Partnering with Volunteers with Vision Loss Manual

Who is this manual for?

This manual is intended to guide organizations of any type that are interested in expanding their volunteer pool by successfully partnering with volunteers who have vision loss. It is based on best practice standards used by CNIB and the accessibility industry.

This manual is available as a WORD document at the bottom of the page. We have done this to make the material as accessible as possible - and to allow people from different organizations to be able to adapt and tailor the manual for their needs. If you do so, please provide an acknowledgement that CNIB created the original document.

We’d like to thank everyone who made it possible for us to offer this manual in accessible, alternative formats - our braille room volunteers for creating braille manuals, our library volunteers for producing audio copies and Jim Parkin for formatting large print versions.

To request an accessible (braille, audio, large print) copy, please email

The first section is a general introduction to the topic. The second section highlights best practices to guide you through the volunteer management cycle.

What follows is a series of fact sheets and backgrounders to provide more information about vision loss and working with people who have vision loss, whether they are staff, volunteers or just people in your life.


Providing input into this document was a Working Group of volunteers and CNIB staff, including Dorothy Macnaughton, Jill Jukes, Joe Eydt, Kristy Tapper, Lynsey Soper, Pam Blondin and Randy Firth. Our sincere thanks go out to all of them.

Special thanks to the Strengthening Communities Through Volunteer Program Development Core Project Members – Jennifer Spencer, Kat Clarke, Marilyn McGale and Susan Cheeseman (all of CNIB).

The first section is a general introduction to the topic. The second section highlights best practices to guide you through the volunteer management cycle.

What follows is a series of fact sheets and backgrounders to provide more information about vision loss and working with people who have vision loss, whether they are staff, volunteers or just people in your life.

The Willingness and the Need

The willingness is there

When CNIB surveyed volunteer programs in Ontario not-for-profit organizations, 84 per cent of 174 volunteer program respondents agreed or strongly agreed that their organization would benefit from receiving practical techniques and guidelines to make meetings and training more accessible to volunteers with low vision. Despite that willingness, only 34 per cent felt that their organization currently engaged volunteers who are partially sighted or blind.

And so is the need

An Unequal Playing Field: Report on the Needs of People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Living in Canada examined the needs of people in Canada who are living with vision loss. In looking at employment, comparisons made in the Government of Canada (2002) report entitled Disability in Canada, 2001, reveal that only 25 per cent of people who are blind or partially sighted report being employed, versus 51 per cent of people with disabilities in general. With volunteering being a gateway to employment for many, this is an important statistic, not just about employment, but also about volunteering.

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Benefits of Partnering with Volunteers with Vision Loss

There are so many reasons to engage volunteers with vision loss. Whether or not you believe that volunteers are becoming harder to recruit, doesn’t it make sense to be recruiting from every pool of possible volunteers? Especially when you consider the high percentage of older Canadians who live with common eye diseases associated with aging, such as age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma and cataracts. Given our aging population, we cannot afford to ignore seniors in our recruiting.

Beyond that, engaging volunteers who have vision loss sends a clear message that your organization believes in an inclusive community and is doing its part to be accessible and supportive of all. Your staff, your existing volunteers and your external stakeholders will hold you in high esteem.

One might ask what volunteers who have vision loss can and cannot do. In fact, people with vision loss can do almost everything you can do – they just do some things differently. You might have to make some accommodations to engage them, but those accommodations are easily done and cost little – sometimes nothing.

First off, you might be surprised to learn that very few people are completely blind. In fact, 90 per cent of people seeking assistance from CNIB – our clients – have partial sight. The degree of vision loss and accommodations needed are unique to each individual. The volunteer can let you know what accommodations will work best for them.

While volunteers with vision loss may not be able to be drivers, they can do almost anything else you can think up! What all volunteers want, including volunteers with vision loss, is to be meaningfully engaged. Just as each volunteer is different in their interests and skills, so is each volunteer with vision loss. Therefore, the key to finding that meaningful position is to ask.

