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A Tool for Your Orientation and Mobility Toolbox: Asking the Public for Assistance

October 20, 2021 | 1 Comment

by Eleni Gaves, COMS

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Catharine is stopped at a street corner asking for assistance from a fellow pedestrian.

As we celebrate White Cane Awareness Day, Eleni Gaves, our orientation and mobility specialist, talks about a skill that many with vision loss are reluctant to use – asking the public for assistance. Check out her suggestions and tips to become more comfortable with this useful tool for independent travel.

Getting out and around brings a lot of questions. Where am I going? How do I get there? What do I need once I’m there? What if something goes wrong on the way? One of the tools we often talk about in orientation and mobility training is soliciting assistance, or asking people for help as we travel.

Soliciting assistance is something we do any time we stop someone to get some piece of information we need. It can be about anything. For example: am I at the right street corner? Is my destination nearby? What direction is a restroom? These are the types of questions we might ask any person nearby to make sure we are on the right track. But, through many conversations with clients about its utility, we also find it is probably one of the most nerve-wracking tools to use.

Why is this so? For a few reasons, the biggest one is you might feel they are bothering or imposing on the people around them. Or, you may fear someone may give the wrong information or treat you rudely. Certainly, the worst case scenarios will happen on occasion, but if we ask smartly, we can avoid most of these issues. Here are tips to use as you travel so you can solicit assistance with greater ease and comfort.


Where do We Find People?

Not every sidewalk is packed with pedestrians. Even if they are, it’s hard to know who might stop. My first advice is to walk into any store or office you can find and ask an employee. They are a captive audience, and in most cases, will have knowledge of the immediate area.

The next best option becomes people on the street. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to get them to stop. To help with this tricky problem, you can travel to the end of the block, ideally at a stop light, and wait for other pedestrians who are also waiting for the light to change to cross the street. This pause can be a good opportunity where people are more willing to answer questions. In the event neither of these options are readily available, do not be afraid to confidently speak up with a phrase like “excuse me I have a question” when you hear any passersby.

If no people are physically present, you might try apps like Aira or BeMyEyes. Both services connect a visually impaired person to a sighted aide by video call. Aira agents are professionally trained to assist people with vision loss, but the service has a subscription fee. If you need this type of assistance often, it may be money well spent. Be My Eyes is volunteer based and always free. Another possibility that can help in a pinch is calling a trusted person you can video call on your own.

One caveat about using video. These apps are not good options if the question is when to cross a street. The cameras will never give a distant viewer enough information to judge if it is truly safe in that moment to cross the street.


What are the Best Questions to Ask?

The answer to this question depends on what you already know, what you don’t know or what you want to confirm. Generally, the more specific you can be, the better the answer you will get.

Instead of asking, “Where is my destination?” you may ask, “How many blocks should I go?“ Or, “what street or intersection am I going to be on?”

If you already know something about your destination, tell that information to your person. You might ask, “I’m looking for the coffee place on Lake Street, and I want to check that I’m on Lake Street heading east?” This will also help you sort out when someone is giving you bad directions as you compare the information you already know with what they are telling you.

If you’re unsure of the directions you are getting, ask another person after a minute or so to see if the information changes. If you get one bad answer, don’t be discouraged. The people we are asking are simply tools for accomplishing our tasks, and not every tool is going to be right for the job. Another person could be better, but we won’t know until we try.


Did You Know that Asking for Assistance is a Legal Right?

As a final and important note, asking for assistance, in some scenarios, is a legal right you have as a person with a disability. While an average pedestrian is not compelled to help, businesses are. The ADA requires that all businesses must make reasonable accommodations to customers so that the same services and goods are available to everyone. In practice, this means you are able to request, at any store, to have a staff person guide you while you shop to help find and select items. They must accommodate you as long as it does not cause the business to be unsafe or alter the nature of what they do.

This is particularly handy when it comes to grocery shopping. You can typically access this service by making your request at the customer service counter. Other stores will often have a greeter near the entrance who can be asked to locate someone for shopping help. When getting more than a handful of items, you can request a cart, and follow the cart led by the customer assistant.

Even with heavy shopping season coming up, it is important to note that this applies even if the store is busy. It may take longer to locate an available associate, but unless it will create safety issues, the business cannot deny you an assistant to complete your shopping simply because of the volume of shoppers.


If you are interested in brushing up on our orientation and mobility skills, contact Kathy Austin for more information.

Eleni is one of the Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialists at Second Sense

1 comment on “A Tool for Your Orientation and Mobility Toolbox: Asking the Public for Assistance”

  1. Naz says:

    This article provides valuable insights into the often-overlooked skill of soliciting assistance for individuals with vision loss. Eleni Gaves offers practical tips, such as seeking help from store employees and utilizing apps like Aira or BeMyEyes. The emphasis on specific and clear questions enhances the likelihood of receiving accurate guidance. Additionally, the reminder of legal rights regarding assistance, particularly in businesses, is empowering. Overall, this piece serves as a resourceful guide for individuals seeking greater independence in their travel endeavors.

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