Sight Lines: Tips for Interacting with Blind Patrons
Imagine: you are an usher at a venue, casually checking tickets and giving directions. The line of eager patrons anxious to get to their seats stretches out to the periphery of your vision, so you attempt to help everyone as quickly as possible to ensure no one gets stuck outside of the doors once the seating hold begins.
“Excuse me? Can you show me to my seat?”
You automatically hold your hand out for the ticket, and then you notice a strange, long, skinny white cane that ends in a red tip and what almost looks like a golf ball attached to the end of it. The patron herself wears a pair of glasses with lenses so black, you can’t see her eyes through them. She smiles, and you freeze up.
You have no experience interacting with blind patrons. What should you do?
As ushers, we are told again and again: “you are the first person a patron encounters; you set the tone for their experience in this venue”. We are taught to smile constantly, be friendly and approachable, be knowledgeable, never tell someone “no” outright but instead always strive for another solution. But, more often than not, we are not trained in how to handle certain situations — we go to a manager instead, rather than look like a fool or do something that might warrant a reprimand. And, unfortunately, too often blind or low-vision patrons are treated as a problem, especially if they are attending a show by themselves. But, there are a few easy steps for interacting with blind patrons that you can take in order to help them have a great experience, and enable you to work in an efficient manner without calling a supervisor.
1: BE FRIENDLY
As I previously mentioned, often times a blind or low-vision patron will be accompanied by someone else. Greet them as you normally would, and ask if they need any assistance — don’t speak past them, speak to them directly. If the patron is there by themselves (and if you are in a spot where you can leave your post or have someone else cover it), ask them if they would like you to escort them. DON’T treat them in a childish or condescending way — just because they’re blind doesn’t mean that they are helpless! And, most importantly, if they do accept your help, DO NOT TOUCH OR GRAB THEM. Offer an elbow and tell them that you are doing that — you wouldn’t want someone suddenly manhandling you, right?
2: GIVE CLEAR DIRECTIONS AND DISTANCES
Whether or not the patron needs you to escort them, you can still guide them with precise directions and giving approximate distances. Try your best to use either cardinal directions, or use a clock face (there’s a pillar twenty feet away at two o’ clock, go thirty feet north through the wooden door, etc). There are several programs that help guide a blind or low-vision person through their environment, such as Aira, but it helps to give a personal touch since you know the surroundings much better than they or the guide would. Communication is key! Also, be aware of what their particular assistive item is — there are several different types of canes besides just the white-and-red cane, and someone with a guide/seeing eye dog will need different assistance than someone with just an ID cane.
3: BE AWARE OF WHAT SERVICES WILL HELP THEM
Speaking of communication, don’t assume that you know best just because you are sighted and they are not. Ask them directly what they might need, and offer options based on that — it will go a long way for helping them have a wonderful experience! Again: the patron can’t see; that doesn’t mean that they can’t think or express themselves. Likewise, don’t offer them a service that they can’t use: I have heard of several instances of my blind friends being offered closed captioning or assisted listening devices… AKA things that do absolutely nothing to help them. If your venue offers Audio Description, ask the patron if they are interested (and don’t be offended if they say no! Some people may have enough sight still to be able to enjoy the show without it, or they are more interested in the music/dialogue!), and if your venue has live AD, offer to introduce them to the Describer if he/she is available. It makes it a much more personal experience! As an added bonus, try to learn how your venue’s assistive devices work, just in case something goes wrong and you need to step in to help!
4: KNOW WHEN TO BACK OFF
As strange as it may seem working in Front of House, there is such a thing as being too helpful. If the patron says they don’t need help at all, or they are moving to disengage and continue on their own, LET THEM GO. Much like not manhandling them, it’s demeaning to them if you hover like a helicopter parent: they’ve made it this far without your help, they can manage on their own from here. By all means, keep an eye on them as they carry on their merry way, but let them make the first move if they need help once they’re past your station.
Now, hopefully you can keep these tips for interacting with blind patrons in mind the next time you encounter a blind or low-vision patron in the lobby! And, when in doubt, communicate! They won’t bite… much.