7 Ways to Be a Better Sighted Guide Part 1

Assisting a Blind person navigate
Assisting a Blind person navigate. Harry WIlliamson/Spring Studio

According to eye health statistics from the American Academy of Ophthalmology, there are over 4 million Americans aged 40 and older who have a visual impairment. This includes those diagnosed as being legally blind or having a degree of low vision.

It is also estimated that over $15 billion is spent each year on eye-wear in the US alone.

With such ‘eye-opening’ stats as these, it might also come as a surprise to learn that many people are still unsure of the best ways to assist the blind and visually-impaired when it comes to acting as their sighted guide.

What is a Sighted Guide?

When you offer your assistance to a person with low vision, you are offering to be their sighted guide. This means it is important to have a certain amount of knowledge on safe guiding techniques that will enable the person with a visual impairment to trust in your confidence to lead.

As their eyes, you not only offer verbal descriptions that empower them to make choices but you take on the temporary role of steward to protect their safe mobility while guiding.

7 Ways to Be a Better Sighted Guide

Even before you reach out physically to assist a person who may require your help, notice how there are a few things you should do before you take your first step in being their sighted guide.

1: Making Contact

When you approach a person who most probably can’t see you coming, the best way to greet them is with your voice or a gentle touch of the hand to their forearm. Make your introduction friendly and if you do offer a handshake, let them know you are holding your hand out by telling them.

2: Asking comes before Assisting

Once you have established you are there to offer assistance, ask in what way do they require your help. Never assume you know what they want; let them verbalize their request.

If a person who is blind or visually-impaired declines your offer, don’t take it personally. It is a good sign they know where they are going and are fine to get there alone.

3: Getting Physical

This is the fun part because every person with low vision has their own preference on how they like to take hold of their sighted guide. Allow a brief moment for them to show you.

It may be holding on to your arm, just above the elbow or placing a hand on the top of your shoulder. Resist the urge to grab hold of them, especially not around the wrist which can feel like a pair of human hand-cuffs. Then you are off to a flying start.

OK. Now you have sorted out the basics of the person’s particular requirements, you can begin  to be their sighted guide.

4: Be Mindful of your Language

You are being a sighted guide for a person who can’t see as much as you, so remember to describe everything clearly and in a relaxed way as you assist. Look at it as if you are painting a landscape with colorful words.

The person with low vision will be using their other senses too as you walk together but it also helps to know the environment in which you are moving through so they can adjust to shifts and turns of direction with ease.

5: Using Visual Terms

As you describe the path ahead, remember to say left or right from the blind person’s standpoint. It is also fine to use visual terms like ‘Watch out for this pole’ or, ‘Look out, we are approaching a low tree branch.’ They will get your message.

However, if you can see a potential hazard or difficulty coming up, use the simple word Stop! and deal with the situation once you have both come to a halt.

6: Always Stay in Front

For some people acting as a sighted guide, it can seem impolite to walk through a doorway or enter a lift first, especially if it is a man guiding a woman, but you really need to stay slightly in front at all times. As you move, your body gives clues and these are also directing your companion.

The absolute no-no is to push the person you are guiding through a doorway or pull them through a narrow gap or onto a moving escalator! Believe me, it happens more times than you might realize.

7: Be Aware of Gaps and Traps

One important thing to remember is that as a double-act you are wider than you think. Be aware as you guide the person with low vision through narrow spaces that you allow enough space for both of you, as well as their shoulder bag, which can get snagged on objects you may have completely forgotten about in your concentration to get through the gap in one piece.

Now you have got the first 7 ways to be a better sighted guide, watch this space for the next post with 7 MORE essential ways to hone your skills.

Continue Reading