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How Do You Give Directions to Someone Who Is Blind? Part 2

As I discussed in my last post, giving directions to someone who is blind sometimes means rethinking how we use visual language like “over there” and “here” that we are used to using when the other person can see what we’re talking about. In this post, I’ll be looking at a few other things to keep in mind when offering directions.


  • Think of a clock face. The easiest shortcut for describing some thing, such as where food is located on a dinner plate, is the face of a clock. Consequently, “the mashed potatoes are at 1:00, the meat is at 5:00, and the salad is at 9:00.” This trick can be used for all types of directions that, otherwise, would be complicated. In the last post, I mentioned the problem with getting oriented to something that is across a wide hotel lobby. Instead of saying, “The elevator is kind of across from us but a little to the right,” it’s easier and more helpful to say, “The elevator is about 1:00.” Incidentally, I don’t know what we’re going to do when no one remembers what a clock face looks like because telling time has become a completely digital experience.
  • Color and texture. There are some occasions when it can be helpful to think in terms of the color or texture of the surrounding environment. While this is not something that you need to think of very often, it can be a great clue in the right situation. Knowing that the elevators are at 1:00 is helpful but, if you’re able to add that “There’s a rug that begins right before you get to them,” the directions become much more useful.

If the person receiving the directions still has some residual vision, color contrasts can be a real aid. For example, being able to say that “The banquet room has a bright blue rug” when the adjacent floor is a distinctively different color can be almost as helpful as a road map. However, this only works when there is a distinctive contrast between the background and foreground. Knowing that the yellow chair is against the white wall probably will not be very meaningful. If, however, the chair is dark blue, the contrast is significant enough to be helpful.

Sounds that most of us never pay much attention to can also be helpful in the right situation. Whenever I get assistance finding my room for the first time in a large hotel, if possible, I try to locate the sounds of the soft drink machine, ice machine, heating and air conditioning systems, etc. as clues to orienting myself on my floor. Recently, when phoning a friend for directions to his room in a multi-story hotel, he said, “You turn left at the corner of Coke machine and ice machine.” It was a great clue.

  • Giving directions into a mirror. It’s not uncommon to be giving directions while you are facing the blind person. Sorry, this only complicates things. What is your left, of course, is the other person’s right. Chances are better than even that, when someone tells me that the door is “on your right,” it will really be on my left. I’ve learned in such cases to ask, “Your right or my right?”
  • Cane or dog? To some extent, what constitutes good directions depends on whether the blind person is using a cane or a dog. (I wouldn’t worry about this, I’m just mentioning it as background.) The cane traveler is likely to be more interested in some features of the environment that aren’t relevant to a dog handler. My office, for example, was surrounded by a wide plaza on all sides. I had used a dog for years when crossing this wide-open space. One day, when the dog was at the vet’s and I was using a cane, I suddenly discovered that there were concrete benches I had been passing for years without realizing they were there. Describing the location of the benches would have been a critical piece of information for a cane user but were just interesting, but not essential information, for a dog handler.


Finally, if you’re the person receiving directions, it’s important that you be willing to ask questions to clarify the directions you think you understand. After all, this may well be a completely new experience for the other person. You may need to help them help you.


While all of the things I’ve mentioned may seem to make the process of giving directions complicated, I promise that this is a skill that, with a little experience, you can do easily and with little thought.

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