There are many efficient, easy-to-learn ways to give meaningful assistance to someone who is visually impaired. For a century, Braille Institute has helped thousands of blind and visually impaired people of all ages develop the skills they need for effective orientation – the ability to identify their surroundings – and mobility – the ability to get from one location to another safely.
Many people who are blind or visually impaired, travel using a white cane or with the help of a guide dog. Yet, especially when they find themselves in an unfamiliar environment, many appreciate assistance from a family member or a guide. Even the most seasoned travelers occasionally use the services of a guide to become better acquainted with unfamiliar areas or to maneuver around obstacles.
The guide techniques outlined here will help you make assisting a person who is blind or visually impaired easier, but they will not make you proficient. Hands on guide training is available at Braille Institute.
Getting from Here to There
If you see a person with a visual impairment who seems to be “off course” while crossing a street, perhaps out of the crosswalk, remember that most have been taught to respond to verbal instructions such as “go left” or “go right”. But be sure to use their left or right, not yours, if you are facing them.
When approaching someone who is visually impaired, introduce yourself and ask whether they would like your help. Do not grab or pull. If the person indicates they would like assistance, verbally offer your arm and brush it against theirs.
The person who is visually impaired should grasp your arm just above the elbow with their fingers on the inside near your waist and their thumb on the outside. The grasp must be firm to be maintained while walking, yet not so tight as to cause discomfort. If the grip is too tight, let them know.
Some travelers who are visually impaired are frail. Others have balance problems that make the standard grasp inadequate. Rather than holding your arm above the elbow, the person may prefer to link their arm with yours. This will decrease the space between the two of you and provide added support. To accommodate a person’s unsteadiness, you likely will need to slow your walking pace.
Modified or children’s grasp
The standard grasp often is too high for children, so it may be best to have them grasp your wrist or hold your hand. This gives you and the child greater comfort and sense of control.
Hold your arm relaxed and steady at your side. The arm of the person who is visually impaired is at a 90-degree angle and held close to their side. They should proceed by being one half-step behind you. They will follow your movements. Do not steer them.
Narrow Area Stance
When approaching an area that is crowded or narrow, such as a doorway, move your forearm and hand so that they rest against the lower portion of your back, with your elbow at a 90-degree angle and your palm facing outward. The person will take this cue, slide their hand down to your wrist and move directly behind you at arm’s length while still maintaining a firm grip. Take smaller steps and slow down as you move through the narrow area, return your arm to the guide position and walk normally.
When approaching a door, assume the narrow area stance and tell the person in which direction the door opens. This allows them to help you by holding the door with their free hand while passing through it. Do not try to turn around to hold the door open. This is awkward and diverts your attention.
Taking a Seat
When possible, approach a chair from the front or side. Tell the blind person they are at the front or side, and slowly bring them up to it until their knees or shins touch the seat. Say whether the chair has arms. Place your hand on the chair back and let them follow your arm down to locate it with the hand they have been grasping your arm with. Allow them to seat themselves. Do not help them physically or move the chair or other furniture unless they ask you to do. Let them know if there is a table. Unless they are frail or otherwise disabled, people who are blind can get up from a chair without help. Once they are standing, use the correct stance and grasp techniques described above.
Six feet before reaching the first step, tell the person you are guiding that you are approaching stairs. Approach them directly and in such a way that their free hand is closest to the rail. Mention whether the stairs go up or down and if it’s a short or long flight of stairs. Pause to allow them to locate the first step and the railing. Always remain a step ahead and proceed as you normally would. Remain to the right-hand side of stairs to avoid colliding with others. Pause at each landing to allow the person to stand beside you and to cue them that are no more steps until you begin to move away. Tell them when you have reached the top or bottom of the stairs.