10. Real World Engagement by Staff

10.1. Verbal Introduction

All persons working directly with the public in an official capacity must introduce themselves by name, and give their function, before engaging with a visually impaired person any further (including offers of assistance).

Given the lack of eye-contact, it should be remembered that a visually impaired person may not know that you are addressing them in particular, e.g., they may think that you could be speaking to someone beside them or behind them (even if there is no-one in their immediate vicinity).

Because we, as visually impaired people, need to focus as much as possible on our safe navigation, we usually need to prioritise incoming messages, and cannot afford to stop and wonder if every voice we hear was talking to us. Furthermore, it happens that visually impaired people are approached by people with untoward or otherwise unhelpful intentions, and this is another reason why they may choose to ignore someone even if they think that someone might be addressing them in particular.

As such, a visually impaired person is not being ‘rude’ if they ignore you, and please give us the benefit of the doubt in that regard.

10.2. Formal Identification

Usual forms of face-to-face identification are inaccessible to many or most visually impaired people. Consequently, it should be remembered at all times when engaging with us, that our rights to security and the legal concept of proportionality are paramount. In other words, if we do not believe you are who you say you are, in all but exceptional circumstances, we get the benefit of the doubt.

10.3. Offering Assistance

In keeping with 10.2 above, ‘ask, don’t grab’. Do not presume that a visually impaired person needs your help. Never forget to ask their opinion on the matter.

Offering assistance to a visually impaired person is generally good practice, and is often very much welcomed by a visually impaired person. For instance, it may allow us to take a temporary break from our total concentration on navigating alone.

However, the following are very important to note when offering assistance:

10.3.1. No Means No

if a visually impaired person declines an offer of assistance, ‘no means no’. Unwanted shadowing or verbal commentary or advice can be distracting, and therefore hazardous, for a visually impaired person, since we need to concentrate on our own navigation, without also having to deal with ‘back-seat-driving’. Where visually impaired people are also neurodivergent, this need to be left alone can be particularly acute, and unwanted assistance can cause anxiety and distress, as well as being distracting. This in turn causes endangerment – the opposite to the intended effect – since anxiety can lead to accidents.

If a staff-member is trying to alert a visually impaired person to an imminent danger, this should be done verbally, and physical intervention applied only as a final resort, as with any other member of the public.

10.3.2. Assisting a Visually Impaired Person

As visually impaired people, we are the experts in knowing our own individual needs and preferences when it comes to assistance.

However, the following pointers generally apply:

  • If a visually impaired person only asks for directions, then explanations need to be given that do not involve purely visual reference points (e.g., ‘turn right after the post office’). Pointing a finger or gesturing, or use of the phrase ‘over there’ etc.are of little or no use. If you can, please take the time to ascertain that your advice is intelligible to someone not navigating using their eyes.
  • If guidance is accepted or asked for, a partially sighted person may just like someone to accompany them (walking beside them).
  • It should never be expected that a visually impaired person requires a wheelchair when requesting or accepting assistance. Currently, this presumption is common in some settings, e.g., airports and hospitals, and we are given no real choice in the matter.
  • For blind people, generally, the default (and safest) position is that we be able to hold the guider’s elbow or shoulder on a side of our own choosing. This allows the guider to go slightly in front (making collisions less likely), and allows the blind person to read the movements of the guider, and so detect even subtle changes in direction or gradient (including steps etc.).

However, once again, we ourselves are the expert in our own preferences, and this should be respected. Also, a visually impaired person may have both hands already in use – e.g., holding a long cane and a guide-dog harness, and in such circumstances, the only practical possibility may be to take the arm or elbow of a visually impaired person.

10.3.3. Etiquette

DO: visually impaired people are ‘just like you and me’. Treat us with the same default respect and dignity you would anyone else. Visually impaired people are as diverse as any other cross-section of society, including in terms of interests, family status, etc.

DON’Ts:

  • Especially when you don’t know us, do not ask us about the extent of our visual impairment. Most of us have probably heard the same question several times this week already, and are tired trying to explain something that most fully-sighted people cannot understand.
  • Do not be embarrassed about using words such as ‘see’, ‘view’, etc., including in a metaphorical way. ‘have you see the game last night?’, or ‘Did you read x?’ is as normal for a visually impaired person as for anyone else. We are not cocooned from society or its language, and use the same language ourselves of ourselves – .e.g., ‘oh, I see what you mean!’, ‘I read x’, ‘I saw the match’ etc.
  • Do not make supposedly humerous comments relating to blindness or partial sight. We own it. By all means, feel free to share our humour about it, but when fully sighted people make a joke about visual impairment, this is ‘punching down’.
  • do not think that visually impaired people are a quasi ethnicity who necessarily intermarry and are bound to know everyone else who is visually impaired.

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