Photo of Bruce A. Gardner

Bruce A. Gardner

Clever Con or Clear Communication?
by Bruce A. Gardner

From the Editor: Bruce Gardner is a member of the National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors and President of the NFB of Arizona. He is also a thoughtful and perceptive blind man with much to teach others about coming to terms with blindness.

This is what he says:

Should we who are blind be concerned with our posture, gestures, and facial expressions? If we do pay attention to these things, aren't we just trying to hide our blindness by pretending that we can see? I remember pondering these questions as a blind student in college.

My major was interpersonal communications, which included a wide variety of topics from debate and public speaking to family counseling and organizational communications. I found it interesting and a great preparation for life and the practice of law. As part of the major I took several nonverbal communication classes in which we discussed how things other than spoken words (such as the voice and body language) affect the message that is conveyed. We studied the effects of inflection, pitch, tone, cadence, volume, and intensity of the voice, as well as gestures, posture, and facial expressions. We noted that variations in the voice can alter or even reverse the meaning of words. For example, "thanks a lot" can express genuine appreciation; however, if said with icy sarcasm, the message might actually be one of contempt.

Likewise, in our sighted society body language, along with the voice, affects the meaning of the spoken word. A friend may say she is happy and even do so in a cheerful tone of voice, but the frown on her face and the droop in her shoulders may suggest otherwise. I learned that, although as a blind person I am sometimes unaware of the messages conveyed by body language, most sighted people (usually subconsciously) pay attention and give credence to the messages conveyed through gestures, posture, and facial expressions. For example, if I am gazing into space or looking down at my shoes when talking to someone, he may get the impression that I am not interested in him or what he has to say. I learned that it is, therefore, important to understand basic body language and use it properly when we are communicating in order to convey the intended message rather than mixed or incorrect messages.

Even so, communication is an art, not an exact science, and our best intentions can sometimes fall short. I vividly recall a situation in law school in which that happened to me. I was selected to be on the moot court team representing the Brigham Young University Law School in intercollegiate competition.

Similar to an undergraduate debate team, moot court competition consists of drafting a court of appeals brief and then arguing the case before a panel of judges. In intercollegiate competition a hypothetical legal issue and fact scenario are selected for the year. The moot court teams, consisting of three members each, are assigned to write a brief for the United States Supreme Court, representing either the appellant or appellee in the hypothetical case. A great deal of legal research and analysis is done by the team members in selecting just the right cases to cite and legal arguments to make in each brief. The briefs are then carefully analyzed, critiqued, and scored.

Two members of each team then give oral arguments before a panel of judges as if they were arguing the case before the Supreme Court. Although each team prepares its brief for either the appellant or appellee, depending on the assignment, at oral argument the team must be prepared to argue the case for either side at the flip of a coin. The issues are divided in half, with one of the team members prepared to present oral argument for the appellant on one half of the issues, and another team member prepared to present oral arguments on the other side for the appellee on those same issues. The third member of the team is the swing member who must be ready to present the other half of the issues for either the appellant or the appellee. This meant that the swing member gave oral arguments each time the team competed, sometimes on one side of the case and sometimes on the other. Just before the time to present oral arguments, with a flip of the coin we would find out which side of the case we would be presenting. Because I had won the Dean's Cup that year for best oralist at the Brigham Young University Law School, I served as swing member of my team.

In regional moot court competition each law school in the region sends its two teams to the day-long, multi-round competition. Three practicing attorneys who lived and worked in the city in which the host law school was located comprised each panel of judges. In the semi-final round of regional competition, my team (which had gone undefeated to that point) faced the host law school's remaining team. Each presenter was interrupted numerous times by the judges, asking pointed and difficult questions, and all the oralists deftly fielded the questions and made compelling presentations. After the semi-final round was finished, the two teams sat quietly in the courtroom, awaiting the judges' verdict which team had won. We all knew that each of the oralists on both teams had done extremely well and that the scoring would be close. We also knew that, if the scoring of the oral arguments was tied, my team would be declared the winner because our written brief had taken first place in the region.