It has always been our practice at CNIB to employ staff and recruit volunteers who have vision loss. On March 31, 2016, we had 545 volunteers with vision loss, which represents about 13 per cent of all available volunteers. Similarly, 13 per cent of our employees have vision loss.

Here are some volunteer roles routinely filled by people with vision loss at CNIB:
  • Operations and administrative roles, which involve providing reception or customer service, answering phones, coordinating program details, making calls to donors, and planning fundraising events
  • Client service positions, which offer opportunities for volunteers to share and care – whether that be through telephone reassurance/check-in calls or as a regular visitor of clients in a befriending program
  • Public awareness speaking roles allow volunteers with inspiring personal stories and a passion for the organization's mission to engage an audience with the organization’s message
  • Boards or committees opportunities providing advice, support, and oversight to the organization
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It is especially important to note that many of the accommodations for people with vision loss don't involve a great deal of money, time or resources on the part of your organization.

For instance, it costs you nothing to:
  • Have an advertised volunteer philosophy that includes being inclusive and open to everyone
  • Slow down and listen to understand when a person discloses a disability
  • Educate your staff and volunteers how to work with colleagues who have vision loss (CNIB provides sensitivity and etiquette training for the workplace)
  • Ensure your corridors are clear of obstacles
  • Provide documents in large print when requested for a meeting and routinely use fonts that are easier to read
What follows are a number of best practices to clarify exactly what accommodations should be made and how easily they can be enacted. Most involve simply increasing the understanding of your workforce so their interactions with people who have vision loss are comfortable and positive for both.

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Accessing Information

Best Practices for Clear Print

Whether you are creating a WORD document, a PDF, sending an email or designing an Excel spread sheet, it is important that all of the documents you create and share are accessible to everyone. Here are some basics of ensuring readability for people who are blind or have low vision. These are practices we have adopted at CNIB as part of our corporate style guide.
  1. Microsoft WORD is excellent. Put all the copy flush left – even headings.
  2. Choose the right font. Arial or Verdana are excellent choices. They are the two fonts used in CNIB documents – from emails to our annual review.
  3. Make it big! Try a size 12 or 14 font for regular, and 18 or 22 for large print.
  4. Think about colour and contrast. Black and white are best.
  5. Use font enhancements carefully. Avoid italics all together.
  6. Avoid all capitals, as this is difficult to read.
  7. You can use Microsoft PowerPoint for your sighted audience, but people with vision loss can’t read it. Instead, create an accessible version of the PowerPoint presentation, using WORD. If you can distribute it ahead of the presentation, that’s great. Otherwise, just be sure as you make the presentation, that you read aloud everything you want the audience to hear and describe any images the people with vision loss may not be able to see.
For more information, please see CNIB's Clearprint Design Standard.

Accommodations using Technology

On average, workplace accommodations for people with vision loss are very simple to achieve and cost on average no more than $500 – and often the individual will supply the technology they need because they already have it at home. Technology available today has leveled the playing field for people with vision loss living in a sighted world. For instance, there are “screen readers” that read aloud all the information on the computer screen. The user turns the screen off and listens to the voice information using headphones. They use their keyboard just like a sighted person, but do not use a mouse – they use keyboard commands instead. CNIB provides screen readers to all staff and volunteers who need it. Some screen readers, such as NVDA, are free. Another screen reader commonly used at CNIB, JAWS, costs roughly $1,500.

Other accommodations that could be helpful to a person with vision loss might include:
  • Computer screen-magnification programs change font size and shape, enlarge icons, enhance mouse pointer, and change screen colours
  • Devices such as closed-circuit television (CCTV) enlarge printed documents
  • Refreshable braille systems transcribe information from a computer screen
  • Portable note takers are handheld devices that electronically receive, store and retrieve data. They are equipped with speech and/or refreshable braille display output.
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Getting Around

Canes, Dogs and Sighted Guides

Your volunteer with vision loss will be able to travel alone to destinations that are known. For accessing new locations, there are community resources, such as CNIB, that will assist the person in learning to navigate the new environment (we will actually send someone over to do this).

