What everyone should know about visual impairment

The most important thing to understand is that the person with vision impairment is a person first. They do nearly all of the things that a sighted person might do, just a little differently. Tasks are often completed by utilizing adaptive tools and techniques. Everyone, and their vision impairment, is very different. Some people who are legally blind function very independently to the point where you may not be aware that they are visually impaired. Others may have more significant vision loss allowing them to only see shadows or light perception. And then, least common, is the population who are totally blind.

man walking with cane down a hallway

These are some tips for general etiquette when interacting with a person who is either sight impaired or totally blind. It is the responsibility of both parties to communicate effectively, whether it is a professional or personal relationship.


Instructor who is blind teaching a student who is visually impaired at the computer with his guide dog by his side

  • Make your presence known when entering a room by either saying hello or identifying yourself. “Good morning Bob, its Sue”.
  • If there are others present, address the person by name so there is no mistake who you are talking to.
  • Remember that an unseen smile can be supplemented by a warm handshake and a friendly tone of voice.
  • Talk directly to the person and not through a companion. If the waiter asks you, as the sighted person, what your companion with vision impairment wants to order, kindly suggest they ask the person themselves.
  • Treat the person with every courtesy you would a person who is sighted. A friendly gesture/greeting when passing or during an elevator ride is common courtesy.
  • Be sure the person knows when you leave so he/she isn’t left talking to an empty space. “I need to step away and take this call, give me a minute please.”
  • Don’t worry about using words like “look,” “see,” and “blind”, most people are not offended by these words and use them in their own speech. “Did you see that Bills game the other day?” is perfectly acceptable.
  • Identify yourself, do not assume the person knows who you are, don’t leave them guessing. There may come a time when this is no longer necessary if your paths cross frequently.
  • Use a normal tone of voice; most people with vision impairment have perfectly good hearing, so there is no need to shout.
  • Make eye contact and face the person to whom you are speaking, provide them the same courtesy you would a person with sight.
  • Avoid hand gestures, pointing and terms like “over there” or “on that bench”. Use more descriptive language.  Instead of saying “the fish was this big”, say “the fish was two feet long” or “the bench is over there”, say “the bench is about 10 feet ahead on your left”.


  • If you think someone needs help, politely offer assistance but allow the person to decide if and/or how you might be of assistance. What works for one person may be different from another.
  • If you escort the person somewhere, offer your arm and let him/her hold on just above your elbow. You will find this is the easiest and most comfortable way to walk together.  Some people may use alternative methods; they will let you know what works best for them.
  • When seating someone, placing the individual’s hand on the back of the chair will allow the person to be seated independently.
  • If you must leave the person alone for a few minutes, leave him/her in contact with some stationary object.
  • When giving directions, make them as clear as possible. Use “left” and “right” according to the way he/she is facing.  You can also reference to a clock, i.e. the water cooler is at 2 o’clock from where you are currently standing.
  • Remember to be verbal; hand gestures are meaningless to a person who cannot see them. “We are approaching a curb, step up” or “there are steps going down and the railing is on your right” are very helpful verbal cues.  It is usually not necessary to inform the person of the number of steps.  Cane users have been instructed on how to navigate stairs.
  • If you need to make direct contact with the individual, announce what is about to take place. (i.e. I need to take your right arm for a blood pressure reading.)
  • A person with vision impairment has methods of doing things that you rely on vision to accomplish. Do not assume that the individual cannot identify their money, sign their name or locate the keyhole on a door lock.
  • When a person who is blind needs to sign their name, you can offer to place their finger where they can begin signing or, if available, offer them a signature guide.

