This article is part of our special report Eye on Active Ageing.
SPECIAL REPORT / Research shows that living standards for the blind vary considerably across the European Union, but a uniformly ageing demographic and the challenges of modern technology afflict all people with visual impairments in the same way.
Fred Reid, former president of the UK’s National Federation of the Blind and Partially Sighted, told EURACTIV in an interview that in Romania high unemployment amongst the visually impaired compounds poverty.
“In some cases in the countryside, Romanian parents are unwilling to allow their blind children to enter the job market, preferring to reserve them for work in the fields,” Reid said.
In a report called “the Hidden Majority”, which he is co-writing, Reid cites the president of a local Romanian blind association describing near third-world conditions for the blind.
By contrast, Scandinavia has a long tradition of pioneering policies for its visually impaired community. In Denmark, a public advisory and support system is backed up with public funding for basic equipment such as guide dogs and canes.
A well-organised lobbying effort has recently secured the reading out loud of subtitles on Danish television. If someone is speaking in a foreign language in a news programme or drama and they are subtitled, the blind are left momentarily baffled.
“But now this is something the biggest Danish broadcaster provides via a button on your remote control. This is something we are proud of,” says Thorkild Olesen, chairman of the Danish Association of the Blind.
Behind the statistics the picture is blurred
Whilst Scandinavia appears ahead of the crowd on policy for the blind, a look behind the statistics can reveal a more nuanced situation.
In Sweden, which has one of Europe’s highest levels of employment for the visually impaired, only 13% work full time, Reid’s research shows.
Some say Swedish employers are under considerable statutory constraint not to dismiss workers going blind, and therefore usher them towards part-time work, Reid said.
“Others disagree, and say that those workers would prefer to be part time. Modern employment conditions for blind people can be very difficult, and travel can be a huge strain. So part-time employment might be a rational solution in those circumstances and I do not know which of these two opposing views is true,” Reid told EURACTIV.
Olesen puts it plainly: “You can compare statistics with bikinis: they show the most, but hide the most important stuff.”
Not comparing like with like is dangerous
“If you compare the blind people’s conditions in Denmark to the rest of the society with other countries’ blind people’s conditions up against their societies, then Denmark probably wouldn’t fare well, overall,” argued Olesen.
He acknowledged that – seen from the standpoint of basic standard of living – the Danish blind have a better deal.
“An early retirement pension is probably worth a lot more than one in Romania. But if you compare how we live to other people in Denmark then we are in a whole different situation. It’s like comparing apples and pears. It depends on the starting point and the comparison,” he explained.
Common challenges threaten blind everywhere
Moreover, two issues affect the visually impaired wherever they are living in Europe: the fact that they are increasingly common, as a result of the ageing demographic across the continent; and the technological revolution.
Technology undoubtedly offers opportunities for the blind, from surgical technologies that may postpone deteriorating eyesight, to the type of button-touch modifications that allow Danes to hear subtitles read to them whilst watching television.
The aged find technology difficult to navigate however, and this problem is exacerbated by blindness.
“I have a machine which can read out loud certain web pages, but many of our members don’t know how to use a machine like that. You can easily get this machine, but it’s difficult to get someone to teach you how to use it,” Olesen said.
“Most blind people in Denmark are over 70 years old and were able so see for the most part of their lives. For them it’s really difficult to get used to how things now work. They have to start all over,” Olesen said.
Technology radically adapting existing products
Technological advances are also modifying existing goods and products in ways which provide daily challenges for the blind.
Text-to-speech software can be used to 'read' digital files or text, or for an accessible eBook reader to hear a synthesised voice read books, and there are digital devices available that produce 'refreshable' Braille on a Braille keypad.
Only a small fraction of websites are fully accessible to blind and partially sighted people, however, and only 5% of books are produced in formats, whether electronic or physical – like paper large-print books – which can be read by blind people or the machines they use.
Copyright exemption for the blind out of sight
A special treaty under discussion in the World Intellectual Property Organization would oblige organisations like the Royal National Institute of Blind People in the United Kingdom, to share scarce accessible books with other countries.
There has been much resistance to efforts to agree the treaty, however, with many countries afraid of allowing for exceptions of any kind to copyright laws.
And emerging technologies bring their own new challenges too.
Electric cars, for instance, may be an indispensable ingredient for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, but they pose a threat to the blind, since they are virtually impossible to detect audibly. A campaign launched by the NGO the European Blind Union this week has called for acoustic devices to be attached to electric cars.
These examples illustrate the danger that the visually impaired may be left behind or omitted from technological advancement.
Colin Farmer, an innocent blind man, was shot in the back with a 50,000-volt Taser by British police earlier this month after they mistook his white stick for a samurai sword.
"The Taser hit me in the back and it started sending all these thousands of volts through me and I was terrified,” said Farmer.
It was a graphic warning that – without conscious efforts to incorporate the visually impaired within a fast-changing society – they are in danger of becoming invisible to those in decision making positions.