Last week, I discussed some of the things I’ve been doing to get in better shape and my dislike for blind running. The AFB offers some good tips on how to guide a blind runner, and to follow up on the matter, I found the YouTube video above about Paralympics track and field.

But guiding someone who is visually impaired extends way beyond the jogging trail. It’s part of the daily routines of my family, my friends, and mine. When my eyesight decreased to the level it’s at now, the boyfriend-turned-hubster had to learn how to guide me when walking around. He was never one to make me feel handicapped, so he was not super attentive when guiding me–“tough love,” he calls it. My friends have also since learned how to guide me, and most of them are very good. Some are more attentive than others, often holding both of my hands and walking backwards through a crowd, while others are easygoing and merely mention a change in terrain when they deem it absolutely necessary. I myself prefer a middle ground.

Here are some tips I find personally helpful when being guided as a visually impaired (VI) person:

  • DON’T grab the VI person by the arm. DO let him/her take you by your arm or elbow. Think of it like you’re playing the role of a gentleman caller, and you’re escorting the VI person to the dance floor or down an aisle. You can even keep a relaxed arm if playing escort is too much work—just keep your arm down by your side and have the VI person take a hold of your straightened elbow. When I am grabbed by my arm or hand, it is bewildering, and I feel like I’m being herded like cattle. Allow the VI to take your arm and follow you. Remember the scene in Scent of a Woman when Al Pacino’s character gets pissed off at Chris O’Donnell’s character for grabbing his arm? Those are my sentiments exactly, though I’m less of a grouch.
  • DON’T give too much nor too little verbal cue. DO communicate just enough information for the VI person to understand his/her environment well enough to adjust accordingly. I don’t need to know about every pebble underfoot, but I do need to know about upcoming curbs or stairs. If the terrain changes from smooth to very rough and cracked, it would be helpful to know so I can be more careful as I approach. It is also good etiquette to let a VI person know if you both are about to approach a curb, steps, or an escalator. It is also vital to know whether the direction will be up or down. For example, “curb up,” “steps down,” or “escalator up” are all curt but helpful phrases. Other things like “door opening inward to your left” or “revolving door” are also noteworthy. When taking the stairs, in addition to knowing which direction (up or down) the stairs go, sometimes it is nice to be guided to the handrail. But as I’m a germaphobe due to the low immune system I must maintain to keep my NMO symptoms at bay, I hate touching handrails, especially at places like the subway station. In these cases, it is useful when my guide cues to me when I have only one more step until I reach either the landing or the bottom/top. Also be sure to let the person you’re guiding if the car he/she is getting into is a sedan, coupe, SUV, van, or truck, so height expectation can be made. And it’s also nice to know if the car is facing to my left or right—there’s been plenty of times when I’ve tried to get into a car facing backwards.
  • DON’T forget body language are also good indicators. DO use arm movements to guide the VI person. Whether a pub, music concert, or a mall on Black Friday, it is stressful to navigate a crowded place as a fully sighted person, let alone as a VI individual. And when it is loud (as it often is in crowds), verbal cues are difficult to communicate. This is when simple gestures take over. If you want the VI person to walk behind you, simply take the arm on which he/she is holding and move it behind you, bending the elbow at the middle of your back. The VI person will feel you moving your arm back and should take the lead to fall into line behind you. Once you’ve made it to a less crowded place, let your arm come back to your side, cueing the VI person to step out from behind you and back to your side. This is a helpful move to use when walking through a doorway: stating “door opening outwards to your right” and moving your arm behind you should immediately let the VI person know to follow you and catch the door coming out with his/her right hand.

I’ve had friends walk me into low-hanging tree branches and potholes. It’s funny now, but it could’ve been a disaster. What are some stories you have either as a guide or as the one being guided? Remember that the above are mere guidelines; keep in mind that everyone is different and will prefer different methods of guiding. Do you have any additional tips for guiding the VI? As a sighted person, have you guided the blind before? What are your thoughts or questions? Let us know in the comments.


