Understanding Low Vision – A World Apart by Robert Thompson

Robert Thompson is standing at a bus stop. He is wearing a high visibility vest and his holding the lead for his blonde guide dog. A bus is pulled up in front of him and his dog.


The world of sight loss is often misunderstood by the sighted community; indeed I was one of the unaware people until I found myself in that world. Since then I have learned a multitude which I am happy to share with all and sundry, hence the following snippets. In the course of this piece, I will use the acronym VIP for vision impaired person/people.


Overheard from a bystander in an airport on seeing my cane, ‘He’s blind, I think!’… Those last two words added rather judgementally and in a tone suggesting that I might just be a bit of a chancer. Such was the observation of me having made my way to a priority desk, something that much of the sighted world believes a VIP would not be able to do on their own! But please bear with us. To the sighted, there can sometimes be no understanding of what each VIP can or cannot see, because of varying visual conditions, or what the person has learned to do by means other than visual.

The above little encounter is the first part of the answer. To some people a person is either blind or has ‘normal’ sight while in fact there is a host of levels and types of sight loss. The following examples may help understand the effects of just a few presentations of the spectrum.

Some VIPs may be able to walk into a station or other large public area and read distant signs, but stand just in front of them and they will see nothing of you. They most likely have lost some central vision due to macular degeneration.

Or consider a VIP who in daylight can do normal things, but let sunset descend (or otherwise find themselves in poor light conditions) and they will need a cane or other assistance due to retinitis pigmentosa.

Lastly, I am now blind but have learned to cut timber with reasonable accuracy using electric saws – without sacrificing a body part. Yet I find difficulty with getting butter and marmalade on my toast without a mess.

And there are many other examples. Confused? So the message is to be prepared for the unexpected as to what a VIP can and cannot do!


It was once said to me, affectionately in the context of a friendship, ‘you are not a very convincing blind person!’. It has also been said to me on a number of occasions ‘but your eyes look normal’.  These comments don’t bother me in the least but are related here to show it can be difficult for people in general to recognise visual impairment. So, the obvious question is how to?

In public, Many VIPs will be recognisable by a guide dog or use of a white stick of which there are two types, more correctly called symbol cane and long cane. Less seen in public, the symbol cane is used by those who have a reasonable level of mobility and they hold it in front of them to convey a diminished level of sight or the need of assistance in certain situations. The more frequently seen long cane is used in contact with the ground so the user can navigate their way along. This conveys anything ranging from quite significant to total sight loss. Also, there are VIPs with vision impairment without any identifying factor, so please be conscious of them too.

Otherwise, we are ‘normal’ people, whatever normal is. We can speak, hear and we are as diverse in personality, temperament and intelligence as any other people. So, despite our visual shortcomings, please engage with us as equals.

In general, we will ask for assistance when needed, but there are situations where offers are most welcome. For example, if you see a VIP acting a bit lost, most likely we are not loitering with intent, so this could be your move. Engage with a simple question like ‘would you like some assistance?’. Don’t assume anything, so listen carefully. Think of the VIP once standing near traffic lights who was marched across the street by a well-meaning person, only to discover that wasn’t what they needed at all!  Most of all, listen as opposed to hearing.


NCBI (National Council for the Blind of Ireland) were involved in forming a Low Vision Project Group who have produced a short video to help with public understanding which you can view below this paragraph.

Also, I have written a book entitled Insights Into An Unsighted World, which is available from the NCBI website and proceeds go to NCBI and Irish Guide Dogs. The book gives much wider understanding than can be included here. But here are a few basic thoughts.

Having engaged with a VIP, ask how they would like to be guided rather than grabbing their arm.

Resist the temptation to try physically supporting them on steps without asking as this is more likely to result in loss of balance than avoiding it; better to alert them in advance whether the steps are going up or down, very roughly how many and directions to any handrail that may exist.

When giving directions, avoid words like ‘do you see…..?’ or pointing. Other words of confusion are ‘over there’ – some of us don’t even see here, let alone ‘there’!

In social settings, please be conscious that VIPs can easily become isolated for lack of seeing who is there or where people are – your move again!


VIPs in the world of today are well privileged by comparison with our predecessors by technological advances for which we are so grateful.  There is now a variety of assistive technology to widen our horizons on mobile phones and computers. Even allowing for ghost buses, bus apps are easily accessible to VIPs. Like sighted people, technical ability ranges from very little to whiz kids, but the wide middle range can learn and use much. But there are limitations and hurdles. I find navigation of website to be somewhat traumatic.

To the extent you know a VIP, it can be a real service to assist them in certain areas, but patience will be required and appreciated.