Every year, millions of people suffer some degree of vision loss. Imagine waking up and not being able to see, or experiencing a gradual decline over the years with little empathy or understanding.

Now, a partnership between Jobcentre Plus and the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) seeks to shed light on vision loss. The charity provided virtual reality headsets to some Jobcentres, as well as training modules on proper use. The goal is to help employees understand the unique struggles the visually impaired experience when applying for jobs or aid.

What the Program Aims to Do

Currently, Jobcentre Plus users can receive home visits if they’re visually impaired. They receive additional time to fill out forms, and they can get help completing them. Why, then, does it matter if employees empathize with their plight? After all, isn’t it easy for these individuals to get the assistance they need?

It can actually be very difficult for the visually impaired to access the benefits they deserve. That’s why RNIB wants staff to understand more fully how difficult moving through the world without full eyesight is. Although the Health and Safety regulations mandate regular eye exams, less than half of employers offer them.

Virtual reality (VR) helps Jobcentre Plus staff members fully immerse themselves in the world as seen through the eyes of someone with full or partial blindness. Through VR medical simulation, employees practice working together to tackle tasks sighted people handle with ease — because they can use their eyes. They feel the frustration that comes with trying to interpret forms when they can barely make out the print.

This experience creates a deeper sense of empathy for the struggles visually impaired individuals face. No matter how challenging Jobcentre Plus staff find a particular task while wearing the VR headsets, they can take them off and return to normal functioning. Those with blindness cannot.

Vision Loss Is a Growing Problem

According to the World Health Organization, visual impairment continues to rise. Currently, approximately 2.2 billion people live with some degree of impairment. About 1 billion of these difficulties stem from avoidable causes.

Many diseases and disorders result in vision loss. A majority of people have nearsightedness or farsightedness due to slight structural differences in the eye’s shape. Others develop glaucoma, cataracts or age-related macular degeneration. Eye problems occur most often in those over 50, but are increasing in youth, as well.

Strikingly, doctors report a sharp spike in the incidents of blindness related to diabetic retinopathy. In this condition, the disease damages blood vessels in the retina. This disorder increased by 89% over the past 12 years.

Our modern lifestyles contribute to visual impairment. Many people today spend nine or more hours daily staring at a screen. While no one would expect to perform biceps curls for this long without fatiguing, they expect their eyes to live up to the strain. Plus, the type of light emitted by these devices can lead to retinal damage.

Researchers know that blue light wavelengths from computer and cellphone screens interfere with the body’s production of melatonin. They advise people to keep such devices out of the bedroom if they encounter difficulty sleeping. In addition, virtually all blue light passes through the lens and the cornea and directly impacts the retina. Excessive exposure to this wavelength contributes to both cataracts and macular degeneration.

If you work on a computer, take frequent breaks. Focus on something other than your screen for at least 15-20 seconds every 15 minutes. Eating foods high in lutein and zeaxanthin, like spinach and kale, may offer some protection.

Understanding Visual Impairment

The saying that you never know a man until you walk a mile in his shoes holds when it comes to working with visually impaired people. Helping Jobcentre Plus workers understand the struggles people with partial or full blindness endure is hopefully a first in a long line of similar endeavours to follow. The more we can train employers to understand disabilities, the more opportunities we can open up for those who struggle with them.

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About Author

Kate Harveston covers social justice and human rights issues. She graduated with a Bachelors in English and minored in Criminal Justice, so she enjoys writing about anything related to the intersections of law, politics and culture. For more of her writing, you can visit her blog, Only Slightly Biased.

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