Industry's blind spot challenged

Roger Trapp looks at a new initiative for the visually impaired
Industrialists will be urged to do more to put blind people into business this week. Delegates at a Confederation of British Industry conference on Thursday will be told that action is needed to avoid wasting the talents of often highly skilled, trained and committed people.

The vehicle being proposed for any developments is Workbridge, an initiative due to be formally launched in September with the aim of uniting government, employers and support service providers "in a unique partnership to harness the benefits of quality training and technical support to the advantage of visually impaired employees and their employers".

Workbridge, part of the "Out of Sight - Out of Work?" campaign set up to publicise the plight of the large numbers of visually impaired people who are out of work, is designed to be an integrated scheme that will make the most cost-effective use of resources. It will have three key elements: information - the establishment of a national database of job seekers and employment opportunities; co-ordination, bringing together different organisations in the field; and action, including the introduction, development and enhancement of new and existing employment schemes.

This is a response to the finding that only 22,000 of the 91,000 blind and partially sighted people in Britain of working age are in paid employment. Of the 69,000 not in this category, 7,000 have never worked, only 7,000 worked during the previous year and 19,000 have not worked for more than 11 years.

Moreover, a survey by the former Department of Employment suggests that even companies making an effort to help the disabled are more reluctant to take on people with visual impairments than those with other disabilities. While only 17 per cent were unwilling to employ people with learning difficulties, 67 per cent involved in schemes to employ disabled people were reluctant to consider candidates with blindness or eye trouble.

Peter Talbot, the chief executive of the Royal London Society for the Blind and a member of the steering committee of the "Out of Sight - Out of Work?" campaign, points out that need for action is urgent because improvements in education and technology over recent years have enabled many blind people to become educated to a very high standard. At the same time, the vogue for multi-skilling in a wide variety of industries means that roles traditionally reserved for the blind, such as telephony, are disappearing. "There is a considerable waste of resources," he says.

Dealing with this would, he adds, require giving innovative thought to the sheltered workshop and homeworker schemes of the type operated by the Royal London Society so that progression to placements and full employment can be encouraged.

But Mr Talbot and his colleagues are also calling for a review of the benefits system because they feel it discourages people from taking the risk of accepting employment. They want reforms introduced that would allow the visually impaired to resume claiming benefits without having to reapply if the job taken turned out to be either too difficult or unsuitable. This would alleviate their fears and allow them the opportunity to give the scheme a fair trial, they say.

Perhaps the greatest challenge, though, is dealing with the lack of accurate information about what visually impaired people can and cannot do.

"Employers look at obvious hurdles - some of them related to health and safety," says Mr Talbot. "But often they are things that if you've got the opportunity to explain then you can remove anxieties."