Saturday, April 27, 2013

Interacting with the Visually Impaired...An Etiquette Guide

My wonderful partner Rob is visually impaired, with very little usable sight. Over the course of our relationship, I have learnt a lot about the realities of living without sight, and have observed the ways in which people interact with him and his Seeing Eye Dog, Jasper. I have come to the conclusion that while some people are great, the majority of people in our society simply do not know how to deal with someone with any form of disability- or possess very bad manners- and that everyone can benefit from some advice on these matters. I've learnt a lot myself about what to do and what not to do, and I have read quite a few etiquette guides for interacting with those who are visually impaired, but felt moved to write my own as the ones I have read tend to be quite broad and do not seem to speak from personal experience or include examples. So here we are...this is my list of suggestions. 

Don't stare. Just because someone can't see you does not mean that you should forget your manners and stare. I am frequently astonished at the amount of adults who see Rob and Jasper and stare at Rob unashamedly. Then they usually turn their stare to the person who is with him. Depending on my mood, I either ignore them or they are startled to find that I have taken note of their scrutiny and am looking straight back at them. Staring is rude and there is no need for it. 

Do announce who you are when you approach someone who is visually impaired. Most visually impaired people are very good at recognising people that they have met before by their voices, but it can take them a few meetings to do so and simply saying something like "Hi Rob- it's Karen" is much appreciated when you encounter a visually impaired person that you know out and about or visit them at home. 

Don't ignore the visually impaired person and speak only to the sighted person with them. This happened to us yesterday and it is quite offensive. We drove into a tyre dealer to get new tyres fitted on the car and Rob got out first with Jasper. As I was getting out I saw that one of the employees had come out to our car and was just standing there looking at Rob and looking uncomfortable, while Rob was unaware that he was there. I deliberately took my time getting out in the hopes that he would greet Rob, but he waited until I was out and greeted me. He then directed his answers to me even though Rob was the one speaking to him about the car. Treat the person as you would want to be treated- there really is no need to be uncomfortable. Likewise, answer a visually impaired person when they speak. Rob has at times boarded a bus and asked "Is anyone in this seat?" received no reply, gone to sit and discovered that there is in fact a person there. This is embarrassing for him and can easily be avoided by using common courtesy.

Do feel free to use words like see, watch, look without worrying about causing offence, and don't feel embarrassed or apologise for using them. Visually impaired people use these words too- they are common ways of speech. I will often say to Rob "Look at this," as I put something in his hand, or ask him if he wants to watch a movie or television show with me. He will say things such as "I saw it there the other day."

Don't ever interfere with a visually impaired person's dog guide, be it a Seeing Eye Dog or Guide Dog (most people think that Seeing Eye Dogs and Guide Dogs are one and the same- they are actually completely different organisations). These dogs are working hard to guide their handler and there is a reason they wear a large sign asking you not to touch- it is distracting and potentially dangerous. For that same reason, you should not speak to the dog, either. I am constantly staggered by the amount of people- mainly adults- who try to pat Jasper, or ignore Rob and speak to Jasper. While we are on the subject of Seeing Eye Dogs, stop and think before you use the dog as an excuse to interrupt someone. Would you like to have someone suddenly loom over you in a coffee shop while you are in the middle of a conversation with your partner and start talking about their own dog? This kind of thing happens to us a lot. Unfortunately people seem to think that Jasper being there gives them an excuse to invade personal space and cross boundaries. If you are in a conversation with someone with a Seeing Eye Dog and want to ask questions, that's fine, but keep in mind they have probably answered them a thousand and one times before. Also don't assume that the dog leads a miserable life of servitude. They may look serious, but this is because they are in 'work mode'. They are very different dogs when they have their harness off and receive plenty of affection and attention at home.

Do tell a visually impaired person that you are talking to before you walk away- such as in a party setting, a large gathering or while serving them in a shop. Otherwise they may not hear you go and feel embarrassed by continuing to talk to someone who is no longer there.

Don't offer fact, do your best not to feel pity at all as visually impaired people neither want nor need it. They are just like you with loved ones, hobbies, interests, jobs. Rob has a full and happy life with a loving partner, two beautiful children and another baby on the way, a job, hobbies and interests, favourite movies, favourite activities...and yet some strangers still feel the need to remark "It's lovely to see that you're out and about." Would you say the same to someone who could see? Rob has accepted his lack of sight as the way things are and does not let it hold him back in any way. He has raised two children as a single father, goes shopping with Jasper's help, goes to appointments, cooks, cleans, gardens, builds computers, sends text messages...and this is not out of the ordinary for him. It's no different to a sighted person leading their life, so put any pity aside as it isn't necessary. 

