There are approximately 10 to 11 million blind and visually impaired people in North America (American Foundation for the Blind, October, 2000).
A person who is legally blind can see at 20 feet what a person with average vision can see at 200 feet (20/200 Vision). Total blindness is the complete absence of vision and light perception. Patrons with vision loss will range from people who are completely blind to people who can't adjust quickly to changes in lighting conditions (i.e. dark theater to bright outdoors). However, many people with vision loss have light perception or may see various images or fields of images.
When working with an individual who is blind or has low vision, remember these basic tips:
- Introduce yourself. State your name and function. For example:
"Hi, my name is Alice. I am a patron services volunteer. How may I assist you this evening?"
- Use a normal tone of voice, there is no need to yell or exaggerate your speech.
- Use the person's name, or touch their arm, when starting a conversation. This way they know you are talking to them and they can determine your location in the room. Also, remember to tell the person if you leave or move away from the conversation.
- It's always appropriate to offer your help; just don't be surprised if he'd rather do it himself. And when he does do it, it isn't necessary to applaud.
- If a person gives you permission to walk with her, don't grab her arm - let her take yours. After that, it's something like dancing; from the motion of your body, she can tell when you come to curbs, or steps, or turns. To avoid surprises, she may walk a half step behind you.
- When sitting down, guide the person's hand to the back of the chair and tell him or her whether the chair has arms.
- When giving directions, be as clear and specific as possible. For example: instruct the individual to "move forward or continue in your path of travel" rather than "go straight" or "straight ahead". Identify landmarks that their cane may encounter like a potted plant, water fountain, or noises like a humming soda machine. Estimate the distance in steps. Point out obvious obstacles in the direct path of travel as well as changes in surface level such as stairs or ramps, and floor textures such as carpet and wood floors.
- Announce when you come into a room, especially when you're wearing sneakers, or some other footwear that does not make noise. Same for leaving.
Assisting Patrons Who Use Dog Guides or Canes
There are basically three ways people who are blind or have low vision travel: with a dog guide, with a cane, and without adaptive assistance.
Dog Guides. While the dog is in harness that dog is "working" and you should never pet, talk to, feed, or otherwise distract it. Some people prefer that you walk behind their left or right shoulder and give verbal directions. Others may wish you to walk on the opposite side, away from the dog. Always ask the patron which he or she prefers.
The patron may opt to have the dog follow you or else ask you to be a sighted guide. If the dog follows you, be aware that it is easy to get separated in a crowd and that it is useful for you to give verbal directions and warnings. Often a patron will "heel" their dog as they move through a crowd with their hand on your elbow or shoulder.
Cane Users. People who use canes will either follow you or ask you to be a sighted guide. Walk on the side opposite the cane. Patrons detect objects and potential obstacles by swinging the cane in a wide arc but cannot detect overhangs (i.e. exhibit cases, wall mounted signs, etc). You need to verbally warn them of these potential obstacles.
Without Adaptive Assistance. People who don't use dog guides or canes frequently do not appear blind. It is important not to make assumptions concerning how much a person can see simply by the way they look. The person still may benefit from the use of a sighted guide. They may have limited vision or difficulty with light and shadow perception. Always ask how you may assist them.
Sighted Guide Techniques
(Developed by Texas Commission for the Blind, 2002)
The best advise when providing assistance to a person with a disability is to always ask if assistance is needed and if so, how to best provide that assistance.-No two persons who are blind are the same--
Sighted Guide-the act of providing assistance with mobility by guiding a person who is blind or has low vision. Verbalizing actions also assists the person in understanding their surroundings or situation.
- Introduce yourself and your capacity to the person: "Sir, I am Sarah Wells, the Box Office Manager. May I assist you?"
- Make contact with your hand by touching the back of the person's hand.
- The person who is blind will trail up your arm and find YOUR elbow to grasp above the elbow then you can start to proceed forward at a normal pace. The sighted guide generally is one step ahead of the individual, changes in the body movement (up, down, over, etc) are felt and followed by the person.
Coming to a curb - approach head on, pause BRIEFLY then step up or down.
Doors - when approaching a door, tell them what side the doorknob is on and which way it opens-they can help to hold the door as you pass through with them.
Seating - give information as to the location of the seat/chair, guide their hand to the back of the chair, they will clear the seat area and sit down.
Stairs - approach head on, square off, pause briefly, take the first step, person will follow one step behind you. Pause at the landings.
Narrow spaces - place your arm behind your back, person will move their hold to the wrist area and extend their arm while falling behind you to clear the narrow space.
Escalators - approach head on, pause, help the person find the rail, take the first step.
Auto - show them where the door handle is, they can take it from there. Be careful to prevent accidents by placing their hand on the door.
VSA Texas is always looking for people to join us in our goal of assisting arts organizations to achieve maximum accessibility.