By Harriet Smith
Harriet was a VICTA Young Ambassador and Intern from 2020/21. Harriet is blind herself and has been inspired by her brother’s upcoming blindfold challenge to share her tips on guiding.
Photo shows Harriet and her guide dog Sparky walking with Edward , who is wearing a black blindfold, down a street in Buckingham, Sparky is guiding Harriet and Harriet is guiding Edward!
This Summer my brother Edward is taking on a tremendous 72-hour Blackout Blindfold challenge where he will be climbing a mountain in Thailand whilst blindfolded to raise awareness of how tough living with sight loss can be – or, as he puts it, how extraordinary people living with sight loss can be. His girlfriend Eimear has graciously agreed to guide him during his journey, so it will be a challenge for her too! With this in mind, I thought I’d share my top tips for guiding someone with a visual impairment in their daily life.
1. Walk at their side and at the same pace as the visually impaired (VI) person, so that both you and your guide are comfortable. Let them take your elbow so that they are walking slightly behind the guide.
2. Let them know in good time about imminent overhanging obstacles, particularly things like tree branches that might be overhead. Keep your eyes peeled for other hazards that may be at ground or shoulder level too.
3. Describe the scenery and environment you are walking through in as much detail as you can. Describe such elements as the textures and colours of objects, the buildings you can see around you and other points of interest. Paint a picture with your words.
4. This might seem obvious – but don’t use non-verbal communication such as nodding or pointing when interacting with the VI person! No matter how much you flap your arms they won’t be able to acknowledge.
5. Use normal language when talking. Don’t try too hard to avoid vision-centric language like looks, see and read, as it’s pervasive in all of our vocabularies, so a VI shouldn’t get offended. Wouldn’t it sound strange if a sighted person said “hear you later”!
6. If you are going to leave a VI person for any period of time, tell them you are going and make sure they know where they are and which direction they are facing before you go. For extra assurance you can place their hand on a solid object if you like – it helps to nurture a sense of grounding and connection to the physical world.
7. When guiding a VI person to a chair, place their hand on the back of the chair and let them orientate their own way round it. Chairs are easy, so don’t over-mollycoddle!
8. When approaching steps, tell the VI person if they are going up or down. If there is a rail communicate this to them and either place their hand on it or tell them if it is on their left or right so they can do it for themself.
9. If in a large group of people, let the VI person know who is around them so that they have an idea of who they might like to chat to. This is important because it can be daunting entering a crowded room, especially if there is loud music. We all like to pick and choose our social interactions, but for VI people this can be a challenge – if you don’t want to get stuck chatting to your least favourite co-worker, then neither does a VI person!
10. When guiding a VI person through a door or narrow space, let them know whether the door is facing inwards or outwards. Drop your arm slightly so that they can go behind you through the door.
11. Most importantly: treat the VI person how you would like to be treated and focus on their other qualities rather than the visual impairment. Enjoy yourself and have fun exploring the world together!
Of course everyone has their own guiding preferences, but I hope these tips have given you some useful insight into some of the more practical aspects. With a great guide by their side, there are no limits as to what a VI person is capable of achieving – including climbing any mountain or anything else they put their mind to!
The charity Edward has chosen to fundraise for during his challenge is RNIB. If you’d like to donate, please visit his JustGiving page at the link below. I’ve also linked the Instagram page where there will be regular updates on the mission and livestreaming during the 72 hours. Thank you, and good luck Edward and Eimear!