Overcoming Financial Obstacles for Individuals With Visual Impairments
A person who is visually impaired faces more challenges navigating a highly visual world with minimal to no sight. Reaching financial independence and having financial literacy for individuals who are visually impaired requires breaking down a variety of barriers and finding unique solutions to common everyday tasks. Everyday conveniences like paying bills, accessing ATMs, paying taxes and even counting money present unique financial challenges.
In addition to money management, workplaces continue to struggle to offer accessible workspaces and responsibilities to accommodate under the ADA for individuals with sight loss. This leaves a majority of those with visual impairments outside the labor market, thus making it difficult to pay for necessary medical and health care.
The good news is there are various organizations and resources to help these individuals face and overcome these financial barriers. In this article, MoneyGeek breaks down these barriers and guides you towards available financial assistance for individuals who are blind and families of loved ones with visual impairments.
Statistics on Visual Impairment
Approximately 20 million Americans have visual impairments. Visual impairments range from poor vision to blindness and cannot be completely corrected by glasses, contact lenses, medication or surgery.
Only 44% of Americans who are blind or visually impaired are employed. More than half of working-age people who are blind or visually impaired are not working. Of those who are, 32% only work part-time.
**The cost of assistive technology for vision and reading aids has increased by 42% in five years. ** Assistive technology market in the U.S. for vision and reading aids will reach $34.4 billion by 2020. It was only $24 million in 2014.
Only ¼ of ATMs in the U.S. can be operated using speech. Advancements have been made in accessible banking. However, a majority of ATMs remain inaccessible to a person who is blind.
An individual with visual impairment will spend an average of $15,900 on medical-related costs annually. Vision loss and eye conditions are amongst the costliest disorders in the U.S. This number jumps to $26,900 for individuals who are blind.
Because of a lack of awareness or cost, 50% of Americans do not seek eye care: Many visual impairments can be cured with proper medical care, but individuals are either not aware of the options or cannot afford the procedures.
5 Financial Barriers and Ways to Tackle Them
While individuals who are visually impaired are faced with financial barriers every day, there are resources and ways to tackle these barriers. Technology can be an additional barrier for those with sight loss, but it can also be a valuable resource. In a similar way that everyday money management tasks and finding financial assistance for health care and education do not need to be a cause for stress and worry. Here are ways to tackle common financial barriers.
1. Paying Bills
Paying bills presents a number of barriers for individuals with visual impairments. From sorting the bill out from the rest of your mail to finding the bill amount and due date, to writing a check and mailing that check to the billing company, each step can be a challenging task in itself. But technology has made it easier than ever to pay bills. A variety of alternate pay solutions are accessible.
The most convenient option to manage paying bills is to change your billing to electronic delivery. Many companies will even reward you for going paperless. Once the bill arrives in your email, a talking software can read the statement for you. You can pay the bill online. Nearly every banking institution offers online bill pay as well as most medical and health care institutions. For ongoing bills, such as electricity, sewer and credit cards, look for opportunities to have bills automatically withdrawn from your account. You can also pay most bills by phone. The Be My Eyes App matches volunteers to people who are blind or low-vision and help them lead more independent lives. These volunteers can be great assistants in helping you pay your bills.
2. Using an ATM
Many people opt to use an ATM for banking versus walking into a bank and speaking with a teller. Now imagine walking up to an ATM and not being able to see what’s on the screen. Individuals with visual impairments need access to accessible ATMs in order to navigate through the necessary steps to withdraw money.
Fortunately, accessible ATMs are becoming more popular in the U.S. There are currently more than 100,000 ATMs that can be operated using speech, and that number is growing daily. Most major banks, including Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citibank and Chase, offer accessible ATMs. Many of the ATMs require a set of headphones to use the speech feature, so it’s best to travel with a pair if you’re heading to the bank. You can call your local bank to see where the closest accessible ATM is to you.
3. Financial Assistance for Health Care
Health care is one of the most costly barriers that individuals with disabilities like visual impairment face. Not only is the cost of health care higher for an individual with vision loss, but according to the Equal Rights Center, many health care facilities do not meet the legal requirements for treating individuals with disabilities. In its investigation, the company revealed significant barriers in the structural accessibility of doctors’ offices and equipment and ineffective communication for individuals who are blind or have low vision.
