could only read around twelve words per minute on a CCTV? An honest self-evaluation told me that in most cases I was letting blindness dictate the terms of my life. I knew that the annual NFB of Louisiana student seminar in Ruston was approaching, so I began to put a mental list of questions together about how blind people could accomplish certain tasks. I remember getting off the bus and walking into the activity center, where dinner was already underway. And there at the front of the line, waiting to show those of us who did not know how to serve our own plate, was Jerry Whittle, once again leading by example. If you have been privileged to know Jerry Whittle, you know that my story is not unique. All I had to do was scroll through my Facebook feed on the days around his passing to see the affect that this man had in the lives of blind people. We may not have cleared every bar that he set for us, but it was not because he did not expect us to! What a world it would be if we all lived like Jerry Whittle taught us, by striving to be better tomorrow than we are today. I will miss you Dr. Dots, but I will never forget our lunch on that Monday afternoon in July 1991. The food the waiter brought was generally forgetful, but the food for thought you served was life changing.
Zach Shore (LCB alumnus, 1988)
I first met Jerry Whittle in June of 1988 when I arrived as a student at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. I last spoke with him at length by phone in April of 2017. In those three decades I never stopped marveling at what he had to teach me. It was so much more than Braille.
The greatest teachers are not great because of what they teach. They are great because of what they give. Jerry Whittle gave so much to so many. He gave us his words through the books, plays, and stories he wrote about the blind and our struggles for dignity. He gave us his wit through his corny humor, puns, and word plays. He once quipped that old Braille teachers never die; they just get de-pressed. He gave us his wisdom; that nothing is ever granted freely to the blind. If we want equality, we have to earn it. We have to help our blind brothers and sisters as well; he showed that through his work in the NFB. Sometimes, it’s not fair, but gritty determination sure beats self-pity and sloth.
Above all he gave us his warmth through the love he ceaselessly showed to those around him. He would stay late at work to help a student finish reading his first Braille book or write her first Braille sentence with a slate and stylus. He would organize a literary night at his home with his wife Merilynn to instill in us a love of reading. It seemed to me that he knew no off-hours. Quietly, reliably, selflessly, he simply offered what he had. I hope he knew how much we profited from all the gifts he gave. Thank you, Mr. Whittle. We miss you beyond words.
I was introduced to Mr. Whittle through a dear college friend. I needed some extra cash, and Mr. Whittle needed a reader. The friend who introduced us said Mr. Whittle and I would become fast friends; however, little did I realize that my part-time gig would grow into a genuine friendship that would have a lasting impact on my future.
Anyone who knew Mr. Whittle knew about his aversion to technology. Part of my job was to bridge the gap between the world of computers and the world of Jerry Whittle. My first project was to help him type and edit a manuscript for one of his plays. I quickly came to realize that our business relationship was atypical, because our work tasks often veered into witty conversations about Mr. Whittle’s life. He certainly didn’t mind that our paid hours of reading time usually descended (or ascended) into colorful stories of his past and present.
On occasion Mr. Whittle would have me read through Braille book catalogs, from which he selected literature for the Louisiana Center for the Blind library. When I became curious about Braille, Mr. Whittle eagerly put a Braille block in my hand and began to teach me. This was, as well, on his time. He didn’t mind.
I also assisted him by going through his numerous emails. Mr. Whittle had a social network before social networking was cool. He received countless emails every day from friends, family, colleagues, coworkers, and strangers. He answered every single one. I learned a lot about a lot of people I didn’t know—the NFB, Federationists, the LCB, the Braille Authority of North America, former students, and many more. Mr. Whittle and I spent hours engaged over the content of all those emails. I asked Mr. Whittle one time if he knew he was paying me to hang out with him. And he said, “I know that Mandi…don’t you?”
During my time spent as Mr. Whittle’s reader, all of the misconceptions I had about blindness and Braille vanished. After graduation I went home for a while and tried to begin my life as a college graduate. But in the back of my mind I knew what I wanted; I wanted to teach blind kids. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Mr. Whittle had been molding me with his stories and with his passion for Braille.
I applied for the O&M and TBS programs at Louisiana Tech University and went back to Ruston. And in the year and a half that followed I gained invaluable experience, achieved my master’s, met my husband, and received multitudes of opportunities that got me to where I am now. Today I am teaching Braille and encouraging my students to live the lives they want. My job as Mr. Whittle’s reader became secondary to what I gained from knowing him. Much of who I am now I attribute to the influence that he had on my life. I can say with all honesty that if not for Mr. Whittle, I would not have the fulfilling life that I have today.
Karl Smith (LCB alumnus and Chairman of the LCB Board of Directors, 1989)
I first met Jerry Whittle in 1988. I was on a tour of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, where I became a student in 1989. I was immediately impressed with his commitment and passion for the importance of Braille and also with his encouragement that I set goals that push me outside my comfort zone in all aspects of life. It was during this tour that I first heard Jerry say, “If you want to kill time, you have to work it to death.” And “We’re not running a happy home for the blind here.”
During my training, Jerry helped me build my Braille reading speed and taught me to make the slate and stylus a working tool. As valuable as these lessons were, I found that I learned some of the most important things about myself, my blindness, and what it meant to live the life I wanted to live outside Braille class. These informal life lessons occurred during many conversations that we had after hours, over a burger, or over a glass of muscadine juice. It was during these discussions that Jerry suggested that a few of us get together and produce and act in a play. Two fellow students, Jamie Lejeune and Jennifer Dunnam, and I along with Jerry, produced and performed John Brown’s Body, a play based on the epic poem by Steven Vincent Benét. We performed this play for the Ruston community at the Louisiana Tech University Theater.