feet of person walking with a cane



  • Organization is very important, find a place for everything and keep everything in its place. This makes it easier to locate items when needed.
  • Avoid clutter.
  • If possible, paint walls and trimwork around doorways and windows in contrasting colors. Avoid high gloss paint as this can cause glare.
  • Avoid the use of throw rugs. Although they can make for good identifying markers, they can also be a tripping hazard.  Purchase slip-resistant rugs when necessary.
  • Natural light can cause glare, control natural light by installing blinds or sheers.
  • High gloss tables and countertops can also cause additional glare. Use contrasting matte placemats or tablecloths to reduce glare.
  • Additional lighting may be necessary in low lit areas such as under the cabinets or in closets.rehab teacher showing client large print items


man working at a computer at a call center

  • Do not rearrange items within a person’s work station/environment. If it is necessary, be sure to inform the person of the changes.
  • When presenting or sharing documentation, make the effort to find out ahead of time the person’s preferred format or font size so that they can fully participate. Whenever possible, provide material electronically, ahead of time, so that the individual can review and prepare materials in their preferred media.  Adaptive software allows the individual to access information on the computer in accordance to their needs, whether in speech, enhanced print or Braille.
  • Avoid using video screens during training sessions unless you are able to verbally describe the materials on the screen or provide them in an alternate format in order for the individual to fully participate. Large print font is considered to be 18pt.  Some individuals may require a larger font.
  • Communicate appropriately, and privately, if someone’s clothing is torn or dirty or if there’s something on them that doesn’t belong. Odds are they simply are not aware.
  • It’s best to leave doors fully opened or closed. A door ajar can be confusing, especially for a person with partial sight.
  • Avoid leaving cabinets/drawers open or partially open; this can be a tripping hazard.
  • Avoid clutter on the floors and running extension cords. Cords can be taped down so as to not be a tripping hazard.


  • When dining with a person who is unable to see the menu, ask what items they might be interested in and offer to read the menu and the prices. Some restaurants offer Braille menus.
  • It’s completely appropriate to ask if they would like any shared items that may be on the table such as bread/butter, salad dressings, creamer/sugar etc.
  • When food arrives offer to describe the position of food on the plate, usually by using a clock simulation. The meat is located at 6 o’clock, your vegetable is at 10 o’clock etc.  If more help is needed, the person will ask.  Most restaurants will serve the protein at the 6 o’clock position to eliminate the possibility of anyone having to drag their sleeve over other food items to cut the protein.  Some restaurants will even pre-cut the meat in the kitchen and leave it to appear whole.
  • People who are vision impaired or blind do watch television, go to the movies and live theater/concerts. Unless asked, refrain from describing what’s happening on the screen/stage.


  • Do not rearrange things in a person’s home or work setting. If something must be moved be sure to inform the person of the change.
  • Cabinet doors/drawers left partially or fully open can cause injury.
  • Objects left on the floor such as shoes, bags and boxes can be a tripping hazard.
  • Do not leave boxes, carts, ladders, tools or building materials in areas where they can be a hazard. Verbally inform people who are vision impaired of any obstacles, even if they are temporary.  Signage might be ineffective.

table setting of plate with forks on the left and knife and spoon on the right



  • Avoid petting or otherwise distracting a Guide Dog, the owner’s person’s safety depends upon its full attention.
  • Do not offer the dog food/treats without the owner’s permission.
  • If the Guide Dog is doing something it ought not be doing, inform the owner and allow them to manage the situation.

person walking with guide dog on the street


  • Blindness does not always automatically ensure that other senses are improved, sensory development takes time and awareness to develop; it doesn’t happen due to lack of vision.
  • It is unlikely that a person who is totally blind will want to touch your face to determine what you look like.
  • Individuals who are vision impaired/blind are often willing to answer questions about their vision. Take the time to get to know the “person”.  You’ll find that they too have hobbies and interests.
  • As each vision impairment differs, so does the individual’s reactions, feelings, abilities and needs.  Someone who is newly sight impaired or blind may be more sensitive and/or require more assistance than someone who has had more time to adapt.  For instance, someone who has been blind all of their life may not require as many verbal cues.There is no such thing as a dumb question other than the one not asked.