Financial assistance for individuals who are blind stretches across non-profit organizations, government programs and independent programs specifically created to help cover the costs of health care. You can find a variety of resources for financial assistance for the visually impaired on the People Pledge USA blog. It lists resources for paying for medical and surgical equipment, medicare and additional government financial assistance programs. There are even organizations specifically designed for children and teens with visual impairment as well as resources for adults who are visually impaired.
4. Finding a Job
The biggest barrier for individuals who are visually impaired to find work opportunities is the number of available jobs. With the right accommodations, those with visual impairments can perform in just as many job sectors as those without vision loss. While the job sector is improving every day, more than 60% of people who are visually impaired still remain unemployed. The lack of available accessible opportunities weighs heavily on the mental state of those who are visually impaired. There are various rehabilitation, vocational and training resources designed specifically to help advance people with vision loss in the job market.
Organizations like the American Printing House for the Blind are helping break down the barriers that come with finding and maintaining a job when you have vision loss. A valuable resource is its CareerConnect program, which provides employment information, tools and guidance for individuals with vision loss. Understanding the necessary tools and access you need to complete a job can help find companies that provide those accommodations. You can find a long list of job-related resources for those who are blind and visually impaired on the Industries for the Blind and Visually Impaired website.
5. Accessible and Affordable Education
Everyone deserves an equal chance at education, and getting a valuable education is possible for children and adults with visual impairments. The biggest barrier is the lack of access to teacher-training programs. Most teachers are not trained properly in teaching individuals with visual impairments, which means individuals must seek out a specific school for people who are blind. Finding these schools can be difficult and expensive. For students who can attend a traditional college, adding the necessary technology can be costly.
There are a variety of tools designed to make gaining a valuable education easier for children who suffer from vision issues. These tools range from accessible textbooks, tactile literacy teaching methods, Braille books, technology and more. Online education has also made it easier to find accessible programs and courses. In addition, there are organizations and programs designated to helping children and adults with visual impairments earn an education. You can find a list of schools on the Teaching Students With Visual Impairments website.
Expert Opinions on Navigating Life With Visual Impairments
What are a couple of types of assistance available that individuals with vision impairments and their families might not know about?
There are many low-vision centers across the country that provide affordable (and sometimes free) service to the visually impaired (such as) Pacific Vision Eye Institute’s low vision rehabilitation center. Frank Stein & Paul S. May Center for Low Vision Rehabilitation provides a tailored experience with low vision specialists, Donald Fletcher, M.D. and Tiffany Chan, O.D. The Frank Stein Low Vision Rehabilitation offers free care to the un-and-underinsured.
Each unique visit presents patients with options to increase independence while living with reduced visual acuity.
Other low vision centers across the country include:
- Lions Vision Research and Rehabilitation Center, The Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins
- The Low Vision Centers of Indiana
- Florida Eye Specialists - Low vision
- VISIONS/Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired - New York
- Lighthouse for the Blind - San Francisco
- Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired
There are several national networks of support organizations and associations with local affiliate footprints for both consumer advocacy, such as the case of ACB (American Council for the Blind), and for securing local support to overcome the barriers to independence a person who is blind or visually impaired may experience. These local agencies have Social Security benefit counselors, social workers, technology and mobility trainers, etc. The American Foundation for the Blind and ACB have resource pages to these organizations that can assist with many challenges, including learning how to manage your finances independently as a person who is newly blind or visually impaired.
Independent reading is extremely important for people who are visually impaired. Most web sites are now accessible so that content can be read with screen readers, but books are also vital. There are electronic sources for books where those who are visually impaired can download them, which my favorite is Bookshare. For books that are not available electronically, the OrCam device is a revolutionary new piece of technology, allowing people who are visually impaired to easily read printed books. We wear glasses and take a picture of each page. Once the picture is taken, the OrCam will read it. The OrCam also reads money!
Credit Karma is a great place to check your score for free and see if there are any issues with your credit reports from Transunion and Equifax. Credit card offers are also provided based on what you qualify for. It is also fairly straightforward when doing your taxes through Credit Karma. For the most part, my screen reading software can digest and read out loud to me all of the fields on the site. Because of this, for a standard tax filing, a person with a visual impairment can do their own taxes. The app is mostly accessible with VoiceOver on the iPhone. I use it personally and get notifications regularly about my credit score.
