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Imagine for a moment that you are contacting tech support regarding a website you are having some difficulty with. Next, imagine that, for some reason, your monitor can’t be turned on. The tech is going to have to be creative enough to think of a different way of communicating the directions that he usually explains visually. This is the kind of situations that everyone who is blind is used to facing almost daily.

In fact, I encountered a similar situation yesterday. Explaining that I was blind and having trouble with a company’s website, I received the following e-mail: “On the record screen on the far-right hand side is an icon of a garbage can. If you hover over it, it will say ‘delete’.” Hmmm.

As humans we are programmed to give visual directions. We do it all the time, every day. I do it myself. This is so deeply ingrained that, even though I had been quite clear in explaining that I couldn’t see the computer monitor, tech support still gave me visual directions.

Knowing how to give directions to someone who is blind is not rocket science, but, since most people have never done it before and it requires a skill set they’ve never had the need to develop, the following guidelines may be helpful.

Avoid “visual” words. We routinely use language like “here” and “over there” as shorthand when the other person can see what we’re talking about. However, if we’re giving directions to someone on the other end of the phone, we never do it; it wouldn’t make sense. You’re off to a good start by simply banning words like these from your vocabulary when directing someone who is blind.

Avoid imprecise vocabulary. Expressions like “next to” or “across from” are extremely helpful if the other person is looking at the same thing you are, but saying that the empty chair is “next to the big plant” is not very helpful if you can’t see “the big plant.” Even if the blind person may know where the plant is, it isn’t clear whether the chair is to the left or the right of the plant.

  • Avoid imprecise language in giving directions. Language like “left,” “right,” “in front of,” “in back,” and “across from” can be very helpful, but it also runs the risk of leaving you feeling that you’ve given great directions when they may have been more ambiguous than you intended. It’s been my experience that when someone tells me that something is to the left, it may be anywhere from forty-five degrees to the left of center to slightly in back of me and to the left.

Where exactly is “in front”? Technically, anything from ninety degrees to my left to ninety degrees to my right could be considered “front.”

More than once I’ve gotten lost when told that an object is “across from” something. Telling a hotel guest who is sighted that the elevators are across from the main desk may be a useful direction, but, for someone who is blind, if you need to angle ten degrees to the right when crossing, especially if you’re walking across a wide lobby, indicating the slight variance is extremely important.

Think of how you would describe the alinement of players on a baseball diamond to someone who has never seen a game. The catcher is behind home plate – how far behind? The shortstop and third baseman are on the left of the field – where on the left? If this seems difficult, remember that innumerable radio announcers have been describing this, and a great deal more, without any trouble for almost a century.

This is just a different way to think of giving directions. Some of the strategies that are second nature for us when giving “sighted directions” are counter-productive when speaking with someone who is blind. In the next post, I’ll look at some additional suggestions for providing good directions.

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