Often, people who live with low vision, vision impairment, or those who are blind can be identified by the presence of a white cane (sometimes called a stick) or a guide dog. As a person with sight, you may wish to offer help, and while it may be appreciated, remember that people with vision loss are very capable of getting where they are going independently! Like the rest of us, they may need directions from time to time, so the key is to know how to offer help respectfully!
In late January, I met with a student who was beginning a practicum assignment with the blind yoga class an organization I am involved with offers. I met with her in advance to answer any questions she had. She was a bit… well, as she said it, “Not nervous exactly, but I just don’t want to do the wrong thing!”
How to help someone who has vision loss
Step one: Observe!
The first step is to pause and observe the person. Do they look like they need help? Remember, sometimes those of us with sight must stop to look around to get our bearings, and similarly, those who are visually impaired must stop and listen—they may also have some vision, and be orienting themselves so that vision is most useful. Pause for a moment—if they continue on their way, they likely don’t need your help!
Step two: Ask!
If after observing you do believe the person needs assistance, ask. ALWAYS ask. It should go without saying that you should NEVER touch someone without asking if you may help them—the one exception is, of course, if they are literally inches from being hit by a car. Which does not mean that they have stepped off a curb or are walking on the road, it means if they are literally inches from being hit by a car.
Identify yourself and ask if they would like help. “Hi, I’m [name], would you like some assistance?”
It may be semantics, but I prefer to ask if they would like or want assistance versus if they need it—sometimes some help is nice, even when you can figure out where you’re going yourself!
If you are in a crowded street or somewhere loud and they cannot identify that you are speaking to them, gently tap their forearm or shoulder and try again. Remember to speak at a normal volume and speed after you have their attention—most people who are blind can hear perfectly fine!
If they say no, wish them a nice day and be on your way.
If they say yes, ask “How can I help?”
They may simply want directions, need to be oriented to a street nearby, or at a busy intersection, they may indeed want assistance crossing the street. If you are giving directions, inform them, for instance “You are currently at Main Street at Second Avenue facing South (or towards First Avenue), and you need to go three blocks east.” Providing directions based on current location can be most helpful.
If they request assistance across the street or to their destination if it is on your way, ask if they would like you to guide. Sometimes they will simply follow your voice as you walk together, others they will wish for you to do what is called “sighted guide”. If they want you to guide, they will typically extend their hand nearest you—they will grasp your arm nearest them just above the elbow and you can walk together. If curbs or stairs come up, pause before going up or down and inform them—“stairs up” or “curb down” for instance.
If the person requests you help them find a seat, it can be easiest to place your hand on the back of the chair (and knock/tap on it if it is hard so they can hear it, or do this on a table in front of the chair to help orient them!) so they can follow your arm down to the chair and orient themselves.
Medical ID for vision impairment
While physical health problems may or may not exist alongside vision impairment, being blind or having low vision may itself be reason to wear medical ID jewelry. For instance, as light is typically used to determine responsiveness if someone is unconscious, wearing medical ID if you are over-sensitive to bright light (ie. it causes pain) or do not respond to light indicating your vision impairment may be useful. Similarly, medical ID for contact lenses, medical jewelry for partial eye prostheses, or an ID tag for total eye prostheses may help with your care in an emergency.