Engaging with People who are Blind as Evaluators

In an evaluation conference last year, I attended a session about disability. I was interested in connecting with the speaker, as her topic aligned with my interests. Surprisingly, she spoke with my assistant and ignored me, a behavior I often experience but did not expect from a professional in the disability field. This experience led me to prepare a presentation about this topic, which I presented at the American Evaluation Association’s Eval20 Reimagined conference this year. This blog post is an overview of the presentation that I gave. I think it is important for the broader world to have access to this information.

Image of a work surface that has a phone, a pile of papers, a pen, and a cup of coffee. Hands are holding one piece of paper and examining it with a magnifying glass.

As a person who is blind and who works in the evaluation field, I have at times felt disrespected and not welcome in professional spaces. I know that this behavior does not come from malintent, but rather from a lack of knowledge about and experience in working with individuals who are blind. I advise you to start building your competence with regard to interacting with people with disabilities right now, so that you can begin to build this skill set in your day-to-day interactions. Don’t wait until you are working with a person who is blind to begin that process.

People often feel confused because they don’t know the differences among people who are blind; thus, they group them all in one, which does not benefit anyone with a visual impairment. It is really important for any person to understand the differences among people who experience blindness in order to understand their needs and how to help them. As a foundational starting point, here are definitions for various forms of blindness:

  • Visual impairment is when a person’s eyesight cannot be corrected to a “normal” level
  • Functional blindness is when a person’s daily routines is affected by their inability to perform tasks that usually require sight without assistive technology
  • Legal blindness is when a person experiences a challenge viewing things clearly with correction and their level of visual acuity is 20/200 or less
  • Low vision is a severe visual impairment; visual acuity at or below 20/70 and cannot be corrected by glasses or contacts

“Visually impaired” is a broad umbrella term and can be used to cover functional blindness, legally blind, and low vision. With that being said, the abilities, presentation, and needs of each individual who is blind vary from person to person. For example, some people read Braille, while others do not; some have open eyes, while some have closed.

What about the question of person-first language? I feel that this is up to the individual and their preferences; you can simply ask them. If you do not know them very well, it is respectful to default to person-first language (e.g., “a person who is blind,” rather than “a blind person”).

Lack of knowledge about blindness and the diversity within the blind community affects how people interact with those with visual impairments. Often, people who are blind experience exclusion from society as they encounter awkward behaviors when interacting with others in their daily lives, as the diagram below illustrates:

Image of a three-part Venn Diagram. The first circle (at the top) is labeled “Helping.” Then a list follows: touch without consent, pointing without verbalizing, not describing surroundings, not describing visuals, standing too close, putting things in front of the person without telling them. The next circle, to the right, is labeled “Assumptions.” Then a list follows: person is faking blindness, person can read Braille, person cannot do anything independently, person has intellectual disability. The third circle, to the left, is labeled “Interactions.” Then a list follows: avoid interaction, speak with assistant, act nervous, speak loudly. The middle space where all three circles overlap is labeled “Feelings.” Then a list follows: excluded, uncomfortable, unsafe, isolated.

Repeatedly facing this same challenge with people everywhere – with professionals and non-professionals alike – leads to the experience of isolation and disempowerment.

These challenges that people who are blind face daily are a shared lived experience that has led to the formation of a blind culture that is not well-known or -studied. Regardless of their level of vision, it can be challenging for people who are visually impaired to access a world that is not built for them, including in leisure activities, seeking information, becoming employed, and finding opportunities in education.

We, as evaluators, must be sensitive when working with stakeholders who are different from us, whether they are from marginalized groups or from different cultures. I encourage you to use the Culturally Responsive Evaluation and Transformative Participatory approaches when working with people with disabilities, in this case, with those who are blind or visually impaired.

Both CRE and TPE focus on the lived experience of the participants to make positive social change in society and require a full understanding of cultures and needs, as well as accurate representation of the participants in the study.

I believe that CRE and TPE can go hand-in-hand, as they build on each other. CRE emphasizes the importance of:

  • The evaluand’s cultural and historical context
  • The lived experiences of stakeholders
  • Empowering and including the voices of marginalized groups

TPE embraces these ideas and then takes them a step further, including the diverse voices of all stakeholders from beginning to end. TPE promotes:

  • Empowering stakeholders to advocate for themselves
  • Social change
  • Engaging all stakeholders (especially marginalized groups)

TPE requires:

  • Forming positive relationships with participants
  • Engaging and promoting respectful dialogue
  • Designing studies to address power inequities
  • Accurate representation of marginalized groups
  • Having a clear understanding of culture

Here is what this might look like in practice:

Problem StatementInputsOutputsOutcomesLong-term Outcomes
Individuals who are blind are often excluded in evaluations because of the limited knowledge evaluators have about the blind culture and their needs.Understand blind culture   Preparing to accommodate individuals and their needs

Building confidence in interacting with people who are blind
Consult with individuals who are blind to ensure proper accommodations for their specific needs

Prepare materials in alternative formats

Practice respectful etiquette with people who are blind (e.g. describe visuals/surroundings, introduce yourself, talk with the person directly)

People who are blind will feel included and heard

Evaluators will be able to confidently engage the blind community


Leaders will make adjustments in order to meaningfully meet the needs of those who are blind

Leaders will create an environment of better inclusion for the blind community
Blind individuals will experience full inclusion in society

The question of including disability meaningfully into evaluation is an emerging topic in the field, and there are many gaps in the related research. I am exploring this myself and invite you to explore it with me – let’s collaborate to fill those gaps, to make positive change in the lives of people with disabilities. Once you take the first step, everything will start to come together!


American Foundation for the Blind. (2020). Low vision and legal blindness terms and descriptions. Https://www.afb.org/blindness-and-low-vision/eye-conditions/low-vision-and-legal-blindness-terms-and-descriptions

Cousins, J. B. (2003). Utilization Effects of Participatory Evaluation. International Handbook of Educational Evaluation, 245-265. doi:10.1007/978-94-010-0309-4_16

Cousins, J. B., & Whitmore, E. (1998). Framing participatory evaluation. New Directions for Evaluation, 1998(80), 5-23. doi:10.1002/ev.1114

Mertens, D. M. (2007). Transformative paradigm. Journal of Mixed Methods Research, 1(3), 212–225. Https://doi.org/10.1177/1558689807302811

Mertens, D. M., Farley, J., Madison, A., & Singleton, P. (1994). Diverse Voices in Evaluation Practice: Feminists, Minorities, and Persons With Disabilities. American Journal of Evaluation, 15(2), 123-129. doi:10.1177/109821409401500202

Mertens, D. M., & Wilson, A. T. (2019). Program evaluation theory and practice: a comprehensive guide.

Ryan, K., Greene, J., Lincoln, Y., Mathison, S., Mertens, D. M., & Ryan, K. (1998). Advantages and Challenges of Using Inclusive Evaluation Approaches in Evaluation Practice. American Journal of Evaluation, 19(1), 101-122. doi:10.1177/109821409801900111

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