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Monday, 13 May 2013

On Giving Directions to the Blind

Last week I visited the RNIB to use their research library. I had found a couple of promising nineteenth-century texts through their online catalogue and as I had to be in London on Friday anyway, I made an appointment and requested the materials.

As this was my first visit to Judd Street I was looking forward to seeing how visiting an overtly blind-friendly environment differed from my usual experiences. I find going to unfamiliar places challenging and disorienting and usually need some help to find my way around at first. But surely the RNIB would be different?

I planned my route from King's Cross using the excellent map I found on the RNIB website. As well as giving street names in large print, it has useful landmarks like shops, traffic lights and post boxes marked on it too. Even though I'd never been there before I easily found my way to the well-signed entrance.

But once I was inside things were less clear. At a desk which I took to be Reception I gave my name and asked directions to the research library. The response I received was not quite what I was expecting: 'Just through there' said the receptionist, pointing vaguely. As I don't find visual gestures very enlightening, I asked for a bit more detail: 'It's just down there' wasn't quite the response I was hoping for.

Nonplussed by this less-than-helpful welcome, I headed into what I now know is the shop and asked the next person I came across for directions. He didn't appear to know that the RNIB had a research library, but his colleague helpfully told me to walk round to my left until I came to a low desk. Finally a set of directions that I could relate to! I collected my documents and spent a happy couple of hours reading about Victorian visitors to the Institute for the Blind in Paris.

But my mind kept wandering back to my disappointing welcome. How was it that the UK's leading charity for blind people was so resolutely reliant on the visual? I had been expecting tactile floor guides, Braille notices and an abundance of aural clues. Instead I was given a welcome that compared pretty unfavourably with the help I get in most 'sighted' environments.

At first I was shocked and upset that the RNIB of all people weren't doing more to challenge the hierarchy of the senses. But then I had a thought. One of the main aims of the RNIB is to help those with sight loss come to terms with their condition. They believe in 'rehabilitation' 'adaptation' and 'quality of life'. So perhaps their unhelpful welcome was not a result of ignorance or lack of imagination. Maybe it was a rather abrupt way of reminding me that it is my responsibility to adjust to the resolutely visual world in which I find myself.


  1. Interesting thoughts on something as simple as giving directions. I enjoy your perspective that you share here on Blind Spot.

  2. I am surprised and unsurprised by this situation. I am surprised because, like you, I would expect more courtesy and consciousness from an organization that regularly interacts with blind people. However, I am unsurprised because I've been to a number of charity events for blind people that do not accommodate or inform in an accessible manner.

    My two favorite examples are these:
    1. I gave a seminar on "disability etiquette" for the Foundation Fighting Blindness, and our meeting was in the ballroom of a local hotel. The sign in the lobby that announced our event was neither in large print nor braille. And no guide stood in the lobby to direct blind or sighted attendees.
    2. I worked at a summer program for blind and visually impaired teenagers, a program designed to teach them independent living skills. Though the name tags had large print, the blind students did not have braille on their name tags. And the instructors kept getting frustrated with blind students for losing their name tags. As the only blind person on staff, I had to tell them, "You can't expect a blind kid to keep track of a name tag that he can't read! How does he know it's his?" They were shocked to hear this.

  3. Excellent article, you sharing famous practices of comments area, there is many examples ideas.
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  4. Wooh this is very informative article. Thank you so much.

  5. Hi there - just discovered your blog and am so excited to read on!

    Thank you for writing about this. I so often try to explain the difficulty in providing standard visual directions to someone with low vision. It is saddening that even organizations one would hope would be more accessible can still so often miss the mark.

    At the same time, I am always exceedingly delighted when organizations, retailers, and businesses - or really just individual people - have the increased sensitivity to adapt their directions to be less visual.