Reflections on the Importance of
Blind Girls and Women
by Barbara Pierce
Editor's Note: Barbara Pierce, Editor of the NFB publication, the Braille Monitor, is also a member of the Committee on the Status of Blind Women, North America/Caribbean Region, World Blind Union. Mrs. Pierce developed the following document as a framework for focus group discussions sponsored by this committee, and conducted by Mrs. Pierce, at the 1997 NFB National Convention in July. You will discover that this article complements, and is in turn enriched by, both the article that precedes it ("A Chance to Belong") and the one that follows ("Never Laugh at the Teacher's Jokes"). Here is what Mrs. Pierce has to say on the topic of socializtion and women:
This paper has no pretensions to be a scholarly work or even an academic exercise. It is a jumping-off point for constructive discussions among blind women about the importance of healthy socialization, the pressures and problems in this area faced by blind girls and women, and the barriers we face in developing fulfilling relationships. Our hope is to increase our own understanding of the social and interpersonal skills we lack and our ability to develop them. We also trust that our insights will assist parents and teachers of blind girls and young women to help them do this work better than many of us had an opportunity to do.
We begin by acknowledging that healthy socialization is important to both men and women, and our exploration of this question from the feminine perspective should not be seen as denigration of men's concerns and problems. We are women, and we understand something of the manifestations of this complex of problems in women's lives. We leave to the experts and to blind men the masculine perspective and their own personal insights.
Gather together a group of women whose blindness began at birth or in youth, and you will find the conversation eventually making its way around to the complex of social problems: attractiveness to potential romantic partners, fashion sense, social skills, physical awkwardness, putting people at easethe list is almost endless. The ramifications of our dissatisfaction with our resolution of these questions extend into every aspect of social life: jobs, friendship, marriage, even managing the details of daily life.
The Committee on the Status of Blind Women invites blind women and, if these women choose, others with an interest in this subject to gather for informal and unstructured discussion of the issues raised here. We ask that you provide us with a rough summary in print or Braille of the concerns raised in your group's conversation and that you pass along any conclusions or insights the group comes to. We can't be sure what exact use we will make of these reports, but we will try to enhance general understanding in the field and improve the efforts made to help women and girls develop their own skills more effectively. We also hope that those who take part in these discussions will find their own understanding and capacity to deal constructively with the social aspect of their lives improved by this exercise.
Almost before adults are aware of the problem, young blind children are already being left out of social interactions. If you can't skip, you can't play skipping games. If you can't bounce a ball or skate or jump rope, you will be left out of those activities. But how often do older siblings or parents help the blind child master the skills at an appropriate age or figure out alternatives that will keep her in the group, taking part in the activity in some way? Using a larger ball, hopping rather than skipping, even (if necessary) being a permanent turner for jump rope: all these keep the blind child a part of the group. Another strategy is to invite a group of playmates to the blind child's yard to play and then offer refreshments whenever they gather there. One family installed a trampoline in the backyard as a neighborhood attraction. If the play equipment is fun, not only will other children want to play, but the blind child will be encouraged to learn to move and take part.
PHOTO CAPTION: Barbara Pierce
As girls grow older, the importance of peer interaction becomes more marked. Feedback from peers can have a powerful deterrent affect on socially unacceptable behavior. Left to themselves, playmates will ask about unusual eye movement or appearance, rocking, eye-pressing, failure to face the speaker, or poor management of food. A child can be helped to develop good explanations of lazy eye muscles or nystagmus. The social pressure of curiosity and implied criticism can serve as a powerful curb to poor habits, assuming that the blind child has intelligent support in training new and better ones.
But all this assumes that the blind child has peer interactions with sighted children or, even better, sighted friends. Sometimes parents don't notice that their mainstreamed blind children have no friends at school and are staying to themselves in class and on the playground. A father who was deeply worried about his eight-year-old daughter's compulsive and increasing eye-pressing complained to one of us that he and his wife and their daughter's friends fussed at her continually about this habit, but she was unwilling to exert herself to stop the behavior. Intrigued by the report that friends were part of this effort to modify the behavior, the blind woman questioned him closely about who the friends were and what they were saying. The friends turned out to be an older neighbor couple concerned about the child. When asked about friends at school, the father discovered, when he thought about it, that to his surprise his daughter had no friends of her own age. He had never noticed that she went to no birthday parties and no one ever came to her house to play. She didn't even speak about other kids and their activities at recess.
Such anecdotes suggest the importance of concentrated efforts to help young children form real friendships at an early age. It may well be even more important for blind children than for sighted to learn early the first rules of successful social intercourse: don't bite; share your toys; engage in appropriate conversation, do not echo or use imitative speech patterns; give other people a chance to talk; don't rock; look at the speaker; etc. Working on these and similar points of acceptable conduct will improve the chances that the child will make friends. And friends will reinforce the lessons teachers and parents are trying to teach.
As blind girls approach adolescence, the social problems they face multiply and become more complex, and a solid foundation of social skills established in childhood becomes ever more important. The girl who cannot flip through Seventeen or clothing catalogues, observe what girls her age are wearing, or take note of clothing in the stores is at a disadvantage in dressing so as to fit in with her peers. At this age the wrong socks or shoes, the shirt tucked or untucked inappropriately, the jeans too new or too full of holes can and do often lead to social ostracism. Flattering and up-to-date hair styles, appropriate and skillfully applied make-up when the time comes, and recognition of attractive body contours can be equally mysterious to a young blind girl who has no one to help her fill these important gaps in her knowledge. If they are part of the picture, friends can be more useful here than adults. If there are none, the gaps in the girl's information will only widen, and the schism between her and the girls she would like to make friends with will broaden.
