What to Do When You Meet an Immigrant or Refugee

Who is Blind or Has Low Vision

Adapted from materials provided by the American Foundation For the Blind training workshop, Bridging the Gap: Best Practices for Instructing Adults Who Are Visually Impaired and Have Low Literacy Skills, with additions and modifications by Robby Barnes and Sylvie Kashdan.

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1. Say “hello.” A person who is blind may not realize you are there until you speak (this is true when you meet in elevators, at bus stops, at a party, or when walking into rooms… anywhere you encounter one another). The person with low vision may know you are there but not recognize you as an acquaintance or friend until you speak.

2. Give the person your name, even if you have met previously. It is not always easy to recognize someone by voice only! After you know a person who is blind for a while, they may let you know that they can easily recognize your voice. After you know a person with low vision for a while, they may let you know that they can easily recognize your voice or face or body when you are close enough. After that, it is not necessary to say your name every time you meet this particular blind or visually-impaired person.

3. If the blind or visually-impaired immigrant or refugee does not respond when you greet her or him, do not allow yourself to become annoyed or to speak in a loud voice that expresses irritation. Remember that the person may not yet know enough English to understand your greeting or to be able to answer you. Or he or she may come from a culture where speaking to strangers of the opposite sex is frowned upon. Just repeat your greeting two or three times in a friendly voice, and then if you receive no response, desist, unless it is very important that you immediately communicate with the person.

4. If you need to communicate with the immigrant or refugee who is blind or has low vision immediately, and no interpreter who speaks her or his language is available in person, you should try calling the Red Cross Language Bank. Any time Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., you can call (206) 726-3554. For emergency assistance after hours, call (206) 323-2345. For more information, you can Email them at languagebank@seattleredcross.org or visit their web site at:
Interpretations are free for individuals.

An organizational user fee is charged to non-profits. This is a pro-rated annual fee that allows the agency to utilize Red Cross Language Bank interpreters throughout the year. First-time requests are free.

5. There is no monolithic “blind culture” or “blind world.” People who are blind or have low vision come from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures, and have many different experiences of the world. This is as true of immigrants and refugees as of those who were born in North America. Some immigrants and refugees have been blind or partially sighted since birth, some have lost vision as children, young adults, or older adults. Some of them have attended college or even graduate school in their country of origin, and some of them have never been to school.

6. If an immigrant or refugee who has low vision or is blind has difficulty communicating with you in English, don’t assume that it means that they are learning disabled. Some of them have multiple handicaps, but very many of them have no other handicaps beyond their visual impairment. And most of them are not developmentally delayed or have a learning disability. So be careful not to mistake lack of English communication skills for a learning disability. It takes time for all immigrants and refugees to learn a new language. For those just starting, it takes an average of five years, and even more to learn enough academic English to be able to succeed in college.

7. If you are meeting the blind or visually-impaired immigrant or refugee in a social service agency setting, be aware that it will take that person some time to gain knowledge of procedures, requirements and behavior conventions related to such basic aspects of daily life as housing, health care, food and clothing needs. In the countries they come from, social service agencies may be non-existent or may have very different procedures, requirements and behavior conventions. You should expect new-comers to be confused about what they are expected to do and to sometimes act inappropriately for the first few years of their residence in the United States. All of us would probably do the same if we were relocated to their countries of origin.

8. When meeting an immigrant or refugee who is blind or has low vision on a social basis, remember that she or he may come from a culture where shaking hands with or even lightly touching people of the opposite sex is frowned upon. She or he may want to be friendly, but will express it differently than we do in North American culture, at least until she or he becomes accustomed to the new cultural norms and behaviors and learns to trust you as a friend.

9. When meeting any person who is blind or has low vision you can expect her or him to be just as likely to be interested in many of the same things that interest you as a new acquaintance who has full sight. It is perfectly appropriate to talk about what interests you, including objects and activities in the environment. It is also okay to use words like “see” or “look.” These are common words in everyday conversation and blind and visually-impaired people use them, too.

10. When talking to an immigrant or refugee who has a visual impairment, keep in mind that she or he may not be familiar with some aspects of local community life that you take for granted, because she or he may not yet be acclimated to North American culture or the local community.

