To preface, it is important that we first acknowledge that while there are generally recommended methods of communicating with blind people, they are ultimately individuals with their own experiences, and will therefore have preferences unique to them. This blog entry is based on preferred etiquette which tends to overlap among visually impaired social groups, based on what we understand to be true, as well as our experience as a team of disabled people with visually impaired members among us. This same approach would also apply to any other group of disabled people we have or will ever write about on the Direct Access blog.
More broadly, what we know to be factually correct about the experience of disabled people generally and is especially true in the case of blind and visually impaired people, is that many non-disabled individuals, often unintentionally, patronize them and address them as if they are children incapable of independent navigation and the ability to carry out day to day tasks. This is an assumption based often on ignorance of the lives of visually impaired people, who often live fulfilling lives in spite of the lack of their sight.
So the first recommendation, if it wasn’t already obvious, is to not condescend, whether in your tone of voice or your specific choice of words when speaking to a visually impaired person. While this might sound alarming to many who would never dare interact with blind people in such a way, the reality is that the social framing of disabled people in many social circles and societies still perpetuates the idea that visually impaired people are incapable. Extreme examples of this would be using phrases such as “You’re so brave”, and expressing ill-placed pity for a visually impaired person’s disability.
Another recommendation is to only offer help when requested unless you can reasonably judge that assistance is required in the situation. For example, if someone who is blind or who has low vision needs to be led while walking, they will ask for assistance or accept your offer to help. Then they will grasp your arm just above your elbow and lag behind you a half step. Your motion will tell them what to expect. It is not necessary to pull, push, or jerk the person. This tactic is not only awkward and confusing but also degrading. If someone is about to encounter danger, voice your concerns calmly and clearly.
Offering assistance can be as simple as saying “left” or “right” and is most useful in situations where you are offering directions to a visually impaired person, as gesturing depends largely on a person’s ability to see clearly. If someone needs assistance in taking their seat, show them to their chair by putting their hand on the back of the chair. They will be able to seat themselves easily. Moreover, if a visually impaired person needs help reading signs, and menus, speaking them aloud as they are written is the preferred method.
Even if you are not interacting directly with a visually impaired person – there is much to consider too. For instance, in public settings, if a visually impaired person has a guide dog, it is important to not do anything that would divert its attention from its task, this includes both petting the dog or whistling out to them – as their owners will depend on the attention of the animal to make sense of the immediate space.
In the workplace, if you work with a colleague who is visually impaired, it’s important to announce when you are entering or leaving a room, that way they are less likely to speak out to you only to discover you are not there, and can also immediately identify who you are as if they were fully sighted.
If you find yourself in the same environment as a visually impaired person, consider how you interact with the area around you. For instance, never leave doors ajar and consider the tidiness of pathways. As near-sighted individuals often cannot see clearly ahead of them and anticipate clutter, there exists a risk of tripping. In the same way, when you make changes to rooms such as moving furniture – remember to make any visually impaired people who frequent that space aware of that change.
In conversation, the most important thing to remember is to assume nothing and if you are curious about their particular experience, be respectful in your choice of wording and remember that such experiences are deeply personal to each individual. Blind and visually impaired people do not exist to satisfy anyone’s curiosity about how they see the world. At the same time, however, you do not need to avoid phrases like “look over here”, “look at this”, or “see you tomorrow”. The words do not matter here it’s the intended meaning behind them that counts. And you should only ever draw attention to a person’s disability when it’s necessary and in their interest that you do so. So keep the focus on the topic at hand, and remember that frustration or miscommunication is often felt on both sides.
Finally, remember to simply be patient, as blind and visually impaired people often are with sighted people.