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17 Discussion to this post

  1. Anna says:

    I had a blind friend when I was in high school and use a wheel chair myself. So she would just push me around and I would guide her to the classrooms. It was a kind of fun! 🙂

  2. Ryan says:

    This is an awesome video Christine! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Paul says:

    Great post, Christine. Folks who've seen my previous comments know that I'm a sports fan and a fan of disabled sport, so I have an interest in guide techniques. It's always interesting to see how specific sports or activities require specialized guidance, but I'd never considered that guiding a VI pedestrian in a noisy or crowded environment would require similar adaptation. Thanks for sharing your insights about this. As well, thanks for reminding us that your NMO requires immunosuppressant treatment and leaves you more vulnerable to infection. It's easy to think of you as 'merely' blind rather than as a person who is dealing with a significant autoimmune disease and its complications.

    With the Paralympic Games just a few days away, let me leave this link to a short video produced by Disabled Sports USA about south Texas native Shaun Cheshire and how she took up the sport of VI Biathlon, a sport that requires guides:

    (Shaun narrates the entire video so it should be VI/Blind friendly)

  4. guidepooch says:

    The sighted guide is truly an art. Some people are really terrible at it, and some people just pick it up naturally. I find it challenging and awkward to teach a person how to be a sighted guide but you're right – the more matter of fact and curt the person is in their cues, the better: "Steps down coming up. We're at the top of the stairs. Down 1, 2, 3. Okay finished the stairs and it's now flat". I always want the person to tell me when the stairs are finished. I read somewhere that being blind is like you're always standing on the edge of a cliff – it always feels like you are about to fall down a flight of stairs. This feeling doesn't go away with a sighted guide, especially an inattentive one. The sighted guide needs to respect how much trust the blind person is putting in them. I always tell the person to "walk normally" because some people slow their pace down to a crawl, which heightens the feeling that you are about to fall off a cliff. And I really appreciate the guides who can chat to you, give you cues, and act normally rather than making it a big show to the public like "Look at me, I am guiding a Blind Person".

  5. Fred says:

    THANK YOU for such an educational and interesting article. I wish I'd known all of this before I took an elderly blind man under my wing for a week at the Astrodome after Katrina. One day on the way out of the showers, I walked him SMACK hard into the un-open part of a double-door setup. I still feel bad about that. Next time, thanks to you, I'll know better about all of this.

    • Christine Ha says:

      Wow, I can't imagine being vision impaired and having to uproot to a foreign environment after a natural disaster, and then have to live amongst crowds of strangers, too. That must've been one heck of an experience for him. I'm sure he appreciated your help regardless. Everyone has to start somewhere.

      • Fred says:

        Thanks! I hope so. The whole week that's the only really bad mistake I made. FYI, after a year of being displaced, they finally got their entire house rebuilt and made it home again. He was a pistol. He was a World War Two vet (which is where he lost his sight to a mortar round) and although he was in his late 80s, he was unstoppable.

  6. Roshaida says:

    Hi Christine.

    Thanks for sharing this, especially on the point of not to grab the VI person by the arm. That explains the startled look on the VI, whom I offered my assistance to. several years ago, as I grab her arm to guide her to her destination. Throughout the short journey, she seemed rather tense. Good news is that we reached her destination safely. But once I let go of her arm and she thanked me, she looked relieved. At that time, I didn't think much about it, until I read this post. Oh the poor dear, how she must have felt being led or "herded" that way. OK, lesson learnt, and hopefully the next time I will remember the proper way to escort a VI person.

  7. John says:

    I had a visually impaired companion when I was in secondary school and utilize a wheel seat myself. So she would simply push me around and I would manage her to the classrooms. Thanks!

  8. Hi.
    This is an awesome video Christine!
    Thanks for sharing!
    Have a nice day!

  9. Hy Christine, thank you so much for sharing this amazing video. good work, keep it up.

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