Blindness and Mobility Device Etiquette

by Darian Slayton Fleming

Over the years, I have discovered that more and more members have multiple disabilities including physical, psychiatric, intellectual and hearing loss. These additional disabilities are a natural part of life; they occur due to illnesses and accidents. Our military veterans have incurred multiple disabilities through their war action. Yet, my experience is that unless you are a spouse or family member, some of our peers who are blind seem unaware and intolerant of our needs to use mobility devices. I am writing specifically about the needs of those of us who have physical disabilities and use mobility devices such as walkers, wheelchairs, and scooters, and how people who are just blind can better understand and help us.

You may think we are unaware of how much space our devices take up and that we don't consider your needs to move freely without running into them. My experience is that those of us who use mobility devices are especially conscientious about looking for walls, ends of rows, alcoves in backs of rooms and other out-of-the-way places to park our devices. We have learned to do this as we have become aware of the conflicts our devices seem to cause for people who cannot see. In fact, since we also cannot see, we experience the same conflicts. But regardless of whether people use mobility devices, we all use the entire space in rooms. We all have equal rights to equal access.

I have also heard people say things like, "She didn't use her walker to get to the microphone. She doesn't need it if she doesn't use it all of the time." The truth is, sometimes we don't use our mobility devices because there isn't space to navigate with them. Or, if we use them to get to a microphone, they will have to be parked in the middle of an aisle, which also leads to conflict. In other cases, some of us have better days than others and may feel we can get by without our devices for short periods. In other cases, complaints from others lead us to try to do without them. I am aware that these are similar reasons to why cane and dog users choose not to use their canes and dogs at all times.

Here are some simple etiquette reminders about coping with our mobility devices. I think those of you who use canes or dogs would appreciate the same considerations.

People often feel our walkers or scooters are in the way, and often want to move them. Sometimes they ask if they can move them as they are already doing so. Other times, they move them without asking and tell us after the fact, if at all. Please ask if you'd like a mobility device moved, and say why it needs to be moved. Allow the owner to move it if possible. Remember that there might be things to consider. For example, pushing a walker out of the way while the brakes are on causes the brakes to loosen. Eventually the user might need to sit on it. If the brakes are loose, the walker will roll and cause the person to fall. Ask if there is anything you need to know before moving a device, and follow those requests.

If you do move a device, please be sure the owner knows exactly where it is so he/she can get it when needed. And be sure there is someone who will bring it to the owner when it is needed. Ask that person to check with the owner periodically. Don't leave somebody desperate for their mobility device to take a trip to the restroom!

When organizing and setting up events, allow more space between tables or along the sides. Perhaps organizers could quietly explain the layout of the room and give suggestions for seating to attendees who enter with mobility devices. 

When taking affiliate roll call, ask how many spaces in the row will be needed for wheelchairs, walkers, etc. If chairs are put in to demarcate space, perhaps a volunteer could move chairs out of the way at the beginning of each day. Perhaps space could be left for a wheelchair or a walker using one less chair per table, or extra space could be allowed for easier navigation for those who use mobility devices. We aren't blocking your path on purpose. Also consider taking a different route through a room.

Consider your own mobility skills. Is the device really in the way, or was your sighted guide cutting things too close? Were you using effective cane technique? Were you paying attention to your dog's cues? When you are sitting, is your cane sticking out in the aisle where someone might trip over it? Is the room crowded? Could that be the reason for the conflict?

Another issue we all encounter is lifts on buses and vans. Those of us who need lifts are very happy that we can travel independently with our peers. However, problems with lift devices occur frequently. These lifts often fail or the operator doesn't understand how to use them. This can lead to delays or even cancellation of vehicles after everyone has boarded. This is inconvenient for us as well as for you.

Remember that some of us have poor balance, too; that is why we use mobility devices. We may need extra space and time when boarding and disembarking. When we board a bus, we may need a little extra time to move to a seat. When we get off buses, we have to make sure we have something to hold onto while waiting for our devices to be brought to us. Please move a little more slowly and carefully when boarding and disembarking so you don't accidentally knock us down. Multiple disabilities along with blindness are more common than people might realize.