American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Special Issue: Early Childhood COMMUNICATION
by Melissa Riccobono
From the Editor: Melissa Riccobono is the mother of three children, two of whom are blind. In this article she draws upon her experience as a mother and as a blind woman to address a very timely issue, the matter of avoiding or dealing with unwanted physical contact.
When I worked as a school counselor, I used to give personal/body safety lessons to elementary-school students every year. Of course, these lessons were not meant to scare children. They were intended to help children learn that their bodies belong to them, that they have the right to feel safe and respected, and that they can say no and leave a situation when they do not feel comfortable. I emphasized that any touch that makes a child uncomfortable is a reason to communicate displeasure, no matter where the person is touching his or her body. I also emphasized that everyone is entitled to his or her personal space, and that those boundaries should be respected. Although I am no longer a school counselor, I try to teach my own children these same lessons. I also help with lessons on personal space in the National Federation of the Blind Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning (NFB BELL) Academy in Maryland every summer.
At times I wish I were better at practicing what I try to teach. As a blind adult, I am frequently grabbed, pushed, or pulled when I am out in the world. For the most part people touch me because they truly want to help me. Sometimes they are afraid for my safety—even when I am perfectly in control of the situation and am not in any danger. Sometimes they want to direct me somewhere (even if it is not where I want to go), and they try to pull me there because they cannot find the words to give me verbal directions. When I assert myself, as politely as possible, to make the touching stop, I often get a very angry response. "Well, excuse me! I was ONLY trying to HELP you! I guess next time I'll just leave you alone!"
The issue of uninvited touch presents me with quite a dilemma. Do I allow something to occur that makes me uncomfortable, or do I speak out and risk offending someone? If I don't speak out, what message do I send to the person who touches me, or to my own blind daughters?
If people would stop to think about it, I hope they would realize that it is inappropriate to push or pull someone or to grab a person without permission. After all, few people would behave this way toward a person who can see. Why should the rules of courtesy be suspended regarding someone who is blind? However, people do not often seem to consider these points. They expect me to be grateful for something which, in any other context, would be considered offensive.
For a number of reasons blind children experience more than their share of touch from an early age. For one thing, adults want very much to keep children safe, and their safety concerns often are magnified around a child who is blind. When they think that the blind child is too close to a step or an obstacle, they are inclined to grab him and snatch him out of harm's way. In addition, when time is short the adult may feel that it is easier to guide the blind child to a destination than it is to let the child find it independently. Finally, when an adult wants to show a blind child how to perform a task, the adult is likely to grasp the child's hand and manipulate it through the necessary motions.
As a parent I, too, want to keep my children as safe as I can. I know how important it is sometimes to get to places quickly. I appreciate when someone wants to show my blind daughters something or to help them practice a skill. Touch may be involved in all of these situations, but it can lead to future problems unless it is thought through carefully.
Blind children who always have an adult hovering close to them may become passive and unwilling to explore. Children who are not allowed to move freely may fail to develop vital travel skills. They will not learn to respect the personal space of others because their own personal space has seldom been respected. Adding to this set of problems, blind children who are touched in ways that they do not like can feel helpless and angry. Young blind children need to learn that their bodies belong to them. They need to learn to respect the personal space and boundaries of others, and they need to learn how to assert their desire for personal space and independent movement.
Parents and teachers of blind children can do a great deal to encourage and support this vital learning. It is my hope that through teaching and support, blind children will become more comfortable and confident to assert their rights, and everyone will learn from their example as they grow. Here are some points to keep in mind.
Allow some time every day for your infant to explore. Although there are certainly times when your baby needs to be in a playpen or crib so you can do things around the house, time on the floor is essential for exploration. Encourage your child to roll, crawl, and walk to you by calling her. Hide favorite noisy toys in various parts of the room and make a game of finding them.
Encourage your child to use his cane when he is outside of the house. It may be difficult at first, and the cane may seem like just one more thing to carry. But the more your child has a cane in his hand, the more he will associate his cane with travel, and, most important, the more he will begin to recognize that he can use his cane to learn about his surroundings.
