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How To Engage Meaningfully With Someone Who Is Blind

Remember you are interacting with an intelligent and capable human being.

07/09/2017 9:05 AM IST | Updated 07/09/2017 1:38 PM IST
INDRANIL MUKHERJEE via Getty Images

A lot of us tend to feel awkward around people who are blind, not knowing what to do or say that doesn't seem inappropriate. Well, the biggest secret to engaging well with a blind person is to treat them like everybody else. If we think of a blind person as anyone who likes to go out, watch a movie, grab a meal with friends, it becomes easier to associate and interact. Here are some easy tips to help you communicate better with someone who cannot see.

1. Ask before you help

Before venturing to assist a blind person, ask if the person really requires your help. If the answer is in the affirmative, then you should find out what help is required and exactly how to help. There could be people who require partial assistance, there could be others who require help in specific situations and then there could still be others who require no help at all. So it's important to find out before you make an offer.

2. Avoid visual gestures

Remember, the blind person cannot see. So smiles, hand gestures or eye movements don't communicate anything. Instead use verbal or physical forms of communication. You can help by giving oral instructions or gently assisting by touch.

The biggest secret to engaging well with a blind person is to treat them like everybody else.

Also remember, that the blind person is likely to be more independent in familiar spaces like home, school or office as compared to newer unfamiliar spaces. So you need to be sensitive towards their needs in different spaces.

3. Assisting in public spaces

It's important to know how to assist a blind person in big public spaces like the airport, railway station or even a shopping mall. The usual tendency is to grab the hand and drag the person along. But remember, you are escorting a human being and not wheeling a suitcase! The ideal technique is to offer your elbow. Allow the person to hold or touch your elbow as you walk along. The elbow movement guides the blind person with a sense of direction, levels and pace. If you slow down, it indicates some sort of obstruction to the blind person.

While stepping on to an escalator or ascending/descending stairs, place the person's hand on the handrails. This because the incline of the handrail indicates whether one is moving up or going down. It's also important to keep a conversation going throughout. Talk about the place and the things around. Identify landmarks, shops, restaurants, popular brand buildings etc. This not helps you build a rapport but also helps the blind person get familiar and oriented to the space.

4. Dining out

How can you be of help if you are eating out with a blind person? The foremost challenge is the menu of the restaurant. In some cases the blind person may be able to access the menu on the phone but if that's not the case, you should offer to read the menu aloud. Once the choices are made, place the order. If the blind person is your host, then allow him/her to place the order instead.

The usual tendency is to grab the hand and drag the person along. But remember, you are escorting a human being and not wheeling a suitcase!

Once the food arrives, check if any assistance is needed to serve the food. Usually waiters serve the food in most restaurants; once they've done so, help orient your blind companion with all that's laid out before him/her. To guide the blind person, you can use a common clock technique describing the positions of each item on the plate. For example, the salad is at 3 o'clock, vegetables at noon, chicken at 9 o'clock and so on. Also inform your friend as to where the water, cutlery, napkins, salt, etc. are. Once the bill arrives at the end of the meal, check the bill for errors and let the blind person be in charge if he/she is hosting. Simply ask if any assistance is needed.

5. Preparing for an official visit

What if you have a meeting with a blind professional in your office? Leave instructions with the security and the reception that you are expecting a blind guest who may have to be escorted to your office. Once the person arrives, gently guide them to a chair and set their hand on the back of the chair. Be assured that your guest will easily sit down without further assistance. It's a good idea to introduce others seated in the room and also give a quick orientation of the space. Then you can simply get down to business!

6. Going to the movies

Blind people, like everybody else, love to watch movies with their sighted friends and family members in cinema halls. What if you went along with a blind person for a movie? First thing to remember, the blind person cannot see. But that doesn't mean he/she cannot enjoy the movies. There's a lot more to the cinematic experience apart from the obvious visual image. Yes, the blind person will need audio description in the absence of dialogues on screen. You can softly describe the scene on the screen to your companion. During the interval, you might like to ask if your friend would like to grab a bite or use the restroom. Don't be surprised if your companion offers to treat you to popcorn or a coffee. Just respond normally.

7. Accessing the washroom

How would you deal with a situation where the blind person wants to use the washroom? Simply escort the person to the washroom and inquire if they need the stall or the stand-up urinal. In the case of urinal, allow the person to feel the divider, warning them if the urinal is at the same level or a step up. In the case of a stall, orient them to where the commode, toilet paper, flush or the jet is. Once they are done, you will need to lead them to the wash basin, again indicating where the soap and tissue are. You could either turn the tap on or simply place the person's hands underneath if it's a censor driven tap.

Simple common sense can help one easily assist a blind person in any situation. When in doubt, just ask and the blind person will tell you how to assist!

Broad principles

• Remember you are engaging with an intelligent and capable human being.

• Offer to assist wherever needed.

• Ask if in doubt.

• Relax and enjoy the engagement.

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