When I am walking in an unfamiliar place or with a large group of people, I often use a human guide to provide me with additional information about my surroundings or to help me navigate busy areas such as a crosswalk or room filled with people. Even though I am used to traveling independently, it can be helpful to have someone that can answer questions for me in real time, or alert me to obstacles or items that I may not otherwise notice with my cane, such as tree branches above my head or, in one memorable instance, a dachshund on a skateboard that was walking (or skating) right next to me. Here are my tips for how to be an effective human guide, from the perspective of a person with low vision who uses a blindness cane.
What is a human guide?
A human guide is a person who provides travel/navigational assistance to a blind person or a person with low vision by helping them get from one location to another. While a human guide is not a direct substitute for using a blindness cane or other mobility aid, there are situations where someone might rely solely on a human guide, or they will use a human guide in conjunction with a blindness cane. Anybody can learn and utilize the basic principles of being a human guide, and I often teach these skills to my friends, family, teachers, coworkers, and other people I regularly interact with.
Why I use the term human guide over sighted guide
In the field of visual impairment, the term human guide is preferred over the term sighted guide, because a person does not necessarily need to be sighted to be a human guide. I have low vision and have served as a human guide for some of my blind friends, and I’ve also had human guides that were blind and that had stronger travel skills or were more familiar with an environment than I was. There are also non-human guide options for people with vision loss, such as a guide dog or guide horse, but I do not have any personal experience using one.
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The main thing to remember- Just Ask, Don’t Grab!
#JustAskDontGrab is a hashtag started by Dr. Amy Kavanagh that summarizes the most important thing for people to remember when acting as a human guide- do not touch people without asking first, and never touch their blindness cane or other mobility aids, as this can be disorienting for someone who is focused on getting from one destination to the next.
So how can someone ask if a person needs help? Will they be offended?
When I shared this hashtag with a new friend, they told me that they knew it was bad to just grab someone’s arm and start guiding them around, but weren’t sure how to ask someone if they need help, or if that person would get offended. While I can’t predict how every person will react, personally I have never been offended by someone asking me if I needed help navigating, even if I didn’t need assistance- I’m grateful that they asked first instead of assuming it was okay to grab onto my arm.
Some example ways of asking if someone needs assistance include:
- “I noticed you’re using a cane. Do you need help crossing the street?”
- “Do you need help getting off the train?”
- “Hi, I’m (insert name here). Do you need help finding something?
- “There’s a really crowded area/construction up ahead. Would it help if you held onto my arm?”
- When traveling with friends, teachers, or other familiar people, they often ask if I need help by saying “do you need an arm?”
In environments where there are people trained to provide assistance, such as an airport, major conference, or hospital, it’s okay to ask someone if they would like to call for assistance or otherwise request a guide.
What if they’re 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- 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 or a car just drove onto the sidewalk
- It looks like I’m about to fall into an open hole that my cane didn’t alert me to
- I am walking into a dangerous situation or area, i.e crime scene, scene of an accident, someone has a weapon, etc.
- I am at risk of falling off a train platform
- #JustAskDontGrab- Twitter Search / Twitter
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Offer an arm or hand
It’s frustrating when someone tells me to follow the sound of their voice in a crowded area, because it can be difficult to keep track of where they are. Instead, it’s helpful to have someone ask if I need to hold onto their arm or hand and have me decide how I want to follow someone. Since I use my cane with my right hand, I will grab onto someone’s arm with my left hand and have them walk on my left side.
What arm position works well for human guides?
When acting as a human guide, it’s best to position an arm away from the body at an angle so that the person being guided can rest their hand on the forearm of their guide. The general recommendation is that the guide positions their arm at a 90-degree angle from their body and bends their elbow at the same angle.
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Use specific location terms
General location terms such as over here, right there, this way, that way, and similar don’t provide enough information when I am trying to navigate somewhere. Human guides often dictate surroundings and directions, and it helps for me to know where we are going or when we need to turn, especially if there is an obstacle (more on that in the next section).
Examples of specific location terms to use include:
- Left, right, straight ahead, behind, etc.
- Estimated or precise distance, such as “the car is ten feet away on the left” or “we’ll turn left in about ten seconds”
- Faces of a clock can also be a helpful tool, i.e “the store is at 3 o’clock”
- Mention landmarks for the surrounding area- on my college campus, I might say “we are taking a right once we pass the student center” or “we are now taking a left onto University Drive”
Alerting to obstacles
The main goal of being a human guide is to help someone avoid obstacles that they might not otherwise have noticed or that could pose a safety issue. In some cases, it might make sense to lead someone away from an obstacle, such as to keep them from running into a sign, while in other cases a verbal warning allows someone to step over the obstacle by themselves or rely more on their cane for information. Examples of obstacles that human guides should be aware of include:
- Poles, signs, parking meters, or other items that would hurt if they were bumped into
- Items left on the sidewalk that could pose a tripping hazard, i.e unattended bikes
- Curbs or stairs- I can step off of these or walk up/down stairs, but it helps to know when they are coming up
- Grates or surfaces where my cane could get stuck
- Changes in terrain, i.e ice or walking from grass to the sidewalk
- Potholes or other surfaces that could cause injury
- Low-hanging objects such as tree branches that could cause injury
- Large crowds of people that require stepping off to the side or having the guide walk in front of the other person
More tips on how to be a human guide
- Dictating surroundings and directions allows a person to develop a mental map and can help them understand where they are going, which is helpful if they have to travel there again in the future
- If a person turns down help, it’s okay to move on and not ask further questions
- Avoid asking questions about a person’s disability or usable vision
- If you are guiding someone to a bathroom or other private area, do not go inside with them- that is their own personal space. It’s okay to ask if you should wait outside for them
- Let the person know when you are leaving or walking away