Often, people who are blind or visually impaired need some assistance with walking safely outside familiar environments. Perhaps a friend or family member may try to help by holding your hand or having you rest your hand on his or her shoulder.

While well intended, these methods are not safe and can lead to accidents. The following skills are designed to help you and your guide maximize safety and efficiency when walking together.

How can I walk more comfortably and effectively with a guide?

There may be times when you find that it is faster and easier to get somewhere by walking with another person who will act as a “guide.” The following tips can be helpful if you use a guide to help you walk to your mailbox, visit a neighbor, or shop in a mall or grocery store.

Hold the guide's arm just above the elbow, similar to the way you hold a cup

Hold the guide’s arm just above the elbow, similar to the way you hold a glass of water or a soda can (credit: Dona Sauerburger)

  1. Take the guide’s arm and hold it gently but firmly just above the elbow, with the same grasp you would use to hold a glass of water (thumb on the outside of the guide’s arm, and fingers on the other side, nearer the guide’s body). This grip will allow you to receive the greatest amount of feedback from the guide’s movements.
  2. The grip should be firm enough so that you don’t lose contact with the guide, but not so firm that the guide is uncomfortable.
  3. If you use a cane, take the guide’s arm with your free hand.
  4. Tell the guide if his or her pace is too fast for you. It’s important that you walk at a pace that is comfortable for both of you.

The correct position: half a step behind the guide

The correct position: half a step behind the guide (credit: Dona Sauerburger)

  1. Follow the guide’s movements and stay half a step behind the guide when you walk together. A good way to do this is to keep your elbow close to your body.
  2. If you walk in this position, instead of side-by-side, you will have time to react to hazards or obstacles in your path.
  3. Instruct your guide to approach curbs and steps head-on, rather than at an oblique angle, so that you know where to expect the edge of the curb or step in relation to your guide’s, and your own, body.
  4. Remember that it usually requires training and practice to follow the movement of your guide to anticipate steps and stairs, especially if you have some useful vision.
  5. Ask your guide to always leave you in contact with a landmark, such as a chair, table, or wall, and not leave you alone in an “open” space.
  6. If you are approaching a narrow space, your guide should signal the change by moving his or her hand behind the back. You then move to a position directly behind your guide and slide your hand down to the guide’s wrist.
  7. When approaching a drop off, your guide should stop with his or her toes close to the drop off and announce: “Curb up,” or “Stairs going down.” Then, the guide should step forward and allow you to find the stair or curb with your toes. If there is a handrail, your guide should always position you on the side of the handrail and let you know where it is so you may use it.
  8. When going through a door, you will need to know two things from your guide: 1) Does the door open to the right or to the left? and 2) Does the door open out or in? If the door opens on the right, you should be on the guide’s right side. If the door opens on the left, you should be on the guide’s left side. This may require a change of sides.
  9. An orientation and mobility (O&M) specialist can teach you additional techniques and signals that you and your guide can use to go through doorways and walk single file through narrow spaces.
  10. Try to use visualization in combination with this guiding technique in order to receive maximum feedback from your surroundings. For more information, see Learn To Use Your Other Senses.

A Tip Sheet for the Guide

Here are some tips every human/sighted guide should know:

  1. When approaching someone with vision loss who appears to need help, ask, “Do you need assistance?” Do not assume the person needs help. Typically, people with vision loss know where they are going and do not need assistance.
  2. If the person does need assistance, touch the back of your hand to the back of the person’s hand. (Announce that you are going to do this first.) This gives the person an idea of where your arm is located.
  3. Ask, “Where do you need to go?”
  4. Do not leave the person you’re guiding in the middle of an open area. Guide him or her to the final destination before letting go, and tell the person you are leaving.
  5. Act as the person’s eyes. Remember, he or she is counting on you to provide accurate information about the environment. Announce obstacles, such as a curb, stairs, or other danger points, before getting to them.
  6. Remember to check over your shoulder on the side that the person is walking on and be aware of potential obstructions and other danger points.