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National Service and Inclusion Project

Inclusion: The active engagement of people with disabilities as service members in all levels of national and community service

Visit NSIP's sister site The National Service to Employment Project (NextSTEP)


Serving with and Supervising People with Visual Disabilities

Service programs don't have to have experts on visual disabilities in order to create a welcoming environment for members and volunteers. For one thing, everybody's different. If your program has two members with visual disabilities, each will, most likely, have different preferences. You can make your program more accessible by being willing to communicate openly and work together with service members to develop accommodation solutions.


Language: "Visual impairment" is a catchall phrase that includes a wide range of experience. The general rule of thumb is to use person-first language: "a person who is blind," "a person who has visual disabilities." However, don't be surprised if a person says, "I'm blind." For many people, the word, "blind" is not an issue.

Starting a conversation: People with visual disabilities may remember voices. However, that memory may be situational. If they run into a familiar individual in an unfamiliar setting-- like the subway or supermarket-- they may not recognize that person's voice. So it's always a good idea to introduce yourself. For example, preface a conversation with, "Hi, Valerie, it's Joe," and maybe add your last name or "from the office." (Mentioning your name is especially important in the age of cell phones, when so many people start conversations in public.)

A note: Some people raise their voices when speaking to people with visual disabilities, which isn't necessary.

Offering Assistance

If you haven't spent time around people with visual disabilities, you may feel tense or uneasy in this situation. Just be relaxed. The key is to ask first. Check to see whether the person wants to be helped. If they do, ask how, and let them explain. They know what they need and how to stay safe.

Offering assistance isn't only for people with apparent disabilities. Ask everyone who joins your program if they could use some help. This avoids singling out people with disabilities, and you're likely to find needs that people might not have expressed otherwise.

Travel assistance: A person with a visual impairment may want to travel with a "sighted guide," which means they hold a guide's elbow and let that person lead the way. If the person has a guide dog, they may want to walk a few steps behind you so the dog can follow the leader. This can feel a little uncomfortable socially, but it works well for many dogs.

If the person refuses: People with visual disabilities are often viewed as vulnerable and in need of protection. If you receive a negative response, don't take it personally-- it's okay. When offering assistance, remember that some people may interpret that offer in different ways, such as implying that they can't do something on their own.

Equipment and Service Animals

Again, the rule is "ask first"!

Equipment: In general, don't use the computer of a person with visual disabilities without asking; specialized computer equipment is often sensitive and set to a particular user's standards. Depending on how the device is configured, using it may not be possible at all. Service programs may have to ensure that a person with visual disabilities has their own workstation, even if other members share. There are agencies that may help fund computer equipment for a person with visual disabilities.

Computer technology for visual disabilities To access computers, many people use "screen reading" programs that verbally announce what's on the monitor. Popular brands are JAWS and Window-Eyes. People with low vision can use screen magnification software like ZoomText or MAGic to enlarge the text on the screen until it's big enough to read.

Service animals: It's easier to keep your hands off a computer than a dog! However, when a service dog has a harness on, they are working. Do not touch or feed the dog, address the dog by name, or try to distract the dog in any way. It can endanger the owner if the dog is distracted.

Note: "Seeing Eye" is the name of a particular dog-training organization, not a generic name.

Guide dogs do get to take breaks! You might get a chance to pet a dog when they're not working. Always ask the owner's permission, even if the harness is off.

Creating an Inclusive Environment

Everyone's eyes age. An environment that works well for people with visual disabilities can benefit everyone. Some tips:

Handouts: Different people have different preferences for how to access printed material. Ask the person with a visual impairment which format they prefer. Some may request Braille, although the majority of people with visual disabilities do not read Braille (according to the National Braille Press). Some people want large print. The best bet is to have everything available in electronic, text-only format. This format can be easily converted into Braille or read via a screen reader. Many people have portable electronic notetaking devices that handle text files.

If you're running an event, encourage people to request accommodations-- Braille, large print, text-only-- with a reasonable deadline for you to get things done. (Braille may take a month to produce.) Maintain a list of places that can create Braille documents.

Meetings: People with visual disabilities can feel left out at meetings, but good meeting facilitation is naturally inclusive.


Creating alternate formats: The National Center for the Dissemination of Disability Research

"Basic Etiquette: People with Visual Disabilities"

Job Accommodation Network

Agencies and accommodations

"Watch Your Language!"

How to Convert a PowerPoint Document into a Word Document

Many people who have a visual impairment use screen reader software. Unfortunately, many of these programs do not read Microsoft Powerpoint. To make your presentation accessible, it must be converted into a word or text-only document.

The easiest way to do this is to open your presentation in Microsoft Office. The program will convert most of the information for you. Please note, however that this sometimes does not capture all the information. Also, when using an Apple computer, you do not have this option. If this is the case, use the following instructions.

Be careful. Text that is written inside text boxes will not be captured this way. If you do not see your text on the left-hand side of the normal view, but you see it on the slide itself, then you will have to copy the text directly. (This is often the case for title pages.) To capture text inside the text box, you must open the Powerpoint presentation using the Slide View and copy the text directly from the slide.

This handout was adapted by Danielle Dreilinger of the Institute for Community Inclusion from a presentation by Valerie Claire Haven. Ms. Haven is an access technology specialist at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The Powerpoint conversion instructions were developed by Joy Gould of the Institute for Community Inclusion.

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©The National Service Inclusion Project (NSIP) is a training and technical assistance provider on disability inclusion. NSIP partners with the Association on University Centers on Disability, National Council on Independent Living, Association on Higher Education and Disability and National Down Syndrome Congress to build connections between disability organizations and all CNCS grantees, including national directs, to increase the participation of people with disabilities in national service.