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Proper Etiquette When You Meet a Person who is Blind or Partially Sighted

  • Just like sighted people, every person who is blind or sight-impaired has a unique background which has served to shape their personality, beliefs, values and outlook on life. Losing one’s vision later in life is a much different experience than losing sight as an infant or being born with no vision at all. Regardless of the reason or stage when one loses their ability to see, everyone responds to their life without vision in different ways.

    NOTE: For the balance of this document, we will refer to “people who are blind”. This phrase will apply to both people who are “totally blind” and to those who are “sight-impaired.” This latter category could mean that the individual has very minimal vision (perhaps just some light perception) or they may have some degree of useable vision. Whatever their circumstances, they have less than 10% vision (20/200) and their physical vision of the world is distorted in some way.

  • Do not assume all people who are blind are comfortable discussing the reason for their vision loss. There are hundreds of ways to lose your vision including genetic conditions, injury to the optic nerve, head injury or one of hundreds of eye diseases. Asking someone how they lost their vision is very personal and can make them uncomfortable. Unless there is a specific reason for you to know, this question should be avoided unless an explanation is freely offered. If you are assisting a person who is blind with certain tasks, it may be useful to inquire as to how much vision they have. This is perfectly acceptable if the task at hand requires you to know.
  • There are many ways in which you can be helpful to a person who is blind in everyday situations, but always ask if the person wishes your assistance. If they indicate that they do, they’ll be grateful. If not, they will thank you for offering.
  • When approaching a person who is blind, particularly if they are alone in a room or area occupied by other people, address them by name (if you know them) or gently touch them on their forearm as you begin to speak with them. This will indicate that you are directing your conversation to them. Remember…a person who is blind cannot see when you are looking at them.
  • Initiate the greeting using a normal tone of voice. Identify yourself and then inquire if your assistance is required. The best method of determining this is to simply ask “How best can I assist you?”
  • It is very common to shake hands when you first meet or greet someone. Reaching out to take (or grab) the person’s right hand can be uncomfortable, awkward and confusing to the person who is blind. A more comfortable and dignified technique is to simply ask, “May I shake your hand?”
  • Remember to inform the person who is blind that you are leaving should you need to step away. Don’t leave them talking to thin air. Whenever possible, ensure that they are left in contact with a tangible object within their environment (i.e. a wall, a table, a chair). This will eliminate the uncomfortable feeling of standing alone in an open space and not having a reference point.
  • When stepping away, inform the person who is blind as to how long you expect to be away. Let them know you are back upon your return.
  • People who are blind may, at times, require the assistance of a sighted guide (sometimes referred to as a “human guide”). Acting as a sighted guide is often appreciated but not always necessary. Do not assume a person who is blind needs this level of assistance. Offer to guide the person rather than just assuming it is required.
  • Guide dog users may not require the same level of physical assistance. They may prefer to have their guide dog follow the sighted person or simply receive verbal directions. If they elect to take the sighted guide’s arm, the guide dog user will drop the dog’s harness handle and maintain control of their dog by way of the leash using their free hand. For additional information regarding guide dog teams, visit proper etiquette when you meet a guide dog team.
  • Avoid pulling a person who is blind by their hand, wrist or tugging at their clothing. This is often very awkward, confusing and can be frightening. Simply offer your assistance and they will tell you the best way to guide them.
  • If sighted guide is requested, determine which side they would prefer to have you on. Some individuals are more comfortable having their sighted guide on their left side while others might prefer you on the right. Either way, position yourself on their preferred side and then instruct them to take your elbow. Alternatively, you can simply tap your elbow against their arm. This is an excellent method of communicating you are ready to guide.
  • When approaching a doorway, tell the person who is blind that you are approaching the door and let them know in which direction the door opens. For example, you would say “the door opens to the left and swings in toward us”. In this case, the person who is blind would then free their left hand in order to take hold of the door and to close it, as may be required.
  • Once contact is made with the door, it is the responsibility of the person who is blind to hold the door open until the doorway has been cleared and to close it as necessary.
  • Verbally alert the person who is blind when you (and they) are to walk up or down stairs. Stairs should always be approached squarely, never at an angle. If necessary, allow them to switch to the side with the handrail.
