Helping A Blind Person 101: Ask First, And No Means No

The world is filled with helpful people, and as a disabled person, I encounter many of them. There are plenty of apathetic people to whom I’m mostly invisible, but more often than not, I meet genuinely kind people who want to make my life easier.
The downside of this desire to be helpful is that not everyone knows how to go about it. All the good intentions in the world won’t make up for assistance that puts us in danger or hinders our progress. It may sound ungrateful or presumptuous to dictate how people should help us, but a guide to offering unsolicited assistance is past due. It’s all very well for us to rant about the inadequate and unwanted assistance we receive, but if we don’t advise people on the best way to aid us, we’ll never get anywhere.
Now, this is your regular reminder that I do not speak for all disabled people. I don’t even speak for all blind people. While I listen to the complaints, recommendations, and rants of other blind people quite attentively, I don’t pretend to be an expert in all situations. The best I can do is cover the basics. So, here goes.

Ask First, always.

The issue I run into more than any other is people’s assumption that we live in a constant state of helplessness. They compensate for this by shouting instructions, touching us suddenly and without permission, or insisting that we must be lost, even when we reassure them that we’re doing just fine, thanks very much.
I really can’t overstate this: asking before offering help is not optional unless—and you must be very sure of this first—we are putting ourselves at risk of serious injury. If we’re walking straight into oncoming traffic or poised to walk off a cliff, I’d say that’s a good time to step in. These exceptions are very rare, however.
Asking for permission is the most essential part of being truly helpful, because you’ll find that most of the time we’re capable, competent travellers who know exactly where we are and where we’re going. Don’t panic if we veer a little while crossing the street, or backtrack when we walk past a door we’re searching for. Given time, we can usually straighten ourselves out. Deep concentration is at the root of problem-solving, so distracting us without being sure we are struggling is more of a hindrance than a help. Besides, asking before grabbing or steering someone is a tenet of common courtesy, don’t you think?

No means no.

Unless we are headed for the afore-mentioned life-threatening situations, it’s imperative that you listen to us and respect our wishes. If you offer help and we say we don’t need it, don’t be offended, and definitely don’t push. We’re not turning your offer down out of meanness or spite or ingratitude. We’re turning it down because we simply don’t need it, and help we don’t need slows us down and gets in our way, especially if you’re not skilled at giving directions or guiding a blind person. Chances are, if we’re saying “Thanks, but no thanks,” we mean it. Please respect that.
It’s worth noting that, if you bypass our wishes and grab or touch us without our consent, you’re treading on dangerous ground. It’s never acceptable to violate someone’s personal space, especially when they’ve made it clear that doing so is unwelcome. Here I must return to the rudimentary rules of politeness: no means no.

Be open to guidance.

Despite your level of confidence, make sure you’re open to suggestions. If a blind person agrees to let you help them, and you grab their hand, don’t be upset if they immediately break your grip and insist on holding your elbow instead. Holding the elbow of a sighted guide is safer than holding hands, and blind people have to be aware and protective of our personal safety. There are many ways to skin a cat, so to speak, but it’s up to us to tell you which way is best for our unique situations.
Note: just because you’ve used a particular method to guide another blind person in the past does not mean you are automatically entitled to use the same method again. We’re all different, and we have individual preferences and needs.

Be specific.

One memorable day, I was walking along with another blind friend. As we headed for the mall, a stranger yelled from across the street: “More left! More left!”
We both looked around, confused, and wondered what on earth he meant. How did he know where we were going? What were we supposed to take from “more left?” How much was “more?” Were these vague instructions even safe to follow?
More than anything else, this stranger’s instructions distracted and befuddled us. If left to our own devices, we would have made our way to the mall without incident. We understood that he was trying to be nice, but his chosen directions were so ambiguous that they did more harm than good.
When verbally guiding a blind person, use specific language. (If you don’t know left from right, please, please don’t use them!) Try to mention landmarks, street names, and other universally recognizable objects. Attempt to convey distance if possible beyond “a little more,” “over there,” “watch out!” and other nonspecific terms. Most importantly, don’t shout instructions across the street, since you might be wrong about our destination and are likely to throw us off course.

Use sound judgment.

