Guiding someone with sight loss

If you see someone with a sight problem who may need help, you should introduce yourself, make sure the person knows who they are speaking to, explain who you are, and ask if assistance is needed. Let them state what kind of help they may need.

If your offer of assistance is accepted, ask where the person wants to go and how they would like to be guided. Ask if they would like to take your arm and if there is room to walk side by side, stand next to them and let them take hold of your arm with their fingers in the crook of your elbow.

You can keep your arm pointing downwards or you can bend it, as long as you keep your upper arm straight. By walking hand to arm in this way the person you are guiding will be at least half a pace behind you, making it easier to tell when you are turning by the movement of your body.

Steps, stairs and slopes

When you approach steps or a slope, tell the person you are guiding whether the steps go up or down. Wherever possible, they should be on the side with the handrail. If you need to change sides, inform the customer of your intention then ask them to stand still and let go of your guiding arm to allow you to come alongside. Walk towards the handrail and show its position with your guiding arm.

As you begin to go up steps, the person you are guiding will feel your arm move when you place your weight on the first step. This is their cue to start. As you climb the second step, they are on the first. Tell them when you have reached the last step, stop and allow them to find it with their foot. When they feel their arm resume its normal position, they will know that you are both on the level again.

Going downstairs is always more difficult so give the person you are guiding plenty of time to hold onto the handrail securely and gauge the edge of the first step. Otherwise the technique is the same for going upstairs. Walk one step ahead, stop at the bottom and tell them there are no more steps.

If you’re not as tall as the person you are guiding, arm movements are not so clearly felt, especially as they may have their hand on your shoulder. If you take your first step with the foot on the same side as your guiding arm, the movement is more obvious.

If the person you are guiding has a guide dog, the dog may be a substitute for the handrail or they may prefer to use both handrail and dog, rejoining you at the bottom of the steps. Approach the person from the side opposite to the dog and do not take hold of the harness or lead, as the guide dog owner needs this to control the dog. Some people prefer to walk at your side without holding your arm. In some situations, you can also walk in front and the dog will follow you.

Escalators, travelators and lifts

Many blind and partially sighted people prefer to avoid escalators so if you are approaching one, ask the person you are guiding if they are happy to use it or if they would prefer an alternative. When you are using an escalator, inform the customer when they are either approaching or on the stepping on/off threshold plate, guide them to the moving handrail and say whether you are going up or down.

It is sometimes best if the person you are guiding negotiates the first step by themselves, as escalators are often too narrow to take people side by side. If possible, move ahead on the escalator once you have checked the person you are guiding is safely on it, so that you can help them off. If there is no alternative to using an escalator, you can ask that the escalator is turned off.

Travelators should be used in the same way and you will need to say when you are reaching the end. It is not safe to take a dog on a moving escalator or travelator so you may need to find an alternative. The dog might need to be carried if there is no alternative. Discuss how you will do this or indeed if it is practical.

Lifts are straightforward. Walk in side by side, if possible, and say whether you are moving up or down. Some people may prefer to be next to the lift wall so that they can steady themselves.

What can a person with sight loss see?

Being blind does not always mean that a person is living in total darkness. Many blind people and most partially sighted people can recognise a friend at arm’s length. People can be affected by eye conditions in different ways: some will have no central vision or no vision to the sides; others may see a patchwork of blank and defined areas, or everything they see may be a vague blur.

Glaucoma can result in tunnel vision, where all side vision is lost and only central vision remains.

Diabetic retinopathy can cause blurred or patchy vision.

Macular degeneration can lead to a loss of central vision whilst side vision remains.

Cataracts can cause cloudy and washed out vision. Edges of stairs or steps may become more difficult to see and bright lights can glare and dazzle.

A person who is blind has a high degree of vision loss. About 18 per cent of blind people are totally blind – most can distinguish between light and dark.

People who are partially sighted have a less severe loss of vision. It is important to be aware that not all people with sight loss carry a white cane or use a guide dog, and not all deaf-blind people carry a white cane with red bands.

RNIB have a full guide on eye conditions.