Diverse Abilities

Gina Martin

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Helpful tips for the sighted when interacting with people who have no to low vision

Gina Martin with her cane talking with Pluto while in DisneylandI have no central vision, and I experience blind spots and floaters in my peripheral vision. I can see shapes and most colours, but cannot make out details. I wear dark sunglasses as my eyes are light-sensitive, so I prefer low lighting. No two people’s experience with vision loss or blindness is the same, even if they have the same diagnosis. 

Throughout my daily life, I have had the opportunity to meet a large number of wonderful people who prior to our interaction were complete strangers to me. On the other side, just as frequently, I have the misfortune of being treated as less than human. This wide range of experiences is thanks solely to my traveling companion: my long white cane.

Living near the city means that most people travel through their day in their own thought bubble, moving quickly from one appointment to the next. Most hardly remember anyone they pass on the street -- that is, until the white cane is noticed. The white cane is meant to help people who are blind or partially sighted feel our way through the world. The white cane also serves as a signal to others that the person using it has low to no vision. Most people recognize the cane as a symbol, but unfortunately, the education stops there. Many people don’t understand how to interact with us, or even worse, sometimes do things that put us in harm’s way. 

I realize this might sound a bit strange to a sighted reader, especially someone who is kind enough to want to help when you see a person who is blind, but there are helpful and unhelpful ways of interacting with us. We hope this list will take the mystery out of interacting with your friendly new neighbour who happens to be blind. While we may seem like a mysterious people at first, I promise once you have some of these tools in your belt, it will take away a lot of the guesswork.

Blindness is diverse and complex. Many sighted people believe that blindness means complete darkness with no usable vision. While there are some who experience this, they are in the minority. Only around 15% of people considered blind have zero vision left. The rest of us have varying degrees of vision remaining, and often that vision is unpredictable or unreliable. It can vary based on the time of day, lighting, tiredness, or type of object, to name of a few variables. Don’t be surprised if you see someone with a white cane reading his iPhone or ordering off a menu but unfolding the cane to travel. Also, not everyone with severe vision loss uses a cane. Some people choose to have a guide dog, while others may choose not to use a cane at all or only in certain environments. Some individuals may prefer to have a sighted guide. 

It’s best not to assume the level of vision that someone with a white cane has, beyond understanding it’s far more limited than someone with “normal” vision. Most of us can navigate our lives without always bumping into things or getting lost. Many of us use regular technology with some adaptations such as voiceover and magnification. I know it might be confusing seeing someone check their phone and then continue walking using a cane, but humans are amazingly adaptive creatures and there is a lot of great technology, training, and peer support available. 

We don’t always need help. If I am traveling alone, I will inevitably be stopped and asked if I need help. When I’m traveling with friends, it’s not uncommon for a stranger to stop my friends and ask if I need help. While we appreciate your kindness and concern, we also understand that some people imagine what it’s like to be blind and think of things they think they would need help with. Please don’t assume if we are blind, we must need help.

Most of the time, we do not need help. I’ll let you in on a secret as well; we sometimes get annoyed at this because the offering of help can slow us down when we are in a hurry, and honestly, it can get a bit tiring. I’ve been known on occasion to wear my earbuds as a “do you need help” repellent.

Most of us have received mobility training. We were taught safe ways of navigating the world. Some of us use our cardinal directions, and the sun’s positioning in the sky to know which direction we are travelling. We have learned how to cross streets, navigate paths, and move safely and independently with a cane or guide dog. Our daily routes are familiar, and when we go to new places, many of us use apps to help guide our journey.

If you do feel the need to ask if the person walking past you using a white cane needs help, or if you see a person using a white cane who looks like they do need help, here is how to do it: 

  • As you look at the person who is blind ask yourself, “Does this person look like they are lost, confused, or unsure? Or do they look like they are busily getting on with their day?” If the answer is no to the first question and yes to the second, then resist the urge to offer help. If the answer is yes to the first question, continue to the next step.
  • Quickly introduce yourself and ask if help is needed. Here is an example: “Hi, my name is Tammy, do you need some assistance?” Using your name creates a connection and humanizes the experience. Offering the help in this way is friendlier, and even if we are in a hurry, you’ll more likely garner a friendly response, even if the answer is no. Something to make note of is, just because I said no to your help this time does not mean I won’t need some assistance next time. If the answer is no, please respect that. If the answer is yes, your next question is how can I best help? No two people or their abilities are the same. We may need help crossing a street, but just because we are stopped at a corner doesn’t make that so. We may need help with directions, or just a quick question answered.

