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Blind and Deaf-But Fit For Work

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from The Times, October 4, 2000.

When Robert Winter answers the telephone, few callers would ever know that he is blind and 80 per cent deaf. After all, as the PA to the director of finance and administration at the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) says, his disabilities do not mean that he is any less capable of doing his job than other people.

However, getting to where he is today has not been easy - many employers are unaware of what blind people and those with other disabilities have to offer.

In the mid-Eighties, Mr. Winter completed a business studies course, which included shorthand Braille and typing, at the Royal National College in Hereford. He then set about finding a secretarial job.

"It was very difficult for blind people to get a job at that time because of a lack of awareness on the part of employers," he says. "Friends and colleagues say it is still just as difficult for them to get jobs and that it is more about who you know than what you know."

However, after being out of work for a year, Mr. Winter got his lucky break at the RNIB in 1984. "I came here as part of a youth training scheme, as I wanted to get some experience in word-processing. I did a six-week word-processing course at the RNIB in London and have been here for 16 years."

When he first started using word-processors, the only technology available to help blind people was Optacon, a device that comes with a camera attached. When the camera is run over a printed page or a computer screen, the shapes of the letters are displayed with magnetic pulses on a grid. To read what is written, the operator rests his finger on where the shapes are being processed.

"As you can imagine, this method was slow and time-consuming," says Mr. Winter. "I had someone to check my writing but because I had a lot of typing experience I did not make too many mistakes."

Today he has access to more advanced technology. In the Nineties, Braille display units were introduced. The unit is attached to a normal computer and keyboard but prints out in Braille. He has also had speech added to his unit. Now if he has a long document to read he can put on a set of headphones and the content is read back to him. The speech system has spellcheck, which works in the same way as an ordinary spellcheck as the voice stops at the word in question and gives a variety of options. He also uses a Braille Lite, a miniature version of a laptop with Braille keys, for taking minutes during meetings.

Although Mr. Winter's conventional hearing aid enables him to hear over the telephone, he uses a personal loop system in meetings. The loop unit is worn around the neck and is attached to a microphone that he passes around the meeting.

"Given that we have access to these types of technologies, blind people can do [more or less] the same job as fully-sighted people. If employees are worried about the cost of it all then there are organizations that help to fund set-ups, such as the Access to Work scheme. But even then the equipment can take a long time to become available."

Mr. Winter does, however, recognize one area where his blindness inhibits his performance. "The one thing I need to work on is manual filing," he says. "We produce a complex range of material that needs to be filed away and, at the moment, I have help for that. If I had more time I could probably work out a solution, labeling files and so on, but that is my only weakness."

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