Accommodating People with Vision Impairments in the Workplace

During the Employee Selection Process

In the hiring process, an employer seeks to determine whether an applicant has the necessary skills, experience, education, or other background to successfully perform the essential functions of the job.

This is the same information all employers want and need about any applicant to help them make an effective hiring decision.

A visually-impaired or blind person has the choice of whether or not to disclose their disability to you. If you know they have a vision impairment, you can organize the interview and your interview questions ahead of time. If you know the person has a visual impairment, to enhance their application process consider these tips:

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  • Ask the applicant how he or she would prefer to meet the requirements of the hiring process. For example, if you require applicants to complete an application form, ask the applicant which would be most convenient:
    • Mail or email the application to the candidate who requests it.
    • Offer the walk-in applicant an opportunity to take the form, have someone help complete it, and return it by mail or in person.
    • Offer the services of someone in the office to assist in completing the form.
  • When you invite a person who is blind or visually impaired to an interview:
    • Ask if he or she needs directions.
    • If the candidate is taking public transportation, indicate which stop is closest, then give directions from the stop.
    • Offer assistance from the reception area to your office by asking, “Would you like to take my arm?” If the person wants to, he or she will lightly grasp your arm just above your elbow and will follow one half step behind you. Don't insist on helping, and certainly, don't push the person ahead of you. If they have sufficient vision or would rather use a cane themselves, they may prefer to follow you. If the person uses a dog guide, the dog will follow you. Do not pet or distract the dog.
  • When you get to your office, indicate seating either by asking if you may place the person's hand on the back of the chair, or by using the example of the clock. For example, if the person is at 6:00, say, "There is a chair at 2:00." Do not push the person into a chair.

  • The Interview Process
    • You cannot ask questions directly about the person’s vision, but you can ask how they would do certain tasks. Don’t assume they cannot do a task. There are great devices known as Assistive Technology (AT) that can help the person read a computer monitor in audio output or braille, read the smallest print, organize a file cabinet or travel independently to unfamiliar locations. If you have concerns ask, the same as you might any other person: "This job entails organizing travel schedules for 5 other employees, can you tell me how you might approach this part of the job?"
  • All people are different, including those with vision impairments. Don’t assume just because your grandmother has macular degeneration, that all people with vision loss will approach things in the same way. Everyone is different. That is what makes life interesting!

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An Accessible Workplace

An accessible workplace provides an environment in which employees are able to perform their essential job functions regardless of disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that employers with more than 15 employees provide employees with disabilities "reasonable accommodations" in order to perform their job functions as long as that accommodation does not place an “undue burden” on the employer.

Computer and mobile devices, now ubiquitous in the modern office environment, have dramatically increased access to information for people with vision loss and have made the reasonable accommodation requirement achievable for the modern office. Blind and visually impaired individuals can use technology to communicate on equal footing with their co-workers and access many of the same programs and systems that their sighted colleagues use. Because of this, people with vision loss typically have little trouble integrating into an office environment for many tasks.

However, there are still barriers to productivity due to certain types of office equipment that often do not include necessary accessibility features. The following are some considerations to take into account when purchasing office equipment to ensure that new equipment will be accessible to employees who are visually impaired or blind.

Inaccessible Office Equipment

There are two important pieces of office equipment that are often inaccessible to blind and visually impaired users: large multi-function printers (MFPs) and Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) desk phones. Fortunately, there are some accessible options or add-ons for both types of devices. Below, we describe the accessibility issues with VoIP phones and MFPs that cause problems for blind and low vision users and some accessible solutions on the market.

Accessibility Issues with VoIP Phones

VoIP phones include advanced features such as call forwarding, an address book, call log, and transfer capabilities that are accessed through a display embedded into the phone itself. Typical hardware VoIP desk phones have several design problems that can make them difficult or impossible for blind or visually impaired people to use:

  • A display is used for Caller ID as well as other features, including the call log and address book. A blind individual cannot read the text on a physical display, making these features inaccessible.
  • VoIP phones typically include soft keys. These keys are physical buttons whose functionality can change depending on context. Their current function is indicated visually on the phone's display, making them inaccessible to someone who is blind.
  • Many hardware VoIP phones have low contrast displays with small fonts that make readability difficult for people with low vision. The minimum recommended font size for people with low vision is 18-point. People who have low vision also require high contrast to make use of visual displays.

