Vision Loss Etiquette 101

So you’ve just met someone with vision loss – perhaps at work, through a friend or out in the community. It’s only natural to feel unsure about how to behave and to want to avoid doing something inappropriate. Here are a few simple tips to help you be more comfortable and supportive around a person with vision loss.

The first thing you need to keep in mind is that people with vision loss are only different from the rest of us with respect to their vision. They have interests, thoughts and feelings and do most of the same things all of us do, from shovelling snow to playing sports to doing crosswords (they may just do them a bit differently).

In fact, people with vision loss often find other people’s beliefs about their abilities to be a much a bigger barrier than vision loss itself.

If you know this, you’ve already gone a long way towards a better understanding of how someone with vision loss might like to be treated. But here are some tips for specific situations.

Introductions
Day-to-day situations
Offering assistance
In the workplace
Social situations

Introductions

  • When being introduced to someone with vision loss, say hello and wait for them to offer their hand to be shaken. When introducing yourself, simply say something such as “Hi, my name is Michael Somers. Great to meet you. Let’s shake hands.”

  • Speak clearly using your natural voice and volume.

Day-to-day situations

  • Try to avoid asking questions about how the person lost their vision. It can be very frustrating for a person with vision loss to have to explain their situation over and over again.

  • Use everyday language. Don’t worry about using terms such as “see” and “look” when talking about your favourite TV show or the latest blockbuster flick. People with vision loss use these terms (and watch TV and go to the movies) too.

  • Always identify yourself by name. For example. “Hi Lucy; it’s David.” Don’t assume that the person will recognize your voice. After all, that person might be meeting dozens of people in a day. Unless you are a very close friend, they will need to know who you are each time you come across them.

  • If the person has a guide dog, do not pet it while it is in harness (as tempting as this may be!). Guide dogs are working animals, and distracting them can be hazardous for the people they are guiding. If the dog is out of its harness, you can ask its handler for permission to pat it, but be prepared to respect the answer either way.

  • If you are visiting the home of a person with vision loss, remember to put things back exactly as you found them. Moving things around without letting the person know may cause unnecessary inconvenience or accidents. You should also close cupboards after you use them, and leave doors all the way open or closed. A half-open door can be dangerous.

Offering assistance

  • Colour photo of a woman walking beside a man holding a white caneAsk first before you read aloud any printed material, or offer assistance of any kind. This will avoid unwanted over-protectiveness. Remember to be discreet and maintain the confidentiality and dignity of the person with vision loss. But do offer assistance if you think it is needed. For example, if you go into a restaurant or café, many people with vision loss may appreciate an offer to read a menu to them if none are available in their format of choice.

  • If you run into someone with vision loss on the street, assess the situation before offering help. If they are walking along confidently, chances are they do not need help. But if they look unsure, do not hesitate to offer assistance. Check out Guiding Someone with Vision Loss to learn more.

  • If you are giving directions, don’t say things like “It’s over there.” Be as specific as you can. Try “the second door on your right, about twenty feet down the hallway” or “that store is located north in the direction you’re already going, about two blocks away.”

  • If you are a friend or family member of someone newly diagnosed with vision loss, that person may appreciate an offer to help adjust their home or another environment so it better fits their needs. They may, for example, appreciate your help installing extra lighting, securing carpets or rearranging furniture. Consult with the person who has vision loss and decide together how things should be organized, labelled or adapted. You can also contact CNIB for assistance, or read I Can’t See as Well as I Used To.

In the workplace

  • If you are handing out materials in a meeting, make sure you have copies available for someone with vision loss in their preferred format. If this is not possible, send the person your materials well in advance electronically. When in doubt, ask the person what they need and when they need it in order to participate.

  • If any presentations are taking place (videos, PowerPoint’s, etc.), the presenter should describe what is on the screen, blackboard or flipchart for the benefit of a participant with vision loss.

  • For more information, see Making Meetings and Seminars Accessible.

Social situations

  • Be inclusive. Initiating visits and including a family member or acquaintance who has vision loss in your regular events and activities – such as going for a night on the town – demonstrates that you see them as a valued person with interests first. Just because someone has vision loss doesn’t mean that they can’t participate – and be the life of the party!

  • At an event or social gathering, let someone who has vision loss know when someone else has entered a room or circle of conversation. You should also tell them when you are leaving a conversation or room. Not only is this the polite thing to do, it will also avoid having the person tell an amazing story to… the wall.

  • Take the time to help someone with vision loss mingle by offering to connect them to people they may know or introduce them to new people in a social gathering.

  • If you are talking one-on-one with a person with vision loss, never leave them stranded. If you have to leave, introduce them to someone else, or offer to guide them to a reference point, such as a seating area or even a wall so they know where they are.

  • If you are having lunch or dinner with someone with vision loss, use the clock method to describe where certain foods are located on a plate when dinner arrives. For example, “Jim, your rice is at three o'clock and your steak is at seven o'clock.”

  • In fact, most people with significant vision loss will appreciate it if you describe points of interest in the surroundings.