I was 4 years old when I was diagnosed with the disease Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), a condition that would lead to sight loss. I vividly remember when it happened. It was as if the world around me had turned to shattered glass, my vision cracked and splintered into thousands of pieces, finally settling to a dull darkness, as if I was peering through a sheet of thin, black cotton. The rest, and please pardon the pun, is a blur.
RP is a degenerative disease that affects the retina. With it comes tunnel vision, double vision, night blindness and more. It’s a disease that is typically slow in deterioration. In fact, some sufferers never go fully blind. I’ve been fortunate to have had, for the most part, a stable prognosis. There is no cure for RP, but there is progress being made. RP can present itself with no obvious physical symptoms, other than the need to wear corrective glasses. As such, I do class it as a hidden disability.
Last year I noticed a significant deterioration of my vision. It was becoming difficult to find my way around. I found myself walking into parked cars, lamp posts and the worst of all – other people.
Walking into people brings it with a unique challenge. The usual response is a typical British “sorry mate” from both parties, irrespective of who caused the collision. However, there have been countless encounters where I’ve found myself in arguments with individuals who berate me with “What are you, blind?”
Well yes, kind of.
Trying to explain to an emotional person the wide variations of blindness, from partially sighted to severely partially sighted, never really helps move the conversation towards a positive tone. I knew I needed to make a change to my life to help me, and those around me, identify that I was, in fact, legally blind.
Using a white cane publicly for the first time was a daunting experience. I knew I’d stick out from the crowd, which is kind of the point. But I felt watched, judged and labelled. The thing is, I can see. Which means I notice people staring at me, which in turn makes me feel both uncomfortable, judged and vulnerable in equal measure.
Bringing the white cane into work was even more worrying. I’d spent years at my job without using one. Many of my colleagues had no idea I was registered as blind. I was concerned I’d be seen as incapable, putting my job at risk and my future in doubt.
It would transpire that this concern was unfounded. My colleagues have been nothing but understanding. The company was ready and happy to support me in any way needed, from workspace alterations to adjustments to my hours. I was relieved, humbled and empowered.
We often talk about the importance of inclusivity in the workplace. To allow others to feel comfortable in being their true selves at work. It is important. It brings out the best in everyone. I don’t speak for all those with visual impairments but given my experience I feel able to offer some advice on what you can do to make a positive change.
Chances are you’ve received a company-wide email about the sorry-state of the kitchen, the reception area or just general upkeep of the office environment. It’s not nice for anyone to walk into an office in disarray, but it’s even more worrying for those with visual impairments. It’s the difference between me making it to my desk with a nice hot cuppa or tripping over and scalding myself. An untidy meeting room means I might not be able to find the remote control to get onto my dial-in meeting. A misplaced delivery, left in the middle of a walkway, will be kicked over. That’s embarrassing for me and might leave you with damaged goods.
The other side of this coin is a tidy office is simply better for everyone working in it. Keep it tidy, folks. It’ll make everyone feel better, irrespective of ability.
Whether it’s a new desk being put in, a new coffee machine bought to fuel the team or simply a change of where you want to put the office plants – tell people. Those with visual impairments use memory and tactile prompts to map out and remember spaces. A small change to that could make a big difference to someone getting from A to B. Let people know what’s being changed. If you have someone who is open about their visual impairment, let them know directly.
If you’re looking to redevelop your office space, then I encourage you to consider how that impacts those who are less able. Is it accessible for those in wheelchairs? Does this mood-lighting impact what people can see? Do we need to contrast colours on steps, rails and doors? Spaces can be both modern and be accessible.
A disability doesn’t define someone, nor does it equal inability. Whilst it’s important to understand the unique circumstances people may have, often I’ve found it can become all-encompassing to that individual.
Thanks for reading this somewhat self-indulging post. I hope it offered you some insight and perspective. Drop a comment below if you have some thoughts. I’d be keen to read them.
Senior Product Marketing Manager at Rakuten Marketing EU