Interacting with the Visually Impaired
I usually write articles here on BlindTravels.com for those who are visually impaired, but I thought it would be interesting to create an article with the intent of educating those who are fully sighted in ways they can assist the visually impaired. I have been researching this topic for quite some time and expect to expand and edit this as more people get a chance to read it. Whether you are looking for information on dealing with a visually impaired person for the first time, or you are an old pro at aiding the partially sighted, expect to find a few tips and tricks here to help you. I will use generalities, when describing those who have a visual impairment, be aware that not all of us are the same – some are more fragile and have other physical or medical issues on top of the visual impairment. I have compiled the information here from friends with visual impairments as well as crowd-sourcing questions fro those who are fully sighted on social media. If you have questions that aren’t answered here, please feel free to drop me a message on my contact links which can be found at the end of this article.
I just want to help
Perhaps you have been in a situation where you wanted to offer help to a visually impaired person but were unsure of their ability or how you could help. This article is intended to be informative, and educational, offering some techniques for the fully sighted when interacting with people who have vision issues. Along the way, I will attempt to answer some frequently asked questions about those of us who are visually impaired, including solving the mystery of how we travel, or just figure out where we are.
I’m walking here…
As we (the visually impaired) navigate the world with our white canes or guide dogs, we are often inundated with offers to help us find our way. These offers can be both aggressive (grabbing your arm as you cross the street) and kind. The truth is, more often than not, a visually impaired person is acutely aware of where they are at any given time, and distractions can be detrimental to their navigation. Think about it this way: imagine yourself walking down your street blindfolded – when you start out you know which way you are headed and know about how long it will take to walk to the end of your block. This is called time distance estimation and those who are visually impaired use it to know where the next turn is as they travel on their route from point A to B. Imagine concentrating on where you are on your blindfolded walk down your block and someone comes up and grabs your arm to help you. Once the good Samaritan gets you across the street, you aren’t sure if you are on the same walking line you were on originally, or if you are still headed in the right direction to get to your destination. It is not that we are unappreciative for the help, the reality is that it can leave us in a state of confusion where we need more help getting reoriented than we did before we received the assistance. Always ask the person if they need help and don’t be upset if they decline – and don’t grab an arm and drag them across the street without asking.
Finding our way
It may sound terrible, but it is good for people who are visually impaired to find their way using their cane or guide dog. This keeps their location awareness skills honed and helps them to better learn to navigate their surroundings. Sometimes you do get lost, and if you see someone struggling in an area, they could be “resetting themselves” – a visually impaired person will often retrace their steps and get back to a clearly recognizable location and start their route or path over. This procedure can often cause them to appear lost when searching for a physical landmark to reorient themselves. You may notice a cane user take an odd path as they walk, this is usually how they learned to navigate that area and likely contains landmarks they recognize. If you notice what you might consider odd behavior, it is best to leave the person alone unless they ask for assistance. They may ask you about the name of a street they are on, or the name of a street ahead of them. Simple clear directions can help getting reoriented. Most of the time, we use navigation apps on our phones to keep us on track as we travel. Yes, we use cellphones, there are a myriad of accessibility options that will read the screen to us and allow us to effectively use the phone’s features.
While you may be tempted to intervene and help a visually impaired person get reoriented, realize there is sometimes a huge feeling of triumph when you have successfully gotten yourself back on track and know confidently where you are. This feeling can be equated to finishing a particularly challenging puzzle level in a videogame.
Which way is up?
How does a visually impaired person know which direction they are headed? Knowing where you are in relation to other objects in space and which direction you are facing is called proprioception. You have experienced this when you get up to use the restroom with all the lights off. You know if you get out of bed and walk a few steps you will reach the end of the bed – then a 90 degree right turn and about ten steps will get you to the doorframe for the bathroom. We know that too. We know that halfway down the street on the right as we walk to Starbucks there will be a planter – likely because we found it with our canes or walked into it accidentally. As you traverse your environment, you instinctively learn where things are and how to avoid them. This is why it is often not necessary to have doors opened for us – something which people seem to fall over themselves to do for the visually impaired. If in a store we are familiar with, we know where the door is, and if we are in a new store, we know where we came in and the general direction we need to head to get out. If we have a guide dog, then the “find outside” or “find door” commands will get us to the nearest outside door – guides are amazing animals.
We also have a backup plan – our phones all have compasses on them and we are fully versed in directional travel. With the combination of the cane, location apps and a compass, we are self-sufficient in terms of location awareness.
Everyone likes to be engaged socially and talked to. If you are speaking with someone who is using sighted guide (holding the arm of a sighted person), do not only engage the guide – engage the visually impaired person in a meaningful way too. Equally important, remember than the visually impaired person cannot see physical gestures such as outstretching your hand for a handshake. Use verbal cues, like can I shake your hand, or if you know the person, can I give you a hug? This kind of interaction helps in so many ways and reduces awkward miscommunication or intention.
