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8 Human Guide Techniques for People With Visual Impairments

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This photo is a demonstration of one human guide technique.

This photo is a demonstration of one human guide technique.

What Are Human Guide Techniques?

Human guide techniques are orientation and mobility methods by which one person leads another through an area. Although guides are often called "sighted guides," the more modern term "human guide" is acceptable because people with visual impairments may lead each other. For convenience, even successful independent travelers who may use a white cane or dog guide may wish to use human guide techniques.

Although the guide’s responsibility relates to navigating around objects safely, the individual being led actively responds with proper body positioning as the two move through the environment. For instruction in human guide techniques along with more advanced travel methods, people with visual impairments receive training from Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialists (COMS).

People with vision loss may wish to show friends, coworkers, and others some level of human guide techniques. The level of exposure to these methods may vary depending on the interaction. For example, a stranger may simply need to be informed about how to assist with crossing an unfamiliar street. On the other hand, a relative may need to know about how to aid with traveling through narrow passages, negotiating stairs, or helping in other ways. Below, I’ve provided some information about how most people can successfully perform the methods of a human guide.

How to Perform Basic Human Guide Techniques

As a counselor with teacher training, I’ve helped my students, their parents, and clients with these methods of traveling with a human partner as a step in eventually maximizing independence while involving COMS.

1. The Basics of Moving Around

In the photo above, I am using a human guide technique with my daughter, Meghan, a health care specialist. My wife, Lori, a long-time professional in the field of visual impairments, took the photos. Together, we want to help others by demonstrating these methods of travel for a person with vision loss and a guide. Throughout this article, I will refer to the person leading as "the guide," and the person being led will be referred to as "the "traveler."

Initially, verbal consent must be obtained in order to proceed with human guide techniques. After both parties have agreed to walk together, the guide should allow his/her elbow to be taken. The journeyer should grip the other’s arm, and the two can then walk. The correct way to do this is shown in the first photo.

Be Mindful of Your Grip

Notice how my grip is tight on my daughter’s arm, but not to the point of hurting her. Also, my grip, which is slightly above the elbow, is not loose enough that I can’t follow her body positioning. Following my daughter’s body motions indicate when we may need to change directions, stop, or avoid obstacles, etc.

Body Positioning Is Also Important

I’m about a half-step behind Meghan. She has time to indicate if we need to adjust our path urgently because of that fact. My guide is able to look directly behind, making sure our shoulders are aligned as we walk.

2. Reversing Direction

Occasionally, the traveling duo may need to reverse directions. This is done by the two stopping, then the guide faces the proper direction on the route. The traveler then turns in that direction, taking the guide’s elbow. The two are able to continue moving afterwards.

3. Changing Sides

The guide and traveler stop or slow their pace. This allows the traveler to move across the guide’s back, grasping the arm on the opposite side of the guide’s body. (The traveler may wish to switch hands above the elbow of the guiding arm while crossing his/her body behind the guide.) After grasping the other arm, the two can then continue on their route.

Human guide techniques allow for the guide to signal when the route ahead may be dangerous.

Human guide techniques allow for the guide to signal when the route ahead may be dangerous.

4. Providing Protection

Essentially, human guide is the main way many people who have recently lost their vision travel through familiar and unfamiliar environments. By contrast, experienced long cane users and those who use dog guides are normally comfortable with their level of skills to travel independently through most areas. However, one of the most important aspects of human guide has to do with helping individuals avoid obstacles in the travel path. The photo demonstrates how the guide can use the arm to which the person being led is holding to signal for him/her to halt. In this instance, both parties stop until safe travel can continue. The guiding arm is then returned to the guide’s side.

Human guide techniques allow for people to move up and down stairs safely.

Human guide techniques allow for people to move up and down stairs safely.

5. Descending Stairs

In the photo, we are descending stairs. For this technique, like others, the experience of the guide and traveler must be considered. The guide pauses, tensing the arm and preventing the traveler from experiencing an accident. The traveler may or may not desire the handrail. The traveler follows one step behind the guide. The guide indicates the landing by a gentle arm-pull or by waiting for the traveler to clear the last step.

