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How the Sighted Population Can Help Those Who Are Visually Impaired

By Judy Loseff Lavin, M.S.W.
Author of Special Kids Need Special Parents

Americans rarely flinch when they see someone wearing glasses or give it a second thought if they wear glasses themselves. However, when someone has a serious visual impairment or has lost their sight altogether, it’s a different story. We often become uncomfortable. Why? One reason may be that we don’t know how to act around someone who can’t see. We wonder to ourselves: “Should I ask the impaired person if they need help? Should I take their hand to guide them across the street? Should I ignore this situation altogether?”

To answer some of these “should” questions, I interviewed Bill Jurek, a free-lance announcer and program host for 30 years with Clear Channel Communications, the owner of WLIT-FM Radio in Chicago. Jurek, who lost his own sight when he was in his 40s, has also been an NBC-TV announcer for 27 years.

Here are some of his suggestions:

Before jumping in to help, always ask if the person needs assistance. Sometimes, particularly when people have guide dogs, assistance can be counter-productive.

If someone’s struggling, ask if help is needed instead of staying silent. “Do you need to know where the door is? Can I help you flag a cab? Or, can I help you find the bus stop?” are supportive questions.

If attempting to guide someone, hold out your elbow. Let him grasp that part of your arm, instead of grabbing his hand or arm.

If someone is about to sit in a chair that another person is visibly occupying, speak up. “People have a tendency to look at the blind person (and awkwardly watch him sit in someone else’s lap) instead of saying, ‘Excuse me, that chair is taken,’” Jurek said.

When someone has a seeing-eye dog, ignore the animal. Unlike pets, service dogs (given free to those who need them) are trained for specific behaviors that help the person who can’t see. When someone talks to, pets or feeds the dog the animal’s training starts deteriorating. . “It takes a lot to train a dog to ignore people,” said Jurek, who is also a spokesperson for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, in Northtown Heights, NY. (914-245-4024) an organization that produces service dogs and works one-on-one with those who have multiple disabilities to train an animal to meet that person’s specific needs. “If a dog’s training is broken down enough, he can run in the direction of a distraction which is dangerous for the person he’s guiding,” Remember, the dog is working.

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Judith Lavin, M.S.W., author of Special Kids Need Special Parents, and a former journalist with the Chicago Sun-Times, recognized the need for an easy-to-read resource for physically and emotionally exhausted parents like herself, as well as their families, teachers, doctors and others who work with them. Lavin speaks to numerous organizations and parent groups around the nation, giving them inspiration and hope.

Lavin’s work has been featured in numerous publications such as the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Newsday, Washington Parent and Chicago Parent. In addition, she has appeared  on radio and TV news and talk shows around the U.S., including NBC-TV's Today show, PBS-TV's Small Talk for Parents and the CBS Radio Networks. You can visit Judy at