Future Reflections Spring/Summer 2003
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Clothing, Grooming, and Social Acceptability: Part 1
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. She has conducted many national workshops for parents and teens on the topic of social skills. Her most recent contribution to Future Reflections was the article, “Please Pass the Manners,” published in volume 20, number 3. In this two-part series, she has teamed up with long-time Federation leader, Steve Benson. Mr. Benson's article will appear in the next issue. Here, now, is what Barbara has to say:
I live in a college town where students dress any way they please, and we have all become resigned to green hair, bizarre fashions, and dirty feet and fingernails. We dismiss these as Oberlin students being Oberlin students, and we know that in ten years they will be running social service agencies, treating sick people, becoming pillars of law firms, and otherwise helping the country to move forward.
Unfortunately, unlike college students blind kids do not have the luxury of being oblivious to social expectation. At least, if they choose to disregard convention or flout social expectation, they are not laughingly excused but condescendingly dismissed on the grounds of blindness. They are presumed not to know any better or to be doing the best they can.
That's why it's important that parents and family members do whatever they can to teach blind youngsters how to take care of themselves, to make a good appearance, and to behave in ways that will not embarrass them. Accomplishing these goals is a challenge, particularly when the child has no useable vision or has unreliable sight. As with so much else in bringing up a blind child, objective feedback and consistent pressure to maintain standards are requirements of the job.
Some years ago a blind student entered Oberlin College and immediately made himself an outcast in his dormitory. He had no interest in giving himself or his clothing a bath, and his roommates soon began to resent his life style. By the time they turned to the head of a local blindness agency for help, things must have been desperate. Oberlin College students are not a squeamish bunch, and they are pretty determined to let others go their own way without objection. Things must have been pretty bad for the young men to seek advice. The agency director asked the three what they would do if the offender were sighted. Their answer was immediate. They would throw him, clothes and all, into the shower with a bar of soap and prevent him from escaping until the worst of the dirt was gone. The director suggested that they do exactly that with this student. The fellow never became socially popular, but I gather that he did get the idea that bathing every few days was a good idea. In the hope that there are easier ways of teaching these important lessons to blind youngsters, I offer the following advice.
At three my granddaughter is beginning to choose what clothes she will wear each morning. She and her mother do a lot of talking about colors and what goes together. Miranda is not to be trusted yet, but the conversations that will eventually teach her what works and what does not, what is attractive and appropriate, have begun. For blind children, too, this talk must begin early. They must learn how to recognize various pieces of clothing by touch as well as what things go together.
A good way to teach a blind child how to recognize the items in his or her wardrobe by touch is for the parent to try folding the laundry in the dark. If you can learn to distinguish between items by touch, you can teach your child to do so. You may find that some pieces are truly indistinguishable. In this case they must be marked tactilely in some way or sorted by sight and then stored in different places. I will not go into methods of marking clothing; a number of good systems exist. You will have to determine which works best for your family.
If the child cannot distinguish colors or does not see some colors well, you must teach the rules of color coordination by rote: plaids and stripes don't go together; different prints should be kept apart unless they have been designed to go together; check with someone reliable to be sure that different shades of the same color are harmonious; some colors go together, and some do not. These are very important lessons for the blind child of either sex to master. If you are having trouble convincing your child of the importance of such information, solicit the aid of a blind adult friend to second your views. Just be certain that you choose a blind person who dresses well to help you.
This whole process is long and complicated. Children vary in their patience with learning such information and their willingness to apply it. It is important not to give up on the project and simply continue to lay out your child's clothing with no involvement in the process by the youngster. Insisting that your blind child help with folding clean clothes and hanging garments on hangers will provide opportunities for talking about color, design, wear and fading, stylishness, wrinkling, and other matters of dress. I have met blind ten-year-olds who can put on a dress shirt but not button it on a hanger. When I see this, I know that the child has never been confronted with managing personal clothing.
