Guide for Guiding Etiquette

When I am interacting with a person who is visually impaired…

What should I do? What Should I say?

This resource can serve as a guide for those who don’t know what to do when they meet someone with impaired vision.

About 9.0 million people in the United States live with impaired vision. About 80 percent see shadows, have only tunnel vision, or can read very large print. Impaired vision does not limit most people’s activities; it changes how they perform them. A co-worker may use adaptive computer equipment. A parent reads with a magnifying glass. Your child’s classmate may use a white cane to travel independently.

Persons who are legally blind carry a white cane with or without a red tip. The Ohio White Cane Law (ORC4511.47(A)) states that drivers must yield the right-of-way to a person carrying a white cane or using a dog guide, regardless of the traffic signal or where the crosswalk is.

About 10 percent of the visually impaired population chooses to use a trained dog guide. One recognizes this working animal by the harness it wears, the harness having a rigid handle. Not all dog guides are German Shepherds. Labradors and Golden Retrievers are also popular. Dog guide users also have the right-of-way, just as cane users do, and the dogs may legally go anywhere, including restaurants and hospitals. Please resist the temptation to talk to or pet a dog guide. It must not be distracted while it is working. Never, ever attempt to feed a dog guide without express permission of the owner.

Individuals who have some vision may choose to wear dark glasses, because bright lights may cause discomfort, or painful glare to them. Not everyone who is blind or visually impaired wears them.

If you realize the person waiting to cross the street with you is visually impaired, don’t panic. Ask, “Would you like some assistance?” The response may be “no thank you.” If so, don’t persist. If the answer is yes, let that person advise you on how best to assist.

If you see a visually impaired person waiting to cross at a signaled intersection and you see it is good to go, never tell that person it is all right to cross unless you are certain the walk cycle is just beginning.

In this document, we provide basic tips if you do offer assistance and the answer is “yes.”

If you are to guide a visually impaired person through a crowded or confusing area, have that person grasp your arm above the elbow. As you walk, keep your arm relaxed at your side. Announce as you approach doorways, stairs, or if there are other changes in the environment. Always go first, rather than push or pull the person with vision impairment. To get through a narrow passage, move your elbo slightly behind you, as you explain the change. That person will move behind so the two of you may pass single file.

If while at a gathering, you see a visually impaired person sitting or standing alone, or not included in activities, go introduce yourself and ask if you can assist in some way. It is often quite difficult for a visually impaired person to seek out others in a crowd and to be included in the group activities. It may be that person is not actually interested and you may be given a “no.” Take no offence if the answer is “no.” If the answer is “yes,” assist in whatever way you can and then introduce that person around the gathering to enable inclusion in activities.

Identify yourself. It’s no fun to have to guess the identity of the speaker, and it can sometimes be embarrassing. In a group, it is especially important to use the individual’s name so that person knows when he or she is being addressed. Let the person know when you leave, so that person does not end up talking to empty air, believing you’re still there, an embarrassing situation to say the least.

If you must leave a visually impaired person, guide that person to a chair, if you can, and put the person’s hand on the back of the chair so that person may sit. Guiding one to be near a corner, a wall, a door, or some point of reference may suffice if no chair is available. Describe what you are doing. Do not leave the person disoriented in the middle of a room somewhere.

Speak directly to the individual, not to nearby companions. You need not raise your voice. Vision loss does not necessarily affect hearing nor does it indicate lack of intellect.

Don’t be uncomfortable using figures of speech such as “look” or “see”. For example, with audio description, many persons who are visually impaired “watch” television and enjoy movies. However, don’t use hand signals or vague expressions like “over there.”

In many restaurants, Braille or large print menus are available. If you encounter a situation where such is not the case, offer to read the menu aloud. When the food arrives, use the face of a clock to describe its position on the plate. No one likes to hunt to find the entree.

In retail stores, the individual may ask for information regarding color or style of the item being purchased. Your customer may use Braille-marked or large print checks or other adaptive aids to pay for the purchase. When making change, discreetly identify the denomination of the bill you are handing back. Most states such as Ohio issues a legal identification card for those who do not drive. You must accept it as a valid form of identification, just as you would the driver’s license.

If you have a visitor with vision impairment, don’t leave doors or cabinets ajar. Loose cords and items on the floor can cause accidents, too. Ask before you turn up the lights because too much light may be uncomfortable. In fact, some people can see better on overcast days. If visiting, don’t move furnishings without telling your host.

Don’t shy away from friendly conversation. You may want to ask, “But how do you cross country ski?” While we all have days where we may not want to talk about ourselves, taking an interest in another person is nothing to be uncomfortable with.

Don’t be afraid to ask how to be most effective when assisting a person with vision impairment. Using the guidelines outlined in this document, you should feel more at ease.

The American Council of the Blind of Ohio is a non-profit organization committed to improving the quality and equality of life for all persons who are blind or visually impaired. Our members include persons who are blind, who are losing vision, or are parents of a child who is blind or visually impaired. We welcome anyone who wishes to work toward equal rights and full participation in society for everyone with a disability.

Thank you for caring about Ohio’s visually impaired citizens!