Concerns about how best to approach someone living with sight loss or a visual impairment may prevent some people from doing so, which is a missed opportunity to be both helpful and kind today. While it’s a misconception to presume that every person living with visual impairment is going to need assistance from strangers – anymore than any of the sighted population may – it’s important to recognise the signs when someone may need help, and act on them appropriately and safely.
Importance of assisting the blind and visually impaired
Being kind to others is fundamental to humanity and recognising that another person is in distress and may need our help is a response that we should all feel comfortable acting upon. Therefore, if a person with sight loss appears to need support, we should all feel comfortable offering that support. Understanding how best to approach someone who may not be relying on traditional senses may make the difference between effectively helping or causing the person anxiety, but by not helping at all we risk pushing the person into isolation and making worse a situation that may already exist for them.
Misconceptions and stereotypes about blindness
According to visual impairment charity Lighthouse, there are many misconceptions around sight loss and visual impairment, including that blind people have better hearing than sighted people, all read braille, and that being registered blind means you cannot see anything at all. In reality, blindness and visual impairment have many different levels, as does any condition, and everyone’s experiences will be different and unique to the individual. The biggest stereotype to be avoided though is presuming that all people with a visual impairment need help. The person may have been living with their sight loss their entire life and have learnt how to live well with it, and may be offended if someone presumes they need help without checking properly first.
Tips for assisting the blind
Offer assistance, but don’t assume they need it
Identifying that a stranger needs help and offering that help is a noble thing to do, however it shouldn’t be offered on the condition that it must be accepted. A person with sight loss may be orienting themselves to a new area or getting their bearings somewhere they’ve been before and may not require the help of another person. Gracefully accepting that your offer has been rebuffed is a skill equal to offering that help in the first place.
Communicate clearly and effectively
While speaking clearly is certainly important when offering help to someone who may struggle to see you, there is certainly no need to raise your voice or shout, and in fact it should be actively avoided. Creating a noisier environment when someone may be concentrating on orienting themselves and separating out the existing ambient sounds is not going to be helpful and may lead to unnecessary stress. Standing in front of the person and speaking clearly is the best way to make sure you minimise unwelcome surprise but be mindful of personal boundaries and if they have a guide dog, don’t touch it without the person’s permission.
Be descriptive and specific in your directions
If your offer of help is positively received then don’t presume the person will require physically guiding, they may just be happy for you to tell them whereabouts they are in relation to local landmarks or street names. The RNIB tells us that “Sometimes they may not need guiding but just need to know where they are to orientate themselves.” If that’s the case, then be specific in what you’re telling them, as saying something like ‘the big blue building’ is likely to be no help at all. Ask them how you can best help them to locate where they are as the person will know what has worked for them in the past. If you are helping someone in their own home then they will have a good idea of where they keep everything, however it might be that someone has unwittingly put something back in the wrong place when they were helping them and now the person cannot locate it.
Use guiding techniques when appropriate
According to the RNIB, if someone accepts physical guidance, you should “Stand alongside the person you’re guiding and hold out your arm slightly for them to take. They will hold your elbow, either cupping their hand against it or take hold of it lightly.” It’s important to ensure your arm is in a comfortable position as you will need to keep it there while you guide the person. They will then walk slightly behind you as it’ll make it easier for them to tell when you’re turning. If you are going to assist them to cross a road then make use of pedestrian crossings where they exist and don’t interfere with the guide dog’s methods for guiding the person, as they’ll have a trusted relationship.
Respect their independence and privacy
Just because someone is standing at the side of a road or waiting in a particular area doesn’t mean they automatically need help. Presuming that someone standing by a roadside is wanting to cross and taking it upon ourselves to do so has been the subject of many comedy sketches over the years, but the reality of such an action is discriminatory and likely to offend. Everyone has the right to go where they wish without interference from others, so asking someone if they need help may irritate them if it’s happened continually. This is also important in their own home and presuming that the person will need assisting everywhere and following them around the house is likely to quickly become annoying for them. Looking through someone’s personal effects without their permission is not appropriate either. That doesn’t mean we should ignore someone who is in clear need of help though, as long as we’re prepared for the answer to be a firm no if we’ve misread the signs.
Be patient and understanding
Whether in their home or on the street, offering to help someone when you’re in a hurry yourself is perhaps not the best course of action, as getting annoyed with someone for taking a long time when you’re rushing to get to an appointment will lead to unnecessary stress for the both of you. Patience is key when helping someone else in any task, but when it’s one that could mean the difference between safety and danger it’s essential. Ask the person how best they like to be guided and what their usual walking pace is and match it with your own, while checking that they can understand your verbal directions clearly. If they need to stop or wish to change the pace then you should meet their wishes, to the best of your ability. The same consideration should be taken around tasks carried out in the person’s own home.
Respect their decision to decline assistance
While society may consider someone with a particular condition as having a disability, that may not be how they consider themselves. Consequently, to presume someone needs support and take action without checking first is likely to result in an unwelcome response, and rightly so! There may also be other reasons why someone declines your assistance, and it shouldn’t be taken personally, such as cultural or gender preferences. However, when it becomes clear that someone would benefit from help but they won’t accept it, the topic should be gently introduced at first, with an understanding that if they refuse, the subject should be dropped for the time being.
Use respectful language and tone
No-one likes to be reliant on anyone else when they prefer to be independent, so having respect for others when we’re helping them is essential in any circumstances, as well as when supporting someone who is living with sight loss. When it comes to conversations, people may feel awkward about using commonly heard phrases such as ‘I see what you mean’, or ‘let’s see what we can do’. This can lead to stilted exchanges and embarrassment on both sides. As the Lighthouse tells us, avoiding such terms is a misconception, as “Figurative usage of words such as see, view, and look, have little to do with actual vision.”
Therefore, common mistakes to avoid, include:
- Shouting or speaking overly loudly
- Using exaggerated gestures
- Awkwardly avoiding terms such as ‘I see’
- Touching or taking a person’s arm without their permission
- Assuming the person wants help
- Considering them less able than others
Attempting to help other people should definitely be encouraged, especially if they’re at risk of social exclusion or loneliness, however making sure that they actually want our help is important. If it becomes clear that someone needs help but is still reluctant to accept it we have to tread very carefully, and know how best to proceed. While we cannot make people accept help, if there is a real danger to someone’s safety then a call to emergency services may be necessary if you’re out in public. However, what if the person who needs help is someone we’re close to? By broaching the subject of extra support at home and explaining the benefits of it, the person may begin to realise that saying yes to accepting help is not a failing, a sign of weakness, or a relinquishing of their independence.
At Helping Hands we’ve supported many people with visual impairment and sight loss to live as full a life as they wish to while remaining in the home they love, by supporting with household tasks, personal requirements, and accessing the local community. Our carers and personal assistants also support people with visual impairment to access education, the world of work, and to travel. By supporting people on both a visiting and live-in care basis from just a few hours a week, we can offer truly person-centred care and support for everyone we help, ensuring a dignified, independent life. We can be there as much or as little as you need us, across the whole of England and Wales, which is why we’re considered the UK’s foremost private home care provider. All of our packages of support are designed with the customer and their needs in mind and centred around respect at every step. This ensures that not only are all practical needs met, but exclusion is avoided, as our caregivers will offer companionship at home, and accompany you to activities you enjoy elsewhere. So if you or a loved one are living with a visual impairment and you’re considering support at home, look no further than Helping Hands.