Note to Supervisors On Blindness

Written by Danyel Goldsmith

Growing up I always prided myself on being anti-establishment. Then one day I  realized I  was part of it. That day happened when I  believed in the core values that  the military services profess. At  their very core they speak of taking care of  your people, respect, dignity, honoring the value that one brings to the workplace and commitment to going the extra mile, always.  Well, I  did paraphrase but those are the qualities that  leaders at every level should have.  Much has been written about the great military leaders, and I  too have known one.

I will have led a major functional area in which I oversaw the work of over 225 people – Marines and Civilians. I have often wondered what I would have done if one of my top performers had become blind in the same manner that I have. Would I treat them the same if I did not really think highly of them? Would I have the same level of patience or take the same level of interest in their learning a new way of life? Would I pop my head in the door and ask in a sincere tone how they were doing that day? Or if I saw them performing a complex task, would I notice? Would I even care that everyday tasks that used to be taken for granted are sometimes taxing?

Given the person I am today, I want to say yes to each of the positive questions and a resounding no way at the negative ones. Given the ambitious, mission first people be damned attitude that I sometimes had, that makes me pause. Then I rationalize it by saying I am a product of the environment that I have been so successful at for 18 years. That makes me sad and not so proud of myself. It also at times allows me a nano-second of giving my own supervisor a break, because he too has never uttered a positive statement of understanding, caring, or encouragement. And then I snap back to reality and utter some words that I cannot put in print. So, with that, here are some helpful things to do or ask for supervisors and managers to bridge any gap that may be there between you and your employees who are or have become suddenly blind or visually impaired.

Humble yourself enough to admit that you, as a supervisor, do not understand. This broad admission can foster communication and drive the conversation in many different paths. Do not be surprised if the employee simply asks, “What do you want to know?” Then that manager must be prepared to take the next step.

Ask how the employee’s work is accomplished. When I was sighted, it took me one mouse click to open an attachment on an email that came in. Now that I am blind, it takes many more keystrokes. Does the supervisor even know that we do not use a mouse?

Ask the employee what can be done to make it easier for them. By simply changing a few things, it will show the employee that you are willing to  help  them, even if initially it takes more time, more resources, adjust more. Creating an environment in which accessible documents are created and used will be a tremendous help. It is not only the law, it is kind. It is quite frustrating to be reading a power point presentation and because the author did not know or care to create it sequentially, JAWS reads the slide in the order that it was created. So bullet 2, then 4, then the title may be read, then back to bullet 1 then 3. How obnoxious! How is the employee expected to understand the material?

Remember to introduce meeting attendees. It can be a bit embarrassing for all if the employee interrupts the meeting to ask who just spoke, when it is much easier to make those introductions before beginning. Not all people are as outspoken as I am. I will simply, ask, “I do not recognize your voice. Who are you?” Awkward, anyone?

Do not forget to be specific. Do not use “this one”, “that way” or even. Say what is meant. If document 2, the Puppy policy goes behind the surfing statistics, then say so. 

Talk to the employee, not at them or about them. Your employee has the skills to be in the job, so why are you talking about them like they are not there. Does she know what to do to prepare them for the meeting? Hello? I am standing right here and can hear you. It is my eyes that don’t work so well, my hearing is fantastic. Besides, maybe that co-worker is the one who is clueless and when you, the supervisor walks away, I am the one who tells him what needs to be done!

Listen. One word. It is very hard to do. Even harder is to listen actively. That means you are not thinking of a response as the employee is speaking. It means that the supervisor pays attention to the topic being discussed. Guess what? They will more than likely make a suggestion as too how to solve the problem/issue/challenge. That means you as the supervisor do not have to think that hard to make the problem go away. Even if it is an 80% solution that means only an additional 10% needs to be put forth. That is a win-win. And in the long run, the employee feels empowered and part of the team. How great is that?

Be creative, supervisors and manager often find techniques that work and it becomes a mantra or a go-to. That probably will not work for a blind person. Well not without a bit of creativity in modifying the “off the shelf” item. Here’s an example. Online training is a standard for both annual and leadership training. Often, it is cumbersome to navigate the site, the slides are meant to skim the bullets and the speaker notes are below. The only way to access the entire document is to enable closed captioning. This must be done for each slide. It wastes time, is frustrating and really, how does that create a positive learning environment? The solution? Get a little old school. Why not complete each module from a word document, and if there are test questions then answer them and email the completed lesson to the school house? Easy solution, right? Yes, it is. True, it takes a little more effort for the course developer, because they have to have someone, a real person, communicate and grade the work, but really the time is worth it. The employee is more inclined to want to complete the material; they grow professionally and develop additional skills that build confidence and self-worth. Isn’t that what it is all about?

As a supervisor and manager, we are looked to as the example. We make a choice to set a positive or negative one. Sadly, I have learned more from the bad examples than the good ones. I also know how much it means that I emulate my mentor. Just think of the multiplier effect of what a positive supervisor would do for your employee. One day they become a supervisor and they parrot some of the lessons you imparted to them to their employees. And so on. All it takes is the courage to care, to do the right thing, think of how you want to be treated and soon, wha-la, a leader is born.

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