Blind in the City: The Elusive “Over There” and Other Ambiguous Communications

“Can you move down a little bit?”
“Scoot up please?”
“It’s over there.”
“That way…”
“Excuse me …. Excuse me ….!”

These and similar phrases are uttered on a regular basis in our culture. And for most people, they seem to pose few communication problems. But for me, all of the above phrases, without context clues, can leave me baffled.

When someone asks me to “move down” or “scoot up” I know they are not literally asking me to move toward the ground or toward the sky, respectively. But the terms “up” and “down” can be used to signify forward, backward, right or left. I’m assuming that sighted people gain clarity from some kind of visual cue; I can’t be sure about that, but somehow the ambiguity is resolved for them.

Similarly, many a blind person has bemoaned the frustration of being told that something is “over there.” For fun, I looked up the phrase “over there” in the dictionary, and found that it is defined as “a short distance away” with no clues about directionality. Is it a short distance to my left? Right? Front? Back? Diagonal? Again, I am told, this ambiguity is resolved for sighted people through gestures or pointing.

Finally, the phrase “excuse me” has a multitude of meanings. It can mean, “I want to get your attention,” “I want to pass you” (without a hint as to which direction I’m passing in) or “”Excuse me, I just passed gas in your presence.” How do we know what you mean?

While nonvisual communication can be challenging for folks who are used to punctuating their words with visual cues, it need not create an impasse between blind and sighted communication partners. Here are a few hints for communicating more clearly with a blind person:

  1. Use the terms right and left, but only if you are able.

  2. “Right” and “left” are unambiguous spatial terms. A person’s right side will always be on their right. Directions involving right and left thus don’t rely on any visual reference point. Consider giving information such as:
    “It’s the last door on your right.”
    “Could you scoot to your left, please?”
    “Excuse me, may I pass on your right?”

    There is an important caveat, however. In my life I’ve learned that it is fairly common for individuals to confuse left from right. This seems common enough to be its own form of neurodiversity. Thus, I sometimes get directions that are physically impossible for me to follow, like being told to turn left when there is a wall on my left. I’ve also had the confusion of someone telling me to turn left while cuing me to the right in other ways (like pointing their voice to my right or trying to physically point me to my right). This seriously scrambles my brain! In these instances, it is better not to get any directions at all than to get directions that are flipped. Furthermore, since some segment of the population has left-right confusion, it is likely that some blind individuals also experience left-right confusion and have trouble receiving information in this way.

    So, if you have a firm grasp of left from right, feel free to communicate directions in this manner. If left-right confuses you or your communication partner, consider the next suggestion:

  3. Use auditory, tactile or physical reference points.

  4. Sighted people communicate using visual reference points, like pointing to an object. When communicating with a blind person, you can use reference points accessible to our other senses. If the blind person is hearing, you can use your voice as a reference point to signal directionality. For example:
    “Could you move toward my voice?”
    “This way…” (turn and walk in the desired direction).
    You can also generate a sound cue by gently tapping on an object (if it’s appropriate for the setting). If cuing someone with your voice, let the person follow behind you, instead of trying to guide them from behind.

    Another good reference point is to communicate using landmarks on the person’s body, especially when describing physical moves (to teach dance or yoga, for instance):
    “move toward your feet.”
    “Put your left hand on your right thigh.”
    “Move to the front of your mat and face away from me.”

  5. Use touch, but only with permission.

  6. Sometimes touch is really the most effective way to convey complex spatial information, especially in cases where hearing is less effective (a deaf-blind person, a loud setting, or a very quiet one, etc.) If the relationship is not a familiar one, always ask permission before maneuvering a person’s hands to convey information. Keep in mind that we use our hands and our canes to get essential safety information as we move through space. While touch can be helpful, if it is not timed right, it can also interfere with our orientation process. For example, I use my hands to locate the back and seat of a chair before sitting down. Sometimes someone will, with all good intentions, hold one or both of my hands while I am trying to sit down in a chair, which feels very unsafe. A better strategy is to either verbally cue where the chair is, let me locate the chair myself using my cane, or simply place my hand on the back of the chair and then leave me to sit down. Never use a blind person’s cane as a pointer because we need our canes to be on the ground picking up essential information about what is on the ground. Instead, and only with permission, you can point the person’s other hand in the desired direction. Another touch-based strategy is “hand under hand” in which you simply model an action while the blind person places their hands on top of yours to learn what you are doing.

Related Reading:
“Over There”

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