What advancements are being made in the health care industry to help individuals with vision impairments?
Visual aids are beginning to integrate machine learning and artificial intelligence to help learn a patient’s everyday activities. The repetition of daily routine allows the technology to help the patient live independently without the fear or anxiety of decreased vision. The majority of artificial intelligence aids are very useful when (you are) outside of the home or in unfamiliar areas. Virtual and augmented reality are also available for increased magnification or to help contrast sensitive patients to resume their regimen in their homes.
There has been a lot of work done in the genetic therapy space toward combating some of the major causes of blindness and vision loss. Groups like the Foundation Fighting Blindness and Prevent Blindness America are leading the way in this space to prevent or delay many age-related eye conditions. But, that is just part of the story.
Technology has afforded many individuals access to vital health record information and other resources necessary to track their health progress. The ability to sync daily health data with smartphone apps also helps individuals take charge of their own health care, such as being able to access information online through the use of text-to-speech software or magnification apps. This is critical for the millions of Americans with diabetes who suffer from diabetic retinopathy and need to manage their health closely to prevent additional complications. Diabetes has become the leading cause of blindness in the United States for individuals over the age of 40.
Medical research for vision faces a number of difficulties, especially because of the varying causes of vision problems. There are medications, injections, genetic therapies and artificial vision tools being developed, with many clinical trials but relatively slow progress for most causes of the most serious visual impairment.
How has technology changed the financial barriers that individuals with vision impairment face?
Managing finances is often a difficult task for people with vision loss. While people with low vision have difficulty reading, seeing numbers correctly is even more of a challenging task because there is no context to know if the numbers are read accurately. For example, misreading a word will often cause the sentence to be confusing or not make sense. In that case, the individual often pauses to re-read the section and correct the error. When looking at numbers, there is no contextual feedback. Technology has allowed financial information to become more accessible for people with chronic vision impairment in a variety of ways.
Electronic devices, such as video magnifiers, computers and tablets, allow the individual to enlarge print and numbers. Some devices can scan text and read aloud the information, which we describe as “text-to-speech” or “optical character recognition.” Some apps on the cell phone allow the person with low vision to be connected to a sighted volunteer or trained agent to assist the person visually. These programs use the camera in the cell phone to show the sighted volunteer or agent what the person with low vision might have difficulty seeing. For example, they could help sort through mail, so the person knows which are important to keep, such as bills or read the amount due and date the payment is due by.
Similar to access to health data, access to financial data has been a major turning point for people who are blind and visually impaired living a truly independent life. Smartphone apps for banking and investing have made it much easier to access one’s own information to track finances. And, during the COVID-19 pandemic when many who are blind are at risk to move freely in the community, apps like mobile bank deposits provide an accessible and safe alternative to going to the bank and having to ask for assistance to fill out withdrawal or deposit slips. One can also more freely research information or learn about their investments online, compared to receiving large print quarterly investment reports that were essentially inaccessible.
In addition to the OrCam's capability of reading money, most online banking is accessible to those who are visually impaired. Unemployment is, unfortunately, still a serious problem for people who are blind. State departments of rehab and commissions for people who are blind help with funding technology and skills training for those who are unemployed. There is also Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Remote work does provide some new potential opportunities, though many of the best positions are competitive, and entry-level positions still often have accessibility challenges.
Thanks to websites and accessible apps, it is much easier for people who are blind or visually impaired to find technologies that can help with basic banking and more advanced things. Bank of America's mobile app is a great example. It works very well with VoiceOver, and a person who is blind can set goals like saving for vacations or home improvements. It is easy to check your balance, transfer between your accounts, make mobile check deposits, especially important during COVID-19, transfer your cash rewards and pay off your credit card. The website, AppleVis, offers ideas on accessible money management apps. Simply filter results by mobile app for banking, and lots of results will pop up.
What tips do you have for someone who is visually impaired to become financially independent?
One of the first steps could be requesting large print checks from the bank. The actual check is a bit larger, and the lines are bolder and slightly raised.
