Working with Individuals with Blindness or Visual Impairment in Emergencies

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May 2018 Guardian of Public Health Banner

Working with Individuals with Blindness or Visual Impairment in Emergencies

Alice Frame, MA - Program Coordinator, Disability Health Unit - Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

Emergency responders must be prepared to meet the needs of everyone during a disaster – including people with disabilities. Some of these individuals may have unique needs and different methods of navigation and interaction than what emergency personnel are accustomed to.  For example, an estimated 1.3 million American adults are legally blind, and 14 million Americans 12 years and older have some level of self-reported visual impairment. 

There are a few common misconceptions about blindness and visual impairment that should be addressed:

  • Being legally blind doesn’t mean that a person lives in complete darkness. Most individuals considered legally blind have some level of vision - either light perceptions or shapes/shadows. It’s also important to understand that many people who are legally blind do have functional vision through corrective lenses or glasses. However, if their glasses or lenses are missing or broken (which could reasonably happen in an emergency), they may no longer have functional vision.
  • Not all individuals with blindness can read Braille. Most people with visual impairment do not read Braille – especially those who have functional vision with corrective eyewear. Even among individuals with complete blindness, there has been a shift away from learning Braille with the development of new technology.
  • Not all individuals with blindness use a white cane. Only about 2% of Americans who are blind or visually impaired use a cane.
  • Guide dogs do not navigate for visually impaired users.  The handlers know where they are going, not the dog. Service dogs help them avoid obstacles, but do not navigate for them.

What should emergency responders keep in mind when assisting people with visual impairment or blindness in a disaster?

First, make sure to narrate anything that is happening.  It is important to talk when entering a room, so no one is startled. Speak naturally and directly to the individual – there’s no need to shout, because chances are, his or her hearing is just fine. Avoid using gestures to direct people – make sure to provide verbal instructions. Second, as with any person, always ask before helping. It’s important to offer assistance, but let the individual explain what help is needed before acting. That person is the best judge of what he or she needs. Never grab or try to guide them without first asking.

Understanding the different and unique needs of individuals with disabilities can help emergency responders efficiently and effectively meet those needs in a crisis.