"Etiquette" may seem a rather formal term to describe the give and take of our interactions with friends and family; but it really is just another way of describing the thoughtful, considerate behavior that we expect to receive from others and give to them.
Until a friend or relative becomes visually impaired, you may never have known anyone who could not see well or at all. So you had no reason, or at least no immediate need, to think about the subtle differences between considerate behavior toward a sighted person and someone with limited vision.
These aren't major differences—the same affection, politeness and thoughtfulness apply—but there are several basic ground rules that will make your day-to-day contacts with a friend or relative who is visually impaired easier, more relaxed, and truly helpful. This section outlines the key points to keep in mind when you are with someone whose vision is impaired, including:
- Acting as a sighted guide
- Respecting the person's ability to do things for himself or herself
- Giving directions
- Speaking directly
- Maintaining a conversation
Tact and Courtesy
If you have any uncertainty about what is and is not courteous, tactful behavior toward a friend, relative, or complete stranger who is blind or visually impaired, there are some basic guidelines listed below. And keep in mind that, in the case of someone you're close to, it's entirely possible to continue having a mutually rewarding, supportive relationship; to have relaxed, spontaneous discussions; and to enjoy most, if not all, of the activities you shared in the past.
- Feel free to use words that refer to vision during the course of a conversation. Vision-oriented words such as look, see, and watching TV are a part of everyday verbal communication. The words blind and visually impaired are also acceptable in conversation.
- Be precise and thorough when you describe people, places, or things to someone who is totally blind. Don't leave out things or change a description because you think it is unimportant or unpleasant.
- Don't avoid visually descriptive language. Making reference to colors, patterns, designs, and shapes is perfectly acceptable.
- When you speak about someone with a disability, refer to the person and then to the disability. For example, refer to "a person who is blind" rather than to "a blind person."
- If a friend, relative, or stranger on the street is traveling with a dog guide, do not pet the dog, offer it food, or distract it in any way while it is working. Dog guides are not pets but highly trained mobility tools.
- If you see someone who is blind or visually impaired about to encounter a dangerous situation, be calm and clear about warning the person. For example, if he or she is about to bump into a stanchion in a hotel lobby, calmly and clearly call out, "Wait there for a moment; there is a pole in front of you."
- Do not take care of tasks for the person that he or she would normally do, such as change television channels, cut meat, or salt and pepper food. First ask if the person needs help, then offer to assist. Most people with a visual impairment will tell you if they would like some assistance.
- If you are asked to complete a task for someone, always leave things in the same place you found them.
- Do not move furniture or other articles in your friend's home or your own home without letting the person know.
While most people who are visually impaired have some vision, you shouldn't assume that your friend or relative can make out where you are and what you're doing when you are in the same room. Here are some helpful guidelines that can make communication between you more comfortable:
- When greeting a friend who is blind or visually impaired, don't forget to identify yourself. For example, "Hi, Jane, it's Sophia."
- Speak directly to your friend or relative who is visually impaired, not through an intermediary.
- Speak distinctly, using a natural conversational tone and speed. Unless the person has a hearing impairment you do not need to raise your voice.
- Address your friend or relative by name, so he will immediately know that you are talking to him rather than someone who happens to be nearby.
- As soon as a friend, relative, or stranger who is blind or visually impaired enters a room, be sure to greet the person by name. This alerts her to your presence, avoids startling her, and eliminates uncomfortable silences.
- Be an active listener. Give the person opportunities to talk. Respond with questions and comments to keep the conversation going. A person who is visually impaired can't necessarily see the look of interest on your face, so give verbal cues to let him or her know that you are actively listening.
- Always answer questions and be specific or descriptive in your responses.
- Say when you are leaving and where you are going if it is appropriate, for example, going to the kitchen to get a drink of water.
- Indicate the end of a conversation with a person who is totally blind or severely visually impaired to avoid the embarrassment of leaving the person speaking when no one is actually there.
Being a Sighted Guide
Sighted guide technique enables a person who is blind to use a person with sight as a guide. The technique follows a specific form and has specific applications.
- Offer to guide a person who is blind or visually impaired by asking if he or she would like assistance. Be aware that the person may not need or want guided help; in some instances it can be disorienting and disruptive. Respect the wishes of the person you are with.
- If your help is accepted, offer the person your arm. To do so, tap the back of your hand against his or her hand. The person will then grasp your arm directly above the elbow. Never grab the person's arm or try to direct him or her by pushing or pulling.
- Relax and walk at a comfortable normal pace. Stay one step ahead of the person you are guiding, except at the top and bottom of stairs and to cross streets. At these places, pause and stand alongside the person. Then resume travel, walking one step ahead. Always pause when you change directions, step up, or step down.
- It is helpful, but not necessary, to tell the person you are guiding about changes in terrain, stairs, narrow spaces, elevators, and escalators.
- The standard form of sighted guide technique may have to be modified because of other disabilities or for someone who is exceptionally tall or short. Be sure to ask the person you are guiding what, if any, modifications he or she would like you to use.
- When you are acting as a guide, never leave the person in "free space." When walking, always be sure that the person has a firm grasp on your arm. If you have to be separated briefly, be sure the person is in contact with a wall, railing, or some other stable object until you return.
- To guide a person to a seat, place the hand of your guiding arm on the seat. The person you are guiding will find the seat by following along your arm.
Giving Directions to a Person Who Is Blind or Visually Impaired
When giving directions for how to get from one place to another, people who are not visually impaired tend to use gestures—pointing, looking in the direction referred to, etc.—at least as much as they use verbal cues. That isn't helpful to a person who is blind or has a visual impairment. And often even verbal directions are not precise enough for a person who can't see—for example, "It's right over there" or "It's just around the next corner." Where is "there"? Where is "the next corner"?
Here are basic points to remember when giving directions to anyone who is visually impaired—a friend, relative, or stranger on the street.
- Always refer to a specific direction—right or left as it applies to the person you're advising. What is on your right is on the left of the person facing you.
- Indicate the approximate distance as well as the direction to a requested location.
- Give the approximate number of streets to be crossed to reach the destination. Even if your estimate is off by a block or two, it will give the person a sense of when to stop and ask someone else for further directions in case she or he has overshot the mark.
- If possible, provide information about landmarks along the way.
A large office building, a train station, or a shopping mall are also places where you may be called on to give directions, and the same considerations apply indoors as well as on the street. Here is an example:
"The escalator is directly in front of you about 10 feet away. You'll hear it as you approach. When you reach the next floor, make a sharp u-turn to the right. Walk along the wall to your left past 4 doors. The office you want is the fifth door.
Keep in mind that both sounds and scents can be "landmarks." In a food hall, for example, the unmistakable smell of popcorn could be a useful landmark for someone headed in that direction.
With all the coffee houses on streets in villages, towns, and cities, the scent of freshly brewed coffee may also be a helpful guidepost.
Thinking about how to give tactful, practical directions to someone who is visually impaired can heighten your own sensitivity to the world around you.
Information provided by the American Foundation for the Blind. For more, visit www.afb.org/default.aspx