Let’s say a blind person is making their way across a busy intersection. They’re about halfway across, and you decide they might need help crossing the street. You roll down your window and call out to them. They startle, seem annoyed, and keep walking without responding to you.
Has this happened to you? If so, don’t’ take it personally.
Navigating around traffic and other demanding tasks require close attention—attention we can’t afford to split between keeping ourselves safe and conversing with someone else. Most of us use our ears to feel secure when we travel, so it’s best not to add to all the noise pollution we already have to tune out. Attending to more stimuli than necessary is not something we generally find helpful, so if we’re not seeking help, leaving us alone is key. More than once, I’ve been jolted out of my “travel zone” by someone offering unsolicited assistance at just the wrong moment. I understand that not everyone is able to judge whether the situation is appropriate, which is, of course, why I’m writing this guide!

Don’t let your feelings run wild.

A few mornings ago, I was headed for my office when someone shouted “No, Meagan!”
I jumped, badly startled, and said “What?”
“You’re headed for that door over there. That’s not your room.”
“Um…no, I wasn’t headed for the wrong door. I’m not even sure which door you’re referring to. I was headed through these double doors over here.”
“No, you weren’t.”
“I…definitely was…”
“Whatever, then!”
She stormed off in a huff, no doubt wounded. Rejecting her good deed of the day was enough to cause offence and even, it seemed, resentment. I had managed to anger someone simply by not needing their help.
This person made quite a few mistakes here:
• She shouted very suddenly, frightening and distracting me.
• She used general language I couldn’t make sense of, as “over there” is not particularly descriptive.
• She assumed she knew where I was going, even though there were many places I could have been going to besides my office. (Maybe I was looking for the washroom, or the staff room, or the exit, or any number of places.)
• She did not believe me when I explained that I did not need guidance.
• She took it very personally when I continued to make my own way.
As is typical of me, I was far too polite to say any of this to her. I really have to work on that. I did not want to cause strife or make a scene, so I just walked away and let her think she was right. That was the worst thing I could have done, I know, though as she’s done this type of thing before, I doubt the message would have penetrated her obstinacy.
There’s something disconcerting about being told you’re wrong on the basis of absolutely no evidence at all. To my thinking, it takes an awful lot of confidence and nerve to assert that you know someone better than they know themselves. I’ve never seen an able person continually gaslighted, to the point where they wonder whether they really are going the wrong way. The attitude of “You’re blind, so I must know better” is disturbing, and I’d like to see it disappear.

Let’s recap, shall we?


So, try to remember that, while we appreciate help and occasionally need it, there’s a right and wrong way to give it. If we refuse your offer, don’t interpret it as a personal slight. If we explain the best way to help, respect our knowledge and expertise. If we become frustrated when our space is violated, don’t resent us.
Finally, if we tell you that your help was unwanted, don’t accuse us of ingratitude. We’ve no right to be excessively rude about it, but we do have the right to say no. Disabled people do need help, but only we get to decide what that looks like.

So You Like To Pet Service Dogs…

As I watch you encourage your child to engage with a working dog, even after the handler has asked you to stop, I cannot help but feel angry: angry that you, a stranger, feel that your child’s right to interact with a cute puppy dog is more immediately important than the handler’s wishes. I am angry that you would argue with a firm denial, even when it is given with respect and gentleness. I am angry that you are showing blatant disrespect for the safety and comfort of the dog’s handler. I am angry that you are teaching your child to disregard the proper treatment of service dogs. I am angry that you, as the parent, are refusing to live by example. I am angry that you are ensuring that service dog handlers everywhere will have to keep saying “please don’t pet the dog” indefinitely.

I understand: the dog is beautiful, and friendly, and a pure delight to touch. Your child adores dogs—probably, the dog adores children, too, and would welcome a little affection. You are a dog lover, and hate to deprive yourself or your child of the opportunity to indulge in a bit of doggie-interaction. You don’t want to disappoint your child. I’m a dog lover, too. I understand. But …

I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t matter, because you may choose an unsafe time to distract a working dog, thus inconveniencing or even endangering the handler. It doesn’t matter, because the dog has a million distractions to contend with already—dropped apple cores, other dogs, and tantalizing bits of popcorn—without sudden attention from a strange human. It doesn’t matter, because you should never touch someone else’s property without permission—and yes, the dog does count as property in this instance. It doesn’t matter, because you were told no. That, on its own, ought to be good enough.

