Talking to our customers about employment: what have we learnt?

Posted: 
19 April 2017
Image of Alex Saunders, blog author and RNIB Employment Impact Officer

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In this Expert series blog, Alex Saunders, RNIB Employment Impact Officer, tells how extensive consultation work with blind and partially sighted people informed our recent response to the Government's Green Paper on employment.

In August 2016, ahead of the Government’s Green Paper on employment, RNIB Working Age and Employment Manager wrote a blog questioning the self-congratulatory tone implicit in some Ministers’ pronouncements on the number of disabled people in work. He challenged the Government to work closely with RNIB to improve employment rates for blind and partially sighted people.  

Six months on, “Improving lives: the work, health and disability Green Paper” has been published, and RNIB has embarked on one of the most extensive customer consultation exercises in the organisation’s history. So what have we learnt?

Highlighting the disability employment gap

The latest data shows that since 2015, almost 300,000 more working age disabled people are in employment and the disability employment rate has increased by almost 3 percentage points, now standing at 50 per cent. Over the same time there have been improvements in the disability employment gap (the difference between disabled people in work and the general population) which now stands at around 31 percentage points, down from just below 34 percentage points in the same period in 2015. Modest improvements, but progress nevertheless.

This is in stark contrast to the experiences of blind and partially sighted people. Our My Voice survey revealed that only one in four people registered with sight loss and of working age are currently working, down from one in three ten years ago. Rather than increasing in line with the general population, the employment rate of blind and partially sighted people is steadily falling. The disability employment gap, if you are living with sight loss, is widening.

Talking to our customers about employment

Led by RNIB’s Campaigns team, the consultation process engaged hundreds of blind and partially sighted people, lasted over three months, and spanned the length and breadth of the UK. There were packed meetings in partnership with Sense and Action on Hearing Loss; daytime and evening telephone conferences; discussions at the Work, Health and Disability Steering Group; customer blogs, articles, shows on RNIB’s Connect radio and emails. RNIB Trustees met with the Working Age Customer Panel, whilst the Campaigns and Volunteering Teams as well as RNIB Connect mobilised the sight loss community through a variety of channels to ensure their voices were heard.

Innovation came in the shape of a specially designed set of questions on RNIB’s website, that addressed the key issues affecting people with sight loss contained in the Green Paper, but free from the ‘government-speak’ of the original. Over 100 people shared their views through this medium, meaning the Government heard directly from blind and partially sighted people.  

The voice of blind and partially sighted people

Blind and partially sighted people had much to say. Here are just a few comments, taken from RNIB’s final submission to the government.

On providing the right support: “It’s about providing tailored support on a case-by-case basis. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.”

On Jobcentre Plus: “It’s also about the training of the staff. I feel a lot of the staff have low expectations, or they are not aware of what a blind or partially sighted person can do. They are not aware of the technology that is out there to help people. They are thinking ‘how does a blind person use a computer’?”

On Access to Work: “The process is so long that for anyone starting a new job and especially for first timers, having to wait three, four, five, six months in order to get an Access to Work agreement, an assessment, get it all approved, get software in place, and then after say six months you now have the budget.... but.... after a couple of months, you know a lot of them are dropping out purely because they are struggling. They can't get by normally with their job because the support is not there.”

Being blind or partially sighted and looking to find, or stay, in work usually means challenging stereotypes. Resilience can sometimes be found in humour: “Advisers should be much more focused on the visual impairment of that person’s circumstances, rather than the one-stop shop that actually stops anyone from getting in the shop.”

But there’s anger too: "[Employers] not operating with a closed mind would be a good start.”

Ensuring voices are heard

People were passionate, thoughtful, and funny, with a keen sense of social justice and committed to the rights of disabled people. At the same time, they were respectful of the challenges government face. The conversations were invariably moving, and gave real insight into the lives of people with sight loss. Listening to so many people, for so long, has meant that our response to the Green Paper is infused with the ‘heart and soul’ of blind and partially sighted people. Designed in this way, the engagement process has ensured their voice is upfront and central.

The Government’s consultation exercise closed on 17 February 2017, and we await their response with interest. All we need is for the Government to accept all of our recommendations. And if they don’t, we have galvanised blind and partially sighted people ready to carry on the fight.

Further information and resources

Download RNIB's response to the Green Paper consultation

Find out about our current campaigns and how you can make your voice heard at www.rnib.org.uk/campaigns

Read about how you can better support your colleagues in our new ‘Guide for working with blind and partially sighted colleagues’ at www.rnib.org.uk/workingwith

For more employment related research, visit www.rnib.org.uk/employmentresearch