People with vision loss may use a variety of tools to assist them in navigating their environments.

The white cane is just one of many tools used by people with vision loss – from toddlers to seniors – to assist with safety, mobility and independence. The cane is used to check for objects in a person’s path, changes in the walking surface (from cement to grass, for example), and for dangers like steps and curbs. A secondary function is identification. Recognized around the world, the white cane clearly tells other people that the user is a person with vision loss. For more information, please see Travel Techniques for Volunteers with Vision Loss in the accompanying Toolkit or watch this YouTube video.

Guide/service dogs are another one of the tools used by people with vision loss to assist with safety, mobility and independence. The dogs are taught not only basic obedience commands, such as come, sit down and stay, but they also learn to stop at curbs and stairs, to avoid obstacles in their paths, and to negotiate streets, crossings, elevators, public transportation, etc.

If a guide dog is in its harness, it is working and should not be treated as a pet. Distracting a guide dog – through touching, beckoning or otherwise interacting – is dangerous to both the dog and its user.

We have many guide dogs that come to work with their users every day at CNIB. The dogs are exceedingly well behaved and are adored by staff and volunteers alike, partly because they do not bark, interact with other dogs, jump up on people or exhibit any of the “dog” behaviour that makes many people uneasy. It adds special warmth to a meeting when a service dog falls asleep and dreams under the boardroom table!

For more information, watch this video. That video, as well as the one above on white canes, is part of the EnAbling Change series, produced with support from the Government of Ontario.

The Sighted Guide technique is a safe and comfortable way for a person with vision (it could be you!) to walk with a person who has vision loss. Many people with vision loss feel comfortable travelling independently in some or most situations, but there may be times when a sighted guide comes in handy. For example, in crowded situations like office parties, in unfamiliar places, or if the person is just learning to get around, a sighted guide may be helpful.

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind if you are guiding someone:
  • Introduce yourself and ask if the person needs assistance. Don’t just assume.
  • Have the person you’re guiding take your arm just above the elbow, placing their fingers on the inside of your arm and their thumb on the outside. This is a natural way for the two of you to be connected.
  • Never take the person’s arm or hand, or try to push, pull or direct them along. Not only is this considered rude, but it’s less effective in trying to guide someone.
CNIB provides sighted guide workforce training for those who are interested.

As well, “Step by Step” (accessible PDF), a handy guide from CNIB, will teach your staff and volunteers the skills and increase their confidence for guiding someone comfortably, respectfully and safely. To see sighted guide in video, this YouTube video will introduce you.

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Planning for Working with Volunteers with Vision Loss

Every individual wants to be contributing in a positive manner and engaged in existing and meaningful roles – whether that is as a board member or as a receptionist. In fact, most roles are appropriate to someone with vision loss.

Ask the individual whether a task is appropriate, and they will tell you. 
If an individual with vision loss finds a volunteer role within your organization that she feels would be a meaningful opportunity, she might need accommodation. This is something she will be able to tell you. Additionally, she may have an idea about how she can be accommodated easily and cost-free. 

Health and safety concerns
Organizational risk assessment or health & safety concerns are often the same for individuals with vision loss as for other volunteers, but they may need to be re-communicated. For instance, in order to maintain a healthy and safe working environment, a few basic rules include:
  • Do not leave ladders or other obstacles unattended in hallways, stairways or other areas traveled by people with vision loss.
  • Alert a safety representative of any hazards observed that could jeopardize the health and safety of a person with vision loss or people with other disabilities.
  • Ensure new volunteers are aware of emergency and evacuation procedures and know what to do in an emergency. In Ontario, this is required under the Integrated Accessibility Standards (IAS) regulation.
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Recruiting Volunteers who are Blind or Partially Sighted