Many of my friends are dog handlers, so I can guarantee that they don’t enjoy telling an eager child that they can’t touch the puppy. They don’t enjoy saying “no” three times a day. They don’t enjoy denying you the company of their dogs. They just want to get where they’re going without fuss, and the last thing they feel like doing is disciplining a complete stranger. They are not part of a conspiracy to ruin your fun. So …

Why do you do it? Why do you insist, even when you know better, upon continuing to violate another person’s space? Why do you continue to place handlers in awkward positions where they must discipline your child because you refuse to do so? Why do you care more about touching that sleek coat than you do about whether the handler makes it across the street safely? Why do you care more about your right to go to pieces over the cute doggie than another human’s right to autonomy? The dog is an extension of them, and when you touch the dog, you’re effectively intruding on their personal space as well.

If I placed a wandering hand into your stroller to give your child’s head a stroke, wouldn’t you be a bit nervous? If I reached over and grabbed your arm to say hello, wouldn’t you be annoyed? If I insisted on distracting you while you were trying to do an important job requiring vast concentration, wouldn’t you wonder where my manners were? So I will ask it of you: where are your manners?

Yes, we’re talking about a dog here, but that doesn’t exempt you from the rules of basic human courtesy. Maybe the dog would love to be stroked just now. Maybe the dog has had a long day and would love to flop down and have its belly rubbed. Ultimately, though, the dog has a role, whether that’s guiding a blind person, or alerting the handler of an approaching seizure, or assisting a police officer. That role precludes them from being an ordinary dog while they’re out and about. When that harness is on, the dog is not a cute little puppy you run up to—it is another living being, hard at work and deserving of your respect. Even more importantly, the dog is attached to someone who is depending on them, and that person is also deserving of your respect.

To those who pet the service dogs: no excuse is good enough. Please, for the sake of safety and common decency, stop.

Chill Out, People: I Am Not Contagious

I take the bus, and there are several empty seats around me, conveniently placed right up front. Someone embarks via the front door, and walks quickly past me to take a seat waaaay at the back. I sit down for a lecture, noticing that most students are clumped together, while others have gone out of their way to give me a wide berth. I flop down in a seat in a study lounge, only to have the person next to me gather their belongings and sidle over to a seat across the room. Anyone seeing a pattern here? Anyone? Anyone?

I’m not even sure if people are conscious of this, but I am beginning to think they’re convinced that blindness is contagious. Unless you have an eye infection and enjoy swapping mascara with strangers,, you’re probably not a threat to anyone else’s eyes, but I’m often treated like a leper. Some people undoubtedly move away because society puts a premium on personal space. Others, however, do so because I make them uncomfortable, which I understand is a common experience for many disabled people. Mothers drag their children away from the oncoming blind lady, while students shift restlessly when I sit down near them. It’s common enough for people to leave space between each other; Canadians aren’t really used to tight quarters unless they live in Vancouver or Toronto. Even so, people’s attitude toward me seems a bit too blatantly fearful to be blamed on a desire to avoid human contact.

There are a litany of reasons to avoid sitting near someone: I wouldn’t blame you a bit for avoiding the person sniffling noisily in the corner. Nobody likes icky cold germs, but unless I have ominous substances pouring from my red nose, there is no logical reason to steer clear.

I usually just shake my head and move on—what else can I do? I’d be lying if I claimed it didn’t hurt a little, though. I’m a nice person who is reasonably friendly. At the least, I’d never encroach upon another person’s space, and I might even provide good conversation if they only gave me a try. Students are especially prone to engaging strangers on campus, but they tend to ignore me unless they think I need help. I want to say to them, “I cannot give you blindness, okay? Mine is a genetic condition, so unless you’re my secret half-brother, please relax. You’re fine.”

Social exclusion and general discomfort are the order of the day for a lot of visibly disabled people, and all one can do is bridge the gaps as best one can. Sometimes, though, my snarky side prevails, and I feel the urge to shout, “Come sit near the freak, why don’t you? I don’t bite (hard)!”

So, friends all, take a seat by me. It’s okay. You’ll leave as healthy and sighted as ever–I guarantee it.