This experience served as the foundation for the subsequent plays that Jerry Whittle would write and direct, casting Center students like myself to perform at national conventions for more than twenty-five years, with the proceeds going to support the Buddy Program at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. He believed so strongly in giving our blind children the skills for success and immersion in the positive philosophy and mentoring of the National Federation of the Blind. Because of these experiences, I auditioned for and was selected as a lead player in a musical presented at the Promise Valley Playhouse in Salt Lake City in 1993 and 1994. I would never have had the courage to attempt such a thing without Jerry’s encouragement. Needless to say, I learned my lines for all these plays with a Braille script. Jerry continued to be a good friend and mentor in the years since I graduated from the Center. I value all the times we had together talking, joking, playing poker, and solving the world’s problems. I will miss him greatly, but I will always value his wisdom and strong values.
Angela Frederick (LCB alumna, 1995)
How does one begin writing about a man who was such a powerful influence on the lives of his students? Of course, I immediately think of the gift of Braille literacy and the love for reading and writing Jerry Whittle gave to his students. But it was the special way he offered this gift that made Mr. Whittle such a force for change in his students’ lives. Mr. Whittle had a unique way of recognizing the core of his students and offering them a version of literacy which spoke to that core. “Oh, you’re interested in presidential history” he would say. “I have an amazing book about Abraham Lincoln for you.”
I am a sociologist now. My life’s work is teaching, researching, and writing in the academy. I can trace much of my love for reading and learning to Jerry Whittle. The beautiful Braille library he built at the Louisiana center was the first library I entered that felt like it was built for me. During my summers I spent at LCB as a teenager and young adult, I would spend hours looking through his vast collection of books. I would have to stand on chairs to reach the top of the mountains of pages he created along the walls of the Braille Room and the center library.
As a young person growing up in Louisiana, I was desperate for information about the larger world. One of the most well-read people I had met, Mr. Whittle’s presence felt like a gateway to something bigger for me. I always tried to finagle my way to sit next to him to soak up all of his wisdom. And I would always find myself gravitating to the Braille room, where I knew some kind of lively conversation would be happening between Mr. Whittle and his students.
Jerry Whittle had a unique capacity to love you dearly and scold you, all in the same breath. He didn’t hesitate to give you the world’s greatest compliment or take you down a notch, depending on his assessment of what you needed to hear that day. In between explaining how to remember the Braille letter E and telling his infamous jokes to keep us on our toes, Mr. Whittle would offer his students little nuggets of life wisdom in the LCB Braille Room. And one nugget of wisdom he offered me as a young adult has stayed with me for decades, “Truly smart people can create the world they want to live in.” We love you, Mr. Whittle.
Louise Walch (LCB alumna, 2006)
First there was Louis Braille, and then there was Jerry Whittle. Doubtless there were some in between, but that was the sequence for me. If there were a Braille hall of fame, Mr. Whittle’s face, complete with grey beard, would be up on the wall, larger than life. Between Braille lessons he would tell stories of his college escapades and more about his early days “beating the bushes” to find blind people and organize NFB chapters. During one of my Braille lessons, he mentioned he had been thinking a lot about how blind people don’t tend to play much football, and it wasn’t many weeks after that we all found ourselves measuring up for uniforms. That’s how the first blind football team was formed. We were a motley crew, but you better believe none of us were sitting on the sidelines. We were in the game.
Mr. Whittle was coach on the blind football field and coach in the classroom. We were always strategizing on how to get better and faster at reading Braille. He would regularly time all his students, and on those days when you were really zipping along, he might praise you with one of his signature Whittle phrases like “Wow, you are really tearing up the pea patch.” That was when you knew you could be proud. Or if you were really lucky, he might hand you a can of his favorite Buffalo Rock ginger ale. Or on one of your not-so-hot days he might say, “You sound as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” Then you could have a laugh and get back on the job.
I remember him telling me once about how as a young blind adult he would give himself daily travel assignments. Although he had no orientation and mobility instructor at the time, he would hone his cane skills just by getting out there with a stick and doing it. I’m sure there were many setbacks and a lot of discovery, but in the end, it was his decision to act rather than to be acted upon, that set the upward trajectory for his life.
He encouraged all his students not to be afraid of a little dot five W. That’s Braille shorthand for work.
I was just one of the thousand or more students who sat across the table from him during one of his thirty years of teaching Braille, but any one of those students would tell you that it wasn’t just Braille that he taught; he taught us to believe in blind people, to believe in ourselves. This brand of belief had little to do with platitudes, the kind of empty words you might read on some website. No, his belief was soul deep. Whether you were there sitting across the table from him surrounded by those floor-to-ceiling bookshelves of Braille that he was so proud of or in a raft shooting down whitewater in Tennessee or rehearsing one of the many plays he wrote and directed or donning the helmet for a game of Coach Whittle’s no-kidding-around blind football or just sitting with him in a diner chatting over a bowl of grits, you would know that you were somebody, and here was a man who believed in God and believed that whatever might knock you down, you could get right up again. It might be inconvenient, but it’s okay to be blind. You learned that you had blind brothers and sisters around the country in the NFB who were there for you. Get yourself a good mentor like Mr. Whittle if you can, but just get yourself out the door.
