By John Zamora, M.S., CDMS

Work, Retire, or Take Disability Benefits?

First of all, it’s important to know you’re not alone. As more and more people are living longer, many are also experiencing vision loss. Some adults who are already working will question whether they should continue in their present jobs. The initial stages of vision loss can be difficult, especially if you enjoy your work and don’t want to give it up, are concerned that your job may be in jeopardy, or know that you can’t afford early retirement.

Even though your first inclination may be to take early retirement and/or apply for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), keep in mind that it is often much easier to adapt your current work situation while employed, rather than trying to re-enter the workforce. You can learn more about these programs at Visual Impairments and Social Security Disability Benefits: A Basic Understanding.

Don’t make any fast decisions and don’t assume that vision loss means job loss. It doesn’t! Here are some steps that may be helpful:

  • If you meet with a low vision specialist, tell them the type of work you do, what you want to continue doing, and where and when you’re experiencing visual difficulties. The more help you can get to maximize the vision you have, the better able you’ll be to continue working safely and effectively.

Workplace Adaptations

Remember that the individuals you work with, including your employer, may have limited experience with, or knowledge about, vision loss and low vision. It’s likely they’ll require your help to better understand your specific visual needs. In preparation for your meeting with your employer, try to be clear about where and when you’re experiencing problems:

  • Do you need to re-label your materials in large print?
  • If the lighting levels at your workplace are not sufficient, try experimenting with different kinds of lighting.
  • If there’s too much light or glare, can you reposition your desk or control the lighting?
  • If you’re having problems reading or writing, will a low vision device, such as a magnifier or a CCTV/video magnifier help?
  • It’s equally important to analyze your job to determine if there are any duties you believe you can no longer perform; for example, do you need to drive a vehicle, move equipment, or handle potentially dangerous or hazardous items? Assess the “essential functions” of your job in a step-by-step way, and consider how each problem or barrier can be resolved.
  • Perhaps a co-worker can perform a task that is difficult for you, and you, in turn, can take on one of his or her responsibilities—this is called “job sharing.” Your employer, of course, would have the last say in this process, but it’s helpful if you can offer suggestions and negotiate options.
  • Learn more about workplace adaptations and technology that can be helpful.

Vision-Related Services

  • Initially, it’s not likely you’ll have the answers to all of your questions—so be sure to seek help. Contact your state rehabilitation agency for the blind or visually impaired and ask to meet with a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, who is the person responsible for obtaining your medical information and coordinating your service and training plan.
  • If you’re having difficulties getting to and from work or moving around your job site, you’ll need to seek advice on how to address these issues from professionals who provide vision-related rehabilitation services. An orientation and mobility (O&M) specialist can teach you to orient yourself to your work environment and travel independently to and from your place of work. A vision rehabilitation therapist (VRT) can provide instruction in personal grooming, organizational skills, reading, and money management. Ask your Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor to refer you to these professionals.
  • Be sure to discuss any other concerns with your Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. For example, if your job involves computer work and you have problems seeing the screen, your counselor can introduce you to the different types of software that allow you to access information and continue working independently. Your employer may be willing (or even legally required) to provide funding for any adaptive equipment you require to do your job. Tell your counselor what your job requires and let him or her guide you to the most appropriate solutions. See Using a Computer for more information about the range of assistive technology that is available to you,
  • With the help of family and friends, and with guidance from your Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, learn as much as you can about other helpful resources. There are many agencies and organizations that offer a wide range of supportive services. Reach out to them. Describe your vision situation and the problems you’re having. Ask for their assistance and support. Arrange a visit to discuss the best ways to address your particular needs. Persevere! Learn to be your own advocate and involve your family and friends in the process, too.
  • Finally, after completing this research, you’ll be ready to sit down with your employer and explain your situation. By planning ahead, you’ll have resolved many issues that could prevent you from continuing to work.