Monday, August 24, 2009

Being a VA to the Visually Impaired by Tanya Joubert

I want to start differently to how most articles start. Acknowledgements are normally done at the end of a script, yet I want to start mine with an acknowledgement to a dear friend, interesting client, valued mentor and also my role model should I ever become visually impaired or blind. I drafted this article and then ran it past her to see if there were any items that she felt I did not address correctly and this gave way to a whole new understanding of the clients that I serve. Thank you Melette, once again you made all much clearer.
The term 'different needs' rather than 'special needs': Although 'special needs' is the politically acceptable term, people who are impaired in any way do not necessarily have special (specialist) needs, perhaps just different needs. Needs that you and I most probably can offer without any special training.
In a world that is becoming more and more inclusive, it is highly likely that you will encounter a person with different needs in the working environment. Gone are the days, hopefully, where people looked upon persons with disabilities with a preconceived idea that they are unable or will be unable to perform whatever task may be presented to them. Persons with disabilities have proven that they too, can be indispensable in the right positions.

Perhaps they were the first to use VAs?

Personally I am thinking that perhaps it is people who are visually impaired and blind who possibly first started using virtual assistants. However, this is not a researched fact and merely my impression when I work with a client of mine who is blind and has been blind since his 4th year. He has been using virtual assistants for the past 10 years, and although he still refers to them as personal assistants, they were virtual especially when his previous VA started using a computer.

Dr William Rowland has been in various positions such as being the President of the World Blind Union, Chairperson of the International Disability Alliance, director of various local organizations and definitely somebody who knows finance and how to turn a coin. At the age of 69 he is still a formidable person who still holds many influential positions locally and internationally.

Is working with the visually impaired so different?

He is but one of my special needs clients and specifically clients with visual disabilities. So what is special about working with somebody who cannot see, and how to deal with it ...

The biggest stumbling block is most probably the fact that when we meet somebody who has a disability we tend to treat them with pity and often we take the position of making decisions on their behalf. This is the most important lesson to learn; you may have the eyes but the decisions still lie with them.

Whose decision is it anyway?

A particular example of this would be when a blind client forwards you a slideshow or any type of file that is inaccessible to them, asking what it is. Some documents are not accessible to people who are blind, who are computer literate and use the advanced technology available, and many of the junk mail being sent around is in just such an inaccessible format. To me and you it is time wasting nonsense, blocking our inbox, however it is for them to decide that. You have to inform them of the content and not as once happened in an office setup, the casual inadvertently deleted it as she felt it was rubbish without telling the manager what it was. Needless to say he was extremely upset.

The same would be if you would ever be in the situation where you assist a person who is blind in their own environment sorting out their paper mail. A marketing letter from the bank, might to you be a waste of time, but to them it might be interesting or might boost their general knowledge. You are not to tear it up without their consent or prior agreement as to what you are supposed to do with such mail.

Why would this be such an extremely important point? When working with people who are sensory disabled, especially those who are not only blind but perhaps also deafblind, accessibility of information is extremely limited and therefore it is important that whoever works with clients or friends of this nature respects their need for information even if you think it to be trivial.

Technology and the Blind

To many it is still a foreign concept that blind people can actually work with a computer. However, they can actually do this quite easily, furthermore many of the older blind people do not exactly have a computer as we know it, but specially designed adaptive technology/devices such as BrailleNotes, BrailleLites, PacMates which can assist with the downloading of text mails and reading of text documents.
It is important to note that people who are blind or visually impaired are very much like abled bodies. Some have special skills and some don’t. Some can work on computers and some don’t.

Those who use computers may use screen reading software or a braille display. Assisting them with computer related problems can be very difficult, especially if you are used to others keeping quiet when you are speaking. Screen reading software just carry on talking as the person who you are assisting is moving through the menus and doing what you tell them. It takes getting used to and not all the shortcuts work the same, but it will be to your benefit if you learn how your client’s technology works to understand what their circumstances are.


One of the biggest issues that we can assist people who are blind with is to make sure that the documents that they have to work with are accessible to them and also accessible to those who must read it. This will also mean that in certain cases you have to create documents in duplicate – one for your client who is blind to be able to read it in their own time on their own computer or even for them to have it brailled, and another which will be presentable to visually abled people and thus presenting a professional image of your client who is blind.

It is interesting to note that it is the easiest thing to prepare a simple document to be brailled. Just lose all the pictures and save it in a text format without the flashy stuff, convert tables using comma separators and if you follow these extremely basic and raw guidelines you will already be a big help to any person who is blind.

Does this mean that they cannot present neat documents on computer? No! It does not mean that at all. In some cases they are very able to do this, but in some other cases, especially when information must be put into tables or when spreadsheets must be used, it is trying for some of them and may take just so much longer. Therefore it is more productive to use a virtual assistant to assist them with this.

In a Nutshell

Working for people who are blind or visually impaired can be difficult at times, you are challenged with different technologies, and a different view on life and business, but it is very rewarding and eye opening. To them it is quite normal to use a virtual assistant, although an assistant in person is always welcome as well. Like my friend says, I would love to have coffee with you – so then I grab a cuppa on this side of Skype (Boland) and she grabs one up there in Gauteng and we chat across the wired lines about where to go with her business in the next few weeks.

Tanya Joubert
Virtual Office Assistance
Tel: +27 83 510 1181
Fax: +27 86 655 4381
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Skype: klapperdop

P O Box 844
6705 Robertson
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1 comment:

  1. This is a very informative article and I learnt a lot about people with different needs. THANKS.