At some point in most people's lives they will encounter a blind or visually impaired person. This Entry will attempt to give some useful hints and tips for helping your new friend get around. This is just an introductory guide but you never know when it may come in useful.
Identifying a Blind or Visually Impaired Person
The international symbol giving indication of someone having a visual problem is the white cane. These come in different shapes and sizes.
A long cane is used by a person with very little or no sight to 'feel' their way around and to stop them walking into objects such as lamp posts or other people. Typically a long cane is tall enough that when it is held upright with one end on the ground, it will reach the blind person's sternum. Some people choose to use a cane which is slightly longer or shorter, according to personal preference. The end of the cane may have one of a number of different tips, which changes the way the tip moves on the ground. Different types of tips are favoured by different people as they each have a different tactile effect in how it conveys to the cane user information about the surface they are walking on.
A symbol cane is notably shorter than a long cane and typically also quite a lot thinner. Its main use is to let other people know that the carrier has a visual impairment.
A support or guide cane is sometimes used by a person with additional mobility difficulties to support them and let other people know that they have sight problems. A guide cane may also be used by a person who has less sight than a symbol cane would help, but not so little sight as to need a full long cane.
Some people with sight problems choose not to use any of these and just walk around like an ordinary person hoping against hope that they don't do something silly (like walk into a tree)! One extra piece of information that any type of white cane can convey is whether the person also has a hearing impairment. In the UK an orange or red strip runs around the white surface of the cane, typically towards the top end of the cane to indicate the person has a hearing impairment or is deaf. In the USA the same message is conveyed by a green band towards the bottom of the cane. In Germany and Austria, the red strip is usually just for extra visibility, but blind or severely visually impaired people will wear either a yellow armband1 with three black dots arranged in a triangle, or a circular yellow badge with the same symbol. Some blind people use a Guide (or Seeing Eye) Dog (or sometimes a Pony) to help them get around.
Once you have established that a person has a visual impairment you next need to ascertain whether or not they need assistance and exactly which assistance is required. They may just need some help crossing the road or they may be lost and need to get to a specific place. The best way to find out this information is to ask, do not just assume that they need to cross the nearest road and drag them over, they will not appreciate it! Also be aware that many blind people have very sensitive hearing, so there is certainly no need to speak any louder than you normally would, unless of course the markings on their white cane indicate that they are deaf.
Crossing the Road
If a person with a white cane or a guide dog is standing at a road crossing you should first ask them whether they need any help getting across. If they reply yes, brush your arm against theirs and let them hold your arm. They will probably put their hand in the crook of your elbow; bend your arm slightly to help them keep their grip. Make sure they are comfortable before setting off. If there is a step down to the road then tell them and likewise with any steps up on the other side. Once you have both crossed the road safely ask if they need any more help and before leaving them tell them you are leaving so they don't suddenly find themselves talking to thin air.
It may also be useful to tell them exactly where they are now they are on the other side, in front of a particular house, building or shop, for example, and also if any particular obstacles are in the vicinity - They may be fully aware of the lamp posts on the street, but probably not that someone has just leaned a bike up badly against the nearest one.
Stairs - Up and Down
When guiding a person up or down stairs you should first tell them whether the stairs go up or down - it sounds obvious, but it's important! If there is a handrail make sure that the person you are guiding is on the correct side to use it. You should be a step ahead of the person you are helping and you should let them know if the stairs are curved to the left or right or straight and also tell them when they are on the last step. Some people may wish to put their hand on the shoulder of their guide when tackling stairs. Depending on the person they may find it easier to not be guided on the staircase itself; often they will find it easier to hold the stair rail and follow that up or down. In such a case the guide would ideally tell the visually impaired person when they are nearing the top (or bottom, as the case may be) of the run of stairs.
Doors and Narrow Spaces
When approaching a door or narrow space you should tell the person you are guiding and move the arm they are holding to behind your back. They will probably slide their hand down to your wrist so they don't stand on your heels. When approaching a door tell them which side it's on and also whether it opens towards or away from you. Again you will have to make sure they are on the correct side to hold the door open as they pass through and to close it behind them as necessary.
When guiding a blind person to a chair, the easiest way is usually to place the hand of the arm they're holding onto the back of the chair and tell them this is the chair; they can then slide their hand down your arm and on to the back of the chair, and guide themselves in to sit down.
After they are seated you may like to go to the bar and buy them a pint of beer; be sure to show them whereabouts on the table the beer is once you return, though they will probably hear you place it onto the table, it may be worth ensuring they know where it is as no one and especially not a blind person likes spilt beer...