Becoming a sighted guide

Authored by Sarah Bell


Do I help? Will I be interfering? Am I doing the right thing? Sighted people can often feel unsure about approaching someone with a visual impairment.

Too many people walk straight past blind or partially sighted people who may need assistance, in part through lack of awareness and in part because they do not know how best to help. 

So I thought it might be useful to share some sighted guiding tips that I picked up during a recent training course completed with Guide Dogs UK.

The MyGuide Programme is designed to help people with visual impairments to build confidence in getting out and about in the community. It provides mobility training (using a cane for example) and pairs people up with a trained volunteer to work towards mobility goals. These might include building fitness, learning familiar routes with the support of a sighted guide, or negotiating public transport. 

Here are some of the main points discussed in the training course, from approaching someone to ask if they need assistance, to helping them to negotiate potentially tricky situations, and  learning what not to do.

Remember, the best thing to do is to ask whether, how and where someone would like to be guided, without being offended if someone declines the offer.

Approaching someone

If you think someone might need a hand, introduce yourself - perhaps with a gentle tap on their shoulder so they know you are talking to them. Ask if they would like any assistance and if so, let them hold the back of your arm just near the elbow - do not grab theirs. 

Sometimes, guide dog users with a dog in harness will need help too, in a busy place for example, when getting on or off public transport or when trying to cross a busy road. They will indicate this by allowing the harness handle to lie flat on the dog’s back, whilst keeping hold of the lead.

A guide dog usually walks to the left of the owner - if this is the case, allow the owner to take your left arm if they do need assistance so that the dog is opposite you. 

On the move, negotiating obstacles

If someone (with or without a guide dog or cane) confirms that they would like some assistance, ask where they would like to go. Once you have got your bearings, start walking together, allowing them to follow approximately half a step behind you, still holding your arm. 

Whilst walking, let them know if you are approaching any relevant obstacles, such as kerbs (indicate if the kerb is a step up or down), gaps, potholes and puddles. Try to avoid vague spatial language such as ‘over there’, or ‘back there’ - instead use more precise instructions such as ‘on your left’ and ‘in five paces’ . 

If you reach a narrow space, straighten your guiding arm and move it to the middle of your back. The person you’re guiding can then slide their hand down to your wrist and step in behind you, walking slowly together in single file through the space.

If you reach a door, ensure the person you are guiding is on the hinge side of the door. Indicate whether it opens away from or towards you, and to the right or the left. Use your guiding arm to open it, and allow the person you are guiding to slide their hand down your arm to find the door. They can then hold it open and follow you through. If they have a guide dog, it may be easiest to open the door, let them go through first and join them on the other side.  

If you are helping the person into a car, let them know if the car is facing left or right, open the car door and use the same technique to guide them to it. After they have located the door using your guiding arm, use your guiding arm again to help them locate the top of the doorframe, and protect their head as they enter the car. 

If you reach stairs, place your guiding arm on the handrail and allow the person you are guiding to slide their hand down to find the rail. You can then stand to their other side and allow them to take your arm for support. Indicate whether the stairs go up or down. Pause to allow them to locate the first step, and then continue up or down the stairs, ensuring they are only one step behind you. Let them know when you are approaching the last step. Beware of short handrails that finish before the last step as these can be somewhat disorientating!

If you are guiding someone to a chair, describe what sort of chair it is, does it have arms, wheels, is there a table in front? Place the hand of your guiding arm on the back of the chair, so that they can slide their hand down your arm to locate it and orientate themselves appropriately to be able to sit down into the chair. 

When you leave

When you have helped the person you have been guiding to their requested destination, always check they know where they are, that they are in a safe space and make sure you tell the person when you are leaving. 

Further information

All these tips are also available on the website for Guide Dogs UK, and are illustrated in a leaflet that can be downloaded online and in a two-part video.

Part I covers how to approach someone to offer help, and how to negotiate narrow spaces, stairs and doorways, and cross busy roads. Part II discusses how to guide someone to a seat, into a car, a train or bus, as well as providing some specific tips for helping guide dog users.