Most people have had minimal, if any, interactions with individuals who are blind or visually impaired. There is no big “secret” for interacting with people who are blind, but if you remember to relax and act naturally, you are off to a good start.
It is normal to feel uncomfortable or awkward in new situations. If you want to help or simply strike up a conversation, this guide will help make it a positive encounter for both parties.
1. Always identify yourself by stating your name and encourage anyone else who enters the conversation to do the same.
In a group setting, address the person by name so they know you are talking to them. If you are having a conversation back and forward, you don’t have to keep saying their name. Just the first time will do. For example, “Hey Jane, what have you been up to?”
Let the person know when you have to leave, so they don’t continue talking to an empty room.
If you have met before, don’t assume they will recognize your voice and don’t ask, “Who am I?” or “Who is this?” This guessing game can be embarrassing for the individual who is blind.
2. Always speak directly to the individual who is blind.
People who are blind do not need others to speak on their behalf. They are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves. Do not direct your conversation towards a third party companion like a spouse, friend, or family member.
Also, don’t talk to the working guide dog instead of the person. This is insulting and the guide dog won’t answer you.
3. Always ask first if you think someone who is blind needs help.
It can be frightening to be unexpectedly grabbed or pulled, especially if you can’t see who it is.
Asking first allows the person to accept or refuse your assistance.
4. People with visual impairments may not be able to see you smile at them or wave as you pass on the street.
They are not rude, they simply can’t see your gestures or facial expressions.
Even if the person doesn’t recognize who you are, say hi! They will still appreciate the friendly gesture.
They also can’t pick out a familiar face in the crowd and mingling is very difficult. It is difficult for individuals with visual impairments to know where people are or who people are in social gatherings. You might notice a person with a visual impairment sitting alone, or only with the person they came with. They aren’t being antisocial and would appreciate if others came up to them to say hello.
5. Always speak normally.
Blindness does not affect hearing or intelligence. Speak in your normal tone of voice. Sometimes, people inadvertently use a saccharine tone of voice, while others increase the volume.
6. Feel free to talk about visual entertainment like sports, movies, and television shows.
People who are blind have the same interests and will appreciate being included in the conversation.
Also, you don’t need to change your vocabulary during the conversation. It is okay to use words that refer to seeing like, “Did you see the game on Saturday?” or “Have you seen the new movie?”
7. Use descriptive language.
The words “here” and “there” are not helpful when describing location. Say, “The bathroom is to your left.” or “The table is directly behind you.”
Keep the person who is visually impaired involved in the conversation when visual social cues are used.
It can be extremely frustrating when everyone starts laughing because Johnny stuck out his tongue, but your friend who is visually impaired has no clue what happened.
Don’t say, “it’s nothing,” or “you wouldn’t understand.” Allow them to be an equal participant in the social interaction by giving them verbal descriptions.
8. Treat a white cane or guide dog as an extension of the persons body.
Never distract a guide dog with cooing, talking, or whistling and don’t touch, move, or grab a cane without the owner’s permission.
The white cane and/or guide dog are mobility tools for independence and safety.
9. Always remember that blindness is just a physical attribute, not a defining personality trait.
It does not define who someone is or what they are capable of.
So, relax, act naturally, and treat them with courtesy and respect like everyone should be treated.
Usually, the uncomfortable feeling in new situations comes from a lack of awareness or assumptions made by social stereotypes.
Be sure to check out our article “10 Myths About Blindness” to gain a better understanding of individuals with visual impairments.