Bre Brown (LCB alumna, 2012)
When I met Mr. Whittle in 2011 as a student at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, he was incredibly welcoming. He made class challenging and entertaining. Yes, we did Braille, but we learned so much about life. He was always sharing stories and educating us about various things, such as how to live on your own as a blind person or how to navigate at a football game or Mardi Gras. He strongly believed every person should go and live independently at least once, in order to set in stone the fact that a person was truly able to be successful and trust themselves. He often shared his passion for nature, flowers, trees, and plants. His love for students was palpable. He always found ways for people to be involved in activities such as plays and cultural events. He also spent time with students to discover what motivated them. For example, Mr. Whittle gave me opportunities to try new things, such as directing one of his plays.
Earlier this year, he asked me to help direct his play, All Shot, performed at this year’s national convention. I never could have imagined it would be his last one. In October he asked me to direct Santa Rides Again, the play he wrote about Santa Claus losing his vision and receiving training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Directing the play also involves supervising the choir. I love to sing, and this is a fun and challenging way of using my skills. I really love how he showed everyone, including me, that you can do whatever you desired, including loving life despite blindness. I am thankful for all of his thought-provoking questions he had for me, his encouragement even when I doubted myself, and his way of living life as a pure example—open and honest, loving and caring, with every imperfection acting as a learning opportunity, not a downfall.
Six years ago I had no idea that I would be a Braille teacher. I have always loved Braille, and the National Federation of the Blind showed me that I could be a teacher. As a student I learned so much about teaching Braille from Mr. Whittle through observation. He showed me that just because you know Braille, there are still things you can learn or upon which you can improve. Over the years, he answered any question I had about teaching Braille as I was working in the LCB summer programs. He also instilled in me a belief that Braille class is not just about Braille; there are many important life lessons to learn. Some of it is life skills like budgeting and list creations, discussing student perspectives on blindness, motivating people to continue no matter their circumstance, and truly listening and empathizing with students. I saw from his example that the learning did not stop, even after five.
As we all know, Mr. Whittle was not a fan of technology, but he enjoyed learning about his iPhone. He did learn how to text with dictation. A few years ago, we started texting with each other almost every day. Some days it was just simply saying hello. It was sharing stories, him encouraging me as I continued through college and started my career, talking about vacations, just anything. He often said, “Go get ‘em,” even if it was just going to class, teaching Braille, or doing something totally new.
These exchanges and life lessons meant the world to me as a student and are just pieces of what Mr. Whittle gifted me. He taught me so much that it is difficult to narrow it down. Today, I have the incredible honor of continuing the legacy that Mr. Whittle has built. I am so thankful to keep giving the gift of literacy, the gift of Braille, and to find ways to keep students involved in the National Federation of the Blind to which he gave so much, their communities, and their own lives. “Read until you bleed!”
It is so hard for all of us to capture what Jerry meant to each of us. Words just don’t seem sufficient. I think the suddenness of his passing has made it even more emotional for all of us to absorb. You will see the common thread in these words. The hard thing is there are thousands more where these came from. Jerry was humble and hardworking, loyal and loving, humorous and creative, steady and trustworthy, and not afraid to admit when he was wrong and make amends as needed. He and Merilynn set such a wonderful example as a blind and a sighted role model. The ripples they made will be felt forever! So many whom Jerry taught are now teachers and leaders in the field of blindness. So many are using Braille and his life wisdom to propel themselves forward in other careers outside of blindness. So many are part of our Federation family because of his love and encouragement! He never had biological children but raised many children throughout his time with us.
Jerry always said, “Time is not eternal.” This is just another reminder of how we can never take the time we have for granted nor fail to share our love and appreciation for the people we have in our lives. Jerry always did this!
Dr. Marc Maurer
Jerry Whittle was not only quite knowledgeable about literature, history, philosophy, and education; but he was also a quiet, understated, and most jolly human being. He could find humor in most things, and he was friendly in showing you where it was.
I met Jerry Whittle first in South Carolina, where he was working to bring blind people into our movement. I came to know him even better in Louisiana, when he was teaching Braille. I visited the Louisiana Center for the Blind, and I sat in his classroom with him and students. He asked me if I could read poetry, and I admitted that I could. He said he wanted to record me doing so. I agreed. He turned on the recorder and handed me a copy of “Jabberwocky.” I had never before read “Jabberwocky.” It is a poem that contains many words that do not appear anywhere else in the English language. One of the simpler lines is, “The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!” I did my best. I have no idea what the recording sounded like, but I read the “Jabberwocky.”
Jerry Whittle talked me into doing many things I did not expect to do. He called me to say that football was needed by the blind, and he asked me for money to get the equipment together. I wanted to know what he meant. He said that blind people were going to play football with some rules that he had devised for the game. He said that when you run onto the field and smack into a guy on the other team and knock him flat, this is fun. I, who am smaller than he was, wondered if he could really mean it. I wasn’t as sure that I would enjoy it as he was.
Jerry always believed that he could do something to bring joy to people’s lives, and he was prepared to go the extra mile to do it. He thought that there was not enough literature depicting the reality of blindness. He was helping to solve this problem by writing plays that brought the daily experiences of the blind to life. He worked with his mind, but he also worked with his hands. He made me a walking stick from a piece of blackthorn that I carry still. I love the feel of my Whittle Stick. My life is richer because I knew Jerry Whittle.
Barrier-Free Manitoba and partner groups have launched the “Accessibility is the Law / Participation is Your Right” public information campaign. The campaign’s goal is to promote awareness of new accessibility requirements established under the landmark Accessibility for Manitobans Act (AMA) for all public meetings
Under the AMA, provincial government departments have been responsible to ensure the full accessibility of public meetings and events since November 1, 2016. Starting November 2017, most public sector organizations beyond government must do the same.
