Visual Impairments Overview

Visual impairments include conditions which cause a person to be completely blind, or to lose their sight partially, in one or both eyes. Visual impairments can either occur from birth, or develop over time as the result of another condition or old age. There are about two million people in the UK with a visual impairment, 360,000 of whom are registered blind or partially sighted.

What are the types of visual impairment?

Types of visual impairments include:

  • Cortical or cerebral visual impairment – where the brain cannot interpret what healthy eyes are seeing – sight can be limited to swirling, indistinguishable colours.
  • Retinitis pigmentosa – a genetic condition which reduces night vision and peripheral vision and can deteriorate over time, leaving the person with complete vision loss.
  • Macular degeneration – an age-related deterioration of a part of the retina called the macula and the most common cause of sight loss in adults.
  • Retinopathy of prematurity – the leaking of blood vessels in the eyes of premature babies, meaning that blindness occurs at a young age.

Sight loss can also occur in people with diabetes, known as diabetic retinopathy, which can cause blurred vision, or spots in vision and can, in some cases, result in complete blindness.

How are visual impairments diagnosed and treated?

People with sight loss are most often referred to a vision clinic attached to their local hospital, where they will receive information and practical assistance on the best lighting for their home, for example.

In order to register as partially sighted or blind, a person will be referred to an ophthalmologist who can assess the extent of their blindness, including their ability to see at a distance and their field of vision. Registering is not compulsory, but allows the person to apply for certain disability-related benefits.

For people with age-related macular degeneration, they can receive injections and phototherapy to stop their vision worsening, but only if it is the ‘wet’ type of the condition. For people with the ‘dry’ type, there is no treatment.

Someone with diabetes can have an eye examination to check for diabetes-related eye problems which may affect their vision, such as glaucoma and retinopathy. In the early stages, doctors will monitor these conditions, but injections and surgery can be used to treat the conditions as they progress. Staying healthy and active and taking the relevant diabetes medication can help prevent or slow down diabetes-related visual impairments.

There are a few ways to determine whether an employee has visual impairments, or to confirm a visual impairment which requires reasonable adjustments:

  • The employee will likely raise the issue of their impairment upfront, particularly in the case of more severe impairments if they are registered blind or partially sighted.
  • Even if the employee does not wish to disclose their visual impairments, an employer can focus on making reasonable adjustments, rather than seeking to determine the precise disability their employee has.
  • Given that visual impairments can evolve over time, with certain symptoms worsening as the person ages, it is important to maintain regular communication with the employee who has visual impairments so that the reasonable adjustments remain appropriate.

What reasonable adjustments are possible with visual impairments?

Employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees with visual impairments if they know, are aware of, or could ‘reasonably be expected to know’ that the employee has one of these impairments. Most employees will tell their employer what reasonable adjustments they need. They often involve simple changes in the way an employer might usually do things.

If the employee does not disclose a health issue or disability which may affect their performance up front, an employer should broach the subject sensitively if they suspect that there may be a disability behind the employee’s reduced performance. Reasonable adjustments can then be made in accordance with the employee’s needs, including, in the case of visual impairments:

  • Accommodating time off: if the employee’s partially sightedness worsens, or for appointments relating to their impairment.
  • Providing an adapted computer: with speech output so that the employee does not have to rely on being able to read what is on their screen, or a larger monitor to make reading easier.
  • Producing adapted paperwork: with either a larger typeface or in braille if the employee reads braille (more common in people who have had a visual impairment from childhood).
  • Adjusting lighting levels: to make it as easy as possible for the employee to make the most of their partial sightedness.
  • Emphasising the employee’s skills, rather than the difficulties they have as a result of their visual impairments: people with visual impairments have the same cognitive function as people without it, and so their intellectual abilities will be unaffected by their disability. It is important not to make assumptions about what the employee with the impairment can and cannot do.
  • Raise awareness: for the employees with visual impairments to be better understood in the workplace, and to make employees feel comfortable with asking for help related to their impairments and when using their long cane, guide dog, or other aids.

Visual impairments Signposting

Royal National Institute of Blind People – the UK’s largest community of blind and partially sighted people and providers of practical and emotional support, reading services and change campaigns, particularly to make the world a place where people with visual impairments face no barriers (0303 123 9999).

Partially Sighted Society – organisation providing information, advice, training and reading aids for people with visual impairments, as well as vision assessments and adapted stationery, watches and other day-to-day equipment (01302 965195).

Macular Society – charity looking for a cure to macular disease and committed to funding research, and support for those living with this type of visual impairment (0300 3030 111).

Other Research Resources

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