She stood behind me, placed her hands firmly on my shoulders, and pushed. I laughed. I couldn’t help it. Friends, this is the absolute worst way to guide a blind person.
I was leaving the doctor’s office one hot July afternoon, when I asked a staff member for directions to the stairs. Keep in mind I had my very noticeable guide dog, Susie, standing in harness at my side.
“The elevator’s over there,” she replied. I heard her lift an arm to point…somewhere.
I hid an amused smirk. I was not looking for the elevator, I had specifically asked for directions to the stairs. I let it go. This woman was clearly under the misinformed impression that blindies cannot handle stairs. Unlike you lovely enlightened readers, she had clearly never read my post on Blind Cans and Can’ts.
I moved on. “The elevator is fine too.” I smiled to soften my words. “But where, exactly, is over there?”
“Oh.” She seemed flustered. “It’s…I’d better just show you.” She stood behind me, placed her hands firmly on my shoulders, and pushed. I laughed. I couldn’t help it. Guys, this is the absolute worst way to guide a blind person. It really is! Shoving someone down a hall while they try to use a guide dog or a white cane is a recipe for disaster. Not only are you being all kinds of rude, but you’re also crossing the lines of consent. Would you, after a ten second conversation with a complete stranger, ever presume to get behind them and shove them down a hall? I sure as hell hope not!
Anyway, I laughed and didn’t budge. “You can just walk ahead of me and I will follow you,” I choked, half amused, half disbelieving at her behavior. Susie had turned her head to look incredulously at the woman. Susie wasn’t moving either.
“Well fine,” the woman huffed. She set off down the hall, calling loudly back to me, “just keep coming, just keep coming.” It was a straight, quiet hallway, and I could clearly hear her footsteps. What did she think I was going to do, get lost? Suddenly decide I couldn’t face the elevator and would live the rest of my days in the doctor’s office above the Safeway?
We reached the elevator, and she hit the button with a relieved sigh. “You’re here!” she announced very loudly, as if we had just completed a quest full of unsurmountable tribulation.
I thanked her for her “help” and stepped into the elevator. The doors had barely closed when they sprang open once more. I tucked Susie to the side to make room for whoever wanted to join us.
“When you reach the ground floor,” an older male voice instructed with the seriousness of a funeral director, “remember to go left. The exit is directly on your left.”
“Oh okay,” I smiled brightly. Now those were great verbal directions I could work with! Since I had climbed the “dreaded” stairs when I went up to the office that morning, I wasn’t sure where the elevator would dump me on the ground floor. Now I knew how to get outside. Perfect!
The elevator doors closed and Susie and I descended. They opened with a soft whir, and we stepped out into what sounded like an open area right in front of Safeway. “Okay, Susie, outside,” I said, gesturing for her to go left, as my elevator friend had instructed. She hesitated for a confused second before walking a few steps to the left. The check out beeping and grocery bagging noises grew louder. I frowned. “Susie, outside,” I repeated without a direction cue. She immediately performed a full doggy u-turn and pranced proudly to the doors. They were directly to the right of the elevator, not the left. #GuideDogsForTheWin.
After giving a very smug Susie a congratulatory pat and a well deserved food reward for finding the curb, I placed her in a sit and waited for my ride. Barely a minute later, another man walked up to us and asked if he could “have a word with me”.
I confess I may have been a bit defensive toward him. The last two randoms had been less than helpful, and now it appeared as if this one had some sort of problem with me. Was he about to chew me out for giving Susie a treat or something equally as silly? But, happily, I was wrong. He merely wanted to know where I had gotten Susie, and said what a beautiful team we made. We chatted comfortably until my taxi arrived and he kindly waved the driver over. I ended the excursion on a high note and Susie was, justifiably, very full of herself all afternoon.
- If we ask for verbal directions, please at least attempt to give them before you offer physical assistance.
- If you are offering unsolicited verbal directions, please be sure they are correct. I’m positive the man was only trying to help, and I can see how left vs. right would be easy to mix up depending on which way you happen to be facing. He probably remembered taking the elevator up. While he was facing the elevator, the doors would have been on his left, but when I stepped out of the elevator, it was at my back, which put the doors on my right. An easy mistake to make, but still. I would have been better off without his advice. Susie and I already had it handled, which was why I wasn’t asking anyone how to find the downstairs exit.
Alright, story time over. On to the good stuff.
