Future Reflections                                                                                                           Fall 2004

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Making Friends, Meeting Strangers

by Barbara Pierce

Editor’s Note: Barbara Pierce is the editor of the NFB’s monthly publication, the Braille Monitor, and the president of the NFB of Ohio. Pierce has a passion for helping parents and blind youth understand the importance of developing good social skills. She has published several articles and conducted many national workshops on the topic. Her most recent essays are “Please Pass the Manners,” Future Reflections, volume 20, number 3; and “Clothing, Grooming, and Social Acceptability: Part 1,” Future Reflections, volume 22, number 2. Here, she provides tips and guidance to parents about how to help their blind children develop skills in making friends and meeting strangers:

Introduction

Barbara Pierce
Barbara Pierce

Human beings are social animals. Only a small percentage of us prefer to live alone, away from all company and doing everything for ourselves. On the other hand people vary in their ability to make social contacts and in their interest in doing so. The process of building friendships with sighted children and even breaking into groups of playing youngsters is challenging to every blind child, but mastering the skills is every bit as important in strengthening the blind child’s social skills as it is for sighted children.

How can a blind toddler learn to interact with other youngsters when he doesn’t know what they are playing with? What should parents do when no one invites their blind child to birthday parties? What should a blind elementary student do when classmates or neighborhood kids spend their time jumping rope or riding bikes or other activities she cannot take part in? How can we help teens of both sexes when they discover that no one is interested in dating someone who is noticeably different? I don’t have easy answers to any of these questions or a hundred more I could pose. But these are issues that do not evaporate, and we can help blind children and adults develop skills and techniques that will enable them to navigate these rough waters with poise and confidence.

The Early Years

In order to learn how to conduct oneself in social situations, one must have a pretty accurate idea what is going on in the group one wishes to enter. Therefore blind people must evolve strategies for doing so. With practice these skills can often be performed almost subconsciously. But in the beginning developing such abilities may well seem nearly impossible.

One of the silliest statements about the importance of vision I have heard touted as truth is Thomas Edison’s assertion that 80 percent of what humans learn comes to them through their eyes. Setting aside the obvious question of who collected the data and how he or she came up with 80 percent, the fact remains that lots of information comes to all of us in several ways simultaneously. So how does a newly blind person of any age sharpen his or her nonvisual abilities to gather data?

To some degree children who have never depended on vision will do this automatically. But parents can speed and improve the acquisition of these skills in all blind and severely visually impaired children by working and playing constructively with them.

Tuning your own senses to notice textures, sounds, shapes, and odors is a good way to begin. Whether you are working with a blind toddler just beginning to explore the world or an older youngster who has recently lost sight, you can help by calling attention to nonvisual cues around him or her: the distinctive feel of all-weather carpet; the different ring of footsteps on tile, wood, and paving; the resilience of padded indoor carpeting; the sound-absorbing qualities of a wall, tree, or parked car; the cooking smells issuing from a restaurant exhaust fan; the fragrance of a store’s perfume counter; etc.

Sharpening these skills is important because these are the tools the blind child will use to keep track of what is happening in the immediate area. How many other children are playing in the room? What are they doing? Are the Lego blocks spread out under foot? Is a video playing with kids likely to be sitting in front of the television? You can help your child learn to notice such things and draw correct conclusions from the data.

You will probably feel some frustration when you begin trying to notice such things for yourself nonvisually. I encourage you to make friends with blind adults and ask them to help you train yourself to process accurately the information that comes to you through senses other than sight. Be warned, however, that not all blind adults are equally expert in interpreting environmental information and drawing correct conclusions.

For example, I have knocked on hotel room doors and heard the blind resident arrive at the door to open it for me and begin searching for the door knob at shoulder level. You can hear a hand moving across the wood of the door. Door knobs are always at about hip height for adults, so, even if the person has not remembered to note which side the door handle is on, there is no reason to begin searching for it two feet above the level of the knob. Suggesting that a child begin hunting for something in a likely place will help her to think about such matters for herself and will speed the task of finding things.