6. Ascending Stairs

Depending on the experience of the traveler and the guide, this can be done with or without the guide pausing after taking the first step. The traveler may or may not wish to find the handrail. The traveler follows one step behind the guide. At the landing, the guide may signal the last step has been reached by pausing and waiting for the traveler. Or the guide may do an "arm pull."

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Meghan demonstrates the correct technique for moving safely through a narrow space.

Meghan demonstrates the correct technique for moving safely through a narrow space.

7. Moving Through Narrow Walkways

Sometimes, the guide must let the traveler know the route has become narrow. The guiding arm is put behind the back at about the midway point. The traveler follows the guide arm, staying behind the guide until the narrow space becomes safe for the two to walk in the normal manner. At that point, the guide signals it is safe by returning the arm from behind his/her back with the traveler following.

This technique may be useful when walking through crowded rooms, maneuvering at a stadium, walking through a cafeteria, or in any situation where the path is not wide enough for the two to walk side by side.

Assistance may be needed in finding a seat.

Assistance may be needed in finding a seat.

8. Finding a Chair

The guide should ask the traveler if he/she would like a seat. If yes, then the guide should lead the traveler to a chair. The guide would then place the hand of the guiding arm on the back of the chair. The traveler would follow the arm down with his/her hand to locate the seat. The photo above demonstrates this technique.

Final Thoughts on Assisting a Person with a Visual Impairment as a Guide

  • After assisting a person with human guide techniques, don’t leave him/her "stranded in space," meaning do not leave the person with a visual impairment standing in a potentially dangerous area, such as a hallway. Help by leading a person to a wall not in the walking path or locating a chair after the traveler consents to doing so.
  • The World Health Organization estimated approximately 250 million people had visual impairments globally in 2017. In years to come, some research suggests that number will triple. For this reason, learning some human guide techniques may be beneficial for many individuals. Nevertheless, the need for human guide techniques will vary from person to person and from situation to situation. But these techniques can be mastered with practice and time.


Fazzi, D. L., & Petersmeyer, B. A. (2001). Imagining the possibilities: creative approaches to orientation and mobility instruction for persons who are visually impaired. New York: AFB Press.

Jacobson, W. H. (1993). The art and science of teaching orientation and mobility to persons with visual impairments (2nd ed.). New York: AFB Press.

Levack, N. & Smith, M. (1997). Teaching Students with Visual and Multiple Impairments: A Resource Guide. Austin, TX: Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Tim Truzy (author) from U.S.A. on August 07, 2019:

Thanks, Nell,

I appreciate your feedback. Your comment means much to me.

Vision loss impacts the entire world in some degree. No nation is immune.

In fact, much respect from me to the British. O&M specialists from this country visited your nation to better learn and develop techniques for navigating and walking across the "round-about," those circles that replace intersections on streets. Many innovations for individuals with visual impairments came out of those meetings.

Thanks for your comment again.

Tim Truzy (author) from U.S.A. on February 24, 2019:

There are some interesting questions considering people with disabilities which this article raises. Generally, a person with a disability over time develops some patience with a lack of knowledge by the public. People with disabilities usually understand that if the knowledge about their disabling conditions is provided at an early age, then fear can be reduced for these youth. That's why I do lectures when possible and visit my local schools to talk about vision loss.

In addition, I have informed cashiers, waitresses, and clerks who have encountered individuals with disabilities to apply a simple rule: treat individuals how they wish to be treated, avoiding assumptions which could lead to conflict. Don't assume you know best for a person. This is a good rule in any circumstance.

Because of stereotypical thinking and lack of contact, people make generalizations not based on fact. This is the cognitive aspect of human nature. We try to make things fit into our "world view," which can create many unnecessary obstacles and challenges. Essentially, when in doubt, ask.

Thanks for reading.


Nell Rose from England on October 06, 2018:

An interesting article that is such a help for someone who is helping an impaired sight person.

Tim Truzy (author) from U.S.A. on October 05, 2018:

Thanks, Sean,

We are all in the human care and education arena in my little family. I appreciate your feedback. May your day be peaceful and rewarding.

