When one is out on the street and comes across someone who is visually impaired, it is natural for most people to want to offer them some sort of assistance. What follows for most is an internal confliction between the desire to be helpful and the fear of insulting the person they are offering assistance to.
There is nothing wrong with this sense of confusion. Unfortunately, people are people no matter what their circumstances, and offers of help will be accepted or rebuffed based on the demeanor, conviction, or plain old mood of the person being approached. So what to do?
As the wife of a man who is legally blind, and someone who for many years worked for Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, I am pretty sure that at this point in my life I have seen just about every conceivable scenario in regards to this dilemma. I have seen the most selfless, beautiful behavior from people wanting to help while ensuring respect for those around them, and I have been appalled at the egregious disregard for the competence and independence of people with disabilities. About ninety-nine percent of people, however, fall somewhere in between.
So, how does one approach a person with a visual impairment and offer help, and when is it appropriate?
At Perkins, and at all other schools for the blind in the country, Orientation and Mobility is a standard part of the students’ curriculums. Orientation and Mobility is the teaching of independent travel at home and in the community. Initially, proper sighted-guide techniques are taught to the students, followed by cane travel, which will then be emphasized throughout their education. Most visually impaired people you meet over the age of forty will have attended a school for the blind during their formative years. Younger adults and children will most likely have been mainstreamed into the public school system, following the passing of the Chapter 766 mainstreaming initiative in 1972, when schools for the blind became more specialized to teaching blind children who also have other developmental or cognitive disabilities. These younger students would most likely have been taught proper cane travel technique during intensive rehabilitation training at a local center for the blind, or from a certified Orientation and Mobility teacher provided by the appropriate state government agency (in Massachusetts, services are provided by the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind). Besides learning how to use their canes safely and effectively, people with visual impairments are taught how to use public transportation, how to recognize and familiarize themselves with specific routes of travel, memorizing street crossings and landmarks to keep themselves oriented. And most people with visual impairments hesitate to try to travel independently to an unfamiliar place without taking a taxi, getting a ride, or doing a test run with someone they trust.
So, despite how hard it is for most of us to fathom navigating the city streets with our eyes closed, most visually impaired people you see traveling the streets of your city are very well aware of where they are and what the potential dangers are around them. Does this mean they don’t need any assistance under any circumstances? Absolutely not. There are all kinds of curve balls out there that life can throw at them.
So, when is it appropriate to offer a visually impaired person help, and what is the best way to go about it?
If you see someone cruising along with their cane, and they look calm, directed, and there are no unusual geographical dangers ahead, then they’re probably okay. If they are going your way, and you are so inclined to keep them in your line of vision when it is convenient just in case, then that is very kind of you. Just don’t trail them obviously so that they become concerned that a stranger is following them. However, there are some things to watch out for that might suggest to you that a polite inquiry might be in order.
1. Is the person looking anxious, pausing and listening frequently, or doubling back and retracing their steps with their cane, trying to get their bearings?
2. Have they missed more than one traffic crossing?
3. Are there new obstacles in their path, such as detours, construction areas, turned over bicycles, or trucks or cars parked on the sidewalk?
4. Is the traffic particularly heavy (for example, gridlock through out intersections that is blocking crosswalks), or behaving unpredictably (like someone backing into a parking space or pulling over in front of a curb cut)?
5. Is there unreasonable ambient noise that might keep them from being able to recognize when it is safe to cross the street (like jackhammers or sirens)?
6. Have they asked you or someone near you for any geographical information about the area?
7. Do they appear confused or in distress to you, or does something about the situation just feel intuitively to you like it is worth inquiring (life is unpredictable; don’t be afraid to just feel like asking)?
So, you’ve identified that there is someone on the street that could probably use your assistance, or that you’d at least like to inquire. What is the best way to go about this?
The first rule is that you should NOT grab the person’s arm, or touch them in any way. This would be tantamount to a stranger grabbing your arm when you are walking alone down a dark street at night. Visually impaired people may be more accustomed to the faux pas than you would be, but it is no less disconcerting. Simply walk up beside the person, identify yourself, inform them of the problem you are concerned about, and offer them assistance. For example: “Excuse me, ma’am? My name is John. There is a new construction crew working across the street. Can I offer you any assistance?” It is hard to imagine anyone being insulted by such an offer, and if they are, you can rest assured that you made an honest, courteous attempt to help.
If your offer of help is accepted, hold your arm that is closest to the person out slightly from the side of your body, and let them know that it is there. The visually impaired person will then take your arm, and when it is safe, you can walk across the street, at a normal gait.
What should you not do? There are a few things. First of all, never run when providing sighted guide to another person, even if you misjudge a light and traffic is coming. If you find yourself in that position, do whatever you need to in order to get the oncoming car’s attention to stop (generally just the sight of a person guiding someone with a white cane is more than enough). Blind people do not run, unless they’re running for sport with a well trained guide with them. Secondly, do not attempt to guide them by taking their arm and pulling them in the direction you are going to travel. This severely decreases the amount of control and stability the blind person has during ambulation. Holding the guide’s arm and walking a half step behind him or her is the most efficient and secure way for a person to be guided. Third, do not change their route to a “better route” you know. Orientation is everything. It is important that you get the person you are guiding to the same spot they would have ended up at if they had been walking alone. And forth, if someone is waiting to cross the street at a difficult crossing and you’d like to help them out with a cue, be specific. Don’t just say “it’s safe to cross.” Safe for whom? The light may be red, but you may be noticing that it’s safe for you, who can walk briskly and break into a dash if you need to. It is more helpful for a visually impaired person if you say something along the lines of “the light is green and no cars are approaching.”
So, how would you approach a person with a seeing eye dog? Well, in most circumstances, you wouldn’t. Guide dogs are very well trained, and people with visual impairments who are going to work with one are required to complete a three week intensive training course away from home in a center where nothing but working and bonding with their dog is allowed. Following that, a trainer spends time in the person’s environment, helping to orient the dog and owner to the owner’s work and home surroundings and the routes they’ll be taking together. Therefore, the guide dog is very well trained to avoid hazards, even unforeseen ones like new potholes or people on bicycles. And most importantly, the dog is working and should have minimal distractions.
The only time it would be appropriate to interrupt a person and guide dog working together is if there is an obvious danger ahead of the person or dog. People utilizing guide dogs are trained never to override their dog, even if they don’t understand why the dog is stopping or turning, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. If you see someone trying to correct their dog into an obvious hazard, then it is important that you alert the person to what the dog is balking at. Or, conversely, on occasion when dogs are very young and perhaps less ready for the job they’ve been cleared to do, are getting old, or are sick, they might exhibit lapses in their ability to keep their owner safe. Any time you see an obvious threat to the dog or person’s safety speak up. Otherwise, they should be just fine.
There is one last item that is important to note. An extreme threat to someone’s safety should always be more important than any other consideration. If someone is about to step off a curb in front of a moving car, and your only recourse is to grab them, and yank them back, then do so. You can apologize and explain the situation after wards.
There are a lot of incredibly competent visually impaired people out there, but that doesn’t mean that help is not appreciated when offered in a thoughtful and respectful manner. I think one of the wisest things my husband ever said to me (in a very large pool of very wise things) is that he’s rather be offered assistance when he doesn’t need it than not be offered assistance when he does. The world we live in can use a few more people like you, so don’t afraid. You might even make a friend.