07 August 2013

A Guide to Sighted Allyhood

A wonderful Blind friend of mine shared this earlier today and gave permission to repost here so many more people could see this. Ideas derive from direct and indirect input from various blind people.


So I posted yesterday about how allyhood is, to borrow Spectra Speak's words, demonstrated through relationships, not just rhetoric. Here are some practical day-to-day tips on how you can demonstrate sighted allyhood in your relationships with Blind people. While I think most of these tips are pretty universal, I don't speak for all Blind people. Some people may have another opinion. If you're Blind/Low vision, feel free to add or amend.
Inform any and all blind people that may pass through the area of exactly where you move anything.

If a cashier, service person, or just anyone tries to hand your blind friend's money, credit card, ID, etc. back to you, make your hands unavailable so they're actually forced to give it back to the rightful owner.
When people try to speak to your blind friend through you, force direct communication. Example:
Waitperson: Does she take cream in her coffee?
You: I don't know, why don't you ask them directly?
Blind friend: [answers for themselves]
Include image descriptions. On Facebook, Tumblr, in your class presentations, during casual conversations when you show friends a photo of your dog. Not sure how? Ask the very people who will be benefiting from your descriptions about their preferences.

If you're not sure whether a blind individual can or can't do something, don't assume--ask.
Let your blind friend take the lead in sighted-guide etiquette. You may have learned something else, but individuals have their own preferences for how to be guided.
Some blind people have ways of identifying people, such as by the sound of someone's voice, footsteps, their perfume/cologne, their hands (if in contact), based on context, and some don't. Always better to play it safe and identify yourself. Playing the "Who am I? Guess!" game is inappropriate.
Understand that not all types of blindness are the same and many blind people have residual vision. Recognize that every blind person you know has a unique experience.
The Blind community is a cross-section of society and includes people with many other intersecting identities.
Keep in mind that blind people often have non-visual methods of getting the same information you get visually. Just because you do it visually doesn't always mean a blind person can't do it.
Avoid phrases like "over here", "over there," "that way", etc. These phrases only make sense if you can see where someone is pointing, and what they're pointing to. Instead, use terms like "behind us", "to your right", "at eleven o'clock". 
Remember that most blind people can't see you nod or shake your head, so you have to respond more explicitly, by saying "yes", "no", using pro-tactile, etc.
In group settings, it can be hard to know if someone is addressing you specifically or not. When addressing a blind person directly in spoken language, it helps to either add their name to the sentence or touch them lightly while you address them if you don't know their name. 
Treat a cane as an extension of the person's body. If you wouldn't touch their arm or leg without permission, don't touch or move their cane without permission. Grabbing a Blind person's cane is akin to someone blindfolding you. It's an act of power and control.
Remember that guide dogs with their harnesses on are working. Ask the blind person's permission before interacting with their guide dog.
Asking blind people questions like how long they've been blind, and what caused their blindness are not appropriate conversation-starters. Even if you're really curious, they're best reserved for once you get to know the person better.
If you are asking to help you determine something else, get to the core of the issue, e.g. "What's your preferred reading format?" or "Do you need me to guide you?" A lot of times the answer is more related to how well the person you're asking knows the area, if they are braille-literate, etc.
Offer help, don't insist. If the blind person declines the offer, respect their wishes.
When handing a blind person something, put it in their hand. Even people who have residual vision have a small chance of finding your outstretched hand, the coffee sitting on the table, etc. 
Initiate handshakes by finding the blind person's hand and shaking. Ask permission before giving hugs. Having someone hug you without warning can be rather startling. 
In Deaf spaces, confirm Deaf interpreters for any known Deaf-Blind attendees and have Deaf interpreters on stand-by in case any show up last-minute.
In Deaf spaces, you can get a Blind person's attention the same way you would a Deaf person who isn't looking in your direction--tapping on the shoulder, banging on the table, stomping on a wooden floor, etc. From there, you can allow the person to adjust themselves according to their communication needs. They will naturally increase/decrease the distance between you, or establish tracking/tactile communication as needed.
Many Blind people get ignored in group settings. Introduce your Blind friends to other people and make a conscious effort to include them in conversations. Ask them if there is anyone they're looking for and connect them with that person if you can find them. 
Inform other sighted people about Blind accessibility. Model accessibility when others don't know and remind people when they forget. Calling people out is best done in private conversations. They're more likely to respond when done in a non-face-threatening way.
Remember that the blind people in your life may be willing to educate at times, but that does not mean that we are obligated to educate you at all times. The Internet is a great resource for general questions like "How do blind people use computers?"
Remember that allyhood is not just about saying, but doing.


