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Visual Impairment Types and Communication Tips

According to the Industries for the Blind and Visually Impaired, the definition of visual impairment is “a decrease in the ability to see to a certain degree that causes problems not fixable by usual means, such as glasses.” Blindness is “the state of being unable to see due to injury, disease, or genetic condition.”

Types of visual impairment

In the U.S., there are four terms used to describe different levels of vision impairment and blindness—partially sighted, low vision, legally blind, and totally blind.

Partially sighted:

a person has partial vision, either in one or both eyes.

Low vision:

a severe visual impairment in which visual acuity is 20/70 or poorer in the better-seeing eye and cannot improve with glasses or contacts.

Legally blind:

a person has a corrected vision of 20/200 in their best-seeing eye. If visual aids such as glasses can correct a person’s vision to 20/20, they are not considered legally blind.

Totally blind:

a complete loss of sight.

Tips for communicating with people who are blind or visually impaired

Now that you have a better understanding of the spectrum of visual impairments, here are a few things to keep in mind when talking with people who are partially sighted or have low vision, or those who are legally or totally blind.

  • Identify yourself by name when you approach a person with a vision disability and tell the person when you are leaving the conversation or area.
  • Use a normal tone of voice. (Curiously, people with vision disabilities are often shouted at.)
  • Be cautious of over-using vision references such as “see” or “look,” or metaphors for sight, but don’t overthink it. The person is likely accustomed to these being used in conversation.
  • Provide a person with a visual impairment a brief description of the surroundings; for example, “There is a table in the middle of the room, about six feet in front of you.”
  • Use descriptive phrases that relate to sound, smell, and distance when guiding a visually impaired person.
  • When you are walking with someone with a visual impairment, offer the use of your arm. If your assistance is accepted, the best practice is to offer your elbow and allow the person with the vision disability to direct you. Walk as you normally would.
  • Guide dogs are working animals and should not be treated as pets.
  • Do not grab or try to steer the cane of a person with a visual impairment.
  • Provide multiple format options—large print, audio, digital text, Braille—on a routine basis, if possible. Seek to determine the format preferred by each person with a visual impairment. Do not assume what format an individual uses or prefers.
  • Ensure that there is adequate lighting.
  • Offer large print routinely for bulletins, song sheets, and other church publications (and Braille when requested in advance).
  • Have simple, non-busy backgrounds on print materials, websites, and all that is projected, including song lyrics.
  • Direct your comments, questions, or concerns to the person with a visual impairment, not to his or her companion (abridged from “Basic Etiquette: People with Visual Impairments,” National Center on Workforce and Disability).
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