Is poverty blind?


Assessing the chances of vision impaired children becoming socially mobile adults.

While the UK is one of the richest countries in the world, the gap between the very rich and the very poor has increased dramatically over the past 25 years. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in considerable interest in social mobility, that is the extent to which children’s social and financial prospects are constrained by the circumstances of their parents; “higher social mobility – has become the new holy grail of public policy” (Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission 2013).

Families caring for disabled children are much more likely than those with non-disabled children to live in poverty. It is estimated that 27 per cent of disabled children in the UK (just over 200,000) live in poverty –that is in households with an income below 60 per cent of the national median. If we take into consideration the disproportionate burden of housing costs on families with low incomes and adjust for the contribution of Disability Living Allowance (a benefit designed to offset the additional costs of caring for a disabled child), the number of children living in poverty rises to over 300,000 or 40 per cent (Children’s Society, 2013).

Recent research on families with vision impaired children shows a similar picture. Over a quarter (27 per cent) of families with vision impaired children aged 11 were found to be living in poverty compared to just under 20 per cent of those with sighted children. Similarly, in nearly 30 per cent of families with a vision impaired son or daughter one or both parents were unemployed, compared to just over ten per cent of sighted children (Harris et al., 2014).

Poverty trap

Conventional wisdom suggests that “the poor will always be amongst us” and poverty itself is a necessary evil; those who experience poverty first hand are keen to escape and those fortunate enough to live above the poverty line are either hungry for greater wealth or terrified of falling into poverty. Either way, poverty acts as an incentive for character traits that lead to financial security: hard work, aspiration and achievement. The evidence, however, points in a different direction. Not only has the gap between rich and poor grown considerably over the last 25 years, but it seems that almost no progress has been made in terms of social and economic mobility (Dorling, 2014; Picket and Wilkinson, 2010; Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, 2013).

In these circumstances, what are the chances of a young person with vision impairment progressing from a low income household to join the relatively affluent middle classes? As things stand, they are not very promising. Data from a large national household survey found that half of adults with sight loss (49 per cent) live in a household with a total income of less than £300 a week and people with sight loss were twice as likely as those with no impairment to face great difficulty making ends meet (Natcen/RNIB). Young people with vision impairment face even greater obstacles to finding paid employment than their sighted counterparts –44 per cent of young people aged 16 to 25 with vision impairment are not in employment, education or training (NEET). This is twice the proportion of young people who are NEET in the general population (Hewett and Keil, 2014).

And of course employment largely determines a person’s income and their position on the gradient between being financially well off and living at or below the poverty line. But why is it that young people with vision impairment struggle to move out of being NEET into paid employment? In terms of academic results in schools, their performance is only a little below those of their sighted peers (Chanfreau and Cebulla, 2009). However, even those with university degrees are significantly less likely to be in employment compared to sighted people without a degree (Hewett and Keil, 2015) and many employers admit that they know little about vision impairment and would be reluctant to appoint a vision impaired candidate (RLSB Youth Forum, 2014).

Character building

A swathe of new research suggests that previous efforts to prepare both sighted and vision impaired young people for employment have ignored a hugely important area of human abilities – so called non-cognitive skills. Sometimes called character traits, they refer to such qualities as motivation, perseverance, social abilities, self-awareness, resilience and coping. In 2014, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility found “there is a growing body of research linking social mobility to social and emotional skills, which range from empathy and the ability to make and maintain relationships to application, mental toughness, delayed gratification and self control. These research findings all point to the same conclusion: character counts” (APPGSM, 2014).

Research on non-cognitive skills in the UK and North America leads to four important conclusions: non-cognitive skills can be reliably measured (Gutman and Schoon, 2013); children brought up in conditions of deprivation have significant deficits in respect of non-cognitive skills compared to their more affluent peers (Margo et al., 2006); non cognitive skills can be enhanced through structured interventions (Tough, 2012); and early intervention to boost non-cognitive skills has a significant impact on subsequent employment, income and overall wellbeing (Berreuta-Clement et al., 1984; Heckman and Mosso, 2014).

Children and young people with vision impairment are doubly disadvantaged in respect of non-cognitive skills. First, because vision plays such an important part in the development of social skills and emotional intelligence during childhood, those with vision impairment are disadvantaged from infancy; compared to sighted children they take longer to learn social interaction skills and how to interpret emotions and language (Fraiberg, 1977; Dale and Salt, 2007). Second, at school, any deficits in respect of non-cognitive skills are often compounded by a narrow emphasis on academic success, together with limited opportunities for participation in extra curricular activities such as sports and socialising.

Soft skills

These concerns are reflected in a recent analysis of scores on the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (Goodman, 1997) completed by children aged 11 as part of the Millennium Cohort Study. This indicated that those with vision impairment are rated by their teachers and parents as having more emotional symptoms, peer problems, conduct difficulties and elevated hyperactivity compared to their sighted peers; they were also rated as having fewer pro-social skills. The vision impaired 11-year-olds were also rated as being less likely than their sighted peers to continue full-time education after the age of 16 and less likely to go to university (Harris and Lord, 2015). Other studies have shown that vision impaired young people have difficulty in socialising and becoming part of a social group (Rosenblum, 2000; Gold et al., 2010; Khadka et al., 2012) and that they have difficulty in taking responsibility for planning and organising their time (Wolfe and Sacks, 1997; Shaw et al., 2007; Gold et al., 2010).

These findings are particularly disturbing in the light of current trends in the labour market:

Soft skills are increasingly important for young people to access and maintain employment, with customer facing skills often required for work in sectors which employ large numbers of young people such as retail, leisure, and hospitality. There is also greater pressure for younger people to be job-ready and able to perform from day one. For those young people with less developed soft skills, accessing the labour market is likely to become more difficult as a result of these changes. (Sissons and Jones, 2012).

If young people with vision impairment are to have a realistic prospect of being upwardly socially mobile through paid employment, it is essential that they are equipped not just with academic qualifications, but with the rich compendium of non-cognitive skills that is expected of all aspiring employees.

Non-cognitive skills can be developed in activity programmes for young people. For example, sports activities can build self-confidence and agency through physical activity; social and peer programmes can encourage social interaction and self-efficacy based on group approaches to planning and problem solving; programmes can also promote personal reflection and critical self-awareness, as well as goal setting and the social skills needed for proactive engagement in community and work settings. Young people with visual impairment often show a great deal of enthusiasm for such programmes and improvements in a wide range of their non-cognitive skills are often readily apparent.

Further information

John Harris is Head of Research and Community Services at Royal London Society for Blind People:


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Children’s Society (2013) The Good Childhood Report. Children’s Society/University of York.

Chanfreau J. and Cebulla A. (2009). Educational attainment of blind and partially sighted pupils. National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) for RNIB.

Dale, N. and Salt, A. (2007) Early support development journal for children with visual impairment: the case for a new developmental framework for early intervention. Child:Care, Health and Development,33,6, 684-690.

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Wolffe, K. and Sacks, S.Z. (1997) The lifestyles of blind, low vision and sighted youths: A quantitative comparison, Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 91, 3, 245-258.


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