That means that organizations are required to ensure that:
• notices and promotions of public meetings and events are accessible to Manitobans with disabilities
• public meetings and events are held in spaces that are accessible
• Manitobans with disabilities are invited to request accommodations required for their full participation
• the physical and communication needs of persons disabled by barriers are met on request.
These organizations include:
• All government boards, commissions, associations, agencies, or similar bodies for which all board members are appointed Act of the Legislature or by the Lieutenant Governor in Council
• All colleges and universities
• All regional health authorities
• All school divisions and schools
• The cities of Brandon, Dauphin, Flin Flon, Morden, Portage la Prairie, Selkirk, Steinbach, Thompson, Winkler and Winnipeg.
In the past, while all Manitobans with disabilities have had the same legal right to participate as everyone else, many thousands of them, in practice, were denied their human rights to full citizenship because of barriers. The requirements established under the landmark Accessibility for Manitobans Act have now changed this. We think that this is wonderful news.
This campaign is intended to:
• Inform Manitobans with disabilities of the requirements removing barriers to their right to participate.
• Inform organizations what they are required to do to fulfill the requirements.
Celebrate and Exercise Your Rights
Please take every opportunity to celebrate and exercise your rights. Please become and have others you know become accessible public meeting champions who help ensure that organizations are meeting these new requirements.
If you see a notice in newspapers, online or elsewhere of public meetings and events being held by the organizations listed above, and it does not include an open and clear invitation for Manitobans with disabilities to request accommodations, call the group and express your concerns. If you want to attend and need an accommodation, request it in advance. If you see that a public meeting or event is scheduled to be held in space that you know is not fully accessible, call the group and express your concerns.
If you still have concerns after speaking with the group and/or if the group tells you that they won’t provide the requested accommodation, we strongly encourage you to work with VIRN and contact the Province’s Disability Issues Office:
Toll Free: 1-800-282-8069 (Extension 7613)
Change is hard, even a really important change like this. We expect that at least some of the organizations are going to need a little encouragement; together we can provide that encouragement. Please become and have others you know become accessible public meeting champions who help ensure that organizations are meeting these new requirements.
Finally, BFM would like to thank the partner groups that have helped organize this information campaign:
• Deaf Centre Manitoba Inc.
• Manitoba Deaf Association
• St. Amant
• Manitoba Deaf-Blind Association Inc.
• Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities,
• Canadian Hard of Hearing Association – Manitoba Chapter organizations are meeting these new requirements.
Blind News Victoria
A publication of the Pacific Training Centre for the Blind
After two months of sun and relaxation, its back to school for the Pacific Training Centre students. Classes will commence the week of Monday September 11, with classes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. . All returning students will be contacted prior to their first class. We are looking forward to an exciting year and will be expanding our program to serve students from outside the Victoria area. We also hope to take on one more staff person to help us meet the growing demand for blindness skills training.
Please consider becoming a member of the Pacific Training Centre for the Blind Society. Membership is only $5 per year. The greater the membership, the more successful the Society will be in acquiring grants from the government which are essential to us carrying on the vital work of the PTCB.
To join call Elizabeth at 250-580-4910 or email
Mark Your Calendar
PTCB Annual General Meeting
Tuesday September 19 at 4:00
Disability Resource Centre Board Room – 817a Fort St.
The meeting is open to all PTCB current and perspective members and there will be a phone in option for those who cannot attend in person. The meeting will be followed by pizza and refreshments. Please RSVP if you plan to attend in person or need the conference call details.
RSVP 250-580-4910 or
Get Together with Technology (GTT)
Date: September 6, 2017
Time: 1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Where: Community Room, GVPL, Main Branch 735 Broughton St
First Hour: Presentation from Heidi Likenby, Heidi works with the Public Service Agency in BC Government Digital Experience. She is currently working on a project to bring disability awareness and accessibility to the IT forefront throughout government. She is an accessibility advocate and is very interested in finding out more about GTT and also having the chance to meet some of the members, see first hand how they use assistive technology and hear their points of view on web design and accessibility.
2nd Hour: Steve Barclay, Canadian Assistive Technologies will provide a demonstration of what’s new in low vision and blindness tech, and offer a hands-on opportunity to those in attendance.
Contact Albert Ruel for more information or to receive future notices.
VocalEye at the Belfry Theatre this fall
- The Children’s Republic
Sunday October 1 at 2 p.m.
Sunday, October 29 at 2 p.m.
Belfry Theatre, 1291 Gladstone Ave., Victoria
This year, the Belfry is offering an annual subscription to VocalEye patrons. This subscription includes tickets to the VocalEye performances for each of their four main productions. A subscription costs $98.68 including tax ($24.67 per show). Single tickets are also available for $30.98 including tax. There is no special rate for companions this year.
To purchase a single ticket or annual subscription call the Belfry box office:
VIP Singers first practice
Monday September 18, 10 – 12
The VIP Singers is a group of blind and sighted singers and musicians who meet once a week to learn the words and harmonies (by ear) for original arrangements of popular songs and old time favourites. Anyone who likes to sing is welcome. The VIP Singers perform gigs at seniors’ homes and hospitals. Practices are on Mondays from 10 – 12 at the James Bay New Horizons, 234 Menzies St.
New members are always welcome. No previous choir experience is required. If you like to sing, please join us. For more information call Marcelina 250-516- 0584.
Victoria Community Report on AMI Audio
September 21 6:00 a.m. (repeated at 8 a.m.)