Do take care not to move or change anything around if you are in the home of someone who is visually impaired. Home is where we like to feel comfortable and safe, and it is the same for someone who can't see- they know where everything is and feel free in their movements. The biggest hazard in the home for a visually impaired person is not a set of stairs- these don't change position- but is in fact a cupboard door that has been left open. Running into a cabinet door that you didn't know was open can be a shock and cause injury, and isn't a very pleasant experience. Likewise, if you find a door has been left open, such as in the bathroom, open it again after you are finished to prevent someone who remembered it being open running into it. Put things back where you find them if you are doing something in their home like making a coffee- even something being moved ten centimetres from where they remember it being can be frustrating.

Don't ever grab a visually impaired person's hand to 'help' them. This can be a shock and throw someone off balance. They will ask if they need help and it is far better for them to hold your arm than to have their hand or wrist grasped. Offer assistance by saying "Do you want me to put your hand on the chair?" in an unfamiliar place, but do not simply grab at them and do so without asking. You may have good intentions, such as the waiter at the Grand Chancellor when we attended High Tea who grabbed Rob's wrist so tightly that his knuckles turned white in order to show him where all the cutlery was, but visually impaired people are good at working these things out for themselves. 
Lastly, don't feel embarrassed or unsure of what to say or do. Treat the person as you would want to be treated, not as an invalid, object of pity or as a spectacle. 

I hope this guide offers some insights and guidance and I am happy to answer any other questions people may have. Like I said, it took a while for me to learn some of these things as well. I am so comfortable with Rob and completely used to his lack of sight, and it has never affected our relationship at all. There is only one time that I wished things were different- and that was the night when the mother of all huntsmen spiders appeared on our bedroom wall and I realised that I had no choice but to deal with it myself as Rob couldn't see it. I'm still amazed that the children slept through my screaming. I really don't like huntsmen. 

Jasper- truly another member of our family


  1. I liked that Karen, very practical and informative.

    1. Thanks Lisa :) Glad you liked it.

  2. I have lived these things you bring up , and you have done a good job of hitting the high points, and low opoints as well in the relationship between the blind or very seriously VI person and the rest of his or her community. I actually get an even more raw brand of interaction in some cases because I live in a zone where few blind folk have ventured in to the deep waters of the main stream until very recently. I can't tell you how many times I've heard something like "Vas a caier" you're going to fall, and while this either makes me laugh or mildly angry I feel for the small children who hear this on a daily basis and must decide that the folks around them are liers or fools to strike out on there own as individuals. The positive side hear as that people do feel more free to talk to "strangers" than they might in some more developed corners of the world. Don't get me wrong, I'm mostly not out in the bush with no electricty, and all the kids have much better telephones than I ever have, (OK, far from all but many), but it's still a largely conservative society in many ways where most women do not drive, nor think to learn, where as that is at least an aspiration for most men. Anyway, I'd like to amplify one or two ponts made in the well written blog above.
    First, well said that the disabled have often explained all the basics more times than they could possibly come close to counting. This means that while often the basic speal is so practiced that it rolls of the tongue with no thought, and certainly no emotional charge, it can be very distracting from what ever perhaps very important task the disabled person is trying to deal with at the moment. Ask if the person has a few minutes and most folks will say yes for one reason or another.
    Oh, the other thing I get here, mostly a function of the local language perhaps, but stil at times distracting or iritating is "derechito" which more or less is straight ahead. Obviously a person who does not know us has no idea if we need to turn in the very second they say that. I know it's mostly meant to be encouraging, but my other point is that noise, and sometimes just a little can be a distraction or down right dangerous as most bind folk depend more on their ears than anything else to navigate and stay safe. Loud music on a street corner is a terrible thing to encounter, and I have often had to trust in a God I'm not sure I even velieve in to cross a street. And the almost silent can also pose its own hazard, e.g. a bicycle crossing ones path can become very tricky to avoid when its not heard because of traffic noise until one is almost uppon it.
    Lastly, if you see a visually impaired person in what you truly believe is a dangerous situation, make sure you try and provide useful imfo from your very first word. Saying "watch out!" is of little value. The blind gal or guy does not even know for sure you are talking to them most likely, and then the question is watch out for what?... Something like duck if the blind person is about to get it in the face from a tree branch can save dozens of annoying questions later as to how they got the bump on the And as Kaz says, never grab a blind person with out asking them if they might need help, and then try and use a firm but gentle touch if they say yes. I've layed more than one person out on the concrete because I was surprised, annoyed, or scared of the agressive unknown that acosted me. (so it's for your own good as well) Of course I've felt bad after a few of those encounters, one guy was a nice traffic cop, in a nosiy environment who'd never had any training in how to deal with the disabled, or what ever word you like to describe those of us who don't count with one of the five best known senses, or some common level of mobility. And of course it's not all on the non disabled person to understand, we must also do our part to realize what others are unlikely to know and may not be able to guess or deduce logically.

  3. Great read - Thank you