  • Come to a full stop at the top or bottom of the stairs. Allow the person who is blind to take hold of the handrail (when available) and allow them to find the first step by sliding one foot forward until the edge of the step is detected. Steps (and street curb edges) up or down are detected in this same manner and, once identified you can proceed together in rhythm; the guide always one step ahead.
  • Always pause or stop on the top or bottom landing of the stairs and verbalize “last step” to the person who is blind.
  • Never use an escalator or moving sidewalk without first determining whether the person who is blind is comfortable using these devices. When approaching an escalator or moving sidewalk, come to a full stop on the transition pad and direct or enable the person who is blind to find the moving handrail. Once they have located the handrail, verbalize that you will be stepping onto the escalator (or moving sidewalk) on your own, leaving a clear space for them to enter onto the device when they are ready. When exiting the device, step forward on your own to leave some clear space on the transition pad but not so far ahead that the person who is blind cannot easily locate you when they disembark.
  • When approaching a chair from the front, bring the person who is blind into very close proximity (i.e. 12 inches or 30 centimeters) to the front of the chair. Verbalize the distance and that “in one short step, your knees will make contact with the chair.” Inform them what style of chair it is (i.e. arm chair, an open bench, a swivel chair, a rocking chair, etc).
  • When approaching a chair from the back, place the hand of your guiding arm on the back of the chair. Do not pull the chair away from the table (if one is present). Instruct the person who is blind that they can slide their hand down your arm to make contact with the chair. This technique works well when you are guiding a person who is blind to find a chair, a car door handle, a doorway handle, an elevator button, etc. NOTE: Never place your guiding hand on the table unless that is truly where you want them to sit. Most people who are blind prefer to sit in a chair; not on the table!
  • The location of items placed on a dining table can be described as numerals on a clock face (i.e. the glass of water is at one o’clock, your coffee cup is at eleven o’clock). The same method can apply to food servings on a plate.
  • When assisting a person who is blind to cross the street, let them know when you are approaching a curb and pause briefly before stepping onto or off of the curb. Verbalizing whether you will be stepping up or down is very necessary and appreciated.
  • When approaching any irregularities in the terrain, alert the person who is blind in advance (i.e. stepping from concrete onto grass, concrete onto gravel, broken or contoured sidewalk due to tree roots).
  • It is very helpful and important to describe the surroundings to a person who is blind. For example, you can describe the layout of a room, whether it is square or narrow, how many tables and chairs there are and how they are arranged. The same principle applies when travelling with a person who is blind. Describe the landscape, tell them which direction you are travelling (i.e. north or south), mention the names of towns you pass by. Just remember to give directions clearly and accurately. Pointing, nods and shrugs are useless forms of communication and they do not take the place of words. Using phrases such as “over there” or “right there” will be of no value either.
  • Address a person who is blind directly, not through someone else. Use a normal tone and do not raise your voice. Raising your voice while speaking with a person who is blind will not improve their vision. It will only serve to make them deaf!
  • When assisting a person who is blind at a department or grocery store, for example, be sure to allow the person to speak for themselves when addressing store clerks. If additional assistance is required, never refer to the person who is blind in the third person. “He wants…” or “She needs…” suggests the person who is blind is not capable of communicating on their own.
  • When participating in a money transaction, name each bill as you place it in the hand of the person who is blind. Coins do not need to be counted but should be placed in the hand first; bills second. Identifying each bill allows the person who is blind to fold each denomination according to their own method of identification.
  • Always push chairs into a table when vacating them.
  • Keep doors entirely opened or closed.
  • Keep cupboard doors closed.
  • When referring to people, use “blind” as an adjective not as a noun. For example, say “documents will be available in alternate formats for people who are blind” rather than “documents will be available in alternate formats for the blind.”
  • When you meet a person who is blind, the key word is “person” – not “blind”. Don’t hesitate to use words like “look”, “see”, “watch” or “read”. People who are blind use this terminology all the time. They recognize they are living in a “sighted world” and use this visual language too. They do the same things as you, but sometimes use different techniques to compensate for their vision loss.
  • REMEMBER THIS…people who are blind think, feel and make decisions just as you do. A person who is blind is an individual who has usually lost only one sense — the sense of sight. Be natural and enjoy one another.

Acknowledgements: ASIC extends it’s appreciation to CNIB for providing us with the framework and much of the content included in this page.