Even if you need to take your child's hand for safety reasons—while crossing the street or when walking through a crowded store—have her use her cane in her other hand. The cane will still help her have some control over the travel experience.
Slowing down is so much easier said than done, but it is one of the greatest gifts you can give to your child. Try picking out one day a month as a "slow day." During the slow day, allow your child truly to take her time and explore a familiar or unfamiliar place. This leisurely exploration will help her gain skills and ask questions, and it will help the two of you build great memories.
Provide opportunities for all types of body movement. Allow your child to jump, run, gallop, skip, dance, tumble, swing—even to fall. All of these movements build confidence and build an understanding of space. If you find that your child is reluctant to move, make sure you address this with the team of professionals who work with her to find strategies to increase these skills.
Enroll your child in gymnastics, swimming, skating, dance, or other movement activities. There are many techniques which can be used to ensure that your child gets the most out of these classes. Reach out to blind adults and other parents of blind children, or comb past issues of Future Reflections for ideas. You certainly do not have to reinvent the wheel!
Help your child grasp the concept of personal space. Often blind children feel they that need to get close to others in order to communicate with them. In some cases, children with low vision need to be close so that they can see a person. Children are often curious about others, and they want to touch them to learn about them. Some children are very affectionate as well; they want to give and receive hugs. Sometimes blind children touch others because they want to make sure the person is still there. It is important to understand all of the reasons behind these behaviors.
Adults are often overly tolerant of a blind child intruding into his or her personal space. Because the child is blind they do not want to hurt his feelings. Nevertheless, blind children, like all children, need to be taught to respect the personal space of others.
Let your child know when she is standing too close to someone, and ask her to back up a couple of steps. Encourage slightly older children to imagine that every person is surrounded by a bubble. Explain that no one should enter your child's bubble, and your child should not enter another person's bubble without permission.
Encourage adults and other children who interact with your child to hold her to the same standards. Tell others it is all right to tell your child he is standing too close.
Help your child learn to ask permission before she touches someone else. "I love your necklace; would it be all right if I touch it?" "I hear beads rattling in your hair. May I please touch them?" Encourage others to have your child ask permission before she touches.
Give your child words to use when he wants to know if someone is still close to him or to find out what someone is doing. "Are you still there?" is a perfectly appropriate question. If your child is asking it over and over, however, talk to him about other ways he can know whether someone is still nearby. These might include listening carefully and asking another question to see if he gets a response. Ask adults and other children to let your child know before they walk away whenever possible.
When I was in school, teachers often taught me to do things by using the hand over hand method. An adult would put her hand over mine and try to guide my hand through the motions of the task she wanted to teach me. Today most teachers of blind children recognize that hand under hand is a much better approach.
First, tell the child you would like to show him something. Invite him to put his hand on top of yours. In this way the child can get the information, but he remains in control. He can pull his hand away at any time.
If you want a blind child to touch an object, bring the object to the child's hand. If the child is old enough to follow verbal directions, direct him to the object with words. If the child is having great difficulty finding the object, ask if you may take the child's hand and place it on the object.
Make sure you let your child know what you are about to do before you touch her. This seems like common sense; no one likes to be surprised by a touch they are not expecting.
Encourage others to ask permission before they touch your child. Emphasize that they should ask permission before attempting to guide your child somewhere.
Help your child learn that his body belongs to him. Let him know it is okay to ask someone who is trying to guide him to give him directions instead of taking hold of him. In order for this method to be effective, you need to work with your child on concepts such as left, right, straight ahead, in front of you, and behind you so he can understand and follow the directions he is given.
If your child wants to be guided somewhere, make sure he is comfortable asking to take the guide's arm instead of having the guide take hold of him.
It can be very tricky for your child to assert himself without seeming rude to others, especially to adults. Role play with your child. Help him come up with language that both of you are comfortable with. Also, help him come up with language to explain how a person can be most helpful. ("May I please put my hand on yours so I can feel what you're doing?" "Could you please let me know next time before you touch my shoulder?")
In order for blind children to be successful, they need to be confident travelers and strong self-advocates. They also need to be socially aware. These traits and abilities will help them understand that their bodies belong to them.