Much respect and admiration for an inspiring and loving human being who reaches out to others through compassionate and caring works from the heart,,



Ioannis Arvanitis from Greece, Almyros on October 05, 2018:

One more excellent article, my dear brother, helpful and full of care. Your willing to give us ways to serve people's need is an opportunity to serve God! I am happy to see all your family participate; you have a beautiful family.

God Bless all of you, your luminous Hearts!


Tim Truzy (author) from U.S.A. on October 04, 2018:

Thank you, Ms. Dora,

I enjoyed putting this together because everyone likes to be able to get around. Sometimes, we all need a little assistance with some task or another.

I appreciate your comment.

To a kind, thought-provoking, prolific writer, and spiritually wise soul,

Much respect and admiration,



Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on October 04, 2018:

Clear instructions and very helpful! Thanks for bring your insights on this topic to our attention.

Tim Truzy (author) from U.S.A. on October 04, 2018:

Hi, Pamela,

It's really a personal comfort level poll. Over time, most of these techniques can be mastered. Stairs can be tricky, but I've worked with people who mastered climbing and descending stairs as guides, and I know you could, too.

Your comment means much to me because as an experienced RN, you have had to deal with many people on many different levels of health and safety. It's great to read your thoughts on human guide. I really appreciate it.

To an informative, talented, and thought provoking writer,

I send much respect and gratitude.

May your day be peaceful and rewarding.



Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on October 04, 2018:

This is an excellent guide for someone to guide a visually impaired person. I haven't anyone with visual impairment among family or friends, so this is all new to be. I would think stairsmight be the toughest guide, just because a fall would be awful, but I really don't now the answer to the last poll.

Tim Truzy (author) from U.S.A. on October 03, 2018:

Thanks, Flourish,

Nice of you to drop by.

Your grandfather sounds like an extraordinary person. The visual condition he experienced is one most vision specialists expect to see occurring more often, especially as the population ages.

I'm glad to see you had some awareness of these techniques. That's really fabulous.

However, I'm not surprised.

People like you and Eric, and a few other writers on this site, seemed to be tuned in to many aspects of life.

To an always informative, entertaining, and thought provoking writer,

I pray your day is peaceful, Flourish,

Much respect and admiration,


Tim Truzy (author) from U.S.A. on October 03, 2018:

Thanks, Eric,

I always try to emphasize that beneath it all we all are the same.

Here's a true story:

One of my students who is totally blind was crossing a street. She has traveled to Israel, Japan, and Great Britain on her own. She is a confident adult, a daring explorer.

A well-intended person walked up, grabbed my student, dragging her across the street without asking if she needed assistance. My student was terrified. Although everything worked out find, she thought in the process she could have been injured, the guy could have been a mugger, or any number of potentially dangerous things went through her head.

My student is also a third-degree black belt, and she was about to defend herself after they cross the street if the guy continued to hold her arm.

I agree with love answering many questions, solving many problems, making our world a better place, but love without knowledge can be problematic, at the least, fatal, at worse.

I'm like you, trying to bridge the gaps with knowledge because we all want to live happily in this world.

Thanks for your comment.

I hadn't thought about that student in years.

Thanks for bringing back some fond memories.

Much respect and admiration,

To a writer who always leaves me with much to think about from his wonderful works,

God bless you, Eric.



FlourishAnyway from USA on October 03, 2018:

This is very helpful. My grandfather has passed on now but he had lost his sight completely due to macular degeneration, and being blind gave him a very hard time. He felt stranded in the house with my grandmother and my mentally ill aunt, both of who had high care needs themselves. He previously was their caretaker and took his dogs out to the river to enjoy the outside every day. No one else in the home drove. On the occasions when my mom or I took went out with him we used techniques like these with him to assist him in getting around.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on October 03, 2018:

This is great Tim. Brings back memories of my mom near the end.

I have this friend named Bill and he teaches writing here. But to me he teaches me about life and our perspectives.

You seem to write about folks have a tough go of it, but really it is about love that we can share, by thinking.


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