I suggest that parents make a game out of determining by sound what toy or what kind of toy is being played with by another child or by the parent. Balls, blocks, cars, and noise-making pull toys all make distinctive sounds. When a child becomes familiar with his own talking or musical toys, these too are easy to identify.

Another helpful trick is to tie a small bell to the shoe of any other playmate too small to identify himself reliably when asked. In this way your blind child will know where other children are in the room, even if he does not know exactly who each child is. This information is important for maintaining an accurate idea of what is going on around one.

Striking the correct balance between urging the blind child to enter into play with others independent of a parent and providing her with the quiet stream of information that helps to orient her to her surroundings is not easy. Each child will make progress at his or her own rate. What is enough information for one child to get started and continue independently is not sufficient for another. Moreover, children’s needs change. Parents should always work to reduce the amount of intervention necessary for the blind child to play with other children.

This may be a good place to discuss the role of aides for young school-age blind children. The aide who works to make herself indispensable to her student is working against the child’s best interests. The aim should always be to help the youngster to do more and more of the interpretive work independent of adult supervision. A blind child will never learn to make friends on the playground with an aide always intervening to ask for him to have a turn on the swing or her to try to jump rope. As parents gain confidence providing constructive bits of information, they will be able to guide an aide always to do the minimum necessary to allow the blind child to take an active part in class or group activity.

The Middle Years

Elementary school is the time when a blind child must learn the rudiments of making friends and getting along with the group. Other children are unlikely to make a point of including the blind child without adult encouragement or even insistence. A little of this may be helpful, but in the end the blind child must make his or her own way.

Getting to know other kids is a place where parents can help. It may be useful to make a presentation to the class at the beginning of the school year if the children have no previous experience of a blind classmate. Bringing cupcakes with Braille letters picked out in M&M’s or making other blatant appeals to gluttony, curiosity, or human interest can be a good first step. Parents, a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI), or a blind adult from the community can make blindness seem less scary, even interesting, but adults can’t make classmates do more than give the blind student a chance to make a place for him or herself.

The classroom teacher may be able to suggest an individual or small group likely to accept a blind friend. Inviting students over after school, for a birthday party, or on a weekend outing is another way to help your child break the ice. Encouraging your child to become active in a school or extracurricular program will offer additional chances to establish friendships. If you don’t hear the names of classmates or kids from church, Scouts, or 4-H, begin probing to learn why not. Be creative in constructing opportunities for friendships to grow. If they are not happening, begin looking for the explanation and suggestions of what to do about it.

When I was a child, my family lived on a short, dead-end street. Eight girls of almost the same age lived on that block. In the summer my mother always made sure that, when the group congregated on our porch, a cool drink and cookies appeared partway through the afternoon. This sometimes happened at the other houses, but we could count on it at my house. This may have been bribery, but I don’t think it ever appeared to be that in the minds of the kids. The advantage to me was that I was completely familiar with my own home and could move around quite freely and confidently.

The other advantage to such experiences is that your child can build on the social capital of the interactions. When talking with the kids at school, your child can say in passing, “When my friends and I were at the movies the other night. . .”, “Jenny and I were playing dress-up with my mom’s old prom dresses. . .”, “My dad was helping Tim and me build a racer. . .”: you get the idea. Your child may discover the value of dropping such tidbits independently, or you may have to help him or her get started. Other children will soon gather that the blind kid does all the stuff the rest do.

Your job is always on the sidelines: providing opportunities, setting the stage, observing how things are going, collecting data from other observers, providing information and feedback quietly to your child as things go along. During these years you need to help your youngster learn to do things independently and to refrain from engaging in personal habits that put other people off.

This is as good a place as any to bring up one more area in which elementary students should begin learning how to shape their environment. At its most inconspicuous level this is subtly teaching sighted strangers and acquaintances the appropriate ways to conduct themselves and to treat a blind person. At its most visible we call it self-advocacy. Children can and should begin learning how to establish the ground rules for interactions with a blind person. You can choose either to help resolve the problems that arise or to compound them.

Blind teen, Nikki Singh understands the value of good listening skills as she and sighted teen, Isaac Powell, socialize at a church-sponsored dance
Blind teen, Nikki Singh (left) understands the value of good listening skill as she and sighted teen, Isaac Powell, socialize at a church-sponsored dance.

