Interacting with the visually impaired
Being visually impaired doesn’t mean being unable to care for oneself or lacking independence. With the aid of specialist equipment plus proper training, visually impaired people can complete their daily tasks and live independently just like those with perfect vision.
According to the American Foundation for the Blind, only 18 per cent of people who are visually impaired are fully blind. Most people who are classified as legally blind can actually see to some extent depending on their situation, but it’s still hard for them to get by without any assistance. They may still have some peripheral vision, or just see everything as a blur. Even people who can’t see anything at all are often able to distinguish shadows or differentiate between light and dark.
Yet, thanks to films, television and other popular media, there are still a lot of common misconceptions as well as some strange ideas about what it means to be blind, much to the frustration of people who are actually visually impaired. Some people are hesitant to interact with blind people, and despite an underlying desire to help they may hold themselves back to avoid an awkward encounter.
Here are some of the do’s and don’ts of helping blind people you might want to know.
- Be friendly, include blind persons socially and engage in conversation with them. Speak first and introduce yourself. Shake hands only if a hand is offered.
- Communicate clearly with words when speaking to visually impaired people. It’s crucial to compensate for the usual movement of the hands and the expressions on the face by using clear words and effective intonation.
- Speak directly to blind persons rather than their companion. Nothing frustrates blind people more than people thinking they’re non-verbal or incapable of having a conversation.
- Raise their awareness of new technologies and discuss with your blind friends the technological devices which may be able to instill their lives with greater independence.
- Lend them a hand where appropriate. Getting into a car, taking the stairs, moving through tight spaces or crowded areas are all opportunities to offer a guiding arm, provided you do not go overboard in pushing visually impaired people to accept your assistance if they do not want it.
- Don’t always assume that blind people are incapable and require assistance because they can’t see. Visually impaired people are often more independent than you think. They can learn to do some amazing things without their sight.
- Don’t shout at them, as blind people are not deaf! Don’t touch them excessively; nobody likes being touched by strangers. Don’t ask stupid questions or give them indirect compliments. In short, apply common sense and basic sensitivity when interacting with blind and visually impaired people.
- Don’t speak to or pet blind people’s guide dogs without consulting them first. Guide dogs are trained to ignore outside distractions and to focus solely on the job. No matter how cute they are, don’t try touching, whistling or speaking to them.
- Don’t compare. Within the non-sighted community, there is great diversity, so don’t put all blind people into a single basket. Just because someone who is blind can do something independently or dresses in a certain way doesn’t mean that someone else does this as well.
- Don’t be afraid of using normal language and including words like “look” and “see” as blind and visually impaired people have exactly the same vocabulary as sighted people.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.