Visual skills and strategies

There are visual skills and strategies that you can learn that will help you make the most of your remaining vision. They’ll also help you with getting around safely and more easily and identifying things around you. You’ll find some of these skills quick to learn but others will probably need more practice and you may need some help from a professional such as a Vision Impairment Rehabilitation Worker.


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Scanning systematically to find things

Scanning is a simple visual strategy that describes how to search an area to find something you’re looking for. Horizontal scanning covers left to right whilst vertical scanning covers up and down. When scanning, start at a point near to you, keep your eyes still and move your head. You might find it useful to imagine the area you’re looking at as a grid and using this scanning technique to cover each square.

Scanning is useful for detecting hazards in your path, such as bus stops, bins or people, and for searching for landmarks, such as your office building, a post box or a street name sign. 

Alternative method of scanning

If you’re searching for something that’s horizontal, for example a street sign, scan vertically up and down, while systematically moving gradually from your left to right (as you will be more likely to find part of the long object, in this case a sign, when scanning up and down). 

If you’re searching for something vertical, for example a pillar at the entrance to a park, you should scan horizontally from left to right, starting low and near to you and gradually moving up and away from you. Once you have found the item, you can then move up it. For example, you may find the bottom part of the pillar or bus stop and can then move up it.

Tracing along a line or something predictable to find things

One way of locating or finding a landmark or target is to trace along something that you know or can view more easily. This could be tracing the edge of a wall to find a bus stop or tracing double yellow lines on a kerb to move around the corner of a pavement. You can also trace things that are far away, if they are visible to you, such as the contrast between a building line and the sky, to help you go in the right direction.

You could also use this technique in a supermarket, for example to find the sign for the bakery section, by tracing along the top shelf towards the sign. Also, by tracing along the edge of the bottom shelf, you may be able to see if there are other people standing and looking at products and you can decide whether to wait or go to a different aisle. 

Tracking something that’s moving

Tracking is a visual skill that involves following something that’s moving. You might do this to focus on what’s moving, or just to use the moving thing to give you information about your surroundings.

If you need to focus on what’s moving, such as a moving vehicle, first focus on a landmark that you know it will pass, a street sign for example. When the vehicle comes into view at the landmark, focus on it and follow it by moving your eyes and head in the direction it’s going. You can do the same thing if you need to check whether something or somebody is moving towards you or away from you.

Tracking can also give you clues about your surroundings. For example, if you track a moving person in front of you and they appear to be moving closer to the ground, it probably means there are steps, an escalator or a downhill slope approaching, and the person is going down them. Tracking people or cars as they turn corners can give you added information about how far away junctions and turnings may be.

When I go shopping, I use mental mapping strategies and colour coding to help identify things. If I slightly tilt my head I can make the most of my lower visual field and I often use visual systemic scanning techniques to locate items or use my long cane to scan an area.
Margaret, guide dog owner with retinopathy of prematurity, congenital cataracts, nystagmus and a detaching retina in left eye

Combining several visual strategies

Sometimes you’ll find combining several visual strategies will be the best way to help you get around. Here’s an example:

John has peripheral vision loss and is going to his local corner shop. He must navigate through the open park area to the street on the other side. To do this, John incorporates several visual strategies, alongside a multi-sensory approach. At the park entrance, he SCANS horizontally across the park to find the vertical post box, which is his landmark for the right path to take. He spots the post box, alters his body position and takes the path leading towards it. To maintain a straight direction of travel along the path, John TRACES the edge of the path all the way along. When John arrives at the post box, he repeats the horizontal SCANNING technique to spot the corner shop on the street. He spots the shop front and follows the pavement in that direction by TRACING the double-yellow lines at the kerb. He TRACKS other people walking in front of him as they turn and walk into the shop, which helps John find the glass door entrance.

When to go out

You might want to consider what time of day you’re going out in order to travel more safely. This could mean going out when there are fewer people around, avoiding school pick up/ drop off times and rush hours, for example.

The amount of day light and what light conditions work best for you are also worth thinking about before you set off. Dull light, darkness, bright sunlight, sunrise or sunset can all have an impact on your vision, so try to arrange your plans around the days or times of day that suit you best. If you’re affected by glare, please visit our going out when it’s bright section.

Seasonal changes in weather and daylight could also affect your travel choices. As it gets dark much earlier in the winter in the UK, it makes sense to go outside earlier in the day, where possible.

A multi-sensory approach

You may find your residual vision works best when used in conjunction with your other senses – known as a multi-sensory approach. This can help to build a mental picture of where you are and finding your way around it. When you’re in a familiar place, you can work on building your mental maps, using both your residual vision and multi-sensory skills. When you’re in an unfamiliar place, your sensory skills will help you learn more about your surroundings. Find out more on non-visual strategies and using your other senses.

When I use Apple Maps, my watch vibrates six times when I need to turn left and 12 shorter, faster vibrations when I need to turn right.  If I want to find a street name, I would use scanning techniques to search predictable places, such as the end of buildings or a street corner.
Joel, guide dog owner with retinopathy of prematurity and nystagmus