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How to be an effective human guide

Tips for how to be an effective human guide in everyday situations.

When I am walking in an unfamiliar place or with a large group of people, I often use a human guide to provide me with additional information about my surroundings or to help me navigate busy areas such as a crosswalk or room filled with people. Even though I am used to traveling independently, it can be helpful to have someone that can answer questions for me in real time, or alert me to obstacles or items that I may not otherwise notice with my cane, such as tree branches above my head or, in one memorable instance, a dachshund on a skateboard that was walking (or skating) right next to me. Here are my tips for how to be an effective human guide, from the perspective of a person with low vision who uses a blindness cane.

What is a human guide?

A human guide is a person who provides travel/navigational assistance to a blind person or a person with low vision by helping them get from one location to another. While a human guide is not a direct substitute for using a blindness cane or other mobility aid, there are situations where someone might rely solely on a human guide, or they will use a human guide in conjunction with a blindness cane. Anybody can learn and utilize the basic principles of being a human guide, and I often teach these skills to my friends, family, teachers, coworkers, and other people I regularly interact with.

Why I use the term human guide over sighted guide.

In the field of visual impairment, the term human guide is preferred over the term sighted guide, because a person does not necessarily need to be sighted to be a human guide. I have low vision and have served as a human guide for some of my blind friends, and I’ve also had human guides that were blind and that had stronger travel skills or were more familiar with an environment than I was. There are also non-human guide options for people with vision loss, such as a guide dog or guide horse, but I do not have any personal experience using one.

Related links

The main thing to remember – just ask, don’t grab!

#JustAskDontGrab is a hashtag started by Dr. Amy Kavanagh that summarizes the most important thing for people to remember when acting as a human guide- do not touch people without asking first, and never touch their blindness cane or other mobility aids, as this can be disorienting for someone who is focused on getting from one destination to the next.

So how can someone ask if a person needs help? Will they be offended?

When I shared this hashtag with a new friend, they told me that they knew it was bad to just grab someone’s arm and start guiding them around, but weren’t sure how to ask someone if they need help, or if that person would get offended. While I can’t predict how every person will react, personally I have never been offended by someone asking me if I needed help navigating, even if I didn’t need assistance- I’m grateful that they asked first instead of assuming it was okay to grab onto my arm.

Some example ways of asking if someone needs assistance include:

In environments where there are people trained to provide assistance, such as an airport, major conference, or hospital, it’s okay to ask someone if they would like to call for assistance or otherwise request a guide.

What if they’re in danger?

If a person who is blind or low vision is in immediate imminent danger, it’s okay to grab onto their arm or otherwise keep them from moving forward- if you would intervene for a sighted person, it’s okay to intervene for a person who is not sighted. Some examples of reasons I would be okay with someone grabbing me unexpectedly would include:

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Offer an arm or hand

It’s frustrating when someone tells me to follow the sound of their voice in a crowded area, because it can be difficult to keep track of where they are. Instead, it’s helpful to have someone ask if I need to hold onto their arm or hand and have me decide how I want to follow someone. Since I use my cane with my right hand, I will grab onto someone’s arm with my left hand and have them walk on my left side.

What arm position works well for human guides?

When acting as a human guide, it’s best to position an arm away from the body at an angle so that the person being guided can rest their hand on the forearm of their guide. The general recommendation is that the guide positions their arm at a 90-degree angle from their body and bends their elbow at the same angle.

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Use specific location terms

General location terms such as over here, right there, this way, that way, and similar don’t provide enough information when I am trying to navigate somewhere. Human guides often dictate surroundings and directions, and it helps for me to know where we are going or when we need to turn, especially if there is an obstacle (more on that in the next section).

Examples of specific location terms to use include:

Alerting to obstacles

The main goal of being a human guide is to help someone avoid obstacles that they might not otherwise have noticed or that could pose a safety issue. In some cases, it might make sense to lead someone away from an obstacle, such as to keep them from running into a sign, while in other cases a verbal warning allows someone to step over the obstacle by themselves or rely more on their cane for information. Examples of obstacles that human guides should be aware of include:

Related links

More tips on how to be a human guide

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes, www.veroniiiica.com

Updated July 2023; original post published January 2017

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