As any other youngsters, also the ones with visual impairments need and enjoy opportunities to meet and work with others in an atmosphere of friendship, mutual support and security. “It is very important for youth NGOs and other entities working with youth to develop projects that are open to all young people in society”. This is what we often hear as an impersonal slogan. But let’s be honest, when most of us are in the situation of working with youngsters with visual impairments we feel quite anxious. And this is perfectly understandable up to a point, as there is little public awareness on the topic. ‘How should I handle the logistics?,’ ‘What can they do?,’ ‘How will they deal with the activities?,’ ‘Will they really enjoy this experience?’ All these questions are popping into our heads and it is not always easy to find answers.

Unfortunately, what we have found was that, party due to misconceptions and stereotypes partly due to lack of information, most of the NGOs or other youth serving entities are seldom offering their services to people with disabilities, in general, and in particular to persons with visual impairments. On the other hand, for the few who do dare to take on this “challenge”, the project happens and ‘Wow!’ they find that the work they have to do is not so different than with other groups.. Yes, offering more inclusive services  demands some changes – both organizational and individual – but it is not such a complicated process as one might think.

Starting from this, we began asking different stakeholders about their position on the topic. We asked young people if they were even interested in getting more involved in non-formal activities? And, if true, in which kind and how could this be facilitated? We went to find out if NGOs or other institutions addressing youth willing and capable of including participants/beneficiaries with disabilities in their current activity? And are other young people comfortable with working in the same team with persons with disabilities?

Unfortunately, some of the answers we received kind of confirmed our initial assumptions. There are few opportunities for youngsters with visual impairments and NGOs are not really active in improving this. But there were also some very encouraging results.

First of all, there is a high interest on the topic. Even if a lot of entities working in the field of youth are not active in inclusive projects, more than 70% of them are interested in doing this. In an equal manner, persons with visual impairments indicated a lot of topics and activities which would be interesting to them, like:

  • Local/international trainings on topics such as communication, social and employability skills;
  • Local/international workshops such as information technologies and foreign languages;
  • Leisure activities such as music, sports, camps and literature;
  • European youth exchanges;
  • Local/international volunteering for a cause, volunteering for, working in or managing organizations;
  • Social activities involving both visually impaired young people and young people with typical development;
  • Awareness campaigns;
  • Theatre, dancing, music therapy, participating in cultural events;
  • Body language and especially non-verbal communication (many youth have to master these skills since they are unable to observe these visual behaviours);
  • Interactive activities that will allow seeing participants to better understand the unique experience and perspective of blind participants such as organizing events like “Dinner in the dark” or campaigns such as “Put Yourself in My Shoes”.

Secondly, based on previous experiences of those involved, we found that a lot of the things causing anxiety for youth entities we not at all based on the realities.

For example, the first big surprise: “It’s not babysitting!’.” Most of the other youth workers we were interviewing lived under the impression that if they were to involve one participant with visual impairments they should more or less have a ‘shadow’ person always by his or her side, to guide and do everything for that individual. And this was totally discouraging for most, as it seemed like too big of a challenge. What most failed to realise was that by the age they would participate in a youth project, most persons with visual impairments would have already learned to be autonomous. Yes, being blind or partially sighted does not mean you are dependent on another person! Of course, sometimes you would need some guiding or some little help in the tasks, but in more than 90% of the time no assistance is required.

A second surprise: “People are so overthinking it!’ It just doesn’t have to be perfect! Persons with visual impairments are aware of the fact that some activities will not be accessible to them and they are fine with this. While there are a lot of assistive technologies that make participation more accessible, the reality is that not everyone can afford them and people are happy enough with the situation. Yes, it is natural to want the best and one should aim for this, but not being able to provide the perfect experience should not be a reason not to do it at all. In practice, this perfectionist way of looking at things led to one of the two behaviours we noticed, neither of which is desirable in the context: people were either avoidant on the issue, and they just didn’t involve people with disabilities in their activities, or they were overprotective, which created also a form of exclusion, by emphasising that the person with disability is different and needs so much special attention, which was again quite uncomfortable.

Moreover, the involvement of persons with disabilities in different projects is not only beneficial just to them, but also to the organisations, as:

  • Local projects and initiatives will become more relevant to the communities: people from the community will gain deeper and broader understanding of visual disabilities in particular and disability in general.
  • In terms of content, the project and the participants will understand topics such as inequality, discrimination and exclusion.
  • It is a very good way to challenge prejudices and stereotypes and to create a more open society
  • The mixed group will see patterns of injustice and explore concerns and questions related to this. Participants will discover their similarities as young people with hopes and aspirations for the future.

So, we found out that all odds were in favour, but what can be done about it? How can others be helped to realise the importance of being inclusive? There are guides on mobility and orientation, the internet is full of resources, most of the grant opportunities encourage and fully support participation of persons with disabilities, but still, not much is happening. Therefore, the main problem is obviously not the resources but the mentality, as a large share of the youth workers are either not considering the subject at all or are thinking of it in the wrong way. And if there is something that people working in education know, it is that attitudes are often the most difficult to change.

Not feeling discouraged, we went for it and after 3 months of work, all our experiences and findings were combined in this peer-training Tool-Kit which was designed to determine and help youth workers to improve their regular activities such that they would be accessible for persons with visual impairments.

If at this stage you are still reluctant, here is some more encouraging news: prior to launching the T-Kit, more than 70 persons followed this programme, out of which 7 were either blind or with low vision. About 90% of the participants declared that after the training course they were more open to working with persons with visual impairments. Later they also proved that they have the will and skills to make their activities more accessible, as during or following the programme each participant actually organised events involving persons with visual impairments.

With these said, we invite you to open your mind, hop on board, and explore this valuable resource we are offering, hoping that it will determine you to make the first steps towards your first inclusive project!