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Blind etiquette: six ways to be considerate when interacting with people with visual impairments

Make your next interaction with someone who is visually impaired easier and more comfortable – for both of you.

A student walks with a cane in one hand with the other on the teacher's arm as a guide. Another student walks behind them using a guide cane as well.

There’s no “secret” to interacting with people who are blind. They just want to be treated like everybody else, with courtesy and respect. Since 1829, Perkins has been teaching children with visual impairments the skills they need for independence and confidence. We do this on our Massachusetts campus, as well as around the world. You can learn more about what Perkins does here.

Here are six suggestions that will make your next interaction with someone who is blind more respectful of them and more comfortable for you:

While not all of these tips are appropriate for social distancing today, we all look forward to a time when we can offer our arm for assistance in the future. 

  1. If you think someone who is blind may need help navigating, ask first. It’s jarring for anyone to be unexpectedly grabbed or pulled, but especially so for someone who can’t see who’s doing the grabbing. By asking, you give the person a chance to accept or decline your help”
  2. If your help is accepted, offer your arm, tell the person you have done so and allow him or her to grasp your arm just above the elbow. That makes it easier for the person to feel your movements and follow on their own terms.
  3. If you see someone who is blind or visually impaired in imminent danger, be calm and clear when you warn the person. Use specific language such as “there’s a large pothole right in front of you,” or “the sidewalk in front of you is blocked for construction” instead of “watch out!” Also, use directional language such as “to your left” or “directly behind you” rather than “it’s over here.” Remember that using directions in relation to other things doesn’t work for someone who can’t see those other things.
  4. Identify yourself when approaching someone who is blind, or when entering a room with them. Even if the person has met you before, he or she may not recognize you by your voice.  In a group setting, address the person by name so they know when you’re talking to them. And inform the person when you depart, so they don’t continue the conversation to an empty room.
  5. Never pet or distract a working guide dog. These dogs are busy directing their owners and keeping them safe. Distracting them makes them less effective and can put their owners in danger.
  6. Consider using “people-first” language and take personal preferences into account. While Perkins often uses people-first language (i.e, “a person who is blind” rather than “a blind person”), many are reclaiming the word “blind” to describe themselves freely and proudly. Respect a person’s preferences and learn about the work being done to separate the word from negative connotations and stereotypes.

A little understanding and sensitivity goes a long way. By following these suggestions, you’ll find that making a human connection is easy. It doesn’t matter if one person can see and the other can’t.

The effects of blindness often extend beyond loss of vision. For more information about different types of blindness, read Four prevalent, different types of blindness.

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Tiled portraits of: Sophia Hopkins, circa 1880; Edward E. Allen, circa 1890; Julia Ward Howe, 1902; Dennis Reardon, undated; Joel W. Smith, circa 1895; Anne Sullivan, circa 1887; William Hickling Prescott, undated; and Gazella Bennett, circa 1895.
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