Accessible Softphones

One solution to the hardware VoIP phone issue is to provide access to a softphone. A softphone is software that translates all of the features of the hardware VoIP phone, including the ability to make and receive calls, to a computer. There are two softphones for Windows that were designed specifically to be accessible when using screen readers and screen magnifiers:

  1. Tenacity's Accessaphone runs on Windows and works with screen readers and magnifiers. This solution provides accessible equivalents for physical phone functions and operates in conjunction with a physical phone. It can be self-voicing with a built-in text-to-speech voice, and it is compatible with many VoIP vendors including Cisco, Shoretel, and Tadiran. One license is priced at $1,500, a bundle of 2 licenses at $1,250, and a bundle of 3 or more licenses at $1,000.

    An image of the screen layout of the Accessaphone

  2. VTGO-508 by IP Blue is similar in functionality to Accessaphone, but it is a standalone softphone that does not need a hardware phone companion. The user interface on the program mimics that of the hardware phone, but this interface can be accessed by a screen reader or screen magnifier. This solution also runs on Windows and has a built in text-to-speech engine. The suggested price for this solution is $750 per license.

    A picture of a VTGO-508 softphone

    Both softphones work with access technology frequently used by workers with visual impairments. In our tests with users, study participants preferred the ease of use provided by Accessaphone.

Due to the high cost of commercial accessible softphones for Windows, you may wish to explore other options. There are many mainstream Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) softphones, several of which have been tested and found to be accessible:

  • Telephone (OSX)
    • A SIP softphone accessible with Apple's VoiceOver screen reader
    • Provides access to basic phone functions
    • Free to download and use
  • Acrobits Softphone (iOS)
    • A softphone for iOS that is accessible using Apple's VoiceOver screen reader
    • Provides basic features such as address book, call log, and caller ID
    • Transferring, conferencing, and other advanced functions are not available
    • Users can easily record and replay calls
    • Connects to many VoIP providers and can be configured with a generic SIP account
    • The app was priced at $6.99 at time of writing
  • 3CX Phone3 (iOS)
    • An advanced softphone usable with VoiceOver
    • Can connect to SIP networks
    • Some static buttons are unlabeled but dynamic content is displayed properly
    • Advanced features such as transferring and conferencing are available
    • Multiple phone lines can be active at once
    • Free to download and use

Accessibility Issues with Multi-Function Printers (MFPs)

MFPs have accessibility issues similar to VoIP systems. Specifically:

  1. Most MFPs rely on a touchscreen for operation. Displays with low contrast and small fonts are difficult for people with low vision to use, and they are impossible to use for blind users unless there is an audio or tactile alternative.
  2. Some MFPs have physical buttons that are not sufficiently distinguishable by touch. Keypads that have no differentiating physical markings or that have keys very close together can be difficult for blind and visually impaired individuals to use. For those with low vision, faint or low contrast visual markings on a keypad can make differentiating keys difficult.
  3. Device documentation is usually inaccessible because it is print-only, or a PDF, that is not accessible.

Accessible MFPs and Accessible MFP Add-ons

There are several companies that have addressed the inaccessibility of their MFPs. We evaluated four of these solutions and recommend two of them on the basis of their accessibility (detailed below). While Xerox and Ricoh both have external solutions that allow a blind or visually impaired person to operate their devices from a computer, both systems are outdated and appear to be unsupported, so we do not recommend them.

The following devices from Canon and Lexmark received our recommendation:

  1. The Canon Voice Guidance Kit is an external module that connects to an imageRUNNER MFP that provides text-to-speech for device functions. The MFP is navigated using the physical number pad on the device, and the user receives audible feedback. A Voice Operation Kit is also available that incorporates speech input of commands and adds access to other functions. Voice Guidance Kit is available for around $750, and Voice Operation is available for $1,800.
  2. The Lexmark Accessibility Solution provides a web interface for device functions. Since the interface is a simple web page accessed from any networked computer, it is accessible on many different devices and with many screen readers and magnifiers. A user sets up and submits a job from the browser and then inputs a code on the MFP to perform the job. Lexmark's Accessibility Speech adds voiced status messages at the machine. The Lexmark Accessibility Solution and Accessibility Speech are priced around $1,000 for both together.

