By Pauline Joseph
The following are some tips and points of etiquette that are helpful when interacting with a person who is blind or visually impaired. The first and most important thing is to treat people who are blind as you would anyone else. Every person with a disability is an individual. While this summary is about disabilities, it is important to remember that you are not interacting with disabilities, you are interacting with individuals who have disabilities. When in doubt about what to do, what to say, what terminology to use, or the level of assistance that a person may need, do not be afraid to simply ask.
What does “blind” mean, anyway?
Blindness / vision impairment runs the gamut from the total inability to see (i.e. “in the dark”) to vision that is quite functional in many situations. The majority, about 98%, of the “legally blind” population have some vision. It is not easy to determine what or how much a person can or cannot see.
Not every person with a white cane is totally blind. Some may use the cane to supplement low vision. A totally blind person will use a white cane with each step. A person with low vision may simply carry the cane and use it only for specific situations such as detecting curbs and steps. Similarly, a person’s apparent ability to navigate visually doesn’t necessarily mean that he/she can recognize faces or determine in which direction you are pointing. Even the use of a guide dog does not indicate a person is totally blind.
The most important thing to remember in any conversation with someone with a disability is to assume nothing. If you have a question about what to do, what language or terminology to use, or what assistance, if any, might be needed, the person with the disability should be your first and best resource.
Unfortunately, people who are blind or visually impaired have a long history of being patronized or talked to as if they were children. If you were blind, you would want someone to speak to you intelligently and in a normal tone of voice. It is not necessary or helpful to speak loudly or slowly. Shouting doesn’t improve a person’s vision. Use a natural conversational tone and speed. Remember, loss of sight does not mean loss of intellect.
Speak directly to a person who is blind, not through a companion, guide, or other individual. Address them by name whenever possible. This lets them know you are speaking to them. This is especially important in crowded areas. A light touch on the person’s arm may also be used to indicate you are speaking to them.
Identify yourself. Don’t play guessing games, such as “Do you know who this is?” When you enter a room where a people who is blind or visually impaired is located, make your presence known. Simply introduce yourself. In a casual setting, one might say “Hi Joan. It’s Susan. I’m just here to get the Jones file.” If others accompany you, mention them too, even pets. Imagine having “fluffy” jump in your lap totally unexpected!
If you are interacting in an official capacity, introduce yourself and your position, especially if you are wearing a name badge containing this information or if you are a uniformed police officer or fire fighter.
If you are behind a counter, immediately greet persons who are blind when they enter. This will let them know you are aware of their presence and are ready to assist. It also eliminates uncomfortable silences.
Allow the person who is blind to offer THEIR hand to shake. It’s easy to forget, but they can’t see you offering yours. If you are handing them something, don’t suspend it in the air before them. Place the object in their hand directly.
Let the blind person know when are about to leave the room. This will avoid the embarrassment of talking to the air when no one is present.
Make eye contact with a person who is blind and expect that they will turn in your direction when they reply. Persons who are blind depend on verbal cues when conversing with another person. Support your facial expressions or visual cues with verbal cues. For example, say “yes” when nodding your head, “I dunno” when shrugging your shoulders, and “bye” when waving.
Don’t avoid phrases such as “See you tomorrow”, “Look at this”, or “Watch out!” These words are part of everyday communication. So is the word “blind” and even blind jokes. Use them as you would any other common phrase. We use these words, too.
The use of “People First” language is preferred by many people with disabilities. Thus, speak about a person with a disability by first referring to the person and then to the disability, e.g., “persons who are blind” rather than “blind persons.”
Be precise and thorough when you describe people, places, or things to persons who are blind. Don’t leave things out or change a description because you think it is unimportant or unpleasant.
Be sure to give directions that can be useful. Pointing and gesturing has little meaning to people who are blind or visually impaired. Avoid using nonspecific phrases such as “over there”. Use definitive terms such as left, right, front, or behind. Be specific about the number of blocks or streets. Don’t assume a person can read street signs or building numbers, or even recognize a landmark.
Example of helpful directions:
“The Information booth is about 15 feet straight ahead and then about 5 feet to your right.”
“Mr. Jones’ office is the fourth door on your left after you exit the elevator.”
“The bank is about half a block down this street, on the left. You’ll be within 10 feet of it after you feel the dip in the sidewalk from the wheelchair ramp.”
