Visual impairments can range from low vision to total sight loss, some people are born with them and others acquire them through accidents, disease or with age. People with visual impairment can be great volunteers and both your organisation and the volunteers could gain from the relationship. However it needs some thought and preparation, from both the organisation as well as the volunteer’s side, to make it work effectively.
Some amount of support and training will be required both for the volunteer with visual impairment and your existing staff (and volunteers) to work with them. People with visual impairments are as diverse as any other group, they have individual strengths and skills that can easily range beyond doing mainly computer based ‘back office’ tasks but having your computer systems accessible is a start.
This is one of the areas I work in — training people with visual impairments to use assistive software and showing organisations how they can use it to help form a positive partnership between them and their volunteers and employees.
A lady I helped with assistive software had a whole lifetime of experiences that she could contribute after learning to use them. She started volunteering as a trustee of the Scottish Centre for Non-Violence in Dublane. She was a fantastic addition to the team of trustees and this was possible because she could now read the minutes of the meetings and other related papers.
Commercial software to support users with visual impairments can be very expensive but the good news is that now there are many softwares that you can download for free.
For volunteers with low vision, softwares like the DesktopZoom Screen Magnifier (magnifies the whole screen to assist reading) and Virtual Magnifying glass (to magnify the screen only when required) have been helpful. For volunteers with no vision, softwares like Webbie Talking web browser and NVDA Screen Readers that speak what is on the screen, are particularly helpful. The NVDA Screen Reader program has been translated in over twenty languages and its user base is constantly increasing across many countries.
Some people can learn new software faster than others so it is hard to tell in advance how long it will take but there are a few general indicators. Learning would be faster if volunteers are already familiar with computers and have access to it at home as well to practice. Using a screen reader effectively takes a lot more training and practice. Thus while working with volunteers with no useful vision, the initial learning period will be much longer.
If a volunteer regularly uses the same computer then it may be possible to customize the existing software such as MS Windows for them by altering the colour scheme or font sizes and using the built in magnifiers or voice options that many otherwise experienced computer users do not even know are there. If you have an IT person working or volunteering with your organisation, talk to him and try to explore options by which you can assist volunteers with visual impairments contribute better.
Sometimes a visually impaired volunteer may not use the same computer all the time, or not on a regular basis, this makes things trickier to manage. For understandable reasons many computer owners and almost all IT departments hate the idea of letting users install any unauthorised software, or tinker with the optional extras. Luckily some operating systems like Microsoft Windows have portable applications. These are programs that can be run from a USB memory stick without installing anything on the computer itself. With most programs being free, all you need to make your organisation more inclusive is to download and setup the programs on an external memory stick.
Obviously if a potential volunteer is already familiar with a particular piece of software they may not want to learn how to use another one and an organisation may be reluctant to invest in an expensive piece of software to support one particular volunteer. Unfortunately there is no easy way around this problem but a little help and support in initial training can help the volunteers learn the free softwares with ease.
The important thing is that volunteers with visual impairments are first and foremost volunteers and if you are already good at volunteer management and support, the extra steps are not that difficult to implement. Think about what someone can do and how you can support them, not what they cannot do and why you cannot support them. At the same time be realistic about how much support you can offer, do not raise false expectations and end up letting people down. Be clear what support you can give and what is expected of the volunteer.
No single software program will suit everybody, perhaps none of the programs I suggested will be right for you. You may need to experiment before finding the right solution. The Techsoup community forums are a good source of advice.
About the author:
I started my working life as an archaeologist and retrained in computing, I have gradually moved towards doing more training and teaching since working with people is more fun than looking at broken computers that do not work. This has lead me into ICT4D (ICT for Development) stuff in Ethiopia, Kenya and now in Pakistan.