Tips for Working with an Employee, Employer, Coworker, or Client Who Is Blind or Visually Impaired and Has Multiple Disabilities

Two employees who are visually impaired, hard at work at their desks.

I hope you are reading this blogpost because you are anticipating the arrival of a new employee who has multiple disabilities. You likely know I can’t fully prepare you to work alongside the specific individual who is blind or visually impaired and has multiple disabilities, because each person with multiple disabilities is incredibly unique in abilities, preferences, personality, and needs. I can, however, encourage you to clear your pre-conceived expectations and enter the partnership with an open mind and respectful behavior.

Here are tips for successfully embarking on your partnership:

  • Even if you have worked alongside or known well an individual with multiple disabilities, don’t assume you understand your new employee’s abilities, preferences, or needs. Instead, ask the individual what he needs in regards to job accommodations and communication preferences.
  • Out of common courtesy, speak directly to the individual instead of speaking to an interpreter or job coach. If you know the individual has decreased cognitive or intellectual functioning, speak in simple sentences, pause frequently to allow for processing time, and provide adequate response time. Unless the individual is hard of hearing and encourages you to speak loudly, speak in a normal tone of voice. If the employee appears confused on an important matter, do communicate with his job coach or support team.
  • Don’t assume the individual has limited cognitive functioning. The disabilities may be entirely physical.
  • Use people-first language. For example, “Lisa, who is visually impaired,…” emphasizes that Lisa is first-and-foremost an individual and is not defined by her eyesight or disability, as would be the case in “visually impaired Lisa” or “handicapped employees”.
  • If you’re unsure about specific terminology to use regarding a disability, ask the individual.
  • If you want to know more about the disclosed disability, ask if the individual is comfortable answering a few of your disability-related questions. However, she likely doesn’t want to talk about a disability every day; there’s far more to the individual than her disability.
  • Never talk about the employee while assuming he does not understand. For example, saying “Don’t give that responsibility to Jon, he can’t do it” or “There goes Jon again, rocking in his chair” is, of course, disrespectful and inappropriate. While this tip is painfully obvious, it is surprising how easily negative talk (in front of the individual) creeps into homes, schools, and workplaces. Don’t allow it to transpire by setting a good example for others, and speaking up when you notice its occurrence.
  • Provide clear expectations. If the individual has impaired cognitive, developmental, intellectual, or social functioning, provide clear goals, instructions, deadlines, and expectations.
  • If you observe inappropriate behavior, calmly tell the individual the specific behavior is inappropriate for the office or workplace. If the behavior continues and you want to assist him in ceasing the behavior, try offering an appropriate behavior to replace the inappropriate one; the suggested behavior should attempt to meet the need the inappropriate behavior met. If the inappropriate behavior continues, don’t hesitate to discuss the issue with the individual’s job coach or support team.
  • Encourage the employee’s independence. Avoid over-helping and assuming the individual requires assistance. Additionally, allow the individual to make mistakes; don’t come to the rescue unless it is absolutely necessary.
  • Does the individual work best in a particular environment? If so, accommodate the work environment to the best of your ability. This includes noise levels, preferred lighting, and organizational strategies.
  • Review the Job Accommodation Network to learn typical job accommodations for specific disabilities.

For information and strategies specific to working with an individual who is blind or visually impaired, read How Employers Can Enable Employees with Visual Impairments to be Successful and Simple Strategies for Providing an Accessible Workplace for Blind Employees. Lastly, peruse AFB’s For Employers section.

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