I can hear you asking ‘do we really need to discuss this topic?’ We live in a modern, forward thinking society, where equality and diversity are supposedly embraced. So why am I writing about this? We all know how to behave when we meet a disabled person, right? Wrong. Some people are natural, thoughtful and relaxed when they meet a blind person, but in my experience, many are not.
As children we are taught to be polite and respectful, to make friends and socialise, but unless you and your family are close to a visually impaired person, it is not unusual to reach adulthood never having considered how these lessons apply to meeting someone who is blind. There are people who believe that you should communicate with a blind person in the same way you communicate with anyone else. But to me, inclusion isn’t ignoring someone’s blindness. It’s acknowledging it, being aware of the relevance of your actions in the context of their visual impairment and then seeing beyond it, so you see the person, not the blindness. I’d like to share a few thoughts and tips on interacting with people with sight loss which I hope might be helpful.
Communication is essential if we really want to concentrate on the person and the not just the disability. If more people can learn to communicate comfortably and effectively with visually impaired people, it would be a small but significant step in improving perceptions the general population might have of people with sight loss. I’ll talk about interacting in three situations, offering assistance, socialising and in the workplace. It’s a lot of information so I’ve decided to split it into three posts, making up a mini-series which I hope you will enjoy.
I’m going to share a few tips on this topic that work for me. I am registered blind but have a little central vision when the light is just right, so not all these tips will apply to every person with a visual impairment. They are just my thoughts, certainly not the ‘correct‘ way, but I hope they will give you an idea of what might be an appropriate way of interacting with a visually impaired or blind person to avoid awkwardness. Today’s post addresses how to offer assistance to a visually impaired or blind person.
Part 1: Offering Assistance
Like anything you do for the first time, when you meet a blind person for the first time and want to offer them assistance, it can be difficult to know if you are doing things correctly. You don’t want to offend anyone or come across as being too helpful, not helpful enough or you may not know if you are communicating effectively. I’d like to share my thoughts on this subject, based on experiences of people helping me. Every visually impaired person is different and has their own preferences, like anyone else, so consider this a little guidance rather than a set of rules.
1. Don’t assume we can’t see anything
The most important thing to take away from this mini series is that blindness is a spectrum and being legally blind does not necessarily mean we only experience darkness. Some blind people can sense light, some have tunnel vision, some have peripheral vision and there are many more variations besides. Others are profoundly blind and see nothing at all. It’s never helpful to assume what a the person can or cannot see. Making these assumptions affects how you communicate, whether you realise it or not. Don’t be surprised if we make eye contact when we talk to you or if you see us looking at a mobile phone. Having said that, it is also important to remember that some people can see nothing at all, and you need to be mindful of this.
2. Offer assistance
If you see someone who you think is visually impaired and they seem in need of a little help, it is a kindness to offer them assistance. Start by saying hello to get our attention before starting a conversation, otherwise we might be unsure if you are talking to us. In a loud and busy place, I find it acceptable if someone gently touches my arm so I know they want my attention.
3. Don’t be surprised or offended if we decline
Many legally blind people have lived with no or low vision for a long time and are perfectly capable of navigating the world around them. If someone says “no thank you” to your offer of assistance, please don’t let that stop you from offering help to the next blind person you meet. When I have refused help from kind strangers, I still feel a sense of joy that someone has taken the time to offer, and it has reinforced my belief that people are good.
3. Only provide assistance that is asked for
If I ask for directions, I listen to them and follow them. Please don’t give directions than grab my arm and start dragging me towards my destination. Yes, this really happened. The stranger in question was full of good intent and her actions stemmed from kindness. She may have thought she was going the extra mile, but it was was unnecessary and, well, terrifying! If I had found the route she had described too complicated and she had offered to guide me there, that would have been different. Just remember, unannounced man handling is never welcome. Whilst we’re on the subject, don’t ‘guide’ someone across the road before checking if they actually want to cross – this happens more than you’d think!
5. Guide by the elbow
When guiding someone who is visually impaired, I’d recommend offering your elbow for them to hold onto. It is close enough, but not too close and it means the guide is always one step ahead, which works well. Please don’t grab our hands, shoulders or arms unexpectedly – it’s startling! And finally, it shouldn’t need to be said, but never grab a guide dog’s harness or the person’s cane. This is inappropriate and feels a bit like you are taking away any control we have over the situation.
6. On arrival, describe the location of landmarks.
Before you leave, it’s useful to describe your surroundings to help us get our bearings. Saying something like “it’s over there,” is not descriptive enough. It’s better to be specific. In a shopping centre, try “Marks and Spencers is straight ahead and there’s a small step up into the shop. There’s a bench to your right, but there are people sitting on it.” In a waiting room it might be “The reception desk is on the left and the seats are on the right. The floor is completely flat.” These short descriptions make a huge difference to us.
7. Use normal language
Please don’t feel you need to change your vocabulary when you talk to us. Use words like “see”, “look” and “watch”. You won’t offend anyone by using these words and as there are no relevant substitutions, we use them too.
8. When asking questions…
Most visually impaired people I know are happy to answer questions about their vision, myself included. The more questions that are asked and answered, the less misconception there is. Just remember that not all visually impaired people feel the way I do and there’s everything else to talk about too. If you are interested to learn more about a person’s blindness, don’t be afraid to ask, but test the water and take your cue from the individual in question.
9. Talk to us directly
Please don’t channel conversation through our sighted friend, children or even dog. I have no idea why this happens, and I bet if we asked people why they do it, they wouldn’t know either. Yet it does happen. It’s rude and bit dehumanising. There’s no need, so just talk to us instead. We might not see you, but we can hold a conversation.
10. A note on Guide Dogs.
I am not a guide dog user, but this one’s for friends who are. You already know guide dogs in a harness are doing an incredibly important job. Please don’t distract them. Please don’t pet them, make a fuss of them or worse still, talk to them whilst completely ignoring the person handling them.
So, there you have it. It’s basically common sense, isn’t it? But sometimes things only become obvious when they are pointed out to us. Just to reiterate, these are my own thoughts and tips and I don’t know if they are in line with official advice from authorities on the topic, but I hope you have found these hints useful in some way. If you know someone who might be Interested, please do share it with them. Maybe talk to your kids about them so they can feel confident and comfortable when they meet a blind person.
Next time, I’ll share some thoughts on socialising with visually impaired people. I hope you will join us again.