Remember that the person is blind not deaf. It is surprisingly common for people to speak slowly or loudly to those who are visually impaired, somehow implying that the person is hard of hearing or developmentally disabled because they are blind. Speak to a blind person the same way you would to anyone else you meet, politely, in a normal tone and at a normal rate. The only difference you need to be aware of is that body language cues are completely lost on the visually impaired. Hand gestures, facial gestures, raising your eyebrows or winking all go unnoticed in a conversation with the visually impaired. Just being yourself is more important than you can imagine. If a visually impaired person feels like you are treating them like you would anyone else, they will not feel like they are being talked down to, making for a more pleasing social interaction for all.
When speaking with a visually impaired person, it helps if you use their name so they know queries are directed toward them, especially when in a group situation. This goes along with the body language cues, you would generally look at someone and ask them what they think – but this is lost on a visually impaired person. Likewise, remember when you enter a room a visually impaired person is in, they will hear you but won’t know who has come in. Take a moment and say Hi [their name] its [your name]. This will also help the person to get to know your voice, if you are in a new relationship, as they won’t have the usual visual cues like being able to see your face to fall back on. Realize that the person may not know when you are leaving the room, include this information in your conversation so the visually impaired person is not talking to themselves and assuming you are still with them.
Its over there
One of the more frustrating aspects of speaking to those who are fully sighted is the “its over there point”. Often, by the time someone who is visually impaired walks up to you asking for directions, they have reached the point of frustration while trying to reorient themselves, or find their destination. As an alternative to pointing and saying “its over there”, consider that they won’t be able to see where you are pointing and say something like “it is directly behind you and ahead about 300 feet.” A clear set of directions can alleviate an incredible amount of stress, especially when searching for a location in an unfamiliar location.
I have been told by many fully sighted individuals that they feel uncomfortable using words related to sight around those who can’t see. These words are part of regular conversation, you don’t need to change anything when speaking to a visually impaired person (except body language cues as we discussed earlier). Don’t be afraid to say things like “take a look at this” or “I haven’t seen her for a while.“ believe me, it would be more uncomfortable if you paused in conversation or stammered while you figured out a different way to say that you had not “seen” someone. Use normal conversational words as you would with anyone else you are talking to.
If you find yourself sharing a meal with a person who is blind or visually impaired, do take the time to describe to them what is on their plate when it arrives. An example of this would be: Looks like we have a whole chicken breast at 3 o’clock. It looks like the chicken is baked and has the skin still on. There are green beans at 12 o’clock, and at 7 o’clock there is some great looking mashed potatoes with gravy on top. Your drink is in front of your plate at 2 o’clock and there are rolls in a basket in the middle of the table, would you like me to put one on your plate? This information combined with the smells of the food will give the visually impaired person all the information they need to be able to enjoy their meal comfortably.
One thing that helps us more than you can imagine, is to not fill glasses to brim when you hand them to us. When taking that first drink, it is difficult to determine how much liquid is in the cup without sticking your finger in it – and that is embarrassing. Leaving the liquid level about an inch down helps this and avoids spills down the front of our shirt.
Other ways to help
There are other ways you can help a visually impaired person, here are just a few:
When leading someone who is visually impaired, especially in a dark area like a restaurant or a theater, put their hand on the back of the chair when you reach the location you will be sitting. This will allow them to ensure they are at an empty seat, and seat themselves. People who are visually impaired often feel left out of conversations about the things going on around them. When you sit down, take this opportunity to describe what is going on around them, even if it is not something funny or interesting. This will help them to feel like they are present in the event and participating.
If you live with a visually impaired person, do not move furniture around without ensuring they are participating and aware of the changes. We use the location of furniture as landmarks to effectively navigate indoor locations. Of equal importance Is closing cupboards and cabinet doors in places like the kitchen and bathroom. Consider these as unexpected sources of possible injury.
Things to avoid
- Don’t shout at the visually impaired, generally their hearing is better than yours and they can hear you just fine.
- Don’t use condescending comments like “you don’t look blind” that is the same as me saying “gee, you don’t look stupid.”
- Don’t assume a blind or visually impaired person is helpless. Likely they are some of the most independent people you will meet, and probably know their environment better than you could ever hope to.
- Don’t touch a blind or visually impaired person unnecessarily. Being touched can make anyone uncomfortable, but it is especially jarring when you can’t see it coming. This includes grabbing a blind person at a crosswalk to help them across the street without asking.
- If you are in a crowd situation and bump a person with a cane or guide dog, don’t go overboard apologizing – This is so common. Mistakes happen, say you are sorry just like you would to anyone else and move on.
- If the blind or visually impaired person is in danger of hurting themselves, tell them to STOP in a firm voice. If they have had any Orientation and Mobility or guide dog training, they will be used to STOP over LOOK OUT or watch that branch.
If you are fully sighted, I hope you found this article interesting and informative, if you are visually impaired and find that I have overlooked or omitted something important please feel free to contact me on my social media links below, I’d like to make this article as comprehensive and educational as possible.
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