A Sighted Person’s Guide to Helping the Blind and Visually Impaired

By Sharis Coleman-Derr

The most important thing to know about helping a blind or visually impaired person is to give them choices when assisting them. I’m not talking about the average person who can drive with corrective lenses, but those of us who need special devices just to read our mail, check e-mail, or even just to walk around. While the degrees of a person’s blindness may vary, it is important to know that each one of these people wants to have as much control of their lives as any sighted person may have. Sometimes a sighted person may wish to assist a blind or visually impaired person without knowing the best way to do so – and may actually cause more harm than help.

First, when help is offered by a sighted person, the blind or visually impaired person must determine if the help is offered in a spirit of kindness and not offered from pity or a sense of duty. Very often, our families consist of many sited people, and we are outnumbered as blind or visually impaired persons. This can be a problem if our sited family members feel that they are obligated to help us with some task. Either they will just do the task for us, without giving us a chance to choose how we would like to go about doing that task, or they will try to assist us but they will get frustrated when we take too much time to complete the task.

Sometimes as blind or visually impaired people, we need special accommodations to achieve our goals, but this does not mean that we want to be treated like special people. What I mean is that we may need help to get from one place to another or to do any number of things, but that we don’t want to be patronized. It’s true that our visual impairment makes life difficult, but getting the wrong kind of help can make it even harder.

I believe that we all have some type of disability, and it would be wrong to judge us strictly because we have a harder time doing some things. A lot of times, our families feel it is their duty to help us by doing for us the tasks we cannot do or have trouble doing by ourselves. Sometimes we like for others to assist us by driving us somewhere or reading our mail for us. But other times, we would like to have a say in how others help us. I don’t want other people to just do everything for me because then my sense of dignity and independence is gone. Sometimes all that is needed is a little guidance – maybe just offering sighted guide to a blind or visually impaired person to help them reach their destination or perform some task. For example, when a blind or visually impaired person asks you to assist them in acquiring a glass of punch, don’t just assume that means that now you must go and get the punch while they just sit there. Maybe that is what they want from you, but quite possibly, they mean that they would like you to help them find the table with the punch on it and help them serve themselves. This second form of help is much more dignified, and the blind or visually impaired person will feel more grateful because you took the extra time to assist them with their request.

For this very reason, most of our families just do the things we ask for us in order to save time and energy. But then we don’t get the opportunity to choose how these tasks are done. If we could see, we would certainly have the option of doing these tasks by ourselves, and therefore, we would be able to do them how we want. But because we cannot see, or our vision is limited, it very often follows that our choices get limited as well. This hinders us more than not being able to see!

When our choices are limited, we feel more dependent and more helpless. Our inability to see as we would like makes us feel inferior to other people because we don’t get to do things the way we would like to do them. There are many frustrations that come with having to change or adapt the way we do things because of our vision, but that doesn’t mean we should have to put up with the limitations our sighted friends, family, and people in general create for us. It is difficult to determine just how much your blind or visually impaired friend or family member is – and how capable they are at performing certain tasks. Therefore, it is necessary to ask them what type of help they need. Maybe they want you to drive them to the store, but they can still find everything they need, or maybe they do need your help in the store. These limitations can be avoided if we all remember two things.

1. For the blind or visually impaired person to clearly state what kind of help they need.

2. For the sited person assisting that individual to be receptive to their specific needs and to do just what is asked and no more and no less.

It is hard sometimes to just sit back and watch while we try to figure things out ourselves and not to offer more assistance then we desire, but equally in my experience, it is hard for us to ask for the kind of assistance we require. Sometimes the reason we end up resenting those who help us is partly due to the fact that we aren’t very clear about the type of help we want. We may say, “ I would like some punch,” but fail to explain that we would like to have help finding the table the punch is on.

I believe compassion is always important when trying to assist someone with a disability; however, doing everything for that person may actually cripple them further. There are those people who do not have any compassion at all, and both extremes are very bad. The reason I’m writing this article, is to provide some idea of just what kind of help may be beneficial or detrimental to us as blind and visually impaired people. I hope this article will be able to show sighted people everywhere how to give just the right amount and type of help required to assist those of us with disabilities – without creating resentment from placing limitations upon us.

It is essential to give from a sense of compassion – and, above all, to consider the disabled person’s wishes when assisting them. May we all live better by applying this rule. Above all else, may we breathe deep and seek peace with every moment of our lives.