New-comers with visual limitations frequently suffer from their lack of knowledge about how to successfully adapt to the challenges which all visually impaired and blind people face in this country in participating in education, employment, recreation, or other activities available to fully sighted people. And, when they first come to the United States, blind and visually-impaired immigrants and refugees are often not aware that, no matter how old they are, their horizons can be broadened to include independent living skills, functional literacy and even technical training or higher education.

11. When interacting with an immigrant or refugee who has a visual impairment keep in mind that she or he is probably much more resourceful and capable than may appear to be the case at first. Assume that you will not really understand the person’s full potential until you get to know her or him quite well, and until she or he becomes orientated to North American culture and learns some vital adaptive skills. Most immigrants and refugees, and particularly those with handicaps, have probably had to overcome a variety of obstacles even to come to the United States. And once here they continue to face adjusting to their new lives in this country with more than the average amount of challenges.

In many of the countries from which they come, visually-impaired and blind children and young adults have very often been regarded as pathetic figures, who are only capable of learning very basic manual skills (such as basket weaving or broom making) or certain specialties (such as music or acupuncture). And literacy has not been among those skills they could be considered capable of achieving. Or, they may have been considered capable of basic elementary literacy, but not capable of higher education. And those who have experienced vision loss as adults have often believed that their opportunities for productive work, and for intellectual growth and expression were ended.

In addition, visually-impaired and blind new English learners usually have needs which are greater than and in some respects different from the needs both of fully sighted new English learners and visually impaired and blind fluent English speakers. The vision-oriented language classes do not truly meet their language learning needs. And they often have little or no previous experience living independently with their disabilities. In most countries outside North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, assistive services for people with disabilities are minimal or nonexistent. As a result, many immigrants and refugees with visual limitations have few independent living skills, little experience on their own, and very limited ideas of how to adapt to opportunities in the community.

And even those who have been resourceful enough to develop strategies and independent living skills appropriate for survival and independent living in their countries of origin, cannot usually transfer the strategies, skills or experience to the challenges of living on their own, and adapting to new and unexpected opportunities in their new homeland. This makes it quite difficult for them to participate on an equal basis with sighted peers in programs intended for the general population of immigrants and refugees.

Bear in mind that, despite these challenges, many blind and visually-impaired immigrants and refugees are willing, and even eager to make great efforts to contribute to the well-being of their families, to broaden their own horizons, and to make a significant contribution to their new homeland. But, no matter how much effort they put into learning to communicate orally in English, they will not be able to take full advantage of educational opportunities or obtain jobs which pay above-poverty-level wages, without developing their ability to live independently, read and write, using some accessible format, as well as to converse in English.

12. If you are uncertain about whether a person who is blind or has low vision needs help, ask! If a person doesn’t need help, she or he will let you know. If a person does need help, let the person tell you what kind of help is needed and how best to provide it. Don’t grab or pull a person who is blind or has low vision, or make assumptions about what needs to be done. Don’t be insulted or take it personally if the person who is blind or has low vision tells you that she or he doesn’t need help.

13. If an individual asks you to escort him or her, offer your arm and let the person take your elbow. Walk in a relaxed fashion and inform the person of any obstacles such as low hanging boughs or enormous cracks in a sidewalk that can cause twisted ankles. You don’t usually need to tell the person when you are turning left or right. If their hand is in contact with your arm, they will know when you turn and will be able to follow you.

14. It is helpful to tell a blind or visually-impaired person you are guiding when you are coming to stairs and if the stairs are going up or down. Pause and let the person you are walking with know where the handrail is located, if there is one, or where there is a wall to touch, if there is not a handrail. Let the person choose to use the handrail or wall or not to use either. Don’t demand that the person uses the handrail or wall. Remember that each adult is the best judge of what works best for her or him. Proceed up or down the stairs one step ahead of the person you are escorting. But, you should not count stair steps unless that person specifically asks you to. Most blind people do not count steps most of the time. They usually feel the steps with their feet, and when holding the arm of the escort can tell when the escort stops going up or down. Also, if they have their hand on the handrail, they can tell when the stairs begin and end by the orientation of the handrail.

15. If you are entering an unfamiliar environment with an acquaintance who is blind or visually impaired, share details about what you see: who’s there, what’s going on, where things are located (especially restrooms, food and drink locations, or any other significant landmarks), and so forth.

16. When giving directions to someone with impaired vision, use concrete terms like left or right, north, south, east, or west. Do not give directions like “It’s over here” or “over there.”

