Never Make this One Blooper with a Blind Person

sighted guide on escalator
Andrew Follows / Blinkie Photography

It is quite natural for a person who is blind or visually-impaired to sometimes rely on sighted people for guided assistance when moving around a busy environment.

It makes sense to allow the sighted person to use their vision to keep you both traveling safe, right?

Perhaps not.

Without realizing it, the caring friend with sight may be causing more anxiety for their companion than necessary.

The one major blooper they are making has the potential to reduce the person with a visual impairment to feel like a complete amateur in both decision making and safe mobility.

What is often overlooked by the sighted person is that their visual decisions can’t be carried out as quickly by their blind companion, even if they are holding on to their arm.

It’s not about trust. The person with low vision is able to let go and allow their friend to make a visual judgement. The one major blooper is: RUSHING.

Never rush a person who is blind or visually-impaired into anything.

Here is a common scenario:

A sighted friend guides their blind or visually-impaired companion down a busy street and they come to an intersection. Naturally, the person with sight announces when it is safe to cross and wants to stride out with confidence, assisting their friend by holding their arm.

But the person who can’t see may react in either of 2 ways.

1: They pull back and hesitate. The sighted friend says, “Trust me, it’s safe to cross now.”

But the person with low vision who is usually adept to crossing roads is paying attention to other sensory clues which contradict their friend’s judgement.

The sound of traffic, or the texture of the pavement for example, are being negotiated at EVERY second of being out and about.

To be advised when to cross doesn’t suddenly over-ride their natural survival instincts to observe from their other senses. Instead of feeling assisted, they  can feel dragged along like a child looking back at a toy store.

2: They follow their friend’s guidance and feel extreme anxiety but don’t let on that the visual decision has caught them off guard

Keeping up with their sighted friend puts them in a difficult situation: they are grateful for their assistance yet at the same time, it feels too rushed, the pace is not one they are comfortable with and stepping out randomly feels like launching out into thin air.

Make the wrong move and it’s all over.  Where is the kerb: How deep is the step? I’m not ready. Will I fall?

Following the lead of a sighted guide is more challenging than you may have imagined even if all it seems is that your visual decisions are the right ones for both of you.

Vision is not Everything.

Sighted people are so dependent on their eyes as their main observers and “informers” that they either forget or ignore the fact that their friend with vision loss has adapted to ‘seeing’ using different techniques.

Not only are there varying degrees of being legally blind which means a person may be operating with some residual vision; we also pay attention to many other “informers” like:

  • The other physical senses
  • Intuition
  • Memory
  • Patterns (as in traffic movement or the position of natural sunlight)
  • White cane and guide dog techniques

This is why having extra time –  even a few seconds longer – is so important.

In keeping up with a sighted guide and being forced to make quick movements and unexpected changes, the person with low vision has invisible micro adjustments to make every minute.

For example, they are most probably paying attention to the texture of the ground while listening to your voice: they are observing the pattern of traffic while being asked to dart across a road. Their brain logic is attempting to get in sync with your visual instructions to avoid too much time delay in carrying out an action in time with yours.

In short, without enough time to translate a visual decision made for mutual benefit, as in crossing a road or jumping onto a moving escalator, what happens for the blind or visually-impaired friend, is a rush of fear.

Suddenly, they have to trust and rush into vulnerability. Their survival techniques are over-ridden by a more reliable way of seeing, apparently: yours.

It is like swirling around inside a pinball machine.

This way, whoops, not that far, yes, a bit to your left, sorry, I meant the other left, stairs coming up, are you OK, I should have told you they were going down, not up!

Believe it or not, we do trust you, our very dear sighted friends and appreciate your methods of caring for us and navigating us safely through human traffic.

So, the next time you are with your friend with low vision, try to rush less when they are feeling close to the edge, and no doubt, you will both go much further with more ease.

Watch VISION QUEST to see how it should be done

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