Blind in the City: Human Guide 101

“Human guide” is a common term for two people walking together with one person guiding the other, or with both pedestrians physically connected in some way. Over my lifetime, while walking from one point to another, I have received human guide from many sighted people and some blind people. I have also guided some blind people and a few sighted people.

Many sighted people can be effective guides for blind people. However, the guiding process can sometimes be awkward at first. I’ve learned that awkwardness often arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of human guide for the blind pedestrian. I hope to clear up confusion around the purposes of human guide in this post. I will then address some details of how to be an effective guide.

Purposes of Human Guide
A common acronym used in the blindness community is “O&M” which stands for “orientation and mobility.” Orientation involves identifying where one is in space, and figuring out how to get to a desired destination. Mobility is the mechanical process of moving to that destination and, ideally, avoiding obstacles or hazards along the way.

Most blind pedestrians use some sort of “mobility aid” to move through space independently. Most commonly this is a white cane or a guide dog. Both tools can effectively help the user avoid obstacles and follow a clear path through space. Most blind people without physical disabilities need relatively little help from others with the mobility process. We can manage steps, bumpy terrain, and other physical challenges without a lot of support.

Orientation is a different story, however. Typical sighted travelers rely on a variety of visual cues for orientation, including maps, street signage, and visual landmarks. As blind people, we often lack access to some or all of these orientation cues. We can learn to orient ourselves to a space over time, but when first visiting an unfamiliar place, human guide can be very helpful for orientation.

So although human guide can serve several purposes, the primary benefit is to assist with orientation and navigation. Human guides can share, through vocal or physical cues, information about which direction to travel, when to turn, and when a destination has been reached.

Sometimes though, people assume that blind people need help with physical mobility more than with orientation. Sometimes people may try to guide us in ways that control our movement rather than providing navigational cues. The most common example I encounter is the individual who tries to guide me from behind. This person may walk behind or very close beside me and attempt to steer my body with their hands. They may poise themselves to catch me from falling or to guard me from obstacles. This may be driven by the sighted guide’s desire to keep me in their line of sight. However, guiding from behind is not an efficient way to give me orientation cues. If I’m in the lead, and I don’t know the route, I am apt to miss turns or pass my destination. Furthermore, being pushed forward or from the side can disrupt my center of balance. If I do happen to bump an obstacle (that my cane misses for example) while being “guided” in this manner, the consequences can be quite dangerous.

Once it is understood that the primary purpose of guiding is orientation, then it makes sense that the guide will want to be in front. The person being guided can follow behind and will know to turn, stop, etc. when the guide does the same.

Notably, while orientation is usually the primary purpose of human guide, sometimes a good guide can also offer physical support, for example if the person being guided has a physical disability or limited balance. However, even in those situations it is usually most effective for the person receiving guidance to be behind the guide leaning on them, rather than the reverse. Good guides can also help with obstacle avoidance, but again, this is best accomplished when the guide is in front. The person being guided will model their own movement after what the guide is doing, such as stepping up or down when the guide is felt doing this action.

Tips for Effective Human Guide

  • Before initiating human guide, find out if the individual wants to be guided verbally or physically. Sometimes just giving some verbal directions, or walking beside the individual without physical contact, is preferable, for instance if the individual is using both hands, or is uncomfortable with physical touching. If you are guiding without physical contact, stay in front of or beside the individual, and verbally let them know if you are turning (or simply have a conversation and they will follow your voice cues). Be sure to give the individual enough space to sweep their cane if they are using one.

  • In conventional human guide in the United States, the individual being guided will simply hold the guide’s elbow and walk a half-step behind, or beside the guide. If an adult is guiding a child, the child may hold the adult’s wrist. In different cultures, conventions for human guide may be slightly different.

  • You can have a natural conversation during human guide, and do not need to announce steps, turns, etc. since the person following you will pick up on those cues. Most people continue to use their cane or dog while being guided.

  • Never push, pull or steer a person’s body or their accessories (backpack, purse etc.), unless you know the person well and you know that form of guidance works well for them. In typical human guide, the person being guided is always in control of their movement, and they can disengage from the guidance at any time.

  • Variations: Sometimes two individuals may walk beside one another with elbows linked. This is not for guidance purposes, but to help the two people (both blind, or one blind and one sighted) stay together in a crowd. Occasionally, a group of blind people may decide to form a “train” with each person holding the arm or shoulder of the person in front, and a guide at the very front leading. This is not an efficient way to travel long distances, but may work well for very brief trips like guiding a group of blind people to a specific table in a busy restaurant. And finally, for two close friends or intimates blind or sighted, holding hands is a fine way to travel.

One thought on “Blind in the City: Human Guide 101

  1. What an excellent description of human guide and the reasons for it! I will share with coworkers and students for sure. I did want to point out that a guide dog would not be used during human guide, as this would confuse the dog. Someone might heel her dog while walking in human guide position, but the dog would not be responsible for guiding at that point. I just wanted to share for clarity’s sake. Thanks again for such a well-written and informative piece.

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