Four tips for guiding blind walkers

By Maria Johnson

A long brisk walk on a sunny morning. That is something I love to do when I’m not teaching group fitness classes at the gym. I hit the hills alone with my thoughts to keep me company. Alone. All alone. Well, that’s how it used to be…

Walking is a great activity for many, even for those who are legally blind. I prefer a long power walk over a short run any day. Personally, I believe that you’re either a runner, or you’re not. I’m not. And that whole “runner’s high” thing… what is that?  I never, ever, felt it.  Perhaps it’s because I would silently chant “I hate this, I hate this…” with every mile I ran. I eventually stopped running and scaled back to power walking. If you’re blind, and you want to get outside, feel the sun on your face, and increase your activity level (not by running), you might want to pair up with a sighted guide and walk off your worries!! I understand that not everybody needs a guide, but if you do, just ask a friend, co-worker, or family member to accompany you.

So, you may think you know what to do as a guide. How hard could it be? Just grab ‘n go, right? Uh…No! Trust me, you’ll probably regret that approach at some point and it won’t be pretty….

From a blind walker’s perspective, here are 4 simple tips to help make your experience as a sighted guide an enjoyable one. At least I hope they do!

1) Visualize Their Vision Loss. ~ Don’t be afraid to ask your walker about their vision. It’s helpful to understand if the person you’re walking with has any usable vision. Most people who are legally blind have some vision. For instance, they may be able to see contrast, or the shape of people and objects around them. They might only have some  peripheral or central vision, or no vision at all. You will need to take their level of vision into consideration when communicating during the walk.

2) Try A Tether When Together. ~ This may seem weird, but get over it! A tether is a valuable “tool” held between the guide and the walker. It helps the walker to feel secure as they stay aligned with you. Some may also feel the hint of a change in direction or walking pace through the tether. (Remember, we’re not running!) …..Oh…and don’t eeeven think of calling it a “leash”, UNLESS you’re willing to carry treats in your pocket! FYI, I prefer dark chocolate….. Try different ways of “connecting” to each other. For example… you can use a shoe lace with each end tied into small loops, a rope with knots at each end or tie the ends to make a large loop. Figure out what material and length works best for you and the walker. Get creative and colorful!

3) Explain The Terrain. Communication is really important. Seriously, you need to be a good talker to be a successful guide walker. You will want to think about the language you use to describe the terrain and obstacles, or when passing other walkers, runners, or cyclists on the road. For example, you can use cues like bumpy, uneven, rocky, uphill, downhill, turn right, turn left, tree branches overhead, curb, quicksand, pub on the right, or glass of wine on left, etc. etc…okay, okay, no one has offered me a glass of wine on a walk……….yet! Well, I’m sure you guys get the idea! Just keep your descriptions clear and simple.

4) Don’t commit if you’re not a fit. ~ Please don’t feel obligated to say “yes” if asked to be a guide. If you are not comfortable with the idea, then don’t do it. It’s okay. It’s not a BFF issue, it’s a practical and confidence thing. We just don’t want to be tethered to a hazardous hot mess, all because you couldn’t say “No”. Feel free to offer when YOU are ready!

So, if you’re interested…it’s a great opportunity to get outside, breathe some fresh air, feel the sunshine, and hit the pavement with your favorite blind buddy!