Handle with care

I belong to a number of internet groups for visually-impaired people. There has been an interesting discussion on one of them recently, namely: How much physical contact is appropriate when a sighted person is trying to guide you?

It all started with an item on BBC Radio 4’s “Woman’s Hour” programme. I didn’t hear it myself but I gather that a visually-impaired woman was saying that some sighted people had touched her inappropriately when assisting her.

Now, I have never had this happen to me. I have known of physically disabled people being taken advantage of by some taxi drivers in this way but the particular incident I have in mind took place many years ago and I would like to think things have improved since then.

However, it is a useful discussion to have.

I think that most of us who have grown up visually impaired are accustomed to higher levels of physical contact than sighted people would expect to experience on a daily basis. In fact I have had sighted people be reluctant to take my hand in case “someone got the wrong idea.” It isn’t always clear who “someone” is but it would never occur to me to worry about that sort of contact.

The fact is that contact is necessary. If I want you to guide me somewhere, I will need to take your arm. If I visit a physiotherapist and they are demonstrating exercises, I need them to actually show me what to do. In my Yoga class, I am quite happy for my Yoga teacher to manipulate my arms, say, to show me how a particular movement is made.

The link between the above examples is that I have chosen them. I have given permission for the physio and my Yoga teacher to touch me. I have usually said to my sighted guide, “May I hold your arm?”

What is not acceptable is for a sighted person to grab me willy-nilly without checking that I am okay with that. For one thing, to be grabbed unannounced can make you jump out of your skin!

(There is an exception to this. If I’m about to be run over by a bus, please grab away!)

Healthcare professionals are very careful these days to seek your permission before making contact and, to be honest, despite what I have said, if someone is genuinely trying to help, I’m not going to cry “foul.” But in any context, best practice when working with the visually impaired is still to ask whether we need help and, if so, what help do we need and how should it be delivered.

In other words, something like this:

You: “Can I help you?”

Me: “Yes please, I need to get on this train.”

You: “What would you like me to do?”

Me: “Please may I take your arm?

That kind of thing.

Some visually impaired people will have had trauma in their lives which may dispose them to react violently to physical contact, especially if it occurs without warning or permission. Others, I’m afraid, are just rude. Ignore the rude ones. Most visually-impaired people, though, are grateful for offers of help and appreciate being asked.

Which is not to say that these encounters always run smoothly. I was once on Paddington Station quite late at night and was trying to ascertain whether I was about to board the right train. The man I asked, however, was so anxious about missing the nearly-last train that he didn’t listen. Instead, he just kept shouting, “Is this train going to Reading?”

If he had calmed down, I could have told him that if it was the train I hoped it was, yes, it would stop at Reading. We could have helped each other. He would have been reassured and I would have been helped to a seat.

Still, life doesn’t always run to script. I think we both reached our respective destinations. I certainly don’t recall having to sleep on Paddington Station so I must have got home somehow!