When a server asks you whether your blind child would like a refill on a soft drink, do not answer the question for your blind child when you would not do so for a sighted one of the same developmental level. It may even mean saying, “I don’t know; why don’t you ask Jimmy?” Don’t allow others to establish eye contact with you and begin discussing the blind youngster as if she were not there and able to hear the conversation: “It is such an inspiration to watch her struggle with that little cane to figure out where she is going.” The best antidote for such twaddle is a bracing comment about how Sue is doing very well when she remembers to bring the cane along and use it properly. This said looking firmly at Sue brings her into the conversation and makes the person take notice of her as a person with both ears and feelings.

As a child grows up and gains experience, she or he will need to work out strategies for all sorts of initial interactions. You can’t accomplish this for your child, but you can help devise the strategies. One of the most vexing conversation openers is, “I bet you don’t recognize my voice.” All blind people deal with variations of this opener. It takes a good deal of self-confidence to respond, “No, I’m sorry, I do not,” and then stop speaking while continuing to look at the person. I have often wanted to retort: “No, but if you were important, I am sure that I would.” So far I have resisted the temptation to make some such response, but the fantasy reflects the degree of frustration and social pressure that such comments elicit from blind people. I suggest that you help your child think through possible appropriate rejoinders. If you are present, you might put in either “It’s Mary Jones, your old Sunday school teacher,” or “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are either. Should we know you?”

When you and your child walk into a social situation, you can make a point of inconspicuously mentioning the names of all the people in the group whom you recognize. In the Federation, when a new person enters a room—say a meeting—we make a practice of going around and telling the blind newcomer who all are present. This is a matter of courtesy and one that sighted people who are used to having blind people in groups frequently adopt.

I never hesitate to say when I arrive, “Who all are here?” If I am leading a group, even if it is comprised of people whom I know, I often ask the group to go around saying names so that I can fix in my mind where everyone is seated. I have had people tell me that, as they grow older, they appreciate having that reminder of names in the group. When everyone is reminded of all the names, they have less tendency to signal by glance alone the person to whom remarks are being addressed. I mention all this here because a blind person cannot begin too early to form the habit of training others how best to keep from making awkward or embarrassing mistakes.

The Teens

I don’t know very many people, blind or sighted, who would willingly relive their teens. Almost all of us are painfully uncertain of ourselves and uncomfortable in our changing bodies and emotional maturity during these years. Because sighted teens are preoccupied with their own problems and insecurities, they are even less likely to spare a thought for the massive uncertainties that plague the blind students they know. I doubt that parents can spare our blind youngsters any of this suffering, and suffering it most certainly is. From my observations and my firsthand experience I will tell you up front that the teen years are some of the most difficult for virtually every blind person, and marching straight through them is the only way to get safely to the far side.

Very few blind teens have much of a dating life during high school. I know of exceptions, but for the most part sighted teens are so insecure themselves that they do not dare associate themselves romantically with anyone as demonstrably different as a blind person. Because girls mature earlier than boys, socially adept and presentable blind men may have more of a dating life in high school; at least they stand a better chance of having one than blind young women do. If a blind young woman is very attractive and poised, she may draw some masculine attention, but it is likely to be from men who are a bit older or markedly more mature in their outlook.

So what is a teen to do during these desert years of just friendship with the opposite sex? The short answer is, endure them and garner as much experience from them as possible. This is the time for parents to do as much as they are permitted to help polish social and grooming skills. Every teen wants to be listened to and taken seriously. Blind teens are usually good at listening. Rightly or wrongly, they are often given credit for wisdom and understanding beyond their years. They can capitalize on such attitudes. Granted, it is no fun to be the favorite sister of everybody on the basketball team or in the National Honor Society or to advise the cheerleaders on how to impress the class president. After all, the blind male thinks, I am a person with feelings, and I would love to go out with you.

