Etiquette for interacting with people who are blind or who have low vision

Although this summary contains many true statements, none are absolutely true, because every person with a disability is an individual. This summary is about disabilities, but you are not working with disabilities, you are working with individuals who have disabilities. Ask if the individual needs assistance and what terminology he or she prefers. With this in mind, consider the following general guidelines.

Ask if your assistance is needed

People who are blind or who have low vision have long been patronized and addressed as if they were children. They have more often been told what to do rather than asked what they would prefer. This attitude is not acceptable toward anyone. Instead, always ask if your assistance is needed and how you can assist.

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.

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. If they need assistance while eating, they may request that you read the menu aloud or tell them the position of the food on their plates. If they need assistance in locating an object or location, they may ask for directions or accept your offer to help. In these cases, give directions as clearly as possible. Words like “left” and “right” are most helpful, especially when the directions reflect the way the person who is blind or who has low vision is facing.

Be verbally descriptive when giving directions

Pointing and gesturing have little meaning to people who are blind or who have low vision. Saying “It is the fourth door on your right after you exit the elevator” would be more helpful. Avoid using visually oriented references such as “Over there near the green plant.” Also, remember to describe things from the individual’s perspective, not yours.

Support facial expressions or visual cues with verbal cues. For example, say “yes” when nodding your head, “I don’t know” while shrugging your shoulders, and “bye” when waving.

Avoid actions that may distract guide dogs while they are working

Remember that guide dogs are working dogs, not pets. Avoid anything that might divert their attention, such as petting, touching, grabbing their harnesses or calling out to them. Their masters’ lives depend upon their alertness.

Identify yourself

Upon entering a room, say, “This is Susan. I am just looking in the cabinets for brochures.” Don’t just leave a room without saying something. If the person who is blind doesn’t hear you leave, they may begin talking, only to discover you’re not there.

Promote a safe environment

If you work or live with someone who is blind or who has low vision, be mindful of potential hazards. Never leave a door ajar. Keep corridors clear of clutter. When moving furniture, inform people who are blind or who have low vision if the change affects them. Tell them when you bring new items into their environment, describing what they are, and most important, where you put them. Do not move anything (furniture, personal items, etc.) after the person knows where they are. This can be frustrating and, in some cases, dangerous.

If you are accompanying persons who are blind or who have low vision, and you decide to leave them alone in an unfamiliar area, make sure they are near to and aware of something they can touch, such as a wall, table or railing so they don’t feel unsafe.

Respect personal boundaries

Allow people who are blind or who have low vision their personal space. Don’t physically touch such a person unless you are certain it is appropriate.

Talk directly to those who are blind or visually impaired

Address those are blind or who have low vision directly, not through their companions. Remember that they can hear as well as you. If you notice a spot or stain on their clothing, tell them privately.

Be respectful and assume nothing

The most important thing to remember in any conversation with someone with a disability is to assume nothing. When questioning people about their blindness, be respectful. Keep in mind that this is personal information. 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. Do not be afraid to ask.

Be patient

Be patient not only with the person with the disability but with yourself. Frustration may come from both sides of the conversation and needs to be understood and dealt with by both parties.

Don’t condescend

The words “blind” and “low vision” are adjectives, not nouns. Instead of saying, “The blind have many resources,” say “Persons who are blind have many resources.” Use people-first language. Never use a condescending tone of voice or terminology. Don’t say things like “Oh, you poor dear. You are so very brave.” Also, refrain from using qualifying statements, such as “She’s pretty for a girl who is blind.”

Don’t worry about phrases like, “See you tomorrow,” “Watch out!” and “Look at this.” These phrases are part of the vernacular. People who are blind or who have low vision use these phrases too.

Focus on the overall goal, not the disability.

Keep your overall goal in mind during any conversation with a person with a disability. It is simply communication between two individuals. Ultimately, what is communicated, not how it is communicated, is what matters.