At 31, a steroid response to a cataract surgery left me legally blind, with just the narrowest field of vision out of one eye — just as my only child turned 1 month old. The first few months of my blindness overlapped with the first few months of my wife and I becoming parents. The sleepless nights, the diaper changes and the newfound frantic worries of my child’s well-being overlapped with the big questions on my mind: Would I be able to provide for her? Was my career in technology finished?
There were daily challenges to being blind. Leaving a phone on a table meant losing that phone. Identifying the front end of a diaper was near impossible. Even getting toothpaste on a toothbrush was a huge challenge. Gradually, I transformed the way I did things so that I could adapt to my new world. I had designated places to put items, my wife helped me identify the slight difference in feel between the front and back of a diaper, and I got advice from another blind person to treat the toothpaste tube like a rocket taking off from the toothbrush: squeezing across and then quickly pulling up, leaving a perfect nurdle on the brush every time. (If you take away nothing else from this article, try this!)
In the office, my challenges were magnified because I had to be vulnerable to my coworkers. Whether it was trying to understand documents with screenshots or using our expense reporting system, the day-to-day tasks of work were just more difficult without sight — and I’d often need help to get through them. When people would say “hello” in the halls, I had no idea who they were or if they were talking to me, so I would not respond. Even just moving around the office was a challenge. It was easy to get lost. I found myself taking only familiar paths. Sometimes this meant I was taking a very long route and I’d get to meetings late. If someone changed one of my favorite paths, say by moving a potted plant I used as reference, then I’d be lost. And there is no more vulnerable moment than calling out into the darkness to ask if anyone is there who can help.
Luckily, the world is full of people who want to help. And my office gradually transformed how we all worked. My team removed all screenshots and made them into scripts — this was incidentally easier for everyone. People adopted a new greeting, “Hi Sameer, it’s ____,” so that I knew they were talking to me. Moveable potted plants were replaced with permanent end tables so that I had markers.
Then a position opened at Microsoft, and I was eager to apply. I was so determined to get this new job that I overprepared. I memorized every pixel of my presentations so I could navigate them with ease. I arrived early so I could memorize the layout of the room. I even rearranged the chairs so that I’d know where exactly the interviewers would be sitting. The interview went exceedingly well. It was only afterward that I realized I had not told any of them that I’m blind. And it didn’t seem to matter because I got the job.
The interview went exceedingly well. It was only afterward that I realized I had not told any of them that I’m blind.
When my boss called me on day one and began to describe the physical characteristics of another employee who was starting the same day, I said, “Jeff, I’m blind.” There was a stunned bit of silence before he replied, “Hey man, that’s OK.” He has been supportive ever since, and my team and I worked out many ways of adapting so that my blindness isn’t a focal point in my role on the team.
For example, when my colleagues and I would meet with customers, I’d arrive early and sit down. It was only when we’d take a midday break and I stood up that customers would see that I was using a cane. And by then the topic of my blindness would be merely a brief interlude, before we got back to talking about the issues we were working on.
Then the pandemic hit and my way of working was forced to transform once again. To my surprise, this transformation dramatically improved my ability to work! Suddenly I could meet instantly with customers around the country without navigating through airports, arriving early or having to mask my blindness. With the accessibility features in today’s videoconferencing software, it was possible for me to conduct meetings and help customers instantly, giving me the same experience as my sighted colleagues. Suddenly it was easier to concentrate on just getting work done.
Physical whiteboards in conference rooms were replaced by virtual whiteboards. Since the whiteboard was now on a computer, accessibility software allowed me to participate for the first time in years! And it wasn’t just me: people in wheelchairs, people of any height and people who could not hold a pen could participate, too. This shift wasn’t only a benefit for people with disabilities — think of someone with bad handwriting who was scared to scribble on an office whiteboard, or someone else who was just nervous about standing up in front of everyone. They, too, could join in more easily. During the height of the pandemic, I, like many people with jobs that allowed us to work remotely, realized I could have more impact from home. In fact, now many of my coworkers and I share the same challenges and advantages: Many people who care for small children and elderly relatives have always been just as reluctant as me to travel. Colleagues in wheelchairs did not take jobs that required travel. But now that has changed, not just for me but for so many others.
The pandemic showed us that a few simple changes can make a huge difference in how employees work. These changes have empowered more people to focus on work and achieve more — for themselves and their organizations. The transformation removed many arbitrary barriers that presented challenges, if not outright obstacles, for employees with disabilities. I’m an optimist by nature, but these changes have made me all the more optimistic about the future.
In May, coincidentally on the 10-year-anniversary of going blind, I did a career presentation at my daughter’s school. The kids there didn’t even blink when they saw my cane, or when I talked about using assistive technology. They just wanted to talk about artificial intelligence and Minecraft. When I think about the advances I’ve personally witnessed, I am very optimistic that when my daughter enters the workforce, the office won’t have to adapt to accommodate workers with disabilities, because accessibility will be the default.
The future of work is bright, and even I can see that.
October is Blindness Awareness Month.