Linda Bartram has been contracted by AMI Audio as a Community Reporter for Victoria and Vancouver Island. Her interview can be heard on Live from Studio Five every fourth Thursday morning at 6:00 a.m. (repeated at 8 a.m.). She will be featuring cultural events and activities of interest to persons who are blind. AMI Audio can be found at 889 on your television or on line at
About the Pacific Training Centre for the Blind
The Pacific Training Centre for the Blind (PTCB) is a Canadian grassroots nonprofit charitable service organization founded and run by blind people. Its training fosters independence, where blind people empower blind people to be employed, independent and free.
The Blind People in Charge Program, provided by the Pacific Training Centre for the Blind, is the only program of its kind in Western Canada that offers regular, intensive rehabilitation to people who are blind or who are losing their vision; it is also the only program that uses an empowering, problem-solving model of instruction, where blind people are the teachers, planners, directors and administrators.
The program involves a collaborative, positive, and empowering approach to blindness, where blind people learn from and teach each other in a supportive, can-do atmosphere. Instructors and mentors teach the skills of independence such as Braille, adaptive technology, cane travel, cooking and other life skills, and develop strategies for coping with blindness and vision loss in a sighted world.
The Blind People in Charge Program held at the Victoria Disability Resource Centre 817a Fort St., runs two days a week from 10:00 – 4:00 and participants are encouraged to attend as full time students (12 hours a week). Drop in students are also considered. Teaching takes place in group and one-on-one sessions and participants progress at their own pace. Past participants have ranged in age from 24 – 88. Anyone over 18 who is blind or is experiencing significant vision loss may apply including those who are experiencing other challenges. There is no charge to students; however donations are always welcome. For more information, or to participate in our program, please contact us.
Factsheet for employers and employment
Blind and partially sighted people at work
– Guidance and good practice for Risk
About this factsheet
This factsheet is for anyone who needs help with safety management in a place where blind or partially sighted people work. Blind and partially sighted people compete for, perform and succeed in a wide range of jobs. Many need little or no adjustment to their workplace or to working practices, and yet many employers worry about employing blind and partially sighted people, sometimes having concerns for their safety and for the safety of others.
This guidance has been compiled in consultation with: health and safety professionals; people in the workplace who assess the risks to employees; employers; and with blind and partially sighted people. We aim to help risk assessors by providing the information they need to reach decisions, and ensure a safe environment with safe working guidelines.
1. The need for Guidance
2. Blind and partially sighted people at work
3. The process of Risk Assessment
4. Key points for Risk Assessment
5. Common issues
5.1 Dealing with Guide Dogs
5.2 Mobility and travel
5.4 Trip hazards
5.5 Lone working
5.6 Evacuating the building
5.8 Safe use of computer systems
5.10 Caring for others
7. Sources of help and further information
1. The need for guidance
Carrying out a risk assessment of the workplace or an activity for blind or partially sighted people doesn’t have to be difficult, but it can sometimes be a daunting prospect. If you haven’t worked with blind people before, it can be very easy to over-estimate risks or make assumptions about what blind people can or can’t do.
People who risk assess the workplaces and activities of blind and partially sighted people, looking for advice, often approach RNIB. While we are aware that mistakes can be made, we also know that risks can be managed successfully and we want to share good practice.
This guidance has been produced to highlight some of the things that we’re often asked about, share examples of successful risk management and suggest sources of help.
We are also aware that risk assessment, or health and safety in general, has been used as an excuse not to employ blind and partially sighted people (Hurstfield et al, 2003). We hope that the guidance we have put together will help to overcome unnecessary barriers.
Most importantly, we hope that this guidance helps you to reach informed decisions and, in so doing, ensures that blind and partially sighted people can continue to work effectively and safely.
2. Blind and partially sighted people at work
In the middle of the last century, blind people were encouraged to work in specific occupations. These included jobs as switchboard operators, masseurs, piano tuners and even basket weavers.
Things have changed quite considerably and blind and partially sighted people now succeed in a range of jobs across different sectors. “This IS Working 2” (RNIB, 2009), gave examples of ten people working as: a company director, senior physiotherapist, sales and marketing manager, shop owner, policy officer, development and funding officer, teacher, administrative assistant, and outreach worker. A copy of this document, which includes testimonials from employers, can be fond here: http://www.rnib.org.uk/livingwithsightloss/working/successstories/Pages/success_stories.aspx
Blind people do succeed at work. When safety management works well, we know that all employees, including blind and partially sighted people, can work safely.
3. The process of risk assessment
Employers are required by law to manage health and safety in the workplace. Each organisation will have their own ways of doing this and the roles of individual risk assessors can be different.
This document does not deal with the mechanics of undertaking and recording risk assessments. The principles are the same for everyone, but guidance is already available on dealing with “disability” in relation to safety management. See, for example, ‘Health and Safety for Disabled People and Their Employers (Health and Safety Executive and DRC).
IOSH, the Chartered body for health and safety professionals, offers advice on their website about the responsibilities that the Equality Act imposes on those who manage safety.
They specifically suggest that:
• the Equality Act has an effect on the way you
• manage safety.
• while you may be able to use health and safety issues related to disability as a reason not to employ someone – or to refuse a service to someone – you can only do so if certain conditions are met.
• if the safety of a task may be affected by someone’s disability, then a risk assessment should be carried out for everyone, not just for disabled employees.
• if you don’t document the steps you’ve taken to consult disabled workers or customers, and to make reasonable adjustments, your organisation could be involved in an expensive tribunal case.
This factsheet will focus on how risk assessment can affect blind and partially sighted people at work.
