Acting with empathy: How to interact with people who are blind or visually-impaired

Transparent black modern fashion glasses on the Snellen vision test chart. Ophthalmology, visual acuity testing, treatment and prevention of eye diseases. The concept of poor vision, blindness, going to an ophthalmologist.

“Every person and every experience is very different.”

That’s the first thing Kaitlyn Edge wants people to know when engaging with people who are blind or visually impaired.

As a digital analyst at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Edge understands the desire to create tips everyone can use to be more compassionate and inclusive. As a person who became blind as an adult, she also knows that it’s impossible to consider all the unique situations that people who are blind or visually impaired have experienced.

“Disability stretches so many different ways,” she says. “With vision, it goes from people with color blindness all the way to somebody who was born blind. Those experiences are vastly different, and what offends one person may not offend another. Categories are helpful, but just remember: Start with the person, not their disability.”

What words are best to use when referring to people who are blind or who have a visual impairment?

Edge: Not much offends me, but I know that’s because I have a unique experience. I didn’t start losing my vision until my 20s, when I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. It’s a rare genetic disorder where your retina — the light-sensitive tissue in the back of the eye — breaks down. You lose your vision gradually. Since I didn’t grow up with visual impairment or go through school as a person who was blind, I have a different perspective than people who’ve dealt with bullying or being underestimated their whole lives.

What I can tell you is that there’s no downside to taking a person-first approach. I’d much rather be considered a “person with a disability” than a “disabled person.” There’s so much more to me than my disability, and calling a person “disabled” makes it sound like their disability is their whole thing rather than a teeny, tiny part of it. I’d also avoid the word “handicapped” altogether.

Say Instead of
People with disabilities Disabled or Handicapped
Born with [specify the disability] Has a birth defect
People who are blind Blind people

8 tips for interacting with people who are blind or have a visual impairment

1. Don’t raise (or change) your voice

Edge: I can’t tell you how many people walk up to me and start yelling. But I have great hearing! I think it happens because people subconsciously think that loudness will break through the barrier, but obviously it doesn’t.

Just be aware of the volume, and speak normally. Some people accidentally adopt a “sweeter” or “more sympathetic” tone of voice when they meet a person who is blind. But all I want is to be spoken to normally.

2. Speak directly to the person

Edge: When you’re talking to someone who is blind or visually impaired, speak directly to the person, and try your best to make eye contact.

  • Many people who are declared legally blind retain some sort of vision, so they can determine where you’re looking.
  • Others have such a good sense of hearing that they can tell if someone is looking at them when speaking, which is pretty remarkable.

No matter the situation, looking directly at the person you’re talking to is a good way to show respect and ensure you’re giving them your full attention.

3. Don’t speak to a person’s companion instead of them

Edge: People often ask the person I’m with — whether that’s my wife, my friend, my coworker — questions that they should be asking me. It happens in restaurants, in bars, on planes, when I’m shopping, and it’s incredibly frustrating. I know people do it without thinking, but I am perfectly capable of speaking for myself.

4. Introduce yourself

Edge: When you meet or run into a person who is blind or visually impaired, it’s always a good idea to say, “Hi Kaitlyn, this is ____.”

I’m good at recognizing voices, so after a few times, I’ll probably say, “Hi ____, I know your voice,” and they won’t have to introduce themselves every time. But as a general practice, and definitely for the first week or month, introducing yourself is an easy thing to do.

5. Offer, but don’t force, assistance

Edge: After you announce yourself, it’s fine to offer help, guidance or your arm if you’re navigating a new space, crossing a busy street — whatever the case may be. Just don’t be offended if the person doesn’t want help. Everyone is different, and some people who are blind are more skilled at crossing the street than sighted people!

6. Don’t touch the person, their devices or their support animal

Edge: Touching doesn’t bother me personally. But when I was in the Peace Corps in Panama, we worked with people who had such severe blindness that they’d be terrified if they were grabbed or touched in any way.

It makes sense if you think about it. If you rely on assistive technology to navigate the world, that takes a lot of listening and attention. Orientation and mobility training requires intense focus, so randomly touching someone while they’re trying to focus can be disconcerting and scary. Unless it’s a matter of life or death, don’t touch anyone without asking.

The same goes for a person’s devices. Recently I was at a doctor’s office, and a nurse grabbed my cane and pulled it when she was trying to lead me back to a room. I was shocked! Think of assistive devices as an extension of a person. Never touch a person, their cane, their guide dog or anything that belongs to them without asking.

7. Include them in photos

Edge: Sometimes people think that I don’t want to be in photos because I can’t necessarily see them. But I love having photos!

I love to joke with my wife that one day, when I get my sight back, I’m going to be so mad at her if she lets me look silly in pictures! But, seriously, it’s just another way to treat a person who is blind like anyone else.

8. Don’t worry about using visual language 

Edge: I’m yet to meet a person who is blind who’s been offended by someone asking, “Did you see my email?” or “Did you watch that TV show last night?” We understand that’s how people talk. You don’t need to go overboard worrying about those words.

And remember: There’s no one definition for disability, or one “right” way to approach everyone. Treat each individual as the whole person they are and you’ll be in good shape.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).