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How to engage volunteers with vision loss

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I recently attended a session of volunteer managers from various nonprofit organizations, when the question of engaging volunteers who are blind or partially sighted came up. I was excited to talk about all the different roles people with vision loss have in our organization, both as paid staff and volunteers. I then asked the question: "What volunteer opportunities are available in your organization for people with sight loss?" I was met with an uncomfortable silence and the reluctant reply: "I suppose they could answer the phone?" Sadly, this response, which comes from misplaced assumptions, was not a surprise to me.

The good news is that CNIB has just launched a new guide to Partnering with Volunteers with Vision Loss (generously funded by the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration in Ontario, as part of the Partnership Grant Program), to help dispel some of these myths. This manual helps you effectively work together with volunteers who are blind and partially sighted, which will diversify your volunteer base, access untapped skills and resources in the community, and make your organization more inclusive and a positive place to be.

Do people with sight loss volunteer at your organization? This is not always an easy question to answer, because sight loss is often an invisible disability. For example, you might not be aware someone is blind or partially sighted unless they tell you, or they get around using a white cane or guide dog. If seniors make up part of your volunteer numbers, then chances are you already have volunteers with vision loss, as approximately one million Canadians (mostly seniors) are living with age-related macular degeneration.

You might also be surprised to know that 90 percent of clients who are registered with CNIB have some level of sight. Sight loss can manifest in many forms, such as losing the central or peripheral vision, or only being able to see objects as blurred or distorted. Learn more about the spectrum of blindness here. Even the same sight condition will affect two separate people differently. This means that when you engage volunteers with sight loss, there is no "one size fits all" approach, and it's important to not make assumptions that blind means that someone cannot see anything at all. Often with a few minor and inexpensive adjustments, volunteers who are blind or partially sighted can do all the same activities as volunteers that are fully sighted, just in a different way.

While volunteers with vision loss may not be able to be drivers, they can do almost anything else you can think up! What all volunteers want, including volunteers with vision loss, is to be meaningfully engaged. Just as each volunteer is different in their interests and skills, so is each volunteer with vision loss. Therefore, the key to finding that meaningful position is to ask. The volunteer will often tell you what they need, and for people with sight loss, many accommodations are free and simple to do.

Any good volunteer manager should be flexible to the volunteer's needs to ensure that the volunteer remains engaged and happy. Accommodating a person who is blind or partially sighted is no different.

Here are a few tips from our Partnering with Volunteers with Vision Loss manual to help you throughout the volunteer cycle. Even if you currently don't have any volunteers with sight loss right now, many of these tips will benefit any volunteer-driven organization that engages people with disabilities.

Preparation

  • Create and publicize an organizational volunteer policy that mentions inclusion and accessibility for people with disabilities. Volunteers today shop around, and people are going to be attracted to organizations where they will feel welcome and included.
  • Ensure that your volunteer documents are in an accessible format. This might mean an electronic copy of a Word document (PDFs and scanned documents often cannot be read aloud by text-to-speech software used by people who are blind). Or have documents in clear and large print or braille. Having easy-to-read documents benefits everyone, not only those with sight loss. For more information, check out CNIB's Clear Print Guidelines.
  • Make sure the workspace is clear of hazards. People who are blind or partially sighted are likely to have received training from rehabilitation specialists on how to navigate safely. Anyone, regardless of their level of sight, is put at risk by tripping hazards or furniture that isn't secured properly. A clutter free workspace benefits everyone! Click here to find out more about creating an accessible workplace.

Recruitment

  • First and foremost, don't make assumptions about what the applicant can and cannot do. People with vision loss often find other people’s beliefs about their abilities to be a much bigger barrier than vision loss itself. For example, people who are blind and partially sighted make purchases every day, and have different strategies to identify money. These skills are transferrable to a volunteer role that involves handling money. Let the individual inform you of their abilities.
  • When interviewing the applicant, focus your questions on the essential task of the job and determine how the individual can carry these out, not if. For example, "This job requires using a computer. What accessibility equipment do you use for computer work?". Often the individual will have their own personal equipment (magnifiers, talking products, etc.) which they can bring for their volunteering activities. It is unlikely it will be the first time they have done something, so they will normally be able to suggest a potential solution.
  • Be respectful of the individual, but don't be overly anxious about unintentionally causing offence. For example, it's okay to say words like "see, look, watch, etc." when speaking to someone with sight loss. Just remember to be descriptive, i.e., introduce yourself when you arrive so the person knows who is speaking, and give clear directions, i.e., "you need to cross the street and turn left" rather than vague directions, i.e., "over there".

Ongoing support

  • People who are blind or partially sighted can independently navigate around familiar environments, but may need help getting around in unfamiliar or crowded places. You can help by learning the sighted guide technique, which involves the person taking your arm as you guide them through the environment. For detailed instructions, see CNIB's guide, Step-by-Step.
  • Explain any environmental factors to a space, such as stairs and doorways, to ensure that the person is properly oriented to their surroundings.
  • Match any new volunteers with sight loss with established volunteers, who can act as a mentor and take away some of the stress of getting used to a new volunteer environment and answer any questions.

I hope that these tips show that engaging volunteers with sight loss does not need to be difficult or expensive. You can access the full manual and toolkit on Partnering with Volunteers with Vision Loss here and here. Together, we can create diverse and inclusive volunteer organizations in our communities!

Kat Clarke is the Specialist, Advocacy and Community Impact at CNIB Ontario. The CNIB has recently launched resources for strengthening communities through volunteerism. These resources were generously funded by the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration in Ontario, as part of the Partnership Grant Program. For all the volunteer resources created under this program, please click here.

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