When the panel of judges returned, they each gave a critique of our arguments. Each judge identified strengths and weaknesses of the presentations. After the first two critiques it was apparent that the scoring was tied. We all wondered what the third judge would say, particularly because he had not opened his mouth or asked a single question during the entire semi-final round. The third judge made rather routine comments about each presentation, but then, to my surprise and great dismay, he had an additional, unusual and negative criticism for me. He said that, although my presentation was excellent and my arguments compelling, I had not looked him in the eye and convinced him that I was right. He further said that the fact that he had not asked a single question should not have mattered and that I should have looked him in the eye and talked directly to him just as much as I did the other two judges. He then docked my team, which meant that the team from the host law school won by one point.

My teammates and I came away from that experience convinced of two things. First, the judge had no clue that I was blind and was, therefore, not intentionally discriminating against me. After all, he had had no opportunity to see my cane because we simply stood when the judges entered the courtroom and stood again when they left, and I had not needed or used my cane when I stepped from the table where I was sitting to the podium to give my presentation. Second, he (probably subconsciously) had decided that the home town team should win, and he caused that to happen in the only way he could think of. We recognized that this second notion was probably just sour grapes, but it made losing more palatable.

The ironic thing was that, harkening back to my non-verbal

communication classes, I had made a conscious effort to look all

three judges in the eye; but, because the third judge never said

a word, I was not sure exactly where he was sitting or where to

look. I was pretty sure he was to the right of the other two

judges who frequently interrupted my presentation to ask me

questions, so I looked in that general area occasionally during

my oral argument, but obviously to no avail. Oh well, as I said,

communication is an art, not an exact science. You win some and

you lose some.

This incident reminds me of a conversation I had in one of my nonverbal communication classes taken several years earlier in undergraduate school. One day we were discussing various studies that addressed eye contact: how far apart people are when their eyes meet as they approach each other; how long it is customary to look a friend, stranger, subordinate, or superior in the eye before glancing away; how often during a conversation direct eye contact is repeated; and the various messages that are conveyed by these actions. One of the students said that he had noticed that the blind guy in the class (me) looked people in the eye when he talked to them, and he wondered why since he knew I could not see them. I responded by turning my face to the wall and saying, "Because it would look strange if I talked to you like this." He then said, "Yeah, but you look people right in the eye. How do you know where to look?" I teasingly responded, "I don't know about you, but most people's eyes are a bit above their mouth; therefore, I use your voice to determine where to look." The whole class laughed.

Later, however, I did some serious reflecting on his question. Why did I face people when talking to them, and why did I pay attention to my gestures and facial expressions? Was it because I was still trying to hide my blindness by pretending that I could see and was normal as I had done for so many years before I learned the truth about blindness from the National Federation of the Blind?

It had been only a couple of years earlier that I had learned of the NFB and begun accepting and dealing with my blindness. Before that time I had been ashamed of my blindness because I thought blind people were fumbling, bumbling Mr. Magoos or, worse, virtually helpless dependents who sold pencils on the street corner. I did not want to be thought of like that, so I tried to hide my blindness. And, of course, I did not use a cane.

I did crazy things to appear normal. I came to think of these actions as playing "blind man's buff." I would do ridiculous things, such as pretend to be reading a magazine in the barber shop or a doctor's office and turn the pages after the appropriate passage of time; loiter in lobbies outside what I hoped were the rest rooms (sometimes in increasing discomfort) in order to identify a man and then observe which door he went through so I could follow him into the correct rest room; and pretend to be distracted or unfriendly rather than let people know I did not see or recognize them.

But now that I had learned the truth about blindness—that it is respectable to be blind—and was using a rigid, long white cane like a neon sign that said "Look at me; I am blind," hiding my blindness by pretending to see was impossible.

Before I heard of the NFB my actions were motivated by my intent to con or deceive others into thinking I could see. But after a little introspection I realized that, thanks to the NFB, my motives had changed, and I was now simply trying to be a better communicator. I realized that there is a profound difference between trying to hide the fact that you are blind by pretending to see, and understanding and using body language as an important part of communication.