From passion to frustration: what I’ve learned from running focus groups on employment and sight loss

16 December 2019
Four male and one female blind or partially sighted participant engaged in a discussion around a table.

Our Policy and Campaigns Officer Liam Parkin talks about what he’s learned from travelling across the UK listening to people’s experiences of employment, and what’s in store for 2020.

RNIB is driven by our community, and as well as being at the heart of what we do as an organisation, it is central to all the work we do in the Policy and Campaigns team. In the last few months, I have been up and down the country to hear first-hand experiences of people who are blind and partially sighted being in, or looking for, employment. This research has been part of RNIB’s most comprehensive evidence base on employment and sight loss to date.

The current situation

The employment rate for the general population has been steadily increasing for the past several years, but we now know that this isn’t the case for people who are blind or partially sighted. Compared to a current general employment rate of 76% (as of November 2019), only 27% of people who are registered blind or partially sighted are in work.

We also know that employment is one of the biggest barriers faced by people with sight loss, and in order to understand a bit more on how we can overcome this, we spent a large part of 2019 conducting research.

We began by commissioning a YouGov poll and carrying out our own large-scale survey. However, rather than focusing solely on collecting big data, we were really interested in hearing first hand experiences of being in, and looking for, employment to really get to grips with the challenges faced, and the changes needed. So, I got my railcard ready and headed out across the UK to learn more about these experiences.

What I found out – the positives

Over the course of three months, I covered seven cities and spoke to over 60 people who were in and out of work. I was first struck by the variety of jobs people did: there were doctors, civil servants, waiters, software engineers and cleaners, to name a few, all of which readily challenge public misconceptions about the jobs people with sight loss can do.

Many people I spoke to discussed some of the great work that had been done by their employers. It was interesting to hear that the most effective managers were those that listened and took the time to understand the often-simple accessibility requirements needed for someone with sight loss to perform their job – such as a larger monitor, a change in lighting, or even a day’s grace to familiarise themselves with new software. These types of adjustments went a long way, and many felt that the presence of those with sight loss performing the same tasks as their sighted colleagues did a lot to dispel workplace myths and educate the people they worked with.

What I found out – the negatives

Unfortunately, however, not all experiences of finding or being in work were positive. Jobcentres were frequently brought up, in particular the lack of understanding of sight loss from staff and the general assumptions that were being made about people’s ability to work – with many told there may be no suitable jobs, and some even asked to take a job as a courier. The Access to Work scheme, through which the government can provide support at work, was also mentioned often, particularly the long delays in provision and the inaccessibility of the system often preventing many of the participants from working effectively. Many also felt that on top of the challenges of finding a job, and then securing Access to Work support, they had to prove themselves more that their sighted colleagues at work. This made the working environment quite challenging, and some of the stories about the lack of support from managers were quite difficult to hear.

My overall impression

What struck me overall, however, was the passion every single person I spoke to had for improving the employment prospects of people with sight loss. Their lived experience, both positive and negative, really showed how important attitudes in the workplace are, and how a little understanding of sight loss can go a long way.

But this passion was also met with widespread frustration – frustration that nothing has changed for the past five years, that the same conversations are being had and that the same negative attitudes still exist. Indeed, our research shows that the employment rate for people who are registered blind or partially sighted is actually worse than it was ten years ago.

What’s next?

What my experience this year has told me is that there’s a long way to go to ensure there are no barriers to employment for those with sight loss. But it also showed me how much everyone cares and how important this is. A change in employer attitudes and an increase in knowledge and understanding are essential in breaking down these barriers. That’s why in February 2020 we’ll be launching our employment campaign, shaped by these conversations and driven by our community. Make sure you sign up to our newsletter to find out more.

Find out more about our campaigning on employment