Good lighting or an illuminated magnifier can be very beneficial, even to individuals with mild vision loss to confirm dollar amounts or read account numbers accurately. Paper money in the United States is now produced with larger print numbers on the back lower right corner of the $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. Coins can be identified by size, shape and smooth versus rigid edges.
Visual aids are available, even to those with total vision loss. There are tools that can read the amount of bills aloud, including currency from other countries.
An evaluation by the low vision doctor or low vision occupational therapist could help the individual with any level of vision loss find the best tools to help him or her manage finances independently and accurately.
Unfortunately, not all websites and smartphone apps are created equal. Many may have accessibility bugs, making it a challenge for a person who is blind or visually impaired to navigate independently. However, while not all are perfect, there are many that work well with assistive technology like screen readers (text-to-speech software).
I would recommend a person find a company that has both accessible websites and apps, which will mean you have the opportunity to receive equal treatment alongside all other customers. Make sure you can do more than simply make a deposit or check your balance. You should also be able to access the financial company’s tools and resources that can help with growing wealth and investing smartly.
Consider looking into a 529(a) account, which is similar to a 529 college savings account. The money in a 529(a) account can be used for those experiencing blindness before the age of 25. The money from the account can be withdrawn to cover costs associated with blindness, such as purchasing technology, transportation, health-related costs, etc.
If you don’t qualify for a 529(a), then reach out to the IRS help desk to learn about special deductions you can make or other expenses that you can take relating to your blindness, such as the costs associated with owning a guide dog.
Finally, you should be aware of the details encompassing wealth if you need to consider receiving federal benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which has caps on savings and wealth. (It is) very different from rules around savings that other Social Security benefit programs have. Also, know your rights. While the federal government has not mandated specific guidance on website accessibility, there have been several important court cases that require websites to be made accessible for people who are blind and visually impaired. If you run into problems, contact a local consumer advocacy group, or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
People who are visually impaired should become acquainted with new technology, such as the OrCam device and screen reading software, and state resources, which may help them fund technology and get training. They should also have someone help them organize a great resume. Regarding the best ways to keep track of your money, talk to your bank and ask about their accessibility features.
Here in Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind has programs that can help with financial planning and goals. I would imagine every state has programs and resources, so I always recommend looking into any local organizations. There are also grants and loans worth looking into for starting your own business if you have a disability, etc.
Financial Resources for Individuals With Visual Impairments
There are many resources available to help people with visual impairments overcome the variety of financial barriers they may face. These resources range from independent to government-funded programs and organizations, and they provide support for all aspects of a person’s life. They offer everything from guidance and support to financial relief and education for all ages.
- Foundation for Blind Children: It provides financial assistance to parents of children with visual impairments. The foundation provides resources for transition services, camps and recreational activities.
- Social Security Administration: The Social Security Administration offers financial assistance to individuals who are blind by providing benefits if you’re unable to work. They offer two ways to receive benefits: through the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program and the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program.
- New Eyes for the Needy: For low-income individuals who cannot afford prescription glasses, New Eyes for the Needy provides vouchers for eyewear. It also distributes used eyeglasses to medical missions and welfare agencies in developing nations.
Technical Tools, Apps and Assistance
- VoiceOver: This is a YouTube video to show how to access the VoiceOver feature. For Apple users, the company has made it easy to turn your phone into an assistance device. The VoiceOver feature will read out everything on the screen of your iPhone, iPad or Mac. It can easily be toggled on within any device.
- Be My Eyes: A website that enlists volunteers to “be the eyes” of those who suffer from visual impairments. It has more than four million volunteers.
- LookTel Money Reader: This app for Apple and iOS devices recognizes currency and reads the amount out loud.
- National Industries for the Blind: The National Industries for the Blind helps to enhance opportunities for personal and economic independence for people who are blind by creating employment opportunities.
- Blinded American Veterans Association: This is a membership organization that offers benefits, rehabilitation training and access to technology to veterans with visual impairments and their families.
- Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults: This organization offers education in independent living skills, braille instruction, orientation and mobility instruction, vocational training and counseling for youth and adults with hearing and visual impairments.