The most important rule of courtesy is to respect a person’s dignity and independence. If someone appears to need assistance, just ask. They will tell you if they do. It is not always necessary to provide guidance; in some instances it can be disorienting and disruptive.
Unless they have requested it, always offer your assistance to people who are blind or visually impaired before you attempt to guide or lead them. Once it is clear that they would like your help, then it is appropriate to assist them. In these situations, don’t be afraid to identify yourself as an inexperienced sighted guide or to ask for tips on how to help. You will be showered with thanks.
Offering your elbow is an effective and dignified way to lead a person who is blind. Never grasp a person who is blind or visually impaired by the arm or cane and push him or her forward. Pulling or steering a person is awkward and confusing. Allow them to take your arm just above the elbow. Walk ahead of the person you are guiding. They will stay a half-step behind you in order to anticipate curbs and stairs. Pause at the edge of a curb or stairs before proceeding. They will sense your movement up or down.
When approaching any irregularities in the terrain, alert the blind person in advance, e.g. stepping from concrete to grass, concrete to gravel, or going up or down a steep flight of stairs. Blind travelers with guide dogs may not require physical assistance, but instead may choose to follow a guide or receive directions. If they do request to take the guide’s arm, the blind person will drop the dog’s harness, maintain leash control with one hand and have the other hand free to grip the guide’s arm.
Do not leave a person who is blind standing in “free space”. If you have to be separated momentarily, let them know. Don’t just walk away. Always be sure the blind person is in contact with a tangible object in the environment, such as a chair, wall, table, rail, etc. Standing alone in an empty space without a point of reference can be very uncomfortable.
Show a person who is blind to a chair by placing your hand on the back of the chair. They will slide the hand that was holding your elbow down your arm to your hand on the back of the seat.
If you work or live with someone who is blind or visually impaired, be mindful of potential hazards. Keeping a tidy space takes on greater importance where people with vision loss are concerned. The door to a room, cabinet, or car left partially open is a hazard. Never leave a door ajar! Leave doors all the way open or all the way closed. Half-open doors or cupboards are dangerous. Keep corridors and stairs clear of clutter. Always push chairs back into the table or desk when vacating them.
If the change affects them, inform the blind person when you are moving furniture or personal belongings. A missing stapler can be frustrating; a table moved to a new location can be dangerous.
Likewise, let the person know if you have brought new items into their environment, describing what they are, and most importantly, where you have put them. A cup of coffee on the edge of the desk could be a nuisance if spilled, a chair that suddenly appears out of nowhere can be dangerous.
Be calm and clear about what to do if you see a person who is blind about to encounter a dangerous situation. In such cases courtesy becomes less important than safety. A specific instruction such as “Stop!” is more helpful than “Look out!”
Out and About Together
At a restaurant, give clear directions to available seats. Offer to read the menu, including the price of each item. It works well to read the categories first and then read a category in more detail on request. Allow the person to order his or her own food.
People who are blind will not have trouble with ordinary table skills. After the food is served, ask if they would like to be told about what is on their plate and where. If he or she wants you to cut the food or serve it from a casserole, he or she will request that help. It is never bad form to offer, however. In a buffet situation, some people will prefer that you bring food to the table while others will want to accompany you to the buffet line and make choices as you describe them.
When making change in bills of more than one denomination, hand the bills separated by denomination, e.g., present and identify the ten dollar bills, then the fives, then the ones. This is not necessary with coins, as they can be distinguished by touch.
The Not-So-Little Things
If a person who is blind is your houseguest, show them the bathroom, closet, dresser, window, and the light switch too. They will like to know whether the lights are on or off.
A guide dog is a working dog, a mobility tool, not a pet. Do not pet, feed, or distract a guide dog while it is working. The handler’s life depends on the dog’s alertness.
Be considerate. If you notice a spot or stain on a person’s clothing tell them privately (just as you would like to be told).
Be sensitive when questioning people about their blindness. This is personal information and boundaries should be respected.
No one wants pity. Don’t talk about the “wonderful compensations” of blindness. The sense of smell, touch, or hearing did not improve when the person became blind. They rely on them more, and therefore may get more information through those senses than you do, but that is all.
Most people will discuss their blindness with you if you are curious, but remember, it’s an old story to them. They have many other interests other than their blindness. Ask about them. It could be the beginning of a wonderful friendship.
(Information compiled and edited by Pauline Joseph Anne Sutter © 2005)