Like everyone else parents vary in our ability to muster interest, common sense, and a sense of style for our own wardrobes as well as for those of our children. We also have varying amounts of money to spend on clothes. I am not suggesting that parents of blind children should spend money they do not have to make sure that their children are well dressed. But I would urge those who have little interest in clothes to find a friend or family member to help with this part of their child's education.
Thrift stores are a gold mine of bargains for those who can spot them and enjoy the search. These are not great places for blind people to shop on their own since one can never be sure about stains or other problems that may not be apparent by touch. Even today I do not shop for clothes alone. I know which of my family and friends have taste I can trust. I tell one of these women what I am looking for, and they go through catalogues or hunt through racks of clothing with me in the stores I have come to patronize. This shopping can be done with store personnel, but a blind person is living dangerously unless the clerk or shoppers' assistant is already known and trusted. Such methods are only for adults. Blind youngsters should be consulted in shopping but guided by someone with good taste.
Once the clothing has been purchased and can be identified or has been labeled, the question arises of maintaining it. Blind children may be somewhat more motivated to deal with soiled clothing in an orderly way since finding the lost Snoopy sock or the plaid blouse is harder in a room full of dirty clothes when you can't see something peeking out from under the bed or draped over the bookcase. I trained all three of my sighted children to pin their socks together because it was easier for me to do the laundry that way. As a result they all lost fewer socks. With older blind children it is a good idea to begin pointing out stains and teaching them to deal with them. If a safety pin or piece of tape is placed on a stain, the child can apply one of the pre-wash sprays before putting the garment into the dirty clothes hamper or down the chute. (Elsewhere I have described my tricks for doing laundry, “This Is the Way We Wash Our Clothes,” in the Kernel Book, Remember to Feed the Kittens.)
Mastering the details of good grooming is also an evolutionary process. Young blind children who are not bathed frequently will not grow up understanding how important bathing is. If a blind child's hair is not kept clean and neat, he or she will not get used to what clean, combed hair feels like and will never learn to appreciate it or do it for him- or herself. So parents must begin by doing these tasks, talking about their importance, and teaching their blind children to do them for themselves. Young hands have to learn what it feels like to lather a washcloth, use a nail brush, and shampoo and rinse hair.
Brushing teeth is another skill and grooming aid that some blind people never take seriously. I grew up before dentists urged patients to have their teeth cleaned by a dental hygienist once or twice a year, so really clean teeth were not part of my everyday life. I remember the moment I discovered that the furry little jackets of plaque were not intended to be a permanent part of my teeth and that this stuff was what I was supposed to be removing with my toothbrush. In this case it was a matter of training my tongue to notice food caught between my teeth and the scum building up on them.
From there it was easy to keep my teeth clean, but more than once I have heard a sighted person comment with distaste on the unpleasant appearance of a blind person with yellowed or dirty teeth and food lingering between them. Again the problem is that the blind child who is never taught what a clean mouth feels like and how to detect the need to brush teeth will never be sensitive to this part of good grooming.
As girls approach their teens, they have to find a hairstyle that is flattering. Often parents settle on what is simplest rather than considering what is most attractive. For many young women the hair dryer and the curling iron provide a rite of passage. There is no reason why blind girls cannot learn to use these tools as well. They just need to learn what hair feels like when it has been properly styled. If a girl's hair is left long, she must learn to wash it frequently and keep it neat and under control.
Make-up is another challenge that parents often ignore. Because blind teens cannot reliably check whether their make-up is properly applied, they should be taught how to apply it and warned against wearing too much. Until they are quite expert in applying it, all blind women are wise to have someone check their make-up and give them feedback about streaky foundation, smudged mascara or lipstick, or too much blush or powder. I have not yet met a blind woman who can successfully apply nail polish. Maybe some people can do it by touch alone, but I certainly cannot, not on all ten fingers.
