How to help someone who’s blind, by a blind person
Amit’s GoPro footage of commuters pushing past him recently went viral
One day, when A&E doctor Amit was in his early 30s, the blood vessels behind his eyes popped. He woke up and the room appeared foggy. He had drops of blood running from my eyes so, with his wife, he went to hospital. Within 48 hours he lost his sight completely and he was told “there’s nothing we can do”. He had Keratoconis which changes the shape of your corneas, however it’s very rare to lose your sight.
Amit tells me he used to be very independent and that losing his sight made him feel afraid and lonely. It’s the small things that originally got him down, making a cup of tea in the morning, pouring milk into the mug. If he would knock the mug off the side, trying to find a dustpan and brush. He had no sense of taste, his bodyclock was out of sync as he didn’t know when it was light or dark. He tells me the more tired you get, the more confused you get, the more clumsy you get. It’s a vicious cycle.
He knew he had to make adjustments, but what shocked him was the behaviour of the people around him. Amit, more than most, feels the ignorance of Londoners rushing to get places.
He started recording GoPro footage from the perspective of his Guide Dog, capturing the commuters pushing past or ignoring him, and it went viral on Twitter. “A lot of trips last winter, people would stop me and say, ‘are you okay, your dog just got kicked’. I could feel the reaction on Kika’s harness – obviously I couldn’t see when it happened but she’d stop or just behave differently.” So, something had to be done.
He was given his guide dog Kika in 2015, “when she came along, it changed our lives”.
She can memorise a number of regular journeys, select the best part of the train to board depending on entrances and exits, and even find staff members:
— Kika (@Kika_GuideDog) January 10, 2017
We asked him what steps people can take to ensure blind people feel safe:
If it looks like they could possibly need it, ask if you can help
“This is the one question I get asked a lot – how do you approach someone who’s visually impaired? I think a lot of people may think ‘does he or does he not need help?’ and they just walk away. It’s absolutely fine to go up to someone, and at least ask them if they need it. You wouldn’t believe how many times people will turn around and say ‘yes please’.
Say your name
“I think the easiest thing if you want to go up to someone is just to say your name, just say: ‘Hi, I’m, Amit, can I give you any assistance?’ or ‘can I help?’.”
Approach with a friendly tone
“When you can see, and you can see any dangers around you, you have no way of telling who’s a friendly face. I think I’ve missed that the most. But just to hear a friendly voice, just saying, ‘are you okay? Do you need a hand down the stairs? Do you want me to find a member of staff for you?’ It’s such a reassuring thing.”
Don’t grab their arm unannounced
“Sometimes you get the really friendly people asking you’re okay but sometimes people just grab your arm, and this is the worst thing you can do. I’ve had so many incidences where Kika has two paws on the train and we’re both ready to get on and people just grab you and try to get you on the train. It’s the wrong thing to do.”
“People notice us, but they also forget about us very quickly too. The moment the doors open it’s a free for all. I’ve had people say to me, ‘you shouldn’t be travelling at this time’ or ‘you’re causing danger to yourself and the people around you’, ‘everyone has to look out for you’.
“One lady stopped me at the bottom of an escalator and said I should apologise to everyone for holding them up. She had tried to walk around Kika on the escalator and I asked her not to because Kika is a guide dog. The guy behind her said ‘look we’re all fine, ignore her’. The funny thing is we actually beat this woman to the train anyway.
“Another time I was taking my son out in London for the first time in a chest harness. A woman came past and pushed Kika out of the way so I stopped her and she just said, ‘because of you I’m going to miss my train’. I had to stop my wife from pushing her down the escalators.”
If someone’s treating us unfairly, speak up
“My wife and I were getting on the train, my wife had the buggy, Kika was preparing to get on the train. The minute the doors opened everyone just rushed in front of us and this woman started shouting, saying: ‘how embarrassing, let this gentleman get on. Look at yourselves, how dare all of you treat this guy like this?’. She came out and said something.”
If someone has a guide dog, do not walk between them
This may seem obvious but the lack of awareness in busy commuters is surprising, according to Amit: “You wouldn’t believe how often people try to walk between me and a staff member, or between me and the dog.
“The people who do this are the people you don’t expect to. They’re normally well spoken, people who work in the city. They just have tunnel vision.
“If we’re going towards a flight of stairs in a station, Kika will take me to the handrail, I’ll release her harness, hold onto the rail and go up. People will walk either up or down towards us, and expect us to move.
Don’t push past someone holding a white cane or holding a guide dog
Amit says people actually tense their arm up before bumping into you, in anticipation of the collision. “People shoulder barge me out of the way a lot, I’m amazed by how often it happens.
“I always say to people – take a journey you’ve been doing for years and try doing it with your eyes shut.”
Step in if you see someone taking advantage of them
“I know I’m vulnerable when I’m out and about being blind anyway – people have tried to pickpocket me. I was on the DLR and the gentleman opposite me was apparently waving his arms in front of me, obviously checking if I could see at all. I had no idea and I didn’t react to it. When I was getting off the train, he went for my pocket. Luckily there was a guard on the train who noticed. You don’t see the danger around you.”
Tell them if there’s a delay or a notice on the board
“It’s mentally and physically tiring being visually impaired, you have so much to think about all the time. If your train is running late and it pulls into the station, everyone’s in a rush because their train is delayed – but so are we. I don’t have the ability though to look up on my phone how delayed the train is. I have to ask a member of staff or ask someone near to me.
“You don’t need to go and help every blind person, it’s small gestures like letting me know what it says.
“If someone says to me, ‘just to let you know, the train is running six minutes late,’, that’s lovely. It’s nice.”
Don’t be worried about seeming patronising
“If anything”, Amit says, “having people asking me if I need help – even when I don’t – it just makes me feel like I have friendly people around me.”
If you’ve just helped someone, make sure they know you’ve left
“I’ve had this happen to me recently. Someone took me across the road and disappeared before I could even say thanks. There I was getting my composure back, saying thank you, and there was nobody there. You find yourself talking to yourself – it’s always good to let them know you’re going.
— Kika (@Kika_GuideDog) January 5, 2017
Amit now volunteers the RNIB on a 6-week course called ‘living with sight loss’. They give you advice on how to love a more independent life, and what services are available. “I remember I was chatting to this guy who was so angry with himself because he couldn’t put toothpaste on his toothbrush. I said to him look, put it on your finger, put in in your mouth and put the toothbrush in. He was trying to do it the ‘normal way’, we find that the ‘normal’, sighted way doesn’t work for blind people, so you have to adapt.”
— Kika (@Kika_GuideDog) October 20, 2016
He finished by telling me: “It’s embarrassing being blind. I feel embarrassed. I don’t know why I feel embarrassed but I do. In a funny way I try to blend in. I don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb – you’ll find most disabled people are the same.
“The last thing I want to do is to get people to look at me by shouting and trying to get their attention. So you just stand to one side and you wait and you hope someone will come and help. It shouldn’t be that way.
“Especially if you’re doing a job where your role is to help someone, like station staff. It’s everyday commuters, too. It just takes a few seconds to let us get on or off a train, get on an escalator, get out of a lift.”