4. Key points for risk assessment
In general, the following points will help to shape your risk assessments:
4.1 Risk assessments should address a task and everyone
Whilst the legislation requires employers to identify groups that might be at risk of harm, telling someone that “you must be risk assessed” sends out a negative message. In a way, it suggests that the individual is the issue, when this is clearly not the case. It sounds much more positive to tell someone that activities are being assessed.
4.2 The individuals involved must be consulted
The Health and Safety Executive’s “Five Steps to Risk Assessment” recommends that: ‘In all cases, you should make sure that you involve your staff or their representatives in the process. They will have useful information about how the work is done that will make your assessment of the risk more thorough and effective.’
Your blind or partially sighted employee is usually the best person to describe how their sight loss affects them and you should be able to tap in to that knowledge. Risk assessments carried out without the involvement of blind and partially sighted employees are significantly more likely to be inaccurate.
4.3 “Adjustments” must be considered as part of the process
Employers have a responsibility to make “reasonable adjustments” to working practices and physical features. This is likely to include the provision of auxiliary aids. While this might be beyond your area of responsibility as a risk assessor, you must be prepared to take proposed changes into account.
4.4 It is important that you do not make assumptions about
the level of someone’s functional vision
Most blind people have some useful vision. Some people will be able to see fine detail, while some may have very good peripheral vision. Even people with the same eye condition can have widely different levels of useful sight.
Employers often ask for medical guidance to help understand what people can or can’t see. However, this is often presented in medical terms and is usually lacking an occupational focus.
Asking the individual to describe their sight is often the best way to gather information to assess risk. Professionals who work with blind and partially sighted people at work can be another source of information. Making assumptions about what people can and can’t see will produce flawed risk assessments.
5. Common issues
Employers often contact RNIB to ask for advice about specific worries they have about the safety of a blind or partially sighted colleague. Things we have been asked about include:
5.1 Guide Dogs at work
Guide dogs are one example of an aid to mobility. However, it has been estimated that as few as one or two per cent of blind or partially sighted people use guide dogs to get around. It is therefore important that you don’t assume that people either use guide dogs, or choose to bring them to work.
Having said that, if an employee brings a guide dog to work, proper planning is required to ensure that things run smoothly.
We have been asked about accommodating guide dogs at work and, in most cases, working practices can be adopted to ensure a safe and comfortable working environment.
Some of the common questions revolve around:
Toileting – a suitable area must be identified for the guide dog. While in some places there are very obvious locations for this, some companies (particularly in town centres) find this difficult.
Moving around building – the extent to which a blind person uses a guide dog once at their workstation will vary, depending on the person’s other mobility skills and knowledge of the environment. It is important that the guide dog user is aware of his or her responsibilities. Working rules should be established. These could include where the dog goes when not “on harness” or how often breaks are required.
Induction/emergency procedures – it may be necessary to review your evacuation plans. There may already be a structure in place (such as personal emergency evacuation plans) to facilitate this within your organisation. Standard instructions, such as those issued during induction should be available in the correct format for the employee to read.
Colleagues – the extent to which colleagues interact with guide dog users is likely to vary. There are both positive and negatives to this. For example, colleagues can distract a working dog, or alternatively can assist with “walking” the dog. Colleagues may need to be told of their responsibilities. For example, they may need to know when it might be appropriate to play with or to walk the dog, or to know when the dog is working.
Allergy/Fear of dogs/cultural influences – Some thought may need to be given to where guide dogs are based while people are working to allay concerns.
If in any doubt about any aspect of working with Guide Dogs, representatives from the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association will want to help you with this.
5.2 Mobility and travel
When considering potential risks involved in travelling, it is important to bear in mind that most blind or partially sighted people will travel easily with no problems. Some may need support.
Blind and partially sighted people have varying levels of sight and particular eye conditions affect sight in different ways. We can’t assume that people with the same eye condition are affected in the same way, as people with the same eye condition often see the world in entirely different ways. Familiarity with the area and environmental factors, such as lighting, are other things that can affect someone’s mobility.
Additionally, people adjust to sight loss in different ways. It is safe to say that the mobility skills of blind and partially sighted people vary considerably. Some people travel independently, while others use mobility aids or support from others to travel.
It probably goes without saying that an individual should be consulted when considering potential risks with travel. It is also good practice to ensure that any concerns about mobility are kept in perspective – issues should not be allowed to be blown out of proportion.
If an individual is looking for mobility support for specific parts of their travel, two agencies might be able to help.
In each local authority area, there are mobility specialists, sometimes known as rehabilitation workers, who can teach people how to use mobility aids and help them learn to navigate routes. They either work for the local authority social work team, or the organisation that holds the register of blind and partially sighted people.
The Access to Work programme supports people at work and individuals can apply for financial assistance to travel to and from work and within work. The Access to Work programme can only cover the additional costs of travelling to meet disability-related and it is not intended to replace the standard costs involved in business use.
Both the quality and quantity of lighting has a significant impact on all working environments. For some people, it can help to create a comfortable workplace. For others, lighting can pose a barrier to effective working.
Guidance on lighting levels tends to be either general, aimed at a technical audience, or individual, based on one person’s experience. For example, Building Site (1995), suggests that light levels are crucial. It suggests that lux levels (a measure of luminance) for blind and partially sighted people should be 25 per cent to 50 per cent above the “general” level.
The difficulty with such generalised recommendations is that individual blind and partially sighted people have very different needs. Increasing the general “background” lighting levels might not necessarily make a working environment safer or more comfortable.
For some people, increasing background light would be helpful. But it might be more effective to introduce additional light sources, rather than make the existing fittings brighter. This is particularly true if units can be switched on and off to allow more control over lux levels.