I will leave most of the discussion of appropriate dress and grooming for young men to Steve Benson in Part 2 of this series, but I wish to comment in passing on the importance of teaching blind boys to tie their own ties. I am not sure which would be more embarrassing for a young man: asking others to tie his ties for him or having to choose from the narrow selection of clip-on business ties. I can remember teaching at least one of my blind colleagues how to tie a tie. I had no particular trouble doing so even though he has mild cerebral palsy. But then, since my first boyfriend had taught me to tie a tie so that I could tie his for him, I knew it was not a difficult task.
A word should be said about dressing appropriately. Usually blind people do not have the luxury of observing what others are wearing at various functions, information that shapes the future clothing decisions made by most people. Parents can help by providing observations about the way other students are dressed at various social events. Staying abreast of current fashion trends is another task that siblings and parents can help with.
As an adult I feel most secure dressing slightly up. Today lots of women wear slacks to church; I may wear a pantsuit to church when the weather is very cold, but the rest of the time I wear dresses or skirted suits. Not every blind woman would make that choice, but this is an example of my choice to aim at the upper end of the appropriate range of style. One would look startlingly out of place wearing formal evening clothes to a picnic. But wearing wash pants when jeans would do or an open-neck dress shirt when a sports shirt would be fine is appropriate and keeps one appearing to advantage. It also helps to educate those who presume that blind people necessarily dress inappropriately and rather badly, which is an important consideration for me.
Children must be taught to think about such matters, and teaching them to do so is part of a parent's job. This is one of those areas in which most sighted youngsters absorb the information almost unconsciously, but acquiring it is necessarily intentional for blind kids.
I am using this term to encompass all those conscious and unconscious skills and habits that enable us to fit in and feel comfortable in a group of friends or strangers. All people vary in their ability to fit in and even in their desire to do so. We need not force all blind youngsters to become social butterflies. However, it is important to make sure that their manners and habits do not put people off and prevent them from getting along with others where and when they wish to.
Begin talking with a group of parents of blind children, and the conversation will inevitably turn to helping children control the repetitive and distracting actions often called blindisms. Sometimes these activities are unique to blind children, like eye pressing; sometimes they occur in other populations as well but are still identified as blindisms when a blind child engages in them. If the behavior distracts and bothers other people, it is probably worth working to control. Lots of research and discussion focus on this aspect of socialization, so I am not going to spend time on it except to say that your child will thank you later if you exert the energy now to distract him or her from such actions and find ways of encouraging self-monitoring to eliminate it.
All blind children can benefit from activities that help them learn to move and interact with others. I am a great believer in gentle roughhousing. I mean the kind of fun play with a parent that can tumble a child around and allow him or her to climb, roll, swing, and learn how to balance and slide and have physical fun. Too many parents deprive their blind children of this activity and thereby make it hard for them to learn about their bodies and how to move with ease and confidence.
Lots of the early teaching about socially acceptable behavior can be done through play. Games can sharpen a blind child's ability to notice from what direction sounds are coming. This teaches him or her how to look at a speaker, one of the very important skills for blind children to master. By the way, you can help your child by quietly turning him or her to look at the speaker when he or she is not doing so. Having contests to walk balancing a book on the head reminds all kids of the importance of standing straight and tall. It also helps blind children resist their tendency to lead with the head.
The important thing is to remain mindful of a blind child's drift toward inappropriate behavior. Many parents yield to the strong temptation to excuse their child because he doesn't know better or they don't have time and energy to correct her. Here are some habits that are easier to nip in the bud than to break once they are well-entrenched: invading other people's space while talking, investigating other people tactilely, interrupting others' conversations to talk about self or recite memorized material, exploring or stimulating one's own body in public. The test of whether or not a child's behavior is inappropriate is to consider whether or not sighted children of the same developmental level engage in those actions and notice the way people react when the blind child engages in such behavior.
The young blind person who dresses and behaves appropriately and is well-groomed and confident in social situations is well on the way to becoming a confident, poised adult. No child ever masters all of these skills easily and naturally. Civilization must be imposed on all of us, and both parents and children suffer in the process. Learning to behave considerately and politely takes tenacity on the part of parents and hard work on the part of blind children particularly, but the benefits last a lifetime.
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