Q: How can I tell if someone has vision loss? And when should I offer help?

A: The short answer to the first question is: you can’t. Or at least it isn’t always something you can tell immediately, if at all. Nine out of ten people living with vision loss have some remaining vision, and many do not require a mobility device, such as a guide dog or white cane, to get around. Which means it may not be apparent that they actually have vision loss, even though they do. Some people with vision loss can see people, shapes and objects very close to them or can read words and signs if they are very large.

If you do happen to encounter someone who has vision loss, don’t assume that he or she needs help. A lot of people have an understanding of vision loss that is based on inaccurate stereotypes of helplessness and dependency. These assumptions can cause people to think that their help is always required. Although their intentions are good, it may inadvertently cause an embarrassing situation for themselves and the person they are trying to assist.

At the same time, sometimes people with vision loss will appreciate an offer of assistance, so don’t be afraid to approach someone either. Your best bet is to just ask whether or not your help is needed. A simple “Hello there, my name is John. Is there anything I can do to help you?” should do. The answer might be “no,” in which case you can simply wish the person a good day and continue on your way. Or the person may take you up on the offer. They may just need to ask you a question about directions or the surroundings or they may need you to provide sighted guide – a technique that enables a person with vision loss to use a person with sight to get somewhere by holding on to their arm. And if they have a guide dog, they may even direct their dog to follow you for a little while. The key is to let the person tell you how they would like to be assisted.

However, it is a good idea to observe the situation before you offer help. For example, if someone is striding confidently through a subway station, mall or school, they probably don’t need assistance. But if someone looks uncertain, they may need some help. Be quick to offer assistance if you think it might be needed. You may just make someone’s day a little bit easier.

Learn more about sighted guide technique and safe travel while living with vision loss.

Colour photo of Lesley MacDonald

The Expert:

Lesley MacDonald started at CNIB as an orientation and mobility instructor and now works as National Coordinator, Accessible Design Services. She sits on a number of national and international committees focusing on accessibility, such as the International Standards Organization, and has represented CNIB in advocacy work towards the creation of the Accessibility for Ontarians Disability Act during the last 12 years.