    An image of the screen layout for Lexmark Accessibility Solution

    During user testing, users who did not regularly use computers preferred the Canon solution because the controls were fairly simple to learn and did not require knowledge of PC screen readers or screen magnifiers. The Lexmark solution was preferred by those comfortable using computers with a screen access solution because the interface was familiar and efficient.

Staying ADA Compliant

As mentioned earlier, the ADA requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities so that they can complete essential job tasks. This includes the modification of equipment so that it is accessible. The ADA does contain the provision that an accommodation need not be provided by an employer if it would cause "undue hardship". In each state, there is a Vocational Rehabilitation agency that may be able to offer financial assistance to help you purchase needed equipment for an employee with blindness or low vision.


Though computers give blind and low vision individuals unprecedented access to office tasks, other common office equipment can pose accessibility barriers that hinder productivity and may even keep a blind or visually impaired individual from completing job responsibilities efficiently. VoIP phones and MFPs are two classes of devices that are often inaccessible. By providing accessible solutions for these devices, you can ensure an accessible and efficient workplace for all employees.


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Top 10 Features of an Accessible VoIP phone

Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phones are found in many offices but are often inaccessible to individuals with blindness or visual impairments (BVI). If you’re thinking of purchasing a VoIP system for your office, and want to make sure that it’s fully accessible, here are the top 10 features to keep in mind.

Discernable physical keys

Keys on VoIP phones that are uniform in shape and texture and are placed close together can be difficult to use for individuals with BVI. A VoIP phone that has well-spaced, prominent keys that are different shapes and textures can make the interface of a physical VoIP phone accessible. Keys with unique textures or shapes provide a point of orientation and make memorizing key locations easier when navigating a phone by touch.

Accessible caller ID

Like most physical phones, VoIP phones usually display caller ID on a digital display that is difficult for someone with BVI to use. A VoIP phone that can connect to an external talking caller ID or has some other way of non-visually communicating caller ID can be used successfully by someone with BVI.

Accessible voicemail indicator

VoIP phones have visual indicators to alert users to new voicemail. Look for systems that present this information in an accessible manner. For example, sending an email to the user upon receipt of a voicemail is an accessible alternative for people with BVI.

Accessible call log

The call log of a physical VoIP phone is available on the digital display without an accessible alternative. Currently, an accessible call log can be acquired by connecting a software based VoIP phone (softphone) to the same line as the physical phone so that it can be accessed by a person with BVI using computer access software.

Accessible address book

Like the call log, the address book is presented visually on the digital display of a physical VoIP phone. The most accessible way to use the address book is to use a softphone that can make calls on the same line as the physical phone so that the user can use the address book using screen access software on the softphone.

Accessible softkeys

A softkey is a physical button that changes function depending on circumstances. The current function of a softkey is presented visually on a digital display just above the key so that a user knows what the key will do if pressed. Softkeys that have audible or tactile indications that their status has changed are accessible to people with BVI.

Large font/high contrast display

In many cases VoIP displays are not backlit and have small fonts and low contrast, making the display very difficult to read for someone with low vision. A VoIP phone is more accessible if the display has high contrast between foreground and background. Large font also makes the display easier to read.

Accessible documentation

Printed documentation that uses a small font is inaccessible to someone with BVI. The most universally accessible style of documentation will be digital formats such as DOCX or HTML. Digital documents can be enlarged by screen magnifiers, read with screen readers, or printed in braille. (NOTE: PDF documents that contain only images of text are not accessible to screen readers or braille displays.)

Accessible indication of status changes

In order to be accessible, status changes, such as phone muting and display navigation, should have sounds to signal these changes. Such sounds, commonly called earcons, make navigating VoIP systems easier for a person with BVI. For example, a different tone playing for mute and unmute allows a person with BVI to determine the status of their device.

Accessible alternative for display information

The display on a physical phone can be used for many functions, from caller ID to settings. Communicating this information using synthetic speech makes a VoIP system more accessible. Currently, the only method for presenting VoIP functions in a completely accessible manner is to use a softphone, because there are no physical VoIP phones that present their information in an accessible manner from the device itself.

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