In this case, immediate first aid is called for. In small-group or individual discussions with a knowledgeable and understanding adult, blind girls must learn the importance of the information they are lacking, and then the deficit must be made up. They must then learn to assume the responsibility for gathering such information for themselves in the future. A mother might take her blind daughter and a couple of other girls her age on a shopping expedition and to a movie they all want to see. Both mother and daughter can learn from the other girls what is in and out this year. Clerks in teen departments can sometimes point out what is popular. Young girls can be encouraged to investigate the clothes on store mannequins. This will teach them, not only what this year's fashions look like, but what the ideal teen body looks like as well.
Early on, someone must sit down with a blind teen and honestly discuss the grooming and cleanliness facts of life. Other students will notice very soon if an adolescent who should be bathing and washing her hair daily is not doing so. It will also spare her inevitable mortification if someone shows her proper and effective ways to prepare for and handle menstruation.
Most of us who attended regular high schools noticed early in our teens that boys were unlikely to be interested in anyone who was as different from their ideal as a blind girl necessarily is. The more physically attractive and socially skilled a blind young woman is, the more likely she is to gather experience with boys, though most blind women of our acquaintance say that they have always found difficulty in getting sighted men of any age to take them seriously as potential partners. Eager for normal relationships, blind women with little experience are frequently vulnerable to unscrupulous men. Afraid to say no and risk rejection, young blind women have often allowed themselves to be drawn into greater physical intimacy than they wanted. We know of no fool-proof way of protecting blind women from this danger. But discussing fears, uncertainties, and areas of ignorance provides a place to begin. Knowing blind women who have successfully dated and married should also be of some reassurance to teens who are feeling like the village outcast.
Important in their own right as the foregoing issues and problems are, the solutions individual women settle on for themselves also combine to form the matrix of their personal, social, and work lives as adults. The capacity easily and appropriately to make conversation, business contacts, friends, and intimate relationships is at the heart of existence as a member of a social community. For blind women as for everyone else, mastering these individual skills in youth makes using them easier in adulthood, but the skills can often be mastered in adulthood if the individual is serious about doing so and willing to work hard. The purpose of this paper is not to guide such an exploration but to point to important areas of social interaction with which our experience suggests that blind women sometimes have problems. Resolving individual difficulties in them must be a personal or small-group activity demanding honesty, compassion, and patience.
Listening attentively to others and drawing them out on subjects that they find interesting are skills that some blind women have had little practice in developing. Throughout their lives people have talked to them about blindness and how they do and perceive things. Unfortunately this usually happens because people assume that blind people have little else to contribute in any conversation, so they restrict talk to things they are sure the blind person knows something about. There is an art to making others believe that one finds their views and interests fascinating, and those who have mastered it are usually known as good conversationalists.
The problem of finding and keeping a good job is many-faceted, but there is a social component to it. One must have an accurate and unromanticized notion of what is required by an employer of any employee holding the job, and one must meet or preferably exceed those requirements. This is difficult when all one's life parents, teachers, and fellow students have been making allowances because of one's visual impairment. But employers need results, and charity will not and should not be part of the equation. We are not all geniuses, but we can exert ourselves and demonstrate willingness to work as hard as necessary to master the job and work competitively. If we can't achieve these goals, we should not be surprised or disappointed when we find it hard to get paid for our work.
Social interaction with work colleagues is another important
area of work life in which blind women sometimes have problems. Co-
workers almost always begin by assuming that they will have to look
out for the blind worker and make allowances for her. The best
defense against such assumptions is an aggressive offense: hard
work, clarity about where and when blindness is a factor, and
spirited and independent participation in the social component of
the job. Remembering birthdays, bringing coffee-break treats,
asking about sick relatives, doing favors for colleaguesthese and
a thousand other marks of thoughtfulness and social sensitivity can draw one into the group.
In order to develop a corps of friends beyond the workplace, blind women must find ways of meeting people in situations where there is a social component to the interactions: religious organizations, volunteer projects, adult classes, musical groups, etc. Doing so is not always easy because of physical or logistical barriers to getting there, but the simple fact is that one can't make friends without meeting people in circumstances in which friendship can grow.
To build healthy, mutually satisfying personal relationships of all kinds, one must invest time and genuine interest in the other person and in shared activities, and the other party must be willing to do the same. Because too often blind women have had little opportunity to form and grow in healthy friendships and physical relationships, they can be easy victims. If one devalues one's self and places disproportionate value on the affection and attention of a friend or lover, one is already a good way toward victim-hood. The best defense is a strong sense of self-worth and the conviction that the overly demanding person is not the only fish in the sea. Unfortunately, both of these attitudes are developed over a long period of making and keeping good friends. One can't graft such a personal history into one's adult personality, but one can begin nurturing such relationships. Sexual exploitation is not the only basis for intimate relationships. Real friendships cannot be made or kept by letting others walk all over one physically, psychologically, or spiritually. But learning to stand up for oneself after years of passivity is difficult without the support of friends, family, or therapist.
The intent of this paper has not been to solve problems but to enable blind women to explore them and move toward their own solutions. Understanding the terrain better may make it easier to plot a course through it. We can also hope that deeper understanding of the special social problems facing blind women will enable us all to assist blind girls and young women to form healthy and socially acceptable habits of body and mind so that they will be better equipped than many of us have been to meet the demands of adult life and to be nurtured and fulfilled in their social relationships at every level.