Shining a Light on Inclusion: Empowering People with Vision Impairment

The concept of inclusion continues to receive significant attention, though it remains overlooked in many settings. It’s also more than just a buzzword—it is a philosophy that, when truly embraced, can empower people living with vision impairment. Why is inclusion so vital, and how might you ensure an inclusive environment?

Inclusion Is Crucial Regardless of the Setting

You can play a key role in making things accessible and inclusive. Many older adults likely want to participate in your programs or use your services. These people come with many characteristics and experiences, including living with blindness or vision impairment. Although specialized agencies and organizations provide vision rehabilitation services and resources for people experiencing blindness or vision impairment—these are not the only places someone living with vision impairment can participate in a broad range of activities.

The Importance of Inclusion Continues to Grow

The number of U.S. residents older than age 50 who are blind or have visual impairment is staggering. Currently, it’s more than 4.53 million people, and that number is projected to nearly double by the year 2050, with a higher incidence among women, African Americans, and Hispanics. Older adults with blindness or visual impairment want to maintain their safety and independence and continue to participate in the activities they enjoyed before they lost their vision. As the population of older adults with vision impairment grows, they can continue to benefit from your information, resources and programs. Inclusion can significantly broaden the number of people you support. Inclusion can also increase the effectiveness and efficiency of service delivery.

How to Play a Key Role in Accessibility

Accessibility is a fundamental component of inclusion for people living with vision impairment. You and your organization can advocate to level the playing field for older adults with vision loss. “I hope that folks think about the audience they have and incorporate as many folks as they can. The world should be accessible to all, but, sadly, we’re still fighting for access to things we should have by now,” said Joe Hodge, American Printing House (APH) for the Blind’s lead technical quality assurance analyst.

‘I hope that folks think about the audience they have and incorporate as many folks as they can.’

It is not only about making information accessible but also about how people are treated overall. Jessica Minneci, with APH's communications team, added, “Accessibility means breaking down barriers so everyone can participate in the world around them … It should not be an afterthought.”

Low-Cost, High-Impact Accommodations

Macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision impairment in people older than age 60, with glaucoma, cataracts and diabetic retinopathy also affecting sight. Small, low-cost accommodations can significantly impact how welcome older adults with vision loss feel in your facility. For example, if you offer a free book and your client asks if you have an audio version or a large print version, consider the impact of making such a copy available for them (and others). You could order one for the future or help them find resources to access this type of material. A proactive, inclusive approach lets the person know that you care enough to find meaningful ways to include them—raising their self-esteem, feelings of belonging and self-worth.

The National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, Library of Congress is a free resource to help clients locate an accessible version of a book or magazine.

Inclusion and accessibility do not have to be cost-prohibitive. Creativity and an eagerness to help clients adapt go a long way toward achieving this goal. As does pre-planning. However, working with someone in the moment to meet their needs and make them feel valued is also vital. Simple tips to make things accessible include:

  • Providing information in multiple formats, including large print, audio, electronic or braille (or knowing resources where they can be accessed).
  • Using descriptive language when providing directions, instructions or conveying messages.
  • Contacting specialized agencies serving people with vision impairment to learn about adaptations, resources and other helpful tips. Visit the APH Connect Center to connect with these agencies and learn about other vital resources.
  • Asking the individual to let you know how you can best help.

Accessibility Brings Equality and Equity

Accessibility sometimes means separate but equal. When making a PowerPoint accessible, you may create a separate Word document with the slide contents and alternate text descriptions of any images. Consider making the PowerPoint accessible from the get-go by giving everyone access to the same document. You can create formats of literature, intake forms and other documents that are accessible to all clients. The APH Accessibility Hub is a free resource to help guide you and your staff in various forms of accessibility.

There are also regulations regarding accessibility, including website accessibility. These important actions demonstrate awareness and sensitivity. Making information and services accessible is appreciated by those living with vision impairment.

‘Inclusion and accessibility do not have to be cost-prohibitive.’

This raises the ideas of equality and equity. The Peace Corps teaches, “Equality is giving everyone the same pair of shoes. Equity is giving everyone a pair of shoes that fits.” Equity does not need to come at the expense of inclusion. Embracing equity from the start reduces feelings of being separate. Additionally, incorporating adaptations for people with vision impairment may benefit others, leading to greater equality.

Inclusion (along with accessibility) does not need to be complicated. There is not always an absolute right way to do things. But thinking of these ideas ahead of time and believing in their value leads to true client empowerment.

For more information on The Reality of Aging and Vision Loss in America, Vision Rehabilitation Can Complete the Continuum of Care, Vision Rehabilitation—Help and Hope, and Vision Rehabilitation Helps Older Adults Thrive, read the first four articles in this series by VisionServe Alliance. If you or anyone you know faces blindness, low vision, or vision loss, please visit Time To Be Bold to access and locate Vision Rehabilitation agencies that provide life-changing services.

Jennifer Ottowitz, CVRT, is an older blind specialist with the Older Individuals Who Are Blind Technical Assistance Center (OIB-TAC), in the National Research & Training Center on Blindness & Low Vision at Mississippi State University. She brings more than 30 years’ experience in the field as a Certified Vision Rehabilitation Therapist and is co-editor of the Foundations of Vision Rehabilitation Therapy textbook (APH Press, 2020) and has presented at state and national conferences on working with adults living with vision impairment.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Dimitry Demidovich