Other people find it difficult to work with high levels of lighting and prefer a darker working environment.
As well as the amount of light, the source of light is also an important factor. Many people find that natural light is best. This can mean that making the best of light from windows is preferable to using electric lighting. Similarly, some people find that light fittings emulating natural light (daylight bulbs) are very effective.
The key to resolving lighting issues is to talk to the people involved and call in specialists where necessary. Sometimes simple changes can make a huge difference to a working environment. At other times, more work is required to strike a balance between the needs of one individual among a group of other employees.
5.4 Trip hazards
Research suggests that blind and partially sighted people are more likely to trip than sighted people (Legood et al, 2009). Yet, when we introduce controls to reduce risk, it is very important to keep a sense of perspective. Introducing “no-go” areas, such as stairs or in specific areas you perceive as dangerous, can be discriminatory. It is very unlikely that the only way to manage potential trip hazards is to exclude people from certain areas, as other alternative steps can be taken to reduce risk. Most blind and partially sighted people can navigate around buildings and other workplaces. If you feel strongly that there are parts of a workplace that are not safe, you should seek advice.
5.5 Lone working
Working alone is an integral part of many jobs. Whether this involves visiting customers at home, working from other premises, travelling either locally or more widely or working at home.
Lone working is an area that often raises concerns for employers. But while there may be occasions when a blind or partially sighted person is exposed to risk, these risks are often no greater than a sighted colleague would face.
It is very easy to make assumptions about potential dangers and introduce unnecessary risk controls. And yet, very many blind or partially sighted people work successfully and safely on their own, sometimes in challenging environments.
It is important to consider how an individual is affected by sight loss. Some people travel independently and confidently. Others look for support, particularly in unfamiliar environments.
Some employers have found it helpful to consider the extent of an individual’s sight loss. Having an understanding of what a person can or cannot see can make it easier to discuss risks. Medical “evidence” is not likely to help with this. A diagnosis does not usually describe the extent of functional vision. Most of the time, your blind or partially sighted employee is the best person to describe this to you.
Your starting point for managing risks should be the systems you already have in place for your lone workers. Your local working practices must be robust and comprehensive, so that the work of all of your lone-working employees is covered. Your blind or partially sighted employee is no different in this respect.
5.6 Evacuating the building
Most blind and partially sighted people will understand the need for plans to deal with unexpected evacuations, for example, in the case of fire. Employers generally deal with evacuation routes, procedures and assembly points during an employee’s induction period.
It is important to ensure that written evacuation procedures are available in different formats during induction. For example, having a Word version of the procedures available will allow most users of access technology to read them.
Some blind or partially sighted people would welcome the chance to familiarise themselves with the main routes and practise leaving the building by emergency exits. This could be arranged with their line manager when starting work.
If a blind or partially sighted person is finding it difficult to learn routes and needs some support, it may be appropriate to allocate a “buddy” to assist with evacuation until routes are learned.
Further information can be found in the publication “Fire Safety Risk Assessment: Means of Escape for Disabled People”, Department of Communities and Local Government, 2007.
While risk assessing the use of stairs, your starting point should be to assume that blind and partially sighted people are subject to the same risks as any other employee. Therefore, any steps you might take to reduce risk apply to all employees.
If you believe that there are risks to stair users, you may want to consider the following extracts form Building Sight:
“Lighting on stairs should be sufficient to highlight any obstructions on the flight of the stairs, but should highlight the treads as opposed to the risers to emphasise each step. It is very important that ceiling-mounted luminaires do not become a glare source – they should be well shielded. Alternatively, large-area, low-brightness sources can be mounted on a side or facing wall.”
“The stair covering should not have a pattern that can cause confusion between tread and riser or between one tread and another.”
It is worth pointing out that making physical changes of this type may be the responsibility of your landlord, but this does not mean that you shouldn’t raise the issues with them.
5.8 Safe use of computer systems
Employers are required to “analyse workstations, and assess and reduce risks. Employers need to look at the whole workstation including equipment, furniture, and the work environment; the job being done; and any special needs of individual staff. The regulations apply where staff habitually use display screen equipment as a significant part of their normal work.” (HSE, 2006).
It is entirely likely, then, that the needs of blind and partially sighted people will be highlighted as part of a general risk assessment of display screen equipment.
In addition to this, employees will often highlight difficulties in using computer systems related to their sight. Unless the individual has a good idea of their requirements, it is usually a good idea to seek specialist advice. RNIB or Action for Blind People offices will be able to recommend ways to make it easier to change the way screens look, or alternative ways of accessing screen content.
Employers often have legitimate concerns about blind or partially sighted people operating power tools, hand tools or other machinery such as grass cutting or gardening power tools.
There will be times when you will need to eliminate risk by specifying tools that should not be used at work.
However, it is very important to discuss with an individual exactly how their sight restricts them and how real the risks are. Bear in mind that some new employees may underplay any difficulties as they may have had negative experiences with past employers.
Another factor to take into account is the environment in which people will be working. If you can control the immediate work area, machinery can be made safe to use. For example, in a factory, machines can be fitted with guards and walkways restricted to improve the safety of the work environment. If you are in doubt, ask for advice.
5.10 Caring for others
Many blind and partially sighted people work in jobs where they provide social care services. This can include working in nurseries, care homes and delivering community services.
As you would expect, the generic risk assessments carried out to cover the working routines of care workers are often sufficient to ensure a safe working environment for blind and partially sighted people.
However, employers sometimes have concerns about certain aspects of working that could be perceived as dangerous. These could include, for example:
Reading facial expressions to predict behaviour:
This is a contentious issue. The vast majority of blind or partially sighted people will be able to read facial expressions, but some will find it difficult or impossible. Logically, this could suggest that a blind person may be at higher risk of sudden changes in behaviour.
