How do you politely offer to help a blind person?
The first thing you need to do is make your presence known as you approach. If you know the person’s name, greet them by name as you near. Otherwise offer some other kind of polite greeting. If it’s the latter situation, don’t be offended if they don’t immediately respond, but instead offer the greeting again, perhaps adding a query at this point as to whether they need assistance. You don’t need to initiate physical contact at this point. I mention this fact because I’ve dealt with people who felt they needed to be touching me in order to communicate with me. That’s not the case, and it actually makes me feel extremely uncomfortable when people just randomly touch my arm as part of their greeting. If you know the person, it may be a different matter, but as a general rule, coming to stand beside or in front of the person – like you would with a sighted person – is enough.
Oh, and... I mention the possibility of a lack of response because a blind person sometimes won’t immediately respond if they aren’t sure you’re talking to them. It can be embarrassing when you answer a polite greeting, only to discover it wasn’t aimed at you. Also, even worse, some people will become annoyed even though it was an honest mistake on the part of the blind person. While a sighted person can turn and look, and tell if you’re looking in their direction so might be speaking to them, a blind person can’t. Some people seem to forget that fact. I’ve personally had people become rather annoyed and rude to me when I returned their greeting when it wasn’t aimed at me. Most blind people will acknowledge the greeting on the off-chance it was aimed at them though, especially if they’re in a position where they’re hoping someone will come along and help them.
Anyway, after establishing contact, offer assistance, if you haven’t done so already. No. It’s not rude to just outright offer assistance. The person should either gratefully accept your offer, or politely refuse it.
If it’s the latter, you can ask if they’re sure once, but after that drop the subject. Then either part company at this point, or engage in small talk... Whichever you and the individual in question wishes to do. Either way, don’t push the matter. If you keep pushing the matter, that’s when you start coming off as being rude or annoying.
On the other hand, if the person does want help, your best bet is to next ask what kind of assistance they need. That will provide an opening for the person to tell you that they’re trying to get somewhere, or whatever. They may even tell you at this point exactly how you can go about offering that help.
If they don’t specify, and the help they need is in getting somewhere, whether or not the blind person would consider it more helpful for you to carry their bags or offer an arm is one of those things that really depends on the individual. Whether or not they have any sight at all may play a role in their decision too, since some people have enough sight to be able to keep the shapeless shadow that is you in sight, but not enough to navigate in unfamiliar places, or they may use a guide dog, which they can get to follow you, or whatever. Your best bet is to ask the person. Personally, I don’t like having to have my bags out of my own hands, so always travel with no more than I can manage myself, plus my cane, and – though I’d still be using my cane while walking with you – I would prefer you gave me your arm. As I said though, your best bet is to ask the blind person which they’d prefer.
If you find yourself needing to lead a blind person, here’s how to go about it:
1. Where possible, ensure everything you’re carrying is in your left hand (unless dealing with a left-handed blind person who wants to use their cane while you guide them, in which case it’s the opposite).
2. Stand to the left of the person (or right if a left-handed cane user) but one step ahead of them.
3. With your arm closest to the blind person slightly bent at the elbow, but held in a position that’s comfortable for you, inform the blind person you’re ready for them to take your arm by saying something like, “Here’s my arm.” The blind person should then grab your arm, usually holding on to your elbow. If the way they do so is uncomfortable for you for any reason, politely tell them so, and suggest how they can adjust their grip by saying something like, “Can you loosen your hold a little, please?” Or, “I’d feel more comfortable if you could hold my arm a little higher.”
4. Start walking at your normal pace. If you’re a fast walker, and are concerned this might be too fast for the person, walk a bit, and then ask if they’d like you to walk at a slower pace.
Things to bear in mind while leading a blind person:
- Where possible, warn the person of required changes in speed, as well as stops and starts.
- Always warn the blind person of upcoming obstacles. This is essential if the person is relying on you to be their eyes without using mobility aid, but useful for those with guide dogs and canes sometimes too, so worth doing regardless.
- When faced with the need to walk through a space only wide enough for one person, warn the blind person that this is the case, and offer them to take your shoulder instead. The blind person should then move his or her hand from your arm to your shoulder. Once they’ve done so, continue walking at the pace you were setting before, or warn the person you will need to change the pace. Failure to warn them will likely result in some pain for you: failure to warn of an increase in speed may result in them gripping your shoulder hard in an attempt not to lose their hold, while failure to tell them of a slower pace may result in their feet or cane connecting with the backs of your feet or legs. Once it's possible to walk side by side again, inform the person of this fact, and then offer them your arm once more.
- When dealing with steps, some blind people find it easier to hold a railing or something and make their own way down. Ask your blind charge if this is the case. If it is, guide their hand to the railing, assure them you’ll meet them at the bottom, make your own way down, wait for them to join you, and then offer your arm again. If they’d rather you continue to guide them, stay a step ahead of them (you may need to slow your walking speed to ensure you don’t get more than one step ahead of them) and warn them when you’re coming to the end of the steps.
I hope you found this post helpful and informative. If you have any further questions on the topic, don’t feel I was clear enough about something, or would like to request a similar post on another aspect of dealing with blind people, know more about how I do certain things as a blind person, or whatever, please don’t hesitate to post your questions and thoughts in the comments section of this post. I’ll be happy to answer your questions, clear up your confusion, etc. At least, I’ll be happy to try and do so.