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Recommendations to employers on accommodating blind and visually impaired employees

By Hanif Kruger – mail@hanif.co

Last updated on Wednesday 12 August 2020

The outbreak of Covid-19 has wrought disruption on a massive scale, with organisations across the country scrambling to keep their businesses operational while ensuring the safety of their staff.

It is clear that the coronavirus pandemic together with the subsequent lockdown has caused daily difficulties for everyone. But what if you are visually impaired and would like to return to the office or work remotely? Or, what if you are an employer and are not exactly sure how to go about accommodating your blind or visually impaired employees?

There are a number of options available to you as an employer to accommodate your blind or visually impaired employee to assist them to work remotely or, if necessary, to accommodate them at the office.

1. Remote working or telework
As many businesses across South Africa have cobbled together work-from-home programs to comply with COVID-19 social-distancing measures, some employees with disabilities wonder why they were told for so long that they couldn’t work remotely to accommodate their disability — and now hope that this moment could be a turning point that makes telework options more widely available.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, employees frequently requested to work from home as an accommodation for a wide variety of disabilities. Employers that have denied these requests in the past need to be prepared to reconsider them, and anticipate new requests for remote work, after their physical workplaces reopen. COVID-19 has forced employers to come up with creative solutions to allow their businesses to continue. These solutions have included figuring out ways to allow employees to perform jobs remotely out of necessity that, just a few months ago, many employers would have said could not be done away from the workplace. When these employees ask to work remotely as a reasonable accommodation after the workplace reopens, employers will have a more difficult time arguing that those employees cannot perform the essential functions of their jobs while working from home.
In the past, disabled employees have benefited from remote working for a variety of reasons.
Getting dressed and ready for work can be far more time consuming for people with disabilities, adding hours to their days. Commuting can often be disproportionately complicated and difficult and, sometimes, even dangerous and office environments themselves can be disabling. Remote work alleviates these additional stressors by eliminating these barriers. Thus, Working from a home office can be seen as a form of reasonable accommodation.
With the correct assistive technology solutions provided, employers can allow their blind and visually employees to resume work in a cost effective and meaningful way.
Telework as a form of reasonable accommodation, though employers don’t have to provide it if they will result in “undue hardship,” such as high cost. Through an interactive process, the employer and employee should identify “essential functions” fundamental to that job and determine whether some or all of those duties can be done remotely.
There are clear business incentives for transitioning to remote teams—less office space overhead, employing people in lower cost of living areas—but remote work impacts more than just the bottom line. Remote work makes work more accessible for one of the most underserved groups of people in South Africa, and by so doing, will go a long way in helping diversify tech.

2. Reasonable Accommodation for Assistive Technology
Blind and visually impaired Employees returning to work who rely on assistive technology, should be given preference by employers in as far as ensuring that the current assistive technology needed to perform their particular duties are not only up-to-date but, relevant and of high standards. Blind teachers, for example, should be provided with applicable or Braille displays as well as with the necessary tools and mechanism to allow them to perform their jobs as teachers optimally.

3. Other Accommodation requests
Employers should also consider “low-cost” accommodations to be made in their workspace in response to requests from disabled employees. Such accommodations include reducing contact with other employees, designating one-way aisles or using Plexiglas, tables or other barriers to ensure minimum distances between customers and co-workers.

Other measures that employers may consider as accommodations to reduce potential COVID-19 exposure are:
Temporary restructuring of marginal job duties, temporary transfers to different positions, or modifying an employee’s work schedule or shift assignments.

Employers should begin planning now for how they could potentially make changes to their workspace and/or policies if employees request accommodations that could reduce their risk of COVID-19 exposure and respond to their reasonable accommodation requests.

For more information on how to accommodate blind or visually impaired employees, please contact the South African National Council for the Blind on 012 452 381 or via email at helpdesk@sancb.org.za.

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