However, there is a considerable body of research that shows how people are able to perceive mood or feelings from verbal communication only. So the extent of the risk involved is not at all clear.
Reducing risk in this situation calls for a balanced judgement based on an understanding of an individual’s sight and the requirements of the job.
Missing visual cues, such as evidence of substance misuse or
Potential hazards of this kind could be addressed by adopting working practices that apply to all employees. This could include ensuring that thorough background information is obtained with referrals. Additionally, initial assessments of the individual customers should cover the likelihood of issues arising. There may be situations where it is safer for people to work in pairs.
Reading correspondence while visiting customers:
In some jobs, workers may be required to read forms or letters when visiting people in their homes or other settings. Generally, this can be overcome by using access technology, such as portable video magnifiers or scanners.
Perceived difficulties dealing with children:
Nurseries, after school clubs and similar establishments that provide childcare services have well-developed risk management systems in place. If a blind or partially sighted person starts work, the working practices in place are often robust enough to ensure safe working.
Occasionally, parents have concerns about blind or partially sighted people caring for their children. Concerns could include tripping, not seeing children putting things in their mouths, escorting children in the local area or identifying parents when children are collected.
In your role as a risk assessor, you should discuss concerns with the individual to establish whether any of these concerns are genuine and if so how they could be minimised. For example, another worker could check the identity of parents collecting children.
It is really important that the concerns of parents are not confused with actual risk.
‘Building Sight: A handbook of building and interior design solutions to include the needs of visually impaired people’, P Barker, J Barrick and R Wilson, London HMSO in Association with RNIB, 1995
‘Fire Safety Risk Assessment: Means of Escape for Disabled People’, Department of Communities and Local Government, 2007
‘Five Steps to Risk Assessment’, Health and Safety Executive
‘Health and Safety for Disabled People and Their Employers’, HSE and DRC
J Hurstfield et al, ‘The extent of use of health and safety as a false excuse for not employing sick or disabled persons’, research report 167, HRC/DRC, 2003
JMU Access Partnership, Fact Sheet 24 – Lighting
Legood R, Scuffham PA and Cryer C, “Are we blind to injuries in the visually impaired? A review of the literature”, June 2009
RNIB and Thomas Pocklington Trust, ‘Make the most of your sight, Improve the lighting in your home”, RNIB and Thomas Pocklington Trust, 2009
‘This is Working 2’, RNIB, October 2009
‘Working with VDUs’, HSE leaflet INDG36(rev3), revised 12/06
7. Sources of help and further information
7.1 RNIB and Action for Blind People
Employment services for employers
We can help you retain a current employee who is losing their sight, and we can help you to take on someone who is visually impaired.
Advances in technology mean that visually impaired people can now overcome many of the barriers to work that they faced in the past, and government schemes like Access to Work mean that many of the costs can be met.
We provide a number of services that can be directly commissioned by employers. These include:
• Work-based assessments – a visit to a workplace, by one of our specialists, to evaluate the potential for equipment, software, and adjustments that would better allow an employee to fulfil their role.
• 1 to 1 access technology training. Our technology specialists can visit your workplace and provide training tailored to suit your employee’s needs.
• Visual and disability awareness training.
For further information about any of these services, please contact us via our website or directly via our employment services mailbox:
We currently produce the following factsheets for employers and employment professionals:
• Access to Work
• RNIB work-based assessment services
• Blind and partially sighted people at work – Guidance and good practice for Risk Assessors
• Testing the compatibility of access software and IT applications
• Guidelines on meeting the needs of visually impaired delegates on training courses
In addition to this you may like to check out our ‘This IS Working’ documents, which showcase blind and partially sighted people working in a range of occupations, and include testimonials from employers, as well as our ‘Vocational rehabilitation’ document, which sets out the business case for retaining newly disabled staff.
All of these factsheets and documents can be found in the employment professionals section of our website http://www.rnib.org.uk/employmentservices which also contains the latest research in the field, as well as information on IT and accessibility, the Equality Act, success stories, and more.
We also produce a number of factsheets aimed at blind and partially sighted people, on a range of employment related issues. These can be found at http://www.rnib.org.uk/employment
The RNIB Helpline can refer you to an employment specialist for further advice and guidance. RNIB Helpline can also help you by providing information and advice on a range of topics, such as eye health, the latest products, leisure opportunities, benefits advice and emotional support.
Call the Helpline team on 0303 123 9999 or email email@example.com
7.2 Access to Work
Access to Work is a scheme run by Jobcentre Plus. The scheme provides advice, grant funding, and practical support to disabled people and employers to help overcome work related obstacles resulting from a disability. Read our Access to Work factsheet, or visit the Access to Work pages at http://www.rnib.org.uk/employmentservices to learn more about qualifying for the scheme. Further details are also available at http://www.directgov.uk
7.3 Guide Dogs
The best place to find out information relating to guide dogs. Visit: http://www.guidedogs.org.uk
7.4 The Health and Safety Executive
HSE is responsible for enforcing health and safety at workplaces. Visit: http://www.hse.gov.uk
7.5 Equality and Human Rights Commission
The Equality and Human Rights commission have a statutory remit to promote and monitor human rights; and to protect, enforce and promote equality across the nine “protected” grounds – age, disability, gender, race, religion and belief, pregnancy and maternity, marriage and civil partnership, sexual orientation and gender reassignment. The website includes a section on employment.
Factsheet updated: April 2013