17. If you are dining out with a blind person you can ask if she or he reads braille, and if she or he wants to ask for a braille menu. If the answer to both questions is “yes,” let the blind person ask about the braille menu before you begin reading the print menu to yourself. If the waiter or waitress doesn’t come to the table without being summoned, help summon him or her. If the person does not read braille or a braille menu is unavailable, ask if your companion would like you to read the menu. If your companion wants you to read the menu, don’t forget to read the prices! When your blind companion is an immigrant or refugee, you may also need to describe the various dishes offered because the terminology on the menu may not be as clear to an immigrant or refugee as it is to you.

18. When sharing a meal with a person who is blind or has low vision, it is okay to ask the person if they want you to describe the plate, and if they want you to use a clock reference to state where foods are located on the plate. Only describe the plate if the person wishes you to do so. Many blind people do not appreciate being told where their food is located on their plate, and especially not in terms of a clock face. But, if the person does want the plate described, the simplest way is to state where foods are located using a clock as a reference with the blind person seated at the six o’clock position.

19. When sharing a meal with an immigrant or refugee who is blind or visually impaired, remember that people from different cultures have different ways of eating. Don’t be disturbed if the person eats with their hands. The person may not eat with their hands because they have difficulty seeing the placement of the food on the plate, or difficulty handling eating utensils such as fork, spoon and knife, but because that is the custom in their country of origin. They may not be aware that people in this country are using eating utencils, or how they are used. They may not have been told about the eating utencils we use or shown how we use them. While it is valuable for blind and visually-impaired new-comers to the United States to learn the social manners and customs that are the norm here, we need to understand that they will also remember the social manners and customs that are the norm in their country of origin, and we need to respect that too.

20. When showing a blind person to a chair, simply place his or her hand on the back of the chair. Do not try to maneuver the person into the sitting position. Likewise, when getting into a car you can simply place one of the person’s hands on the door handle, or if the door is already open, place one of his or her hands on the top of the door at the corner farthest from the hinge, or at the top of the door opening. The person may also appreciate it if you place her or his other hand directly on the seat.

21. If you meet a person who is blind or visually impaired traveling with another friend or family member, remember to speak directly to the blind or visually-impaired person–not just to his or her guide or companion. Any questions or complements, or comments should be addressed directly to the person they are for, even if you think that the person has difficulty understanding English. If the companion is able to translate what you are saying into the language that the person with the visual limitation understands, you can thank them directly. But, the remarks meant for the visually-impaired person still need to be addressed directly to that person.

22. If the blind person you meet is using a dog guide, remember that the dog is a working dog and should not be distracted by petting or offering food. If you distract the dog guide this may interfere with the dog’s work habits and could endanger the safety of the blind person at the time of the encounter or in the future.

23. Use common sense in all of your interactions with immigrants and refugees, and all people who are blind or have low vision. Enjoy them for who they are!

This article was presented as part of Session One: The Basics: Challenges and Possibilities for Blind and Visually Impaired Immigrants and Refugees, part of

Extending the Bridge: Helping Tutors, Teachers, and Other Service Providers and Their Organizations to Better Serve Blind and Visually-Impaired Adults Learning English as a Second Language (ESL), Focusing on Literacy Acquisition, a six-session series of information sharing and discussion.

This series was presented in May and June of 2003. It was funded primarily by a grant from the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). In 2002, the presenters, Sylvie Kashdan, Robby Barnes and Cecilia Erin Walsh attended a three-day training presented by the American Foundation For The Blind National Literacy Center, entitled: Bridging the Gap: Best Practices for Instructing Adults Who Are Visually Impaired and Have Low Literacy Skills. Following this training we were invited to submit a proposal for sharing what we had learned. Hence, this series, Extending the Bridge. Other funding sources were St. James ESL Program, Kaizen Program for New English Learners with Visual Limitations, and Washington State Office of Adult Literacy. We also received help from volunteers with research and organizational tasks.

Kashdan, Sylvie & Barnes, Robby (2003), What to Do When You Meet an Immigrant or Refugee Who is Blind or Has Low Vision. Workshop document; Seattle, U.S.A.

NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Readers are free to post, forward or reproduce this material for nonprofit research and educational uses, if it is clearly identified as the work of the Kaizen staff: Robby Barnes and Sylvie Kashdan, and any collaborators, and if the citations noted are used. All other rights reserved.

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