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Lesson 6: Human Guide Techniques

woman teaching human guide technique to another woman

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In the previous lesson, you learned environmental orientation techniques that are primarily used in the home or office, but you also need ways of getting around safely outside. One way to get around on your own is to use a long mobility cane. This device is taught by an orientation and mobility specialist. Another mode of independent travel used by some very active visually impaired people is a dog guide. The most frequently used means of getting around in unfamiliar environments is commonly called sighted guide. As the name implies, this method usually involves a sighted individual using a set of specific techniques to guide a person with a visual impairment. Because someone with a visual impairment who is familiar with an area can guide another person with a visual impairment using these same techniques, this lesson will use the term "human guide."


Lesson Goals

  • Travel safely and confidently using the Basic Human Guide Technique when assisted by a human guide;
  • Navigate safely through narrow passages such as open and closed doors assisted by a human guide;
  • Open and close vehicle doors independently when traveling with a human guide;
  • Seat yourself in restaurants, medical offices, etc. with human guide assistance;
  • Walk safely up and down curbs and stairs independently or assisted by a human guide.

Click here to review the learning checks before reading the lesson.

Basic Human Guide Technique

Perhaps you've been guided by well-meaning people who push or pull you, grab you by both arms and attempt to seat you in a chair, or open a door and want you to lead the way into a place you've never been before. The beauty of traveling with a human guide who is trained in the technique is that these scenarios will not occur; what results is a feeling of graceful dignity for the person being guided. The next few paragraphs introduce guiding techniques you can teach to family, friends, or anyone who might serve as your guide in familiar or unfamiliar places.

All guiding techniques develop from the basic "walking" position. With your arm bent at a 90-degree angle, grasp the arm of the guide just above his elbow, keeping your thumb on the outside of the guide's arm, and your shoulder just behind the guide's shoulder.The guide may prefer to keep his arm straight next to his body or bent at the elbow. It's important that the guide's arm is kept close to his body so you can detect changes in walking pace and direction as well as when to step up or down. This configuration puts the guide a half-step ahead of you, enabling you to sense any changes the guide needs to make as you walk together. It's easier to find your guide's elbow if he touches the back of your hand and lets you trail up his arm to his elbow.

Once you grasp your guide's elbow, you can tell how tall or short he is. A guide's height is important only if you are a lot taller than the guide. If so, you will want to ask the guide to let you know when you need to bend over, even if he doesn't. If the guide is someone unfamiliar with guide techniques, such as a nurse in a doctor's office, you may need to ask him to relax his elbow against his body. Ask your guide to give you a verbal cue before he starts to walk.

If you have any difficulty with your balance or walking at a steady pace, then a modified technique may provide more support. Place your arm through the guide's bent arm and grip your guide's forearm. If more support is needed, lace your fingers together. The support from your guide's arm can stabilize your balance. If necessary, your guide can further support you with the other hand.

See the VisionAware Resource list at the end of the lesson for more information on how to walk with a human guide.

Good Communication Is Critical

Communication is vital for safety and smooth transitions in the traveling environment. Don't hesitate to tell your guide on which side you prefer to walk. If you have difficulty hearing in your left ear, for example, walking on the guide's left side puts your right ear in the best position for hearing what your guide is saying. Or, if you need more support on your left side, you will probably feel safer walking on the right side of the guide.

Let your guide know how much information you'd like to hear about the area where you are walking. If at some time your guide must leave you standing alone, ask him to leave you near a wall, a chair, a table, counter, etc. so that you are not left in "open" space. Remind your guide to let you know when he leaves and when he returns. These are examples of good communication between a guide and the person guided.

Narrow Passages

Remind your guide to tell you ahead of time about an upcoming narrow passage, such as an open doorway or the space between two tables in a restaurant. To indicate a narrow passage, the guide should place his guiding arm behind him. You then grasp his wrist with both hands and step behind him, being careful not to walk on his heels. When you are free to resume the walking position, the guide should bring his arm back next to his body, and you can adjust your grip to your preferred walking position.

Closed Doors

As you and your guide approach a closed door, he should tell you if the door opens toward you or away from you and if the handle is on the left or right. If you are on the guide's right side, and the door opens to the right and away from you, step behind the guide and grasp his wrist with both hands. Next, reach out with your right arm to catch the door as you pass through. If the door opens to the right but toward you, again step behind the guide and grasp his wrist with both hands. Then raise your right forearm shoulder high to catch the edge of the door and protect your head. As you walk through, find the door handle and close the door behind you.

If you are on the guide's left and the door opens to the right, it's safer to temporarily switch sides before approaching the door. This is easier than it sounds. Remember, when you are on the guide's left, you are holding his arm with your right hand. At the door, your guide should pause and let you take his left arm with your left hand and step behind him. Now your right hand is free to follow the directions in the previous paragraph. Once you are through the door, you can resume your place on the guide's left side.

Visualizing these scenarios can help you and your guide prepare for managing them as a team.

Car Doors

It is much safer for you to open a car door for yourself than to allow the guide (or someone else) to do so for you. If someone opens the door for you, you don't actually know if the door is open slightly or completely. Instead, ask your guide to put his hand on the door handle, then slide your hand down to the handle and open the door for yourself. Step back as you open the door so you don't get hit in the head with the sharp corner at the top of the door. This corner can cause serious injury to the face, so you may want to use the upper protective technique learned in Lesson 5. It's likewise safer to close the door yourself if you have the strength. You may want to have an extra handle installed on the dashboard next to the passenger door to provide extra stability when getting in and out of your car.


