The Etiquette for Interacting with a Blind Person
Just as societies innately understand the subtle rules of social interaction, there is also an etiquette for interacting with a blind person or someone with low vision. People with vision often struggle to interact with others who have vision impairment. People freeze, uncertain of what to do, or communicate in a demoralizing way. But that doesn’t have to be the case.
People with vision need to know how to best interact with someone who cannot see, and these social cues can be a helpful guide to making a city more accessible.
Language for Speaking
In the past, it was acceptable to talk about people who were blind by calling them “disabled,” “handicapped,” and “blind people.” However, these terms wholly define someone by their disability. Instead, say “a person with a disability” or “people who are blind.” This emphasizes the person and not their corresponding disability.
Quick Tips for Language
- People with disabilities, not handicapped or disabled
- Has a disability, not afflicted with a disability
- People who are blind, not blind people
- Born with a disability, not has a birth defect
Social Cues for Interacting with People Who are Blind
To help people with sight learn the social cues for interacting with people who are blind, the Jewish Guild for the Blind assembled a collection of suggestions specifically for this purpose. Most importantly, people with vision should frame their perception with the understanding that a person that is visually impaired is an intelligent human being. This paves the way for better interaction, whether helping someone cross a street or directing them through a public transportation terminal.
1. Introduce Yourself
Voice recognition isn’t something that everyone is good at. Don’t immediately assume that someone will be able to recognize you by your voice alone. Identifying yourself is considerate of the person who cannot see you.
2. Announce You’re Leaving
A person who is blind will not be able to see that you are leaving. Be sure to let them know when you’re moving to another room so they aren’t left talking to themselves. That is rude and disrespectful.
3. Use Your Words
People with sight are often unaware of how much they use their hands in a conversation. When speaking with someone who cannot see, replacing your hand gestures with actual words is incredibly helpful. This will allow the person with vision impairment to fully participate in the conversation.
4. Continue to Use “See” and “Look”
These words may feel awkward to use in the presence of someone who can’t visually see, but they are a normal part of the language. In most cases, people with visual impairment are not offended by these words, but you can always ask them for their opinion. Don’t try to stop using them—that would be weirder.
5. Speak Directly to a Person who is Blind
Sometimes a person with vision ignores those who cannot see. They choose to talk to the friend or family member while completely ignoring the person who is blind. Just because a person can’t see doesn’t mean that they can’t speak for themselves.
6. Be Considerate of Physical Contact
Grabbing or pulling a person who is blind can be surprising and confusing. You may be trying to save them from a dangerous situation, but you need to be considerate. It’s better for a person with vision to offer an arm to a person who cannot see than to abruptly make physical contact.
7. Use Specific Directions
When directing a person with visual impairments through a city or neighborhood, using vague directions such as “over there” with a quick hand gesture will not be helpful. A seeing person should use words that are more specific such as, “the bathroom is about 10 yards down the hallway on your right.” Your verbal directions should make the city more accessible to a person who is unable to see.
8. Don’t Pet a Guide Dog
Most people know that a guide dog is a working dog and should not be petted. A dog on the job should be focused on aiding his or her person in navigating the world. To distract a service dog could create an unsafe situation for the person who cannot see.
9. Navigating Stairs
If a seeing person offers to help a person who is visually impaired navigate stairs, it’s important that you verbally communicate the first and last step. Orient the person who is unable to see in such a way that they are square with the stairs and possibly able to use the handrail.
The etiquette of interacting with a person who is blind in public does not have to be difficult. Once you learn the social cues, you will be able to confidently interact with people who are unable to see well. These skills will help you make the city more accessible to an individual who cannot see.