Satire: 17 Easy Ways To Make A Blind Person’s Day

1. When introducing yourself, use loud, exaggerated speech. Since we’re blind, it’s safe to assume we’re a little dim, too.
2. Don’t speak directly to us. It’s always best to talk over our heads like we’re not there at all, especially if you are offering a service. Example: “What would she like to order?” Be sure to ignore our attempts to answer for ourselves.
3. Grab or otherwise manipulate our bodies whenever and wherever you deem necessary. For example, if you intuitively perceive that we’re going the wrong way (even if you haven’t asked where that is) just snatch the nearest limb and lead on, Macduff!
4. If you aren’t in a position to grab us, you can always shout instructions in the hope that we’ll know what you’re talking about. If we look baffled, just keep repeating the instructions in an increasingly frantic tone. We’ll clue in eventually.
5. Remind us often how grateful we should be that people are willing to provide accommodations for us. While it’s unlikely that we will ever, ever forget this for more than five minutes at a time, it’s a good idea to slam the thought home when we’re not expecting it. It builds character.
6. Stage loud conversations about us while we’re in the room, because we won’t hear. If we hear, it’s okay, because we won’t understand. If we understand, it’s okay, because we won’t care.
7. Keep all conversation firmly focused on blindness. If we try to interject by discussing our education or interests, just redirect us. We get carried away trying to be all normal, so it’s helpful to keep us on track!
8. Be sure to describe all the other blind people you’ve ever met, in extravagant detail. We couldn’t be more fascinated by that blind guy who skied, and that other blind guy who went to school with you, and that blind girl you met on the train once—the one with the cute puppy…
9. Make a habit of asking us why we’re “here”. If we’re on the bus, ask us why we’re out alone. If we’re at work, ask us how we got the job. If we’re in class, ask us why we’re in university. If we seem offended, ignore us: deep down inside, we really enjoy presumptuous interrogation!
10. Dispense advice about how we should live our lives; the less you know us, the more valuable your feedback will be. If you need a good starting point, you can begin by analyzing our mobility tool of choice (cane or dog) and emphatically demanding that we switch. We love that.
11. Involve yourself in our love lives, specifying exactly the type of person we should date and why. If you think we should date a sighted person because they’ll be able to take care of us, we’ll want to hear all about it. If you think we should date a blind person because we should “stick to our own kind” we will be all ears!
12. Give us things—money, coupons, whatever—because you pity us and want to make our day better. Don’t be phased by any apparent expressions of confusion. (“Oh, that’s just my gratitude face!”)
13. Stop us on the street and thank whomever we’re with for helping/taking care of/being so kind to us. It’s not as though we have real friends who genuinely enjoy our company. No: if we’re out with a sighted person, they are fulfilling a purely charitable role. They will appreciate your praise, and we will feel extra extra grateful!
14. Place your hands on us in any public place and pray. If we gently explain that we don’t want to be prayed for, rest assured that it’s just the secular cynicism doing the talking. When our sight is miraculously restored, you’ll be the first to know.
15. Make as many potentially dangerous practical jokes as you can think of. A few good ideas include warning us of imaginary obstacles (“Watch out for that tree-just kidding!”), concealing our possessions, and encouraging us to “find” you while you run gleefully around us in circles. These were a staple of primary school, and I treasure many pleasant memories from that era. Do me a favour, and bring back the nostalgia!
16. Refer to us as “that blind person” even after you know our names. Blindness is so integral to our identities that our names are really just decorative, so there’s no need to remember or use them. If we fail to answer to “Hey, blind girl/guy!” just keep trying. We’ll learn to love it.
17. Assume that our default status is “Help!” If we reassure you that we’re okay, thanks, don’t fall for it. Insisting upon rescuing us every time we cross paths places us into a position of dependence, which is exactly where we belong.

Don’t Get Grabby: Respect The Personal Bubble

I’ll be the first to admit that my personal space is quite small as they go. I’m apt to hug strangers (assuming they’re okay with it, obviously), I love handshakes, and I have no trouble taking someone’s arm in order to be guided—or just to be companionable, because why not? That said, one of the things I have to be hyper-aware of is the personal space of other people. Just because I’m comfortable with casual touch doesn’t mean that everyone is. So, out of simple respect, I refrain from touching, grabbing, or manhandling people without their permission. Seems obvious, right? Not really.

Ever since I can remember, I have been casually touched and/or grabbed by complete strangers, usually without any kind of warning or preamble. Sometimes, it’s justified enough: I’m headed straight for a pole, and someone panics and grabs me to keep me safe. I can understand that, even though I’m often aware of exactly where I’m going, and know that my cane will strike the pole before my face will. I can forgive that kind of protective instinct. It gets a little problematic when people decide to grab or otherwise touch me for very flimsy reasons, the most common of which is because they seem to think that people with disabilities—especially blind people—don’t have a personal bubble in need of respecting.

