Improving access to work experience opportunities for young people with vision impairment

The purpose of this resource is to provide an overview of some key findings from the Longitudinal Transitions Study, which has investigated the experiences of young people with vision impairment as they transition from school into adulthood.

In particular, the resource explores what the participants had to say about the work experience opportunities they had, and the significance this has had on how prepared they felt on leaving school for paid employment. 

We also share how Birmingham Local Authority Sensory Impairment Service has responded to this evidence by developing new services to support their students with sensory impairment into work experience placements. This includes outlining some practical ideas for supporting students in their placements. 

What does the research evidence say about work experience for young people with vision impairment?

Over half of the participants in the Longitudinal Transitions Study viewed undertaking a work experience placement whilst at school as a positive experience. The benefits of work experience identified by the young people included:

  • Experience of being in a working environment
  • Helping them to form ideas of future careers
  • Helping them to develop confidence and independence
  • Boosting their CV 

“Learning to go to a new place, going and talking to people on my own that was quite a good experience. That’s what I would say it was best for, meeting new people and speaking to them for the first time on my own.” 

Less positive accounts came from young people who hadn’t received much support in arranging their placement, and some who felt that the placement setting were not really prepared for supporting a young person with vision impairment. 

When reflecting back on how prepared they were for moving into paid employment, several young people highlighted how important it was that they had had previous opportunities to talk about their vision impairment to others. 

“I think I am confident about it because you know, it’s 20 years of experience, so I had to learn my own way and had to learn it myself, but I know what I need and I know what I don’t need, so I am happy, I am not stressed about it or nervous. I will just say this is what I need, and this is what I don’t need; but I had to learn it myself, I had figure it out myself, how to approach people about it in the first place.” 

The importance of being able to draw on prior experiences has been a consistent finding in the longitudinal study. The participants have highlighted how beneficial it has been to them to have had prior experience of explaining the adjustments they need, how their vision impairment affects them and how to address problems in the workplace. 

Less positively, limited experience of work has been identified as a barrier to the young people. For example, several of the young people upon graduation from university (some with first class degrees) decided to seek voluntary work rather than paid employment, due to what they perceived to be limitations to their CV. While it is often more challenging for young people with vision impairment to find accessible paid work opportunities when growing up, it is therefore important to facilitate as many other opportunities as possible.  

Tackling adulthood transition challenges: a case study from Birmingham City Council

Our Vision Support Team supports young people with a vision impairment across Birmingham, including school leavers, looking for their next steps in life, and working with them on the challenges they face in ultimately finding careers which match their potential. There are notable changes over the last decade, such as more available of apprenticeships and young people staying in education for longer.

For young people with vision impairment, the explosion of accessible technology available in the mainstream, i.e. smart phones, tablets, the improved ease of internet connection and cheap downloadable software resources, has meant that our school leavers have the tools and means available to access work systems more easily. Coupled with the fact that business information is almost universally being managed electronically these days would surely mean that there are improving opportunities for our young people seeking employment, right? Wrong. According to the RNIB ‘Employment Status and Sight Loss” report, February 2017:

“There has been a significant decrease in the proportion of registered blind and partially sighted people of working age in any form of employment over the last decade from one in three in 2005 to around one in four in 2015.” 

As a service, we identified a number of key issues we needed to address, including the need:

  • to improve, update and specialise the careers advice we give to our young people and create more work experience opportunities
  • to improve the mainstream technology skills of our young people overall;
  • to improve our engagement and support of families. 

Improving work experience opportunities

To increase work experience opportunities we made links with the Education and Skills Directorate of the council to build links which we hope will open some opportunities. There are many college, apprenticeship and job fairs happening around Birmingham, and we intend to organise group visits where we will prep our young people to go and chat to colleges and employers and explain personally how they manage their vision loss, and the additional skills they have because of this, and hopefully inspire potential employers to become disability confident and provide opportunities. 

Careers advice

To address the lack of careers advice available locally, we have looked to specialist charities to run sessions tailored to support those with vision loss in navigating their way into the world of work. Blind in Business ran a brilliant session called ‘Future Focus’ for teenagers, which included mock interviews and exercises which really helped the students think about their upcoming challenges and how they can practically address these.  We have booked another careers day with the charity Look UK for the Autumn Term and we intend to make these a regular occurrence to ensure that careers advice and support is ongoing. 

