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What Should You Do When Meeting Someone Who Is Blind?

I would like to think that, polished sophisticate that I am, if I were introduced to, say, Queen Elizabeth or former President Clinton, I would remain the ever-poised person I like to think myself to be and not blurt, “Hi, Liz” or “Hey, how’s Monica doing?” In my more realistic moments, however, I have to admit that, nervous and ill-at-ease, I’d probably be more likely to commit a social faux pas than I would like to think.

For many people, meeting someone who is blind for the first time is about as anxiety producing. They don’t want to do the “wrong” thing but aren’t really certain what the “right thing” is. It’s a new and unfamiliar experience, and they aren’t clear what to do.

Since this involves a bit of etiquette that has been overlooked by Miss Manners, I have attempted to remedy this deficiency by the following list of dos and don’ts.

  • Speak. In the sighted world, it’s easy to signal that you’re ready to initiate a conversation by simply looking at the other person with the appropriate facial expression. If you’ve ever answered the phone only to hear silence on the other end, you’ll have some idea how functional this is for a blind person.
  • Be multisyllabic. Saying “hi” is better than nothing, but it is far more helpful to, at least, speak a few words. Even something as short as “Sir, may I help you?” gives the blind person a few extra seconds to focus on your voice and get a clearer idea of exactly where you are. There are often numerous other voices and sounds in the environment competing for your attention, and a couple of extra syllables can really help. This is especially true if either you or the blind person is moving since motion distorts the sound of the human voice. Think here of trying to locate the exact location of an emergency siren when both you and the emergency vehicle are moving in different directions.
  • Talk to the person and not the person they are with. Rarely in everyday life do people voluntarily choose not to speak directly to the person who is speaking to them. It’s my guess, and that’s all it is, that this occurs in the case of someone who is blind for three reasons. First, the blind person, especially if they have never had any vision, hasn’t been taught the importance of looking at the person they are talking to. Second, the blind person hasn’t been given enough, or any, auditory clues by the other to know where to look, and, third, the other person, without ever thinking about it consciously, feels the blind person is so clueless that whoever is with them must be there to speak on their behalf. All of these reasons are easily avoidable.
  • If you change your position, do something to indicate this to the blind person. It’s not uncommon for people to subtly move during the course of a conversation, particularly if the immediate area is congested. If, for example, someone needs to get by in a crowded room, you may take a step to the left or right without giving it a second thought. If you do this quietly or there is a good deal of ambient noise, the blind person you are talking with may be left looking at where you were, not at where you are. This is disconcerting for both of you. The easiest way to minimize the likelihood of this occurring is either to simply announce your move or, to be even more subtle, simply clear your throat after you have moved to your new position.
  • Don’t multitask. You’ll get the idea of what this is like if You have ever had the experience of speaking with someone only to realize that they are not only talking with you but holding a separate conversation with someone else on a Bluetooth headset. You feel pretty silly responding to something they have said that wasn’t really addressed to you. The blind person has the same feeling when you’re simultaneously carrying on a second conversation he is unaware of, whether in person or by phone.
  • Don’t ask how they lost their vision. I’m not making this one up. While it doesn’t happen every day, there’s not a blind person alive who hasn’t been asked this more than once by a relative stranger. Personally, I fantasize about some day answering, “Syphilis.” (If I ever really do this, I’ll be sure to make it the basis of a future blog post.)

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These posts may also be of interest:
Can You See Anything?
You’re So Amazing: Behind Stage at the Magic Show

We also like this blog post on this topic by Natasha Baebler:
5 Things I Wish People Understood About Being Legally Blind

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