To recruit volunteers who live with vision loss, or are diverse in any way, the general best practices include the following:
  • Have a diversity welcoming statement on your recruitment materials. For example: “CNIB welcomes applicants with diverse abilities.”
  • Employ recruiting methods that are as diverse and far-reaching as possible. Consider volunteer centres, mainstream social media and posting sites, newspapers and radio public service announcements.
  • Make sure your website has been designed to offer universal accessibility. Your website is your primary tool for recruiting volunteers.
  • Post volunteer positions in accessible formats.
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Application and Screening

When you first meet someone with vision loss who wants to volunteer, it is only natural to feel unsure about how to behave and to want to avoid doing something inappropriate.

The first thing you need to keep in mind is that people with vision loss are only different from the rest of us with respect to their vision. They have interests, thoughts, and feelings, and they do most of the same things sighted people do, from shoveling snow, to playing sports, to doing crosswords – they may just do them a bit differently.

In fact, people with vision loss often find other people’s beliefs about their abilities to be a much a bigger barrier than vision loss itself.

If you know this, you’ve already gone a long way towards developing a better understanding of how someone with vision loss might like to be treated. Below are some further tips for specific situations. For more tips, please see Vision Loss Etiquette in the accompanying Toolkit.
  • Use everyday language. Don’t worry about using terms such as “see” and “look” in conversation – for example, “See you tomorrow” or “Would you please take a look at this document for me?”. People with vision loss use these terms, too.
  • Always identify yourself by name. For example: “Hi, Lucy; it’s David.” Don’t assume that the person will recognize your voice.
  • Do ask first before reading aloud any printed material or offering assistance of any kind. This allows the individual to respond according to his actual needs and desires, and it will avoid unwanted over-protectiveness. Remember to be discreet and maintain the confidentiality and dignity of the person with vision loss.
  • If you are giving directions, be as specific as you can. Sometimes, it helps to pretend you are talking to the person on the phone. Use clear and concise language. For example: “It is the second door on the right as you go down the hall.”
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Tips for Interviewing Volunteers with Vision Loss

You may be concerned about what questions you should ask an applicant who is blind or partially sighted, but if you focus on the requirements of the job and what the applicant can do, not on the vision loss, you will find the interview process straightforward. Here are a few suggestions that may help:
  • Remember that someone who is blind or partially sighted is a person first. Vision loss is just one characteristic and doesn't define a person any more than his or her hair colour does.
  • When you enter the interview room, it may be helpful to describe the setting to the applicant (e.g. "We are going to sit at a round table. Your chair is on your left, and I will sit across the table from you.").
  • Focus on the person's qualifications to do the job, including questions that address the applicant’s abilities as they relate to the essential functions of the position and whether the applicant understands the essential job functions.
  • Seek to determine whether the individual can perform the essential job functions with or without accommodations (e.g. “This job requires editing documents. How would you complete that task?”).
  • While some guide dogs are beautiful and friendly, a lengthy discussion about the dog during an interview can distract you from discussing the applicant’s qualifications.
  • Ask for help when you are not sure how to interact (e.g. “How can I best help you…” or “How can I show you?”).
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Taking the time to put people at ease, evaluating the needs of others, and thinking before you act will make for successful meetings with anyone! In addition, here are a few practices that ensure everyone in your training session is on the same page in terms of accessibility: 
  • Enough notice is given to allow participants to arrange for transportation and/or support.
  • Handouts designed to be presented visually, such as PowerPoint presentations, are available in WORD (large print) or braille. Since it takes longer to review material in alternative formats, it is helpful to give material to the participants beforehand. Having the material in advance will allow participants to be informed, prepared and better able to participate fully in the meeting.
  • Room orientation is given by verbally describing the layout of the room (e.g., say whether it is square or narrow, how many tables and chairs there are, how they are arranged, whether there are objects such as water glasses or candies on the table, and where the refreshments and washrooms are located).
  • Introductions are provided by everyone at the table, in the order they are seated, so that people with vision loss know who is at the table and where.
  • Speaking during the meeting is always preceded by a statement of the speaker’s name, allowing an individual with vision loss to identify the person who is talking (e.g., “This is Steve speaking, and I think that…”).
  • Coming and going needs to be addressed out loud. If you step out of the room, interrupt briefly to say something like: “This is Deb. I’m stepping out for a minute.” This will prevent the person with vision loss from asking you a question while you are out of the room. Likewise, do the same when you return (e.g., “It’s Deb. I’m back.”).
  • Presentations must be described. PowerPoint presentations, in particular, can be a challenge for participants with vision loss. Describing the content is a must!
  • Adjournments must be clear. Offers to assist the person with vision loss in finding their way to the elevators, exits etc. may be appreciated. Also, it is always helpful for others to say “goodbye” when they leave the presence of an individual with vision loss.
For more tips, please see Making Meetings Accessible in the accompanying Toolkit.

