BLIND AND PARTIALLY SIGHTED PEOPLE
1. There are a number of programmes in Europe which are notable for placing disadvantaged people who are less
productive, in mainstream employment with support and allowance for their slower or intermittent rate of working.
Among those which may be mentioned are Norway's Arbeid med Bistand (Work with Support" and the UK's
Workstep. Spain has also made some notable experiments.
2. It should be noted, however, that none of these programmes does very much for blind or ps people. Workstep
employs about 23'000 disabled people, of whom only some 600 are visually impaired (and it is fair to assume that
these are nearly all in special factories, since Workstep includes them as well as mainstream placements).
3. Why this low rate of participation by blind people in mainstream supported employment programmes? There is a
growing consensus in the UK that it is due to lack of specific services for mentoring, job coaching and job finding.
People without sight cannot just slot into the same services provided for sighted disabled people. It is very striking
that Workstep (and, I think, the Norwegian programme) have had most success with sighted people who are mentally
ill, or have cardio-vascular or muscular-skeletal impairments.
4. A further problem is widespread lack of confidence that blind people can be employed readily in the mainstream.
Employers, when polled say that it would be very difficult to employ a blind person in their firm. The UK
employment service exempts blind people on incapacity benefit from the obligation to undergo a personal capacity to
work test. IN other words they just assume that blind people cannot work. Of course "everybody" knows of
"remarkable" blind people who do this or that demanding job, but "everybody" thinks they are exceptional (if not
5. It would seem to follow that, if we wish to raise the rate of economic activity of blind people from around 25
percent (where it now commonly is) to around 75 percent or higher, we need to persuade governments to introduce
visual impairment specific services for mentoring, job coaching and job placement. This is the crucial policy gap in
the paper Mainstreaming and Disability". National governments and the EU Commission should recognise and tackle
6. What exactly is needed in the way of mentoring, job coaching and job placement for blind people? I believe there
are two relevant models which we might either select or combine.
6'1. I begin with The "seamless inclusion model" (as I might call it. This is advocated for example by the European
Union of Supported Employment whose conference was held in Barcelona in June, 2005. It envisages placing a
disabled person right away in a mainstream job and providing mentoring, job coaching and other forms of support on
the job. It's an ideal to which we are all no doubt sympathetic, but the conference revealed many problems which have
seriously limited the success of the supported employment movement alike in Europe, North AMERICA and
Australia. One is the high cost of providing these services on a one-off basis. Another is the scarcity of trained people
who can provide them. A third is around the question of how much support? Eg some multi-disabled people need
personal care support while at work such as help with going to the toilet. It seems that none of the national
programmes is anywhere near solving these problems on an adequate scale. Organisations like the European
Disability Forum (EDF) and EUSE should give urgent consideration to the design of such services for blind and ps
people (98 percent of whom have impairments in addition to visual ones).
6'2. The second I will call the ""progression" model". This is already embedded a little in the Workstep programme of
the UK. Blind people who are distant from the labour market spend some time in a special centre where they are
introduced gradually to work. The best example I have seen is the Blindcraft factory in Glasgow. It employs about
200 workers, half of them able bodied. Of the 100 disabled, about one fifth are blind. This distribution has two
advantages: (a) the range of productive tasks can be very wide and (b) there is no "getto" effect.
6'3. Under the Workstep programme, these special centres are required to meet a target of progressing their blind and
other disabled workers into mainstream employment. This target is currently 10 percent per annum. They do this by
providing training, extending literacy and numeracy skills, progressively raising output achievements, etc. etc.
6'4. It is arguably easier to provide for the special needs of blind people in a special centre where qualified personnel
can be concentrated. This was the case presented in the report, The Employment Continuum, published by The Royal
National Institute for the Blind in 2003. But we have to recognise a number of problems. The first thing is that
"special provision" is not fashionable at present. More important, perhaps, is the evidence from Norway that disabled
people spend too long in such centres and are often very reluctant to progress into the mainstream. A third is that such
provision would be very expensive unless the centre can at least break even on revenue account. However, there is
evidence that social firms can achieve this.
7. So the first question confronting those of us campaigning for more supported employment is this? What in practice
should we be pressing for in the way of supported employment for those blind and ps people who cannot work normal
hours and earn the standard rate for the job? The answer to that question is closely bound up with the following
questions. given the low rate of success of the "seamless inclusion model" for blind and other people with other severe
physical impairments, should we undertake years of campaigning for the support services they need on the job? Or,
given the proven track record of some social firms like Blindcraft, Glasgow, should we campaign for national
governments to establish such organisations as, say, centres for supported employment" in every region and press the
EU to support this as "best practice". Could Remploy factories, at present undergoing review, be transformed into
Dr. Fred Reid