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Dealing with the Visually Impaired

Learn the proper etiquette for dealing with a person who is visually impaired.

Dealing with the Visually Impaired

In general, guide dogs are working animals, not pets. So don't pet them. In fact, don't call their names or distract them in any way. Allow the dogs to accompany their owners into all stores and buildings. These dogs are trained to pay no attention to strangers while working except as objects to be avoided. Attempting to pet them while they are in harness is like urging someone to abandon a good, carefully formed habit. If the dog's harness is off, it's okay to ask the owner whether you can pet the animal—but don't touch it without the owner's permission.

If you are in an environment familiar to a blind person, don't move things, or if you do, put them back exactly as you found them. Leave closed doors closed, and open doors open. Never leave doors ajar.

Go ahead and offer assistance if you think it might be helpful, but remember that sometimes a person who is blind prefers to get along unaided. If you see a blind person without a guide dog waiting at an intersection, offer to help him or her across. The fact that the person has stopped at the intersection may signify that he or she is waiting for help.

However, if the person says, “No, thank you,” don't insist. If the person wants your help, offer your elbow. You will then be walking a step ahead, and the movements of your body will indicate when to change direction, when to stop and start. Hesitate but do not stop before stepping up or down. You can say, “curb,” or “step down.”

Mind Your P's and Q's

In aiding someone who is visually impaired at the dinner table, use an imaginary clock to describe the placement of the food on the dish: The mashed potatoes are at four o'clock, the chicken breast is at two o'clock, and so on.

Here are some other tips:

  • Watch out for half-opened doors. They are a hazard to everyone, but especially to a person who is blind.
  • Give directions with the person who is blind as the reference point, not yourself. Say: “You are facing Broad Street, and you will have to cross it and turn to your right to go east on Chestnut Street.”
  • When helping the person into a car or taxi, place her hand on the inside door handle, and let her go in alone.
  • When entering an unfamiliar office or restaurant, offer your elbow, use specifics such as right or left, and then place his hand on the back of the chair so that he can be seated without further assistance.
  • Don't let self-consciousness or a misplaced sense of protectiveness make you hesitate to tell a blind person that he has egg on his shirt or that his tie is in his soup. Do so in a matter-of-fact tone of voice and let him deal with the problem himself.
  • Some people have a tendency to raise their voices when speaking to a blind person. If you catch yourself doing so, stop. It's annoying.
  • When accompanying a person who is blind, do your best to describe the surroundings, especially terrain and spatial relationships.

Recently, I witnessed the following encounter in one of those large chain drug stores. A blind man entered and stopped inside the door. Another customer walked over to him.

    “May I assist you?”

    “I want to have a prescription filled.”

    “The pharmacy section is in the rear of the store. I'd be glad to take you there.”

    “Great. Thanks.”

    “Take my elbow. We're going about six feet straight ahead. Now we're turning right. The floor inclines up, and there are some displays of soda in the middle of the aisle. About four steps more. Okay, shall I get the pharmacist for you?”

    “No, thanks. I'm fine now that I'm here.”

    “Would you like me to wait and escort you out?”

    “No, thanks. I can do it now. Thanks a lot.”

As you can see, the person who helped out in this situation was able to combine common sense with simple courtesy in offering help and in providing just the right amount of assistance.

Meeting a Blind Person for the First Time

If the person is alone when you enter the room, make your presence known right away by speaking. Identify yourself when greeting the person, and if others are with you, be sure to introduce them and to specify where they are: “On my left is Helen Carver, and on my right is Mary Thompson.”

When offering a handshake, say something like “Allow me to shake your hand.” If the other person extends a hand, shake it or explain why you can't. “I'd like to shake your hand, but I'm afraid I may drop all these files.”

Remember to talk to a person without sight as you would to a person who can see. In a group use the people's names as a clue to whom you are speaking. Address those who can't see by name if they are expected to reply, and speak to them directly in a normal tone of voice. Excuse yourself when you are leaving. Doing so is especially important when ending a conversation so the person isn't left talking to thin air.

When a person with visual impairment has to sign a document, provide a guiding device such as a ruler or a card. When handing money to a person who is blind, separate all the bills into denominations and specify whether they are ones, fives, and so on. The person with the impairment can identify coins by touch.

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