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The First Day

The first few shifts are always nerve-wracking for any volunteer. Here are a couple of quick tips to make that first day easier:
  • If a volunteer will need assistance with learning routes inside your office, set up assistance for this before their first day if possible. Otherwise build this into the schedule for the first day. CNIB can help!
  • Walking with a volunteer between your desk and their area a couple of times can help to ensure that a new volunteer with vision loss knows how to find you if they need you.
  • Matching a volunteer with vision loss with an established volunteer can take away a lot of the stress of a new environment. Designate an established volunteer as mentor.
  • Explanations of environmental factors, such as lighting, orientation to washrooms, and descriptions of alternate doors, stairways and evacuation policies are helpful.
  • Training tips/checklists should include information about the supervisors, where to find them, and what do to if things are going wrong.
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Supervision and Support

We love mentorship! Wikipedia defines Mentorship as 'a relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person. The mentor may be older or younger, but have a certain area of expertise.' Mentorship has so many benefits for both the mentor as well as the person doing the learning:
  • Interpersonal Skills: It is always important to find the right mentor so that the new volunteer has someone with the right abilities and motivation assisting them. The mentor has a chance to increase those interpersonal skills and, potentially, develop a new perspective about what vision loss looks like.
  • Development: The new volunteer has someone to whom they are comfortable asking questions, allowing them to learn the position better and faster. The mentor develops leadership skills.
  • Teamwork: The new volunteer is part of a team from the first day, so they do not feel isolated. This, in turn, can create a better sense of belonging for both parties.
  • Problem solving: The new volunteer has someone to whom she can turn if they are having issues with the work, visually-related or not, and the mentor has the opportunity to develop problem solving skills.
  • Recognition: The new volunteer feels they are being supported and appreciated, and the mentor is recognized for their knowledge level and expertise. 
Supervision is a gift towards a person's development. Whether supervision is being provided in a meeting or a one-minute check-in, being clear and direct is always important. In addition, remember body language and tone when providing supervision; this is even more important if the person you are talking with cannot read your facial expression. 

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All volunteers – sighted or not – want to be thanked and shown how they have made a difference. This should be built into their everyday experience – not just saved up for annual recognition events. It can be as simple as thanking them verbally at the end of the day. It could be a personal email or giving them a thank-you card. You can also increase the impact of your thanks by giving feedback on the work the volunteer has been doing, including why it is important to you, to the corporate mission and to your clients.

When it is time for a formal recognition event, keep the following in mind.
  • Know and provide information about the event in the individual's format of choice – large print, electronic, braille or audio.
  • Leave time in your recognition plans for having materials transcribed to format of choice.
  • Make sure the venue is accessible, and that someone is available to be a sighted guide, if needed.
  • For a new location, think about transportation and give people time to plan for transportation (an assignment for another volunteer!)
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*Download a WORD copy of this manual:

3.5a JS Printable Manual, Volunteers with Vision Loss.docxPartnering with Volunteers with Vision Loss - Manual.docx