I’m not the only one who has noticed this, either. Just about every blind person I’ve ever spoken to at any length has mentioned that they’ve been frequently grabbed, touched, or otherwise physically manipulated either against their will, or at least without permission. This might start out sounding a little silly: what’s the big deal, right? So someone grabs you to keep you out of the way of some obstacle? What could possibly be wrong with that, in this otherwise apathetic society?

Here’s what’s wrong with it: many of us have a large personal space, and we don’t appreciate being grabbed, nudged, or prodded without warning, especially if the reason is anything less than “I thought you were going to get yourself killed”. Here are just a few scenarios (because I like lists, sue me), in which I’ve been grabbed or otherwise touched in a way I disliked, with explanations as to why I object. In all cases, speaking to me first would have been the best option. Perhaps, by the end of this little post, people will be a bit more willing to keep their hands to themselves unless the circumstances are especially dire. Here goes …

In my first year of university, quite early in the term, I was headed for one of my classes. Just as I was nearing the door, I felt an arm wrap tightly around my waist, and I was steered bodily towards a hallway I had no intention of going down. I was so shocked I couldn’t say a thing; I just turned my head towards the person who had hold of me, and gaped. Eventually, after a few awkward steps, I was given an explanation of sorts: “The hallway is this way”. “I don’t want to go down the hallway.”

“You were about to run into a door.”

“No no, I was headed towards the door on purpose so I could open it…”

“Look, where are you trying to go?”

“Room 6-262!”

“Oh!” he cried, sounding indulgently exasperated, “it’s right here!”

Where do you suppose he led me? Back up the hallway, and right to the door I’d originally been heading for. He then acted as though I should have been grateful for the guiding. Think again, buddy. You do not just grab a strange woman, especially when she can’t see you, and lead her off somewhere. Didn’t your mother teach you anything?

In the same university, I was heading past a staircase, intending to go down a different path. Suddenly, a woman appeared at my shoulder and locked my left arm in a death grip, locking both my elbow and wrist so that I couldn’t disengage without considerable effort. “Where you want to go?” she demanded, in a frighteningly strident voice. “Um…where I was headed…” was all I could mutter. “Stairs?” she asked, ushering me towards the staircase. “No, no! I’m okay, thank you!” … It took a long time to get my arm back, and I booked it away from her as quickly as I could. I understand that she meant well, but having my arm immobilized by someone so determined to take me down the stairs to some unknown fate was a little on the unnerving side.

My final scenario is one which, while the most benign, terrified me the most. It is illustrative of exactly why you should treat blind people like normal people and respect their personal spaces. I was walking along, quite lost in profound thought (probably imagining what I’d have for dinner or something) when I was grabbed out of nowhere. I could immediately tell that it wasn’t the typical “you’re about to walk over a cliff edge” grab, and it wasn’t the “I want to guide you somewhere” grab either. It was more of a “stop walking” grab, and while I didn’t tell him so at the time, I was absolutely terrified for a split second. Luckily for me, it turned out to be a good friend, and I was very pleased to see him. He’d just wanted to get my attention, and I guess he decided that he really really wanted me to join him over by the wall. Instead of calling my name, though, he chose to simply grab me and move me towards where he wanted me to stand. While I understand why he did it, I still think calling my name would have been far more polite. He really scared me for a second there.

If this comes off sort of bitchy, please try to understand me when I say that this is a very common complaint. It is mostly just annoying, but it can be dangerous at times. Many of the blind people I know have recommended that I take self-defense classes, not just to fend off those who mean harm, but also to free myself from well-meaning strangers who decide to get grabby. I once heard that one poor blind girl was grabbed by a stranger who was absolutely convinced that she wanted to go down the escalator. Escalators are a bit dangerous at the best of times; they’re made even more so when you can’t see where you’re going and have a stranger dragging you alongside them. I have heard of blind people being pulled into streets they didn’t want to cross because someone was trying to be helpful. I have heard of blind people being dragged off somewhere because people decided they wanted them to go there. I have had people grab my hands and been made to feel things, because it was assumed that being blind means you want to touch everything in sight. I have even been hugged and kissed by people who knew me, but who didn’t think to introduce themselves first or even warm me that they were nearby. It’s not okay.

You would never ever dream of touching the average person in this way, so why on Earth would you think it’s okay to randomly grab a blind person? Disability makes us no less human, and we have boundaries, just like you do. Please, for the safety of us all if nothing else, respect them.