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10 Loving Ways to Interact with the Visually Impaired

  • Lori Hatcher Contributing Writer
  • 2021 16 Feb
10 Loving Ways to Interact with the Visually Impaired

When the Spittle family walked through the doors of our church, I was thrilled.

Visitors don’t often find our little church tucked into the middle of a residential neighborhood. Nick, a teenager, and his mom, Tracy, walked down the aisle first, her hand tucked into in the crook of his arm. Thom and Jonathan walked in single file, with Thom’s hand on his son’s shoulder.

Their entrance was different, but I didn’t realize Thom and Tracy were blind until I noticed Thom’s dark glasses.

The National Health Interview Survey (2018) reports that 23.0 million American adults between the ages of 18 and 64, and 9.2 million American adults 65 years and older experience significant vision loss.

While some define blindness as the inability to see anything, the National Federation for the Blind has adopted a broader definition, defining a blind person as someone with sight “bad enough—even with corrective lenses—that they must use alternative methods to engage in any activity that people with normal vision would do using their eyes.”

Seniors are more likely to experience vision issues because the leading causes of blindness and low vision in the Uni ted States are primarily age-related eye diseases such as macular degeneration, cataract, diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma.”

As the Spittles visited and brought other blind friends to our church, I’ve learned better how to interact with those who are visually impaired.

If you’re unsure how to interact with a person who is blind, here are ten tips:

1. Be Their Eyes, Not Their Brain

This principle should guide every interaction you have with a visually impaired person. As Thom taught me, a blind person needs someone to see for them, not think for them.

Provide enough information to help them make decisions, but don’t make those decisions for them. Say, “There are seats on the fourth row and on the back row. Where would you like to sit?” or, “Your Uber driver isn’t here yet. Would you like to wait outside or inside?”

2. Acknowledge Their Presence and Inform Them of Yours

When I enter a room, I look around, note who’s there, and strike up a conversation. Our blind friends don’t have this luxury. We can help them by greeting them and, if the setting allows, telling them who else is in the room. “Hi Mike and Jean. This is Lori. David’s here, and so are Roy and Mary. Robin and Johnny are on their way and should arrive any minute.”

If you walk up behind them, touch them gently on the shoulder and speak. When you leave, say goodbye. Don’t leave them talking to the air.

3. Ask, “How may I help you?”

If you see a blind person who needs help, instead of assuming you know what they need, ask. Say, “You look like you could use assistance. How may I help?”

Allowing them to voice their need gives them a measure of control over the situation. It also allows you to know exactly what assistance to provide and prevents awkward interactions.

4. Offer Your Arm

The best way to guide a blind friend is to offer your arm. Don’t push, pull, or steer them. Walk slightly ahead at a steady pace, and be sure to mention potential hazards, like stairs, curbs, or obstacles.

Because they’re following slightly behind you, they’ll notice when you step up or down, but it’s always helpful to say, “We’re approaching the stairway. There’s a railing to your right and about four or five steps up, then a landing, then four or five more.

5. Describe What They Can’t See

Be aware of the ebb and flow of conversation and activities and help your blind friends participate as much as possible.

Is someone showing pictures of their new grandchild? Describe the chubby-cheeked little girl with the big pink bow. When you post a picture on social media (many visually impaired people use social media), be sure to include a written description of the image.

Their computer’s technology can read words, but not pictures. When you have them over for dinner, describe your living room or the general layout of the house.

Whenever possible, help them touch what you’re describing to “see” it with their hands.

6. Help Them Navigate a Restaurant

When you approach the table, place your friend’s hand on the back of the chair. Orient them to the surroundings.

“There’s a bar area in front of us, and a few tables, but we’ll sit in a booth.”

Some restaurants have Braille menus. Yay for them! If your restaurant of choice doesn’t, offer to read the menu to them (including the prices).

If the restaurant has a cashier, help them to the front so they can pay for their own meal. When the server places the meal in front of them, orient them to what’s on the plate using a clock face. “Your steak is at 12 o’clock, green beans at 3 o’clock, and baked potato at 9 o’clock.”

7. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions, but Be Tactful

Most visually impaired people are comfortable discussing their blindness and eager to educate those who are genuinely interested.

While you never want to call attention to their disability in a crowd or ask inappropriate questions, it’s perfectly fine to ask questions that will help you better understand their needs.

Some of the questions I’ve asked are: “What is the extent of your vision loss?” and “Have you been blind all your life, or is your blindness a result of a condition?”

Several of our blind friends can see light and large objects. They can navigate fairly well, but need help reading labels and signs. Others are totally blind and need assistance getting around.

8. Remember They’re Blind, Not Deaf or Mentally Challenged

Just because a person can’t see doesn’t mean they can’t hear or think.

Some people, when interacting with someone who’s visually impaired, raise their voices or dumb down their conversation. Blindness can accompany other disabilities or mental impairments, but this is not usually the case.

Speak to them as you would any other person, using a normal volume. Be sure to address your comments and questions to them, not the person accompanying them. Remember that with some creative adaptations, the blind can do almost everything you can do.  

9. Admire Their Guide Dog from Afar

Guiding Eyes for the Blind estimates there are approximately 10,000 guide dog teams working within the blind community, serving about two percent of the visually impaired.

If you encounter a service dog of any kind, remember these dogs are highly trained working animals. If their vest is on, resist the urge to talk to them, pet them, or offer them food. Most owners love to talk about their special helpers, but wait until the vest comes off to interact with the dog itself.

10. Don’t Be Afraid to Laugh

My visually impaired friends have wonderful senses of humor.

They tell blind jokes (it’s okay to laugh with them). They talk about what they’ve “seen,” and share awkward and embarrassing moments. While they never appreciate being the brunt of a joke (do you?), they enjoy a good laugh and seldom take themselves too seriously.

It’s okay to relax and have fun with them.

God gave our church family a great gift when He brought members of the blind community into our fellowship. They’ve taught us lessons in perseverance, patience, and love.

We’ve learned to be more mindful and inclusive. As we watch them overcome obstacles and serve God and others with the gifts and talents He’s given them, we are inspired to approach our own challenges with courage and faith.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Creatas Images

headshot for author Lori HatcherLori Hatcher is a pastor’s wife who lives delightfully close to her four grandchildren in Lexington, South Carolina. To fight spiritual boredom and provide a fresh resource for quiet times, she wrote  Refresh Your Faith – Uncommon Devotions from Every Book of the Bible (Our Daily Bread Publishing). Her first book, Hungry for God…Starving for Time, Five-Minute Devotions for Busy Women , received the 2016 Christian Small Publisher Book of the Year award. Lori’s also a blogger, writing instructor, and inspirational speaker. You’ll find her pondering the marvelous and the mundane on her blog, Hungry for God...Starving for Time. Connect with her on FacebookTwitter (@LoriHatcher2), or Pinterest (Hungry for God).