One of my friends who lives in another state was working with a person with low vision and reached out to me asking how to approach someone with low vision without scaring them, or how to talk to a stranger with vision loss. This friend had dealt with an incident where the person with low vision did not recognize them and ended up panicking after my friend had grabbed their arm to guide them somewhere, without stating their name or what they were doing. Of course, my friend realized they made a mistake fairly quickly but were unsure of what they were supposed to do in that situation. Here are the things that I told my friend about how to approach someone with low vision without scaring them, based on my experiences as a person who has low vision and uses a blindness cane.
State your name and where you are
While I am able to recognize the voices of my friends in a quiet or familiar space, it can be more difficult for me to recognize people in a crowded or unfamiliar environment, especially if the lighting is particularly dim/bright or if the person has undergone a drastic appearance change. For this reason, it’s helpful for people who are approaching someone with vision loss to state their name and where they are in relation to the person. Some examples of how this could be done include:
- My friend approaching me after a club meeting and saying “Hi Veronica, this is Sara, I’m on your left.”
- When I’m waiting to get picked up to drive somewhere, it helps if the driver rolls down the window and says something like “Hi Veronica, this is Josh, I’m straight ahead.”
- If my professor wants to talk to me or if they see me in the hallway, they typically say “Veronica, this is Dr. George, I’m in my office.”
- When my friend made a drastic hair change that made it difficult to recognize them, they said “This is Ellen, I changed my hair!”
- If the person does not want to give their name but their location is important, a helpful statement would be “this is Dr. Ray’s nurse, I’m walking behind you now and will be on your right shortly.”
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Don’t ask people to guess who you are
One of my college friends is a teacher of the visually impaired and was telling me about a frustrating experience they had involving the teachers of one of their students. These teachers would walk up to the young student and say “hello student’s name, can you guess who I am?” This is very frustrating for people who may still be getting used to people’s voices or may make them feel guilty if they have trouble pinpointing where a voice is or who is saying it. While I can recognize the voices of my family, friends, and other people I regularly interact with, environmental factors like lots of people talking can make it difficult to hear who is talking.
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Avoid grabbing someone to get their attention
A few years ago, I was walking back from class in the dark when my professor recognized me and wanted to ask if I needed help getting to where I was going. However, I didn’t hear them identify themselves or say anything, they just grabbed my shoulder to get my attention. I ended up screaming in their face and hit them with my backpack, and only then did the person identify themselves as my professor and mention that they wanted to know if I needed help.
I had no way of knowing that the person who approached me and touched my shoulder was someone I knew, and if they had started guiding me somewhere I would have had no idea where I was going. Even if I was about to walk into a ditch, it would have been hard for me to understand that someone was being helpful if they didn’t say anything- I can’t see them, after all!
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Ask someone if they need assistance and respect their answer
As a much better example, I was navigating through a Metro station in Washington, DC and someone walked up to me. They said something along the lines of “hello, my name is Kirk, I noticed you’re using a blindness cane, do you need help getting to your train? You can grab onto my arm if you need to, or I can help you with reading the signs.” This was an awesome way to ask someone if they need assistance, and I told them that I was able to navigate on my own but that I was very grateful for their offer. They respected my answer and did not try to argue that I actually needed help or something along those lines.
While people don’t have to include as much information as that person, it helps to approach someone and ask them if they need help before offering an arm, instead of just dragging them somewhere.
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What if the person is in danger?
If a person who is blind or low vision is in immediate imminent danger, it’s okay to grab onto their arm or otherwise keep them from moving forward, but those situations will likely not happen often- if you would intervene for a sighted person, it’s okay to intervene for a person who is not sighted. Some examples of reasons I would be okay with someone grabbing me unexpectedly would include:
- I am about to walk out into oncoming traffic
- I am about to fall in a sinkhole and my cane appears to have not alerted me to the obstacle
- There is someone with a weapon ahead
- I am at risk of falling off of a train platform
Use descriptive language, i.e directions or words like “Stop”
When sharing where an item or where a person is located, it’s helpful to use words or phrases like “on the left” or “ten feet away, on the right” when describing the location of things, as opposed to uses phrases like “over there” or “somewhere.” It’s okay to admit that someone has no idea where something is, but it’s more helpful to say “I don’t know” than to make something up.
Are there any words I should avoid when approaching someone with low vision?
Another helpful thing is to avoid saying phrases like “look out” when warning someone about an obstacle. The word “look” or “see” is not offensive to the blind or visually impaired (and those words are okay to say), but it’s more effective to use a phrase like “stop” or “pothole” to alert people to obstacles and be more specific about what they should be watching out for.
Talk to people directly, not their companion
When talking to a person who is blind or low vision, it is best to talk to them directly, and not their human guide, guide dog, or others. For example, if I am in a restaurant, it’s more helpful to ask me directly what I would like to order, as I am more likely to know what I want to eat than my friend who is at the table with me. Don’t be afraid to make eye contact either- just talk to someone with vision loss like any other person.
Other tips for how to approach someone with low vision
- Let people know when you are leaving so that they don’t talk to thin air
- When mentioning directions such as left or right, give directions based on the person’s left or right, not yours
- Speak in a natural tone of voice- no need to shout
- If in a group setting, have people state who they are before they start speaking