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Group of visually impaired people holding red crosses and a poster.
Georgia Hussey, Head of Employment at RNIB, Martin O'Kane, RNIB NI Country Director Robert Shilliday and Richard Moore, CEO of charity Children in Crossfire

The findings were revealed in new research by the University of Birmingham and the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB). The study also showed that blind and partially sighted people educated to degree level or higher still only have the same chance of getting a job as a sighted person with no qualifications.

Despite a noticeable sector-wide push on improving diversity and inclusion practices in recent years, and major developments in technology that enable employees with a visual impairment to work effectively alongside their peers, employment prospects overall have not significantly improved.

The ‘Eye Work With You Too’ project findings were launched by business, education and charity sector professionals at Belfast City Hall, in Northern Ireland. The research was led by Dr Rachel Hewett of the Vision Impairment Centre for Teaching and Research at the University of Birmingham for the RNIB.

The UK government has set a clear objective for as many people to be in paid employment as possible, and therefore our research demonstrates how vital it is for these barriers to be addressed, to enable people with vision impairment to feel more included across society.

Dr Rachel Hewett, Vision Impairment Centre for Teaching and Research, University of Birmingham

Dr Hewett interviewed blind and partially sighted people both in work, and not in work, as well as employers, parents and education specialists across Northern Ireland.

The research revealed that attitudes towards employing someone with sight loss are the biggest barrier people with sight loss face – due largely to misconceptions of ability, leading to inaccessibility of recruitment practices and inadequate employee support.

The RNIB is now urging organisations to ‘see the employee, not the sight loss’ - to ensure those with disabilities are included in their efforts to ensure a truly diverse and inclusive workforce.

18-year-old grammar school student Georgia took part in the research project. Georgina, from Belfast, has been registered blind since birth due to a condition called oculocutaneous albinism. She said: “A barrier I have faced throughout my life has been the assumption that I cannot do things without being given a chance to try. I am a lot more capable than many would assume.

“I think employers, teachers and careers advisors alike should take time to improve their understanding. People with sight loss are a lot more than a diagnosis on paper would suggest. We work hard to overcome barriers every day.

“We need to ensure as a society that we are encouraging young people, whether born with a visual impairment or who experience sight loss later in life, that they will be welcome in workplaces, and their varied experiences and skills will be valued alongside their fully sighted peers.”

“I can only hope that universities, careers advisors and employers can see my potential past my challenges and I’m hopeful that my involvement in this research can help educate in the ability beyond disability.”

Dr Rachel Hewett said: “Our research reveals the significant barriers often faced by individuals with vision impairment, both as they look for work, and also once they are in employment. Whilst legislation and policy initiatives are in place, which seek to ensure that employers offer inclusive working environments for disabled workers, our research shows that they still routinely face negative attitudes and unwillingness to make accommodations.

“The UK government has set a clear objective for as many people to be in paid employment as possible, and therefore our research demonstrates how vital it is for these barriers to be addressed, to enable people with vision impairment to feel more included across society.”

Robert Shilliday, Director of RNIB Northern Ireland said: “We are an ageing population that stays in work longer, so the prevalence of sight loss is set to rise among working age people. By our estimates, we believe that by 2050 there will be twice as many blind and partially sighted people in the UK than there are at present.

“Employers need to be prepared to support employees who may develop a condition affecting their sight in the future, and to ensure their recruitment practices are fair and accessible. There is the need and opportunity for change.”