A career planning and employment resource for people who are blind or partially sighted

Employer Concerns: Getting Around without Good Vision

You have likely seen people who are blind or partially sighted walking with a long, white cane or a dog guide, or holding the arm (or, in some cultures, the shoulder) of a sighted person. The cane, the dog guide, and the sighted companion are all mobility tools – things to help an individual who cannot see well navigate through the environment safely. In professional terminology this is known as mobility.

To move from one space to another, individuals must know where they are and how to get to where they want to be. This is known as orientation. The professional who is trained to teach these skills to people who are blind or partially sighted is an orientation and mobility (O&M) specialist (sometimes called an instructor, trainer, consultant, or officer).

Orientation and Mobility (O&M) tips

Orientation to the workplace involves learning where the important destinations workers travel to and from within the building or environment are. Although your employee may make arrangements with an O&M instructor, it’s your responsibility to show your employee and the trainer the critical areas, such as their desk or workstation, the washrooms, the breakroom or lounge and the cafeteria, lunchroom or snack area. 

Where are other important places located? The supervisor’s office, co-workers' offices, clerical offices, personnel, accounting and payroll departments, Where are the fire exits? Are there areas with restricted access? Are there areas which pose potential health hazards? All of these areas need to be identified and the most appropriate routes determined.

These are just some suggestions for you to think about before getting started. The worker with  vision loss and their specially trained staff will work with you to determine what routes need to be taught and in what order.  However, it will be greatly appreciated if you've given some thought to your workplace's physical layout and where the most important areas are located.

Walking with a white cane enables people without good sight to find objects such as curbs, stairs, or furniture. Once oriented, individuals using canes are often able to move through an environment unassisted and once familiar with an area, a cane user will not necessarily use their white cane every time they move around. They may instead simply move about using protective techniques (one hand at mid body and one hand at the face) or a trailing technique (using a hand to trail along a wall or other permanent structure to find one’s way). 

It’s important to note that it’s inappropriate to grab a person or his cane as he or she is traveling – specific verbal cues are much more helpful. Don’t give vague directions such as, “It’s over there”. Be specific, for example, “The table is to your left about a metre away.” Don’t forget to use the other person’s body for reference, not your own.

Like white cane users, dog guide users will be able to travel independently once they have been oriented to an area; however, it’s important to understand that the person directs the dog on where to go and how to get there – the dog is simply a mobility tool. If you have an employee who uses a dog guide, it’s important for you and the other workers to understand that the dog guide is not a pet. 

Dog guides are not to be petted or played with while working (anytime they are in their harnesses). Nor is it allowable to feed a dog guide. Your worker may allow you to pet his or her dog when the dog is at rest, but always ask before touching a dog guide. Calling or talking to a working dog may distract the dog and should be avoided. Likewise, grabbing the dog's harness could place both the dog and owner in danger.

Using the sighted guide technique, the person with the visual loss holds a sighted person just above the elbow and allows that person to lead. The sighted person should not take the person's elbow and push them. Nor should the sighted person grab an arm or hand and drag them. If you’re acting as someone's sighted guide, offer your elbow and remember that you’ll need to point out upcoming obstacles, like low lying branches. 

If you come to a flight of stairs, pause and then proceed up or down no more than one step in front of the person you are leading. It’s also good practice to indicate the location of the staircase railing. As you prepare to enter or exit a building or room, it’s helpful to verbally alert your traveling companion as to which side the door is hinged and whether the door swings in or out.

Another component of orientation, which does not involve an O&M specialist or any other professional, is introducing your employee to other people within the workplace. The ritual of introductions is important for all new workers and it shouldn't be overlooked with a new employee with vision loss.

Sometimes when people who've never met a person who is blind or partially sighted are first introduced, they talk to the person introducing them, rather than directly to the person with vision loss. Not only is this unnecessary, it’s demeaning. Talk directly to them as you would anyone else.

Introduce the key personnel to your new employee. However, don’t expect a person who is blind or partially sighted to be able to immediately recognize everyone, including you, by voice. It’s important to identify who you are every time you approach someone who is blind or partially sighted unless you’re told it’s unnecessary.

Eventually, they will recognize many people's voices without them having to state who they are each time. And, don't walk away from a conversation or out of an office without saying that you are doing so because they may not realize that you’ve left.

Although employers frequently express concern about workers with visual loss because they are unable to drive, it’s important to recognize that most of these workers have dealt with transportation challenges all of their lives. 

Many individuals will find housing close to their work so that they can walk to work or they’ll pick a housing location that’s on a public transit route. If your community has adequate public transportation, it’s likely the worker will use it. Some communities also have paratransit services. Paratransit services typically provide door to door transportation to individuals with any type of mobility impairment, including blindness. 

Communities without public transportation or paratransit services pose more difficult challenges. Some workers will advertise to join a car pool and contribute gas money to the drivers. Others hire drivers to take them to and from work and other places they need to go or use taxi services.

Preferred methods of transportation vary from person to person. Getting to and from work is the responsibility of the worker but you can help by seeing if any coworkers are interested in carpooling. ​​​