Improving mainstream technology skills

To help us facilitate the use of appropriate technology by our service users, representatives from RNIB kindly delivered training to upskill our teams in using accessibility features and apps that support vision loss to their full potential on tablet technology. We agreed a partnership with a local Apple supplier, Jigsaw24, who provided a great ‘bundle’ deal. This included the latest iPad, a keyboard case and Apple pencil (which students can use to take freehand notes or complete uploaded workbooks – and have these remotely marked by teachers without having to hand in or print work), at a greatly reduced price. This bundle will encourage students to manage their equipment, access and practice touch-typing. With the right training to ensure the right texts and presentations are uploaded to the iPad efficiently, this will also save schools the time and resources previously used to print out materials. 

Supporting parents

We started by holding a parents’ workshop, to provide realistic (including raised) aspirations by having a young speaker with a degenerative vision loss, who had navigated through school and college to achieve success both in industry and personally. We asked her not to sugar-coat her experiences or the additional challenges that vision loss caused her to face, but to explain how she was able to overcome these and explain her strategies that have helped her not only achieve her goals, but sometimes just to keep going. We also incorporated time for the parents to chat and share experiences with each other, as some parents do not have any other parents of children with vision impairment in their social circle, and we know from feedback that parents found this to be therapeutic. We spent some time with the parents at the workshop planning how next year we can improve how we connect with them, and resulting from this we have already booked in termly parents’ workshops for next year. Each session will have a different focus, such as how to support their child with the job application process, etc. We are also planning a ‘Pathways’ event where FE providers will be invited to explain to parents and their children how they can support young people with vision impairment whether they choose to study as part of an academic course or an apprenticeship. As part of this event, we are planning a joint parent/child life coaching session designed to prepare them for barriers they will face and give the problem-solving skills to tackle these challenges successfully. 

Practical ideas for supporting students in work experience placements

The earlier a young person with vision impairment can find work experience the better. For example, a Saturday job while still at school would be really valuable, but a good block of work experience for a week or two would also be very beneficial. While choices can be limited, especially with vision impairment, it will show a commitment to finding employment and provide evidence, and hopefully a good reference, that the young person can capably manage in a workplace environment. It will also provide opportunities to develop essential employability skills such as good timekeeping, a proactive nature and ability to act in a professional capacity. While at school, the advice of the young person’s specialist teacher and mobility officer should be utilised to help with any part-time jobs or work experience placements. 

Be mindful that employers and their staff may not necessarily understand someone’s vision loss and how that can be managed unless it is explained to them. They may also be worried about making inaccurate assumptions or saying the wrong thing and need some guidance. As such, as well as specialist services working with employers, young people should be supported to know how to bring up the topic of their vision and explain in positive terms how they can independently manage their vision loss with the right equipment and simple adjustments, and the extra skills it has given them, e.g. touch-typing, computing prowess, etc. 

Of course, specialist teachers can help the young person to find a range of work experience opportunities across industries so that there is more choice for young people with a vision loss. However, in order to impress potential employers, there is nothing better than a young person directly and articulately explaining why they would be a good choice for that work placement – this could be face to face, an email, or cover letter with a C.V. 

Specialist careers workshops can be used to help build the knowledge and skills needed to make good career-focused choices and it would be prudent for young people to make sure they attend to get the latest advice, up to date careers signposts and get in some practice for applying for jobs effectively (C.V. writing, practice interviews, etc.). 

Evidence shows that it is that often harder for young people with vision impairment to get a job; but accepting that the general public will not understand what having a vision loss is like, and embracing the opportunity to educate others that it need not be a barrier with the right support, will really help. Also, many employers will want to show they are ‘Disability Confident’ and allowing a young person to take a work experience placement can be a helpful opportunity for them to learn ways to make their workplace more inclusive. 

Other tips when in placement include:

  • Always having a mobility orientation before starting any placement.
  • The young person getting to know the I.T. department, to help them efficiently deal with any problems, and to make sure access technology is always functioning well.
  • Ensuring the young person knows who it is they should speak to when unexpected hurdles to vision access crop up. 
  • Ensuring that the young person recognises that they have a responsibility to take the lead and to make sure their vision access is managed, while also understanding that others have a responsibility to help them. 

Rachel Hewett, Vision Impairment Centre for Teaching and Research and Anna Roche, Sensory Support, Birmingham City Council 

Background to the Longitudinal Transitions Study

The Longitudinal Transitions Study commenced in 2010 and has been tracking the experiences of 80 young people with vision impairment as they have left school and transitioned into various settings, including FE, apprenticeships, training, higher education and employment. The study has been funded by RNIB, the Nuffield Foundation and most recently by Thomas Pocklington Trust, who have funded the development of this resource.