  1. I think, rather than asking anyone, "do you need me to?", one should ask, "would you like me to?"

    1. I whole heartedly agree KellieME

  2. I have begun to be in charge of planning conferences, so this is all really useful and enlightening, thank you both so much for writing and sharing! I was wondering, in terms of making conferences accessible, whether there are any particular accommodations that make things easier for blind people? I already provide the conference schedule in a large print format, and ask presenters to make print copies of their powerpoint presentations - what other things should I be doing?

    Thanks again, and I hope you don't mind me asking!

    1. If I may add- Make sure there isn't furniture or other objects in the way of foot/wheelchair traffic. Reserve seating in the front of rooms for persons with physical/sensory disabilities, and allow them to enter the room early if need be. I was thinking about this at a science fiction convention I attended a while ago. p

  3. Great advice. I had a friend in college who (was/is) blind, and i helped her navigate around another campus when we went to a conference. She didn't need too much help though! I've always been impressed at her independence and determination- including traveling to not-so accessible Latin American countries. Probably due to my experience of being on the spectrum, I understand how annoying it is for people to be condescending and try to give you help you don't need. I don't get the whole thing about not directly addressing the person- it seems this crosses many types of disabiities, at least twice I've been addressed by someone as if my companion in a wheel chair was not there. Not just rude, it's plain strange. wa andm
    m iy

  4. Kath, some ideas for making conferences more accessible: if you ask people to vote on something by raising their hands, verbally describe a rough percentage of how many people raised their hands.
    "How many of you here love coffee?"
    (approximately 75 of 100 hands raise)
    "Okay, so about 75% of people in the audience love coffee."

    Large print copies are great for low vision folks, but for totally blind people they either need a plain-text electronic format of the PowerPoint, or an audio/ braille version. Since only about 10% of blind people read braille, in my opinion, it makes sense to only braille things upon request.

    You can include descriptions in the plain-text document of the PowerPoint, or while you are presenting, you can describe photos that appear on screen. Personally I prefer the latter because it gives context to the images. For example, "close-up of coffee beans being funneled into a grinder" makes more sense when you've just asked the audience who loves coffee.

    Describe any other visual cues. It's nice when you can embed descriptions into your presentation naturally. For example, this leaves blind people out: "See, my friend gave me this as a gift 5 years ago and it describes me perfectly." You can say, "See, this mug I'm holding is a gift my friend gave me 5 years ago and describes me perfectly--coffee lover, in big bold letters? That's me!" It's much less stigmatizing than "See this right here--oh wait, let me describe this for those who cannot see--I'm holding a mug in my hand, and says it says coffee lover on it, and the letters are big and bold--and a friend gave it to me 5 years ago."

    Hope that helps!

  5. These are great bits of advice — especially the one about hiding your hands when a cashier/etc. tries to give something to the wrong person!

  6. Why are you sometimes writing "blind" and sometimes writing "Blind" in that article?

  7. Thanks for the help, everyone! Those are great pieces of advice!

  8. Kate, Blind with the capital B denotes a sociocultural identity whereas blind with a lowercase B denotes the physiological state of not seeing. It's used parallel to big-D Deaf and lowercase-d deaf, capital-A Autistic and lowercase-a autistic usages to distinguish culture from physiology. I used both throughout my article to be inclusive of both physically- and culturally-identified Blind people.


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