Courtesy and the Visually Impaired: A Guide for the SightedSep 29, 2020
Vision loss is a part of everyone’s life. Chances are, you know someone who is blind or experiences vision impairment—or you may live with impaired vision yourself. As you interact with blind and visually impaired folks, what level of courtesy is appropriate?
Since October is Blindness Awareness Month, we sat down with our colleague and partner Alice Turner from the Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired to ask a few questions to learn how sighted people can interact better with those with vision impairment, for the benefit of both parties.
Alice, what is the difference between the terms “low vision” and “visual impairment”? Does “blind” necessarily mean zero vision?
A visual impairment simply means a person has some condition that does not allow them to see properly. For most people, this is 100% correctable with glasses or contact lenses. The terms “low vision” and “blind” in this respect refer to medical diagnoses regarding someone’s vision. Low vision means a person has a visual acuity of 20/60 or lower, even when corrected with glasses or contacts. Legally blind means a person has 20/200 visual acuity or worse, meaning they cannot read the top line of the eye chart during their eye exam, even with their glasses on. Many people that are classified as blind have some vision; very few people are “profoundly blind,” meaning they would have no perception of light or even movement.
Do I capitalize “blind” in writing to show respect for the Blind community or a blind person?
I typically refer to the community as the (capital B) Blind community, but if I’m referring to a person’s vision I would describe them as (lower-case B) blind. When in doubt, it’s appropriate to refer describe someone as visually impaired rather than blind, so as to not overstate their condition.
MEETING IN PERSON
Is it rude to mention or ask about a person’s vision impairment, if it seems necessary to do so?
Not at all; if there’s a legitimate need to better understand what somebody can or cannot see, asking them about their vision impairment is acceptable. However, unless there’s a real need to know, avoid asking about their history. Asking personal questions such as “have you always been blind?” or “how did you lose your vision?” is impolite, especially if being introduced. You should respect that a person has a right to control their story and share only what they want to.
Should I be careful to describe things (people, places, objects, etc.) when spending time with a visually impaired person?
Being inclusive and providing details that help that person equally experience a moment is nice; think of it as “setting the stage” for whatever is being shown or in front of you. Providing concise details and context is the best approach; if a person has more questions, they can ask for more specifics.
Should I ask them if they can see or read something?
On one hand, people with vision impairment have challenges seeing many things, so it’s nice to offer assistance. On the other, a visually impaired person often wants to figure things out for themselves without asking for help. In most cases, just let someone know if they need assistance, you’re there for them. Give them the option of help, rather than helping without asking.
When walking, should I offer my arm to safely guide that person?
Treat the situation like you would any friend or relative. Never grab their arm or hand—that’s rude for a variety of reasons—but let them know you’re there, especially if there’s an obstacle, set of stairs, or curb in the way. Simply say, “There’s a step coming up, let me know if you want a hand.” Be a helper, not a hero.
Should I enunciate my words carefully when speaking?
I always laugh a little at this because we’re hard of sight, not hard of hearing! Many of us with vision impairment rely heavily on our sense of hearing to help us navigate the world, and we can probably hear and listen better than you can. Talk to us as you would anyone else; there’s no need to shout, talk slowly, or over-enunciate your words. What if I accidentally use visual metaphors (“if you see what I mean,” “our goal is within sight”) when talking to the visually impaired? We all make mistakes at times. If you slip up, apologize and quickly move on. Since everyone deals with vision loss at their own pace with their own challenges, some people may be sensitive to the subject while others will not. Gauge how they react and go from there. The most important thing is to be empathetic and not use language to belittle or marginalize anyone.
How can I communicate with them remotely/online? (eg, what works best – email, text, voice calls)
As in the sighted world, everyone’s different; just ask them “what’s the best way to get in touch with you?” That said, when you communicate in writing, consider that your message may be read aloud, so don’t rely heavily on formatting, non-standard abbreviations or tables. If you have pictures inserted into a message or document, consider adding alt-text to give additional context. Avoid abbreviations or awkward sounding language. Complete sentences are always helpful. If available, use a text-to-speech function to see how your message will sound to a listener. Most importantly, try to be concise.
How do visually impaired people use the Internet?
Depending on a person’s visual acuity, there are a lot of ways to use the Internet. People with higher-functioning vision may utilize a screen magnifier to make text larger and more readable, or they may just use larger text and images on their computer screens. For people with less functional vision, voiceover or text-to-speech can read text aloud to a user. They can also read out alt-text that is provided to help describe an image. For the blind community, there are many screenless solutions that allow navigation of the Internet through enhanced sound/auditory feedback and commands.
What’s the number one unnecessary thing that sighted people do in interacting with the visually impaired?
When encountering a visually impaired individual in person, many sighted people will tiptoe or sidestep around them and remain silent, hoping not to be noticed or to stay out of the way. A person with vision loss is not interested in being a shut-in and living without interaction from others. Giving someone room to walk is one thing, but there’s no need to scurry around silently. It’s okay to say “hi” to the visually impaired to let them know you’re there. They will surely be glad to meet you.