Baby, I Wanna Hold Your Elbow

I was rushing through a mall (everything happens in malls), because I’d lost a friend and her guide dog. They’d left me behind in a cloud of dust, and I was trying to figure out where they’d gone. A stranger wanted to help, which was very kind of him. Unfortunately, his altruism took the form of grabbing the tip of my cane off the floor, raising it so that the cane was fully horizontal, and pulling on it as though to lead me by my own cane.

What else could I do? I trotted along behind him, asking him more and more frantically to put the cane down, please! He either failed to hear me, or ignored me, because he kept going until we reached my friend, at which point he let me go and went on his merry way. This, I thought wryly, should have been a teachable moment.

I’m a little shy, believe it or not, and I’m also a little too tolerant. Sometimes, people grab me and I just sort of plod along, wanting to object but not finding a polite way in which to do it. Most blind people are much more vocal than I am, and they have every right to be. After all, their safety is of utmost importance to them.

There are many ways to lead a blind person, and most of them are problematic. I won’t go so far as to say there’s a “right” way, but there is a way that is considered standard, and for good reason. The “standard way” is called sighted guide method, and it usually involves the blind person placing their hand on the sighted guide’s elbow. The grip should be light but firm, just in case something separates the two. The blind person should walk behind and a little to the side of the guide, so that things like steps, curbs, and doors will be easily detectable. In a perfect world, everyone would know this and use it, but of course this is anything but a perfect world. I won’t waste too much time going on about details; there are many sources that can teach you the ins and outs of sighted guide. I will, however, explain why it’s important and what can happen if other methods are used instead.

Alternative method: leading by the hand
Why it’s a bad idea: First of all, this is sort of weird. If I’m not familiar with you, I don’t want to be holding your hand no matter what’s happening. Cab drivers who approach out of nowhere and grab my hand frighten me just a little, I won’t lie. The main problem with this, at least for me, is that it traps my hand so that it’s harder to get free if I need to. If I’m resting my hand on your elbow, I can let go at any time. If something terrible happens to you, I can quickly escape before I meet a similar fate, after all. This goes for holding me by the wrist as well.
Possible consequence: I have been taught to twist my wrist as soon as someone touches it, so don’t be surprised if, when you grab for my wrist, I break your grip, hard, without even thinking about it.

Alternative method: leading by the shoulder
Why it’s a bad idea: People love to go behind me and push my shoulders, especially when navigating a narrow space. It makes me feel a bit uncomfortable—I don’t like to have people so close behind me, I’m paranoid—and it restricts my freedom of movement. Also…it looks kinda silly, yes?
Possible consequence: At best, I’ll admonish you and try to wriggle out of your grip. At worst, I’ll bump into something directly in front of me, because I had no way to protect my path. (This can be mitigated by carrying a cane during sighted guide—something not everyone does.) It’s much easier to move your arm behind you so I know it’s a narrow space.

Alternative method: guiding while insisting that I ditch my cane
Why this is a bad idea: My cane is my mobility tool. I have grown very used to having it around, and I quite like the confidence it gives me. I have had some awful sighted guides over the years, and I still don’t trust anyone to guide me without my cane. You could be the best guide in the world, and I’d still want my cane in my hand. I do my best to keep it out of the guide’s path, and it gives me that extra bit of tactile feedback I find so helpful.
Possible consequence: You could have an attention lapse, even for thirty seconds, and bash me into a pillar, stroller, car mirror, pedestrian, or doorframe, among other things. (Yes, people have run me into all of those and more.) Even if your guidework is perfect, I’ll still glare at you. Lots of people say, “…but I guide blind people all the time and they never use their canes. Trust me!” No. Unless it’s in your way, or otherwise inconvenient, I’m using it, and that’s pretty much that.

Alternative method: linking arms
Why it’s a bad idea: Okay…so…I’ve done this one. I cheat a lot, because I have friends who like to walk arm in arm and it’s all very companionable. Still, it’s technically a bad idea because it forces us to walk side by side, which means I have less warning for steps and curbs. It also traps my arm, which is always dangerous.
Possible consequence: If my arm is in yours and something happens to you—say, you slip on a patch of ice—I’ll be dragged along with you unless I can get my arm out of your grip in time. When being guided by a stranger, especially, I am very careful to keep full control of my arm and hand.

The best method? Ask. Some blind people prefer different variants of the same basic guiding style, so if you’re not sure, ask them to show you how they’d prefer to be guided. If you’re dealing with a blind child and you know their preference is patently unsafe, then you have the right to insist on a different way. Otherwise, please respect the individual needs and preferences of the blind person you’re guiding. They will almost always know best.