8 Human Guide Techniques for People With Visual Impairments
What Are Human Guide Techniques?
Human guide techniques are orientation and mobility methods by which one person leads another through an area. Often called “sighted-guide,” the more modern term of 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).
However, people with vision loss may wish to show friends, coworkers, and others some level of human guide techniques. Yet, 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 human guide.
How to Perform Basic Human Guide
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."
Get Verbal Consent Before Proceeding
Initially, verbal consent must be obtained in order to proceed with human guide. 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 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.
4. Providing Protection
Essentially, human guide is the main way many people who have recently loss 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.
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, preventing the traveler from 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, waiting for the traveler. Or the guide may do an “arm pull.”
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.
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.” This means 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.
Have you ever used human guide techniques?
Which one of these guide techniques do you think will present the greatest challenge to carry out?
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.