- American Council of the Blind: This organization advocates on issues related to civil rights, educational opportunities, vocational training, Social Security benefits and health and social services on behalf of people with visual impairments.
- American Printing House for the Blind: A not-for-profit organization that provides resources and guidance for people living with visual impairments and their families. It offers resources to encourage independent living, education, career opportunities and more.
- National Federation of the Blind: Founded in 1940, this is the largest federation of Americans who are blind. It offers services, programs and resources to help defend the rights, provide support and information to Americans who are blind.
Advocacy Organizations and Support Services
- American Foundation for the Blind: It advocates for the civil rights of individuals who are visually impaired.
- Council of Citizens With Low-Vision: The Council of Citizens with Low-Vision advocates for the general rights of persons with low vision, including education for the public, training and support for those with visual impairments and outreach programs.
- United States Access Board: This organization promotes equality for people with disabilities, working toward creating accessible guidelines, standards and design. It was established in 1973 and is an independent federal agency. Individuals who are blind are part of its advocacy.
Community Support Groups
- Facebook Groups: This is a compiled list of Facebook groups by NoisyVision, a non-profit organization designed to support people who are blind and visually impaired.
- Family Caregiver Alliance: A community-based non-profit organization that addresses the needs of family and friends who are providing long-term care to individuals with visual impairments.
- Local Community Support Groups: This is a detailed list of local and national community support groups by New Horizons Un-limited that you can use to find a support group in your area. It currently has local resources for California, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New York and Wisconsin.
- Section 811 Grant: A government-backed program that allows persons with disabilities to live independently through subsidized rental housing opportunities that provide access to supportive services.
- A Guide to Homeownership Programs for People with Disabilities: A MoneyGeek homeowners guide to help people with disabilities navigate purchasing a home. The guide includes non-profit and government-sponsored programs, such as the Housing Choice Voucher — a homeownership program that helps families who have a disability buy a home and receive monthly assistance for homeownership expenses.
- Lions Club International: This international organization provides resources and financial help to people with visual impairments. It often provides assistance in home adaptation needs.
Scholarships, Financial Aid and Education
- Scholarships and Grants for Students with Disabilities: This is MoneyGeek’s how-to guide to obtain scholarships and grants for students with disabilities. It also provides helpful financial information and opportunities for tax deductions and breaks.
- Resources for College Students with Disabilities: This is a MoneyGeek college prep guide for students with disabilities. It includes strategies to be successful before, during and after college, classroom accommodations, assistive technology and tips for parents of college students with disabilities.
- FAFSA: The Free Application for Federal Student Aid offers a Braille FAFSA and provides students with opportunities to receive federal funding for higher education. Unfortunately, this form is a reference aid and cannot be submitted. You can obtain a Braille copy by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243).
- Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired: This organization provides free distance-education courses for people with visual disabilities, their relatives and any professionals who work with them.
- Federal Student Aid: The U.S. Department of Education offers the Federal Student Aid program to help students who are blind and visually impaired pay for school beyond high school.
- Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB): This non-profit organization connects people and dogs together. It works to train and prepare qualified guide dogs to individuals who are blind or have low vision. Its services are free of charge.
- Braille Institute: The Braille Institute provides a wide range of free programs, classes and services in the Southern California area. It is a non-profit organization with a mission to help individuals with vision loss or blindness.
About Sara East
- American Foundation for the Blind. "American Foundation for the Blind: Home." Accessed August 28, 2020.
- CareerConnect. "Striving for Financial Independence As a Blind or Visually Impaired Worker – Page 12." Accessed August 28, 2020.
- Eric. "ERIC - Education Resources Information Center." Accessed August 28, 2020.
- Industries for the Blind and Visually Impaired. "Resources For Blind & Visually Impaired Job Seekers | Blog | IBVI." Accessed August 30, 2020.
- Living Well With Low Vision. "Financial Assistance – Living Well With Low Vision." Accessed August 31, 2020.
- National Federation of the Blind. "National Federation of the Blind: Homepage." Accessed August 30, 2020.
- Teaching Visually Impaired. "Financial Assistance for Persons who are Blind or Visually Impaired." Accessed August 30, 2020.
- U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. "Civil Rights Issues Facing the Blind and Visually Impaired in Illinois." Accessed August 30, 2020.