Pass the tissues, Mom, and prepare to do some listening yourself. The truth is, however, that all this confiding is providing valuable experience and fodder for later conversational references. Comments like, “I spent an hour on the phone with Sue last night,” or “One of my closest friends last year was our quarterback, and he isn’t even playing ball at the university this year.” Such hints of friendships can reassure other students that this kid is connected and knows what’s what, even if he or she is blind.

All this is tough to learn to pull off, and it will not work if the blind teen is not at all able to hold her own in group settings or has made no friends. Building skills and connections in the early years is key to giving the teen enough confidence to make his way in the treacherous waters of high school social life.

Giving your teen the opportunity to get to know other blind teens in strong and challenging summer programs for blind students is an excellent way of jump-starting social awareness, honing social skills, and providing wonderful grist for the conversational mill during the school year. There’s nothing like reminiscing about waterskiing, white-water rafting, or rock climbing to convince the high school set that the blind student is pretty cool. Moreover, such training programs or even short-term friendships at the NFB national convention can provide much needed confidence building and reinforcement as new skills are developed and old bad habits are wrestled with.

Meeting Strangers

The things I have said about the early teens hold true for beginning college and even for starting to live alone. As one grows older and gathers more experience, the details change, but the principles remain the same: make a good appearance; develop blindness skills and the confidence that comes with knowing that you can cope in any situation; listen, really listen to others and respond with care and tact; develop a plan for your life and goals that may be shaped, but are not bounded by blindness. That said, one is left with the challenge of imposing one’s world view and view of blindness on a wide and ever-shifting community of strangers. Frankly, this life-long necessity to educate the world and force others to take you at your own valuation gets to be a pain in the neck. The good news is that the more you do it, the easier it becomes. It also helps to have a group of friends in the NFB who understand what you are doing and how frustrating or funny it can sometimes be.

Some of us arrange our lives so that we mostly do not have to deal with numbers of strangers just as some sighted people do not like meeting people they do not know. The difference is that most sighted people can slip into the background if they wish, and blind people who are out and about are always going to be noticed. Beginning early to use a white cane and getting really good at it will help anyone feel more comfortable being watched. Good cane users do not necessarily do everything right the first time, but with time one learns to accept that perfection is not the object; getting there safely and independently is.

From time to time, and for some of us very frequently, we must walk into a room full of strangers. I used to work with my college’s alumni. Masses of them would return to campus, where I had to mingle and locate the particular alums with whom I was going to be planning reunions or meeting to do committee work. At such receptions all of them were wearing name tags, so they at least could take a quick look at names and years of graduation and make an informed guess about whether or not they should recognize each other. I on the other hand had not a clue who most of them were.

Those were not my favorite occasions, but I would take a deep breath, grab my white cane, and plunge into the crowd. The one thing to be said about a really long white cane is that it is not easily overlooked, and it certainly does explain why its user slips into a group saying brightly, “And who all is here?” I would pick my group carefully, avoiding the ones deeply engrossed in conversation. I would slide between groups until I heard a familiar voice or a group engaged in superficial chat. Sometimes, as I passed by, someone would speak to me since I was obviously staff. Or I would overhear a question that I could answer and insert myself into a group that way.

Once you have made one contact, no matter how it is done, you can get that person to look around for other people you are supposed to be finding. As with most things, getting started is the hard part. Going on is a matter of waiting for opportunities and seizing them.

The earlier your youngster has some such social experiences, the sooner he or she will adjust to the same sort of encounters at a slightly higher level. Again, social demands at NFB conventions or training centers provide invaluable experience and excellent role models.

Every blind person like every sighted person has a natural level of social confidence and preferred involvement. Your job as a parent is to be sure that your child’s level is not unnaturally low because of poor skills or lack of social know-how. Temperamentally some people are introverts and some are extroverts, but within the constraints of personality your child should be able to function with poise and confidence. We all develop strengths and discover weaknesses in ourselves. That is part of the human condition. We must all learn as best we can to make the most of the strengths and compensate for and gloss over the weaknesses.

I hope that in reading this essay you can find the patience and dedication to help your child make the most of his or her abilities, develop the skills that will breed self-confidence, and foster healthy attitudes about blindness and the opportunities that await him or her.

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