A guide to guiding the visually impaired

3 November 2014

On Thursday 12 June 2014, various members of Kingsley Napley’s Clinical Negligence, Regulatory, and Private Client teams volunteered on behalf of the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) at the Vision UK Conference 2014 at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre.

The team members offered guiding support to visually impaired delegates and other support where needed. Although many of us have experience working with and assisting visually impaired clients or clinical organisations that treat the visually impaired, few of us had any day-to-day experience of guiding.

We put some guidance together after this volunteering event. It seems obvious enough when you read it, but you really have to think about what it actually means to be blind or visually impaired before you can really know how your assistance might be of any use.

  • Helping people with blindness or visual impairment can be quite daunting if you have no prior experience.
  • Empathy is key. Try and imagine how vulnerable you would feel if you were unable to see. Close your eyes and imagine just getting through your morning routine of getting up and going to work.
  • Understanding that sight loss varies according to condition is also important. There are many different types of visual impairment and only a small percentage of people at the conference will have no light perception.
  • When meeting a visually impaired attendee, approach them and introduce yourself, perhaps by saying: ‘I am volunteering for the RNIB. My name is ………. Would you like any assistance? / Do you want to be guided?’
  • If they say yes, ask them what their preference is – some will want to be guided by the arm or elbow and others will want to walk directly behind you and place their hand on your shoulder as you lead the way.
  • Walk half a step in front of them and adjust your pace to theirs.
  • Vocalise what you are doing – talk the whole time. For example: 'We are turning left now’, or ‘I am holding a door open for you to walk through’ or ‘we are approaching some steps’ (and tell them how many steps).
  • Communicate their environment to them.
  • If the visually impaired person you are guiding needs to sit in a chair, guide them to the chair and tell them you are going to place their hand on the back of the chair. After you do this, they will then be able to sit themselves down.
  • Be considerate to guide dogs. Make sure there is enough space for an accompanying dog whenever you guide. Although this might seem like common sense, it is surprising how many people will ask what the guide dog’s name without ever asking what the attendee’s name is. Don’t make this mistake.
  • If you are introducing one visually impaired person to another, guide the person you are with towards the other person and tell them the other person’s name (Participants should have name badges) and ask if they would like to shake hands. If so, help them to do this.
  • You constantly need to vocalise where people are in a group. For example:- ‘Vera is in front of you’ or ‘Bob is standing next to you’.
  • Ask the person you are guiding if they would like you to take them to meet anyone, and offer to guide them around if they wish to mingle. Again, participants should be wearing name badges so this will help you to identify one person to another.
  • It will help if you know what the person you are guiding wants out of the conference or if you ask them what you can do to assist them.
  • Be conscious of the need to have to explain everything that cannot be seen.
  • If you are guiding someone to refreshments (i.e. lunch), explain what is on offer and help serve what the person you are guiding wants. If you pass the person you are guiding a drink at a table, tell them:- ‘There is a glass of water on the table in front of you to your left’.
  • Everybody is different and your approach will have to vary to match the severity of visual impairment. Ask if you are not sure how much help someone needs. They may not want your help at all.

We learned so much volunteering on behalf of the RNIB. We hope that if you are ever required to guide a visually impaired person in the future for the first time, you might find this information helpful.

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We welcome views and opinions about the issues raised in this blog. Should you require specific advice in relation to personal circumstances, please use the form on the contact page.

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