Throughout my daily life, I have the opportunity to meet a large number of wonderful people who prior to our interaction were complete strangers to me. On the other side, just as frequently, I have the misfortune of being treated as less than human. This wide range of experiences is thanks solely to my traveling companion, my white cane.
Living in a big city means that most people travel through their day in their own thought bubble, moving quickly from one appointment to the next. Most hardly remember anyone they pass on the street — that is, until the white cane is present. The white cane is meant to help blind people feel our way through the world while also serving as a signal to others that we have a visual impairment. Most people recognize the cane as a symbol, but unfortunately the education stops there. Many people don’t understand how to interact with us, or even worse, sometimes do things that put us in physically dangerous situations.
I realize this might sound a bit strange to a sighted reader, especially someone who is kind enough to want to help when you see a blind person, but there are helpful and unhelpful ways of interacting with the blind. Hopefully this incomplete list will take the mystery out of interacting with your friendly neighborhood blind person. While we may seem like a mysterious people at first, I promise once you have some of these down, it will take away a lot of the guesswork.
It’s best not to assume the level of vision of someone with a white cane, beyond understanding it’s far more limited than someone with “normal” vision. Most of us can navigate our lives without always bumping into things or getting lost. Many of us use regular technology with some adaptations such as voiceover and magnification. I know it might be confusing seeing someone check their phone and then continue walking using a cane, but humans are amazingly adaptive creatures and there is a lot of great technology available.
2. We don’t always need help. If I am traveling alone, I will inevitably be stopped and asked if I need help. When I’m traveling with friends, it’s not uncommon for a stranger to stop my friends and ask if I need help (I’ll come back to this later). While we appreciate your kindness and concern, we also understand that some people imagine what it’s like to be blind, think it would be impossible for them to function and project that on us. Please don’t
assume if we are blind, we must need help.
Most of the time, we do not need help. I’ll let you in on a secret as well; we sometimes get annoyed at this because the offering of help can slow us down when we are in a hurry, and honestly, it can get a bit tiring. I’ve been known on occasion to wear my ear buds as a “do you need help” repellent.
Most of us have received mobility training. We were taught safe ways of navigating the world. We have learned how to cross streets, navigate paths, and move safely with a cane or guide dog. Our daily routes are familiar, and when we go to new places, many of us use apps to help guide our journey.
If you do feel the need to ask if the blind person walking past you needs help, or if you see a blind person who looks like they do need help, here is how to do it. As you see the blind person, ask yourself, “Does this person look like they are lost, confused, or unsure? Or do they look like they are busily getting on with their day?” If the answer is no to the first question and yes to the second, then resist the urge to offer help. If the answer is yes to the first question, continue to the next step.
Quickly introduce yourself and ask if help is needed. Here is an example: “Hi, my name is Tom. Do you need some assistance?” The name creates a bit more of a connection and humanizes the experience. Offering the help in this way is friendlier, and even if we are in a hurry, you’ll more likely garner a friendly response, even if the answer is no.
If the answer is no, please respect that. If the answer is yes, ask with what
specifically the blind person needs help. We may need help crossing a street, but just because we are stopped at a corner doesn’t make that so. We may need help with directions, or just a quick question answered.
Finally, many of us are assertive and will ask someone for help before we are asked. We do appreciate friendly offers and sometimes will accept them, but please do not be offended when we do not want or need help.
3. Please do not grab us. If you are unfamiliar with this scenario, allow me to elaborate. A blind person is waiting to cross a street when she is approached by a sighted person who may or may not have asked if help is needed. That sighted person next proceeds to grab onto the blind woman’s upper arm and pull or push her across the street. Most sighted people believe this is the best way to guide a blind person; it is not.
On a practical level, this is very dangerous. By pulling us along, you take away our ability to effectively use our canes to feel uneven pavements, steps, and other obstacles. While it might seem safer to you, it is actually more dangerous for us. We can fall, walk into objects, or be pushed into other people. Even the grabbing itself can cause injury. I was once bruised by a woman who grabbed me without permission and held on too tight. It’s really a precarious situation and not helpful.
Let’s think about it on the level of personhood as well. If a stranger grabbed an
able-bodied person without permission, that would be assault. What about blindness causes the sighted world to forget we are deserving of the same respect? Grabbing can make some blind people feel infantilized, as there is a hegemonic infantilization of people with disabilities lurking under the surface of conscious awareness in our culture.
Finally, it can be emotionally trying for us. As a woman traveling alone, being
grabbed is terrifying. I find myself needing to prepare myself for the grabbing that may take place as I travel throughout my day.
So now that I’ve given the doom and gloom part of this, how do you guide someone? It’s very easy; first, ask! If you are aiding someone, please ask him if he would like to be guided. If he says yes, then still do not grab him; allow him to hold your upper arm. In this way he will get a wealth of information about the landscape, obstacles, and oncoming people by feeling your movements.
4. Be specific. Like everyone else, sometimes we need directions. If a blind person asks for directions, please tell them specifically where to go and do not rely on visual markers. For example, tell the person “Walk three blocks in the direction your are facing and turn right before crossing the street.” This is more helpful than “Go that way until you see the bank and turn left.” The more specific you can be about distance and direction, the more helpful the directions will be.
5. It’s all right, you can speak to us. Some people seem afraid to ask us questions, as if they will somehow remind us we are blind. I promise, it is always better to ask me questions related to me rather than asking my friends. This happens less frequently, but when it does, it’s usually in restaurants. For example, the host sees the white cane and asks my friends what he should do with my menu instead of me. Sometimes the wait staff will ask my friends what I will have to eat, as if I am unable to speak for myself. Or on occasion someone
will approach the group and ask them if I need help.
These situations are some of the most frustrating for blind individuals. The only way to describe the feeling is like being a child or an outsider who doesn’t belong in the adult social setting. Please know that if you ask us as opposed to defaulting to those around us, you are not embarrassing us. In fact you’re helping to make us feel like everyone else.
Beyond these tips, the best way to interact with a blind person is to recognize we are all human. The cane is a sign that we need more space when walking; we might walk into you if you don’t move, and we may not react quickly in certain circumstances. See it as a symbol of how we navigate the world differently, but then let go of the cane and see us as unique individuals. And if
you are ever unsure, you can always ask.
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