Finally, many of us are assertive and will ask someone for help before we are asked. We do appreciate friendly offers and sometimes will accept them, but please do not be offended when we do not want or need help. It may take some of us a bit longer or we may need to use adaptive devices or different techniques to accomplish the task, and if we are able to do something ourselves, usually we want to do it.

Please do not grab us. If you are unfamiliar with this scenario, allow me to elaborate. Someone who is blind is waiting to cross a street when she is approached by a sighted person who may or may not have asked if help is needed. That sighted person next proceeds to grab onto the woman’s upper arm and pull or push her across the street. Most sighted people believe this is the best way to guide a person who is blind; it is not.

On a practical level, this is very dangerous. By pulling us along, you take away our ability to effectively use our canes to feel uneven pavements, steps, and other obstacles. While it might seem safer to you, it is more dangerous for us. We can fall, walk into objects, or be pushed into other people. Even the grabbing itself can cause injury. 

Let’s think about this for a moment. If a stranger grabbed an able-bodied person without permission, that would be assault. What is it about blindness that causes the sighted world to forget we are deserving of the same respect?

Finally, it can be emotionally trying for us. As a woman traveling alone, being
grabbed is terrifying. I find myself needing to prepare myself for the grabbing that may take place as I travel throughout my day.

So now that I’ve given the doom and gloom part of this, how do you guide someone? It’s very easy -- first, ask!

If you are aiding someone, please ask them if they would like to be guided. If they say yes, then still do not grab them. When you approach to offer your assistance to someone who is partially sighted or blind, position yourself on the side where there is no cane or guide dog. If they say yes, then you are already in position for them to hold your upper arm or elbow. In this way, we get a wealth of information about the landscape, obstacles, and oncoming people by feeling your movements. If you step on or off the curb, we can feel your arm/body going up or down as you are one step ahead of us.

Be specific. Like everyone else, sometimes we need directions. If a person who is blind asks for directions, please tell them specifically where to go and do not rely on visual markers. For example, tell the person “Walk 3 blocks in the direction you are facing and turn right before crossing the street.” This is more helpful than “Go that way until you see the bank and turn right.” The more specific you can be about distance and direction, the more helpful the directions will be. One of the biggest pet peeves is when the person who gives us directions does not know their left from right. Ex: When two people face each other their left and right are opposite to each other. Now when we are walking towards one another and you are passing me on my left, it is also your left. Shoulder to shoulder is the same. Approx 75% of the time the general public mistakenly give wrong directions. Please be sure of your left and right before speaking.

It’s all right; you can speak to us. Some people seem afraid to ask us questions, as if they will somehow remind us that we are blind or offend us in some way. I promise, it is always better to ask me questions related to me than assume. Please do not ask my friends if you are curious about me. This happens less frequently, but when it does, it’s usually in restaurants. For example, the host sees the white cane and asks my friends what he should do with my menu instead of me. Sometimes the wait staff will ask my friends what I will have to eat, as if I am unable to speak for myself. Or on occasion, someone will approach the group and ask them if I need help. Most often when I pay the bill my change is handed to my friend, even though I provided the payment. 

These situations are some of the most frustrating for individuals who are blind. The only way to describe the feeling is that it is like being a child or an outsider who doesn’t belong in the adult social setting. Please know that if you ask us as opposed to defaulting to those around us, you are not embarrassing us. In fact, you’re helping to make us feel like everyone else.

Beyond these tips, the best way to interact with a person who is blind is to recognize we are all human. The cane is a sign that we need more space when walking; we might walk into you if you don’t move, and we may not react quickly in certain circumstances. See it as a symbol of how we navigate the world differently, but then let go of the cane and see us as unique individuals. And if you are ever unsure, you can always ask.

Being someone who used to have full vision, I miss that nod, smile, distance wave…. the little gestures of acknowledgment. When someone says “Hello, good morning” “I am passing you on your left” or “There are stairs going down ahead of you” I take the words as a friendly hello or that smile I miss out on. By just saying hello you have opened yourself up to me asking you for help if I need it because I know you are there. I have a disability and I am used to asking for help when I need it. Being quiet around people who do not see is NOT helpful. Just say “hi”. 

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