Communication is crucial for smooth transitions from standing to sitting. Ask your guide to describe the scene. How high is the chair? Does it have arms or wheels? Does it swivel? Is the chair under a table? In a restaurant, are there one or two chairs on each side of the table? Are the tables close together and are people sitting nearby? When it's time to take your seat, have your guide place his hand on the back of the chair. Slide your hand from his arm to the back of the chair, and pull the chair out for yourself. If you don't have the strength to pull out the chair, then let your guide pull out the chair with his free hand. He can then place his other hand on the back of the chair, and you can slide your hand from his arm to the chair and seat yourself.

If you choose to sit in a booth, have the guide place his hand on a corner of the table so you can slide your hand from his arm to the table. The rounded shape of the corner of the table will let you know if you are on the left or right side of the booth. You can then slide into the booth confidently.

Seating in medical facilities can pose a problem, especially when the waiting room is full. Frequently, the chairs are arranged in back-to-back rows with several chairs in each row. If three or four consecutive chairs are available, your guide can lead you very close to one of the center chairs. Then you can reach out your leg, find the front edge of the chair, turn, and sit down. If balance is a problem, continue to hold onto your guide's arm until you are fully seated. If only a chair here or there is available, your guide should lead you to a chair with the side of your body perpendicular to the chair. This allows your guide to remain at your side until you are seated without standing directly in front of the person seated next to you. In this situation, reach out with the side of your leg, find the edge of the chair, turn, and sit down. Again, good communication makes the difference in how this works.

Hopefully, in every setting, your guide will tell you if a magazine, cat, or something else is lying in the seat. Just in case, it's best to sweep the seat with one hand while using the upper protective technique with the other before sitting. It's probably a good idea to do this at home too.

Curbs and Stairs

The main rule for going up and down curbs and stairs is to pause at the top and bottom. Once more, good communication is necessary for this process to be safe and seamless. Your guide should describe any important information about a curb. Is it low or high? Are you stepping into the street or shallow gutter? Is the street flat or on an incline? Are you stepping up onto a sidewalk or grass? Your guide should always step up or down first, giving you a sense of the height of the curb.

Lots of information about stairs is equally helpful. Are they ascending or descending? Is there a handrail? Do the steps have contrasting textured edges that allow people with low vision to see and people with no vision to feel through their shoes. Are there only a few steps or is it a long flight of stairs? Contrary to popular belief, it is safer for your guide not to count the number of steps, because your guide might miscount. Ask your guide to pause at the top and the bottom of the stairs—it's safer.  

As you approach the stairs, have your guide lead you to the handrail. Reach out with your free hand and grasp the rail. You may prefer to walk up or down the stairs independently holding onto the handrail, or you may wish to hold onto both the rail and your guide's arm. If you choose to hold the guide's arm, then let your guide take the first step; you should always remain one step behind your guide. When your guide reaches the top or bottom, he will pause so you know you have only one more step to go. If stairs frighten you because of poor balance, arthritis, or some other reason, advocate for yourself and ask to ride the elevator.

See the VisionAware Resource list at the end of the lesson for additional tips for the human guide technique.


In this lesson, you've been introduced to techniques for getting around safely and confidently in areas away from your home by using the assistance of a sighted or human guide. You can control the way you are guided through doorways, up and down steps, and led to a chair. You can walk with dignity and with your head up. It's your job to teach these techniques to your family and friends and even strangers at the grocery store, a doctor's office, or a restaurant.

You may wonder what to do when someone grabs you and starts pulling or pushing you in some direction you may or may not want to go. Be assertive and use humor! If someone grabs your arm and starts pushing or pulling you, stop and plant your feet and ask the individual to let you take his arm. Your sense of humor can relax the situation. A comment such as, “If you hold my arm, that makes me the guide and that could get dangerous.” The person will probably get the point, and you will reach your destination safely and, hopefully, without stress.

Learning Checks

What does it mean when a guide places his arm behind his back?

  1. He is approaching a narrow passage
  2. He is approaching stairs
  3. He is approaching a chair
  4. He is changing directions

Answer: a

When ascending or descending a flight of stairs with a human guide, your guide should:

  1. Let you walk by yourself, holding the railing
  2. Pause at the top and bottom of the stairs to let you know where you are
  3. Count the number of steps before you start to ascend or descend the stairs
  4. Insist that you hold his arm as you ascend or descend the stairs

Answer: a and b

If you have balance problems when walking, which of the following techniques would be helpful?

  1. Place your stronger hand on your guide's shoulder when walking
  2. Touch the back of your guide's elbow with the back of your stronger hand
  3. Place your weaker arm through your guides bent arm and grasp his forearm
  4. None of the above

Answer: c

Before sitting, you can easily tell the right side of the booth from the left by:

  1. Locating the nearest corner of the table with your hand
  2. Asking the person who guides you to the table which is right and left
  3. Asking to sit on your preferred side
  4. All of the above

Answer: d

Click here to return to the beginning of the lesson.

VisionAware Resources

The following links will take you to VisionAware online resources that support this lesson. Please be advised that information in these links may go beyond the scope of this lesson or this course.

How to Walk with a Human Guide

Human Guide Demonstration Video

Tip Sheet for the Human Guide

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