Sighted guide: what is it and how does it work?
Sighted guide is the recognized and correct way to properly guide a blind person. Methods vary depending on whether the blind individual’s mobility aid of choice is a white cane or a guide dog, and how familiar you are with the blindy you are assisting. Below are condensed and simplified instructions for a chill sighted guide experience.
Sighted guide for white cane users; a step by step guide:
- Ask for consent. This is especially important if you are assisting a stranger. The more familiar you are with the blindy, the more chill you both become. You will likely develop your own system of walking together and consent is nowhere near as formal. It should, however, be present in your mind. Ask yourself, would I be okay with this? If you are ever unsure, ask the person you are assisting. No one should fault you for taking their feelings into consideration. Touch boundaries are not a touchy area for me, as I have never been hurt in that way. But I know plenty of others who have, and invading their personal space is no laughing matter. Be respectful and ask for consent. That’s all.
- Stand to the blind person’s left and offer them your elbow. The blindy will place their left hand lightly on your right elbow. They will likely continue to use their cane as you walk. Your main job now depends on the situation. If you are assisting a stranger, walk with them until they no longer need your assistance. If you are with a familiar blindy in an unfamiliar place, you can decide through conversation how much sighted guide the person will need. This usually depends on how much vision the blindy has. Typically, sighted guide is most useful in crowded places with lots of noise and foot traffic and in unfamiliar places where it is difficult for the blindy to know where you’re going.
- Remember that everyone is different and every relationship is different. The elbow method is the most traditional, but it can be modified to whatever works best for the team. It is perfectly acceptable for friends to do sighted guide arm in arm or for significant others to hold hands. I would never, for instance, hold my sister’s elbow as we walked through a crowded mall. She’s one of my fav people. We go arm in arm like proper besties.
- Don’t stress! Your main goal as a sighted guide is to navigate. You are the GPS. You figure out where to go and how to get there. If the blindy you are guiding is using their cane, they will do the rest. They will be able to pick up curbs, stairs, and other obstacles in their path. Just avoid extremely interesting conversation topics, because distractible people, like me, get so into chatting we forget to pay attention to proper mobility skills. 😉
Sighted guide for guide dog handlers; a step by step guide:
- Ask for consent. This is identical to step one for cane users.
- Ask whether the blindy would prefer traditional sighted guide or would rather follow you. Following is more common with guide dog handlers as most dogs have been trained to follow specific individuals upon command. Pro tip: when directing a blindy using the guide dog follow feature, keep up a conversation as you walk. Dogs are sweet, furry, bundles of joy but can occasionally get distracted. If you’re talking, the blindy will know where you are and be able to continually direct their dog to follow in the direction of your voice. If the blindy requests sighted guide, stand to their right and offer them your elbow. This is the opposite from white cane sighted guide, as guide dogs traditionally work on the left side of their person, where as white canes are held in the right hand. Basically, stand on the opposite side of the blindy’s mobility aid. This is the simplest way of avoiding much confusion and allows for the lovely lefties of the world. As you can imagine, for the lefties, everything I just told you about preferred positions of mobility aids is backwards. Stick to this rule and avoid a headache. Wherever the mobility aid is, I am opposite.
- Remember that everyone is different and every relationship is different. Sighted guide is less common for guide dog handlers, but it still happens. A friend and I ducked into the mall near Christmas a few years back. Twenty feet past the entrance, Susie slowed, then stopped. Hoards of frantic shoppers were charging around in every direction. There were shopping carts, screaming little kids, crowded displays, and a million different directions to go. Susie’s confidence went from 100% to 0% in about five seconds. The poor thing experienced such a dramatic shift in guiding conditions it utterly overwhelmed her. My friend and I giggled, linked arms, and traipsed straight through the mall without stopping. We were overwhelmed too. Starbucks lattes were a much better way to pass the time.
- Don’t stress! Your main goal as a sighted guide is to navigate. You are the GPS. You figure out where to go and how to get there. Sighted guide with a guide dog handler can be slightly more difficult than with a cane user. This is simply because of width. You now have to make sure you, the person you are sighted guiding, and their dog can squeeze their way through crowds and obstacles. I am proud to say that one of my new friends is incredibly boss at this. She’s a freaking sighted guide master.
Thanks for sticking with me this long. I hope this post wasn’t too confusing. Please reach out in the comments if you have any questions.
Be kind, and be aware.
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