Some tips on helping a blind a partially sighted person in a customer service situation.
Wanting to help
You can’t judge what a person may be like, or what they may want or need, or how they conceive of their own identity, based on their appearance. Many disabilities (and other common causes of exclusion) are invisible or not immediately apparent. So it is important to start with the individual and what they say they want and need.
When meeting someone for the first time or helping a person in a customer service situation it is normal to want to put that person at ease and make them feel comfortable; especially when we perceive that person to be different to us in some way. They might be from a different culture or have different requirements and abilities to us, so we feel less sure about what their needs and expectations are. This can be particularly true for some people when interacting with blind or partially sighted people.
Good customer service
Generally speaking the rules of good customer service are the same, regardless of who your customer is, for example:
- Listen to what your customer is saying – don’t guess or assume anything
- Encourage your customer to tell you what they really need by being caring and understanding
- Don’t get too hung up on ‘correct language’ but be respectful (as you would normally be!)
- Be responsive and adaptable
- Try to be relaxed and friendly – be yourself!
But it’s also good to be prepared for specific cases, especially if you haven't had much experience with disabled people. Here is some advice about helping blind and partially sighted customers:
“Knowing how to meet, greet and guide a blind person can play a key role in helping them to decide whether to return and use your service again. Don’t be afraid to say things like “See you later” or “Nice to see you”. Always offer help, asking how you can best assist, but don’t be offended if it is not needed. Very often, any difficulties can be overcome by ensuring that you are caring and understanding.” (RNIB factsheet - Welcoming your blind and partially sighted customers)
Here are some more helpful hints for assisting blind and partially sighted people (from the RNIB factsheet10 Top tips for tourist industry staff)
- Make sure you know how to guide a blind person correctly. Contact RNIB or your local society for blind people for more information. Be prepared to guide them to a seat or to the door.
- If you have to leave a blind person for a moment, tell them so that they are aware you are not around.
- Don’t point or say something is “over there”. Be descriptive, clear and precise with any directions that you give, for example, “the chair is one metre to your right”.
- Do you have information such as menus or price lists in large print or other accessible formats so blind and partially sighted people can read for themselves? RNIB can advise on this.
- Be prepared to offer extra assistance, for example, guiding a customer to changing rooms in a swimming pool, or to the restaurant in a hotel.
- Don’t pet or feed guide dogs without asking the owner first.
- Don’t assume that all blind people are totally blind. Many have some residual vision that they can use.
- Use colour contrast to help people with poor sight distinguish outlines, such as use white crockery on a dark table, or have white walls with a dark carpet.
- Don’t panic or worry about saying “Nice to see you”. Blind and partially sighted people use these phrases too. Even if you make a mistake, most people are grateful when assistance is offered.
- Don’t be afraid to touch a blind person lightly on the arm to let them know you are speaking to them, particularly in a busy or loud environment.
Focus on the person
There is no consensus about the ‘correct’ behaviour or etiquette to use when interacting with a disabled person. Just with any kind of etiquette or system of manners, standards vary from group to group and therefore, person to person.
One good reason for this is that disability forms only part of a person’s identity. Other aspects such as race, gender or sexual orientation are just as significant and interact to form identity in complex ways. To further complicate things, your customer might have more than one disability, or they might not think of themselves as a "disabled person" at all. There is no "one size fits all" advice:
“Focus on the person, not on his or her disability” (Wheelchair Etiquette)
Bearing this in mind, here is some more general advice that you might find useful:
- Disability Etiquette Guide (pdf) by the United Spinal Association
- Wheelchair Etiquette (based on an article by Ric Garren in Challenge Magazine)