Everything we do involves communication. It is essential to our survival. We start communicating before we are born through our movements or ‘kicks’. From birth onwards we develop our communication skills through making noises such as crying and laughing, talking, touch, movement, visual methods such as images and film, art, and written text.
Having less access to any one of our communication methods will influence how we give and receive information.
This section will:
- give a brief overview of the basic principles of communication and language
- explain some of the terminology used
- give some practical advice about communication and sight loss
- give quotes from members of the focus and steering group on communication and sight loss.
Some basic principles of communication and language
Good communication aims to give another person a message accurately in a format that they understand. It may be direct and clear such as through words, a look, touch, or sound for example. It may also be more subtle and indirect such as though our behaviour such as our body language, gestures or purposely ignoring a person and their cues.
Language is a key form of communication and the words and phrases we use and how we use them are powerful. We process the information, impact, tone, and intention at a conscious and unconscious level. It can influence how others perceive us and how we act and react in a situation. For example, is someone engaging with us or being arrogant? Are we using outdated and stereotypical terms?
What about the words we are using? Do they match that of the individual we are communicating with? For example, do they refer to themselves as a person with sight loss, or do they use a different description? What words and phrases do they use themselves?
Finally, communication is not just a one-off event – its significance and meaning can depend on the context of other, related communications. For example, if you constantly hear that you cannot do a task due to sight loss, you are more likely to believe it than if you receive constructive messages.
Types of communication
We communicate in various ways and often use more than one method at the same time.
Common methods include:
- Text – books, letters, leaflets, websites and IT more generally
- Spoken – person-to-person, podcasts, recordings, films
- Touch – person-to-person (for example a handshake), Braille, tactile signing, or fingerspelling
- Images – photos, drawings, diagrams, videos, animations
- Nonverbal – posture, eye contact, gestures.
The following section gives short definitions and descriptions of common terminology used within this resource. Specific terminology is included in the relevant specific guidance sections of this Toolkit as well as a glossary.
We have chosen to use the term sight loss as it covers all types and levels of impact on an individual with a visual impairment. This also includes the terms vision loss, low vision, blindness, and partially sighted.
Person with sight loss
This is known as ‘person-first’ language. The alternative is ‘condition-first’ language – for example, ‘blind person’. We use person first language in this Toolkit because it helps us see the person primarily as an individual, instead of defining them by their sight loss.
The term ‘optician’ is often used colloquially to refer to all eye health professionals – but there are important distinctions between opticians, optometrists and ophthalmologists. In this Toolkit, we use optician to refer to dispensing opticians, not other eye health specialists.
An optician (also called a dispensing optician) is a professional with specific training. They are not medical doctors and cannot examine your eyes or treat eye conditions, but they can check prescriptions and advise on the most appropriate lenses for individuals. In addition, they can repair and adjust glasses. They often work closely with an optometrist.
Optometrists are professionals who carry out eye tests and monitor eye health through regular checks. They can give information and prescribe corrective lenses and exercises to help prevent or manage certain eye conditions. They are not medical doctors, but they undergo specific eye health training and eye care. They can refer individuals to ophthalmologists if required.
An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who specialises in eye health. They are usually based in hospitals. They diagnose and treat serious eye conditions and may carry out surgical procedures. They also liaise with other specialists to manage conditions that can affect the eye, such as multiple sclerosis, diabetes or arthritis.
This is the name of the medical speciality which relates to the eyes.
- Say hello and the person’s name as you approach.
- Introduce yourself and anyone else who is with you. Ask if the person wants a brief description of what you look like.
- Ask, don’t assume that someone needs your help or that you know what they want.
- Ask if they want you to stand is a particular place. For example, some people with peripheral vision prefer not to look directly at you.
- Try to avoid using mainly non-verbal communications, such as pointing, gesturing or nodding your head. They may not be able to see what you are doing.
- Look at the person when talking to them, not their guide dog or someone who is with them.
- Be more descriptive rather than just pointing and saying, “if you see here” or “if you compare this to that”or ‘it’s about this big”.
- Don’t worry about using phrases like “Did you see the film last night” or “will you be watching the game”.
Tips from our focus groups
- “If a blind person walks into a room, it can feel like a lonely place where lots of people are chatting and are expected to recognise one another visually to make contact. If they have something that signals they are visually impaired, for example a cane or guide dog, and you spot them, why not introduce yourself and ask if they need assistance.”
- “Be relaxed about language etc… Don’t panic. Be relaxed around us. If people are nervous, it makes us more nervous. Most people are good at it [communication].”
- “Ask. Don’t treat us differently – we’re just normal people who can’t see. We’re not scary. Don’t be shy at asking questions or what we might need…the more people who ask the easier it is for everyone. Treat us like normal people.”
- “Don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t make assumptions. [There are] no silly questions.”
Offering to help
We asked our panel of people with sight loss how other people should decide whether to offer to help, and if so, what to do.
Assistive technology for people with sight loss can include software such as screen readers and screen magnifiers. It can even include smartphone apps.
We spoke to Darren Rowan about the assistive technology he uses to live with sight loss.
Disclaimer: The Sight Loss Toolkit has been commissioned and funded by Roche Products Ltd.
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