A Study of Some Alternatives to Eye contact in Communications of Blind People

By Nooshin Poormollaabbasi

Department of Foreign Languages, Khorasgan (Isfahan) Branch, Islamic Azad University, Isfahan, Iran. E-mail: [email protected]

Abstract

This study evaluated some alternatives to eye contact in the communications of speaking blind people in terms of four major functions: showing attention, determining direct addressee, signaling readiness, and turn-taking. Twenty visually impaired females with an average age of 28 years old were randomly selected from a blind database at an Isfahan blind rehabilitation center. The participants were assigned to four groups: congenital totally blind, adventitious totally blind, congenital partially sighted, and adventitious partially sighted. Each group sat around a rectangular table in a room talking about blind marriage for approximately 30 minutes. Four videos were taped and analyzed in two sessions. The collected data were analyzed through three statistical procedures and SPSS 18.0. According to the data analyses, the frequency distributions of the alternatives used by totally blind and partially sighted groups were almost identical, meaning that all outcomes were not statistically significant. However, congenital and adventitious totally blind groups used different alternatives to eye contact. Owing to this, the outcomes have statistically been significant. Findings demonstrate that showing attention was the most common alternative to eye contact used by all groups. Congenital totally blind participants also used determining direct addressee with the highest frequency distribution, while adventitious totally blind participants used signaling readiness and turn-taking more than other alternatives to eye contact. Consequently, it is necessary for individuals who are blind from childhood to learn how to use some substitutes for making eye contact through their communications. It is also necessary for their parents to get information and assistance to treat and communicate with their blind children.

Keywords

Eye contact, totally blind, partially sighted, visual impairment, congenital, adventitious

 

Introduction

We use our eyes to sense the world and to express ourselves. When two people look into each other’s eyes, they experience eye contact (Chen, 2002). Additionally, posture and stance, facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, proximity, and appearance all communicate over half of our meaning nonverbally. “Most people do not realize just how much they use this unspoken language every time they communicate with another person. They use it unconsciously,” (Wainwright, 1985, p. 1).

Smith (2010) has found that eye contact usually develops early in life when a mother and a baby will frequently maintain gaze for up to 30 seconds. A mother also monitors this gaze for an infant’s interest and if the gaze is lost, a mother will change the style of her interaction. The baby learns that in the rules of eye-contact, looking away is communicating disinterest and that the topic is changed or the interaction ended. By 12 months, the infant clearly uses eye-contact to initiate a social interaction with various pragmatic functions, such as requesting a toy. That is to say, social interaction often develops through social games.

Since face-to-face communication relies heavily on nonverbal cues, people who are blind can be at a disadvantage in social situations. Lack of access to cues such as eye contact can sometimes lead to awkward situations, like for example answering a question that was directed to another person. This problem is compounded by the fact that sighted people are not always aware of their use of these nonverbal cues, and they do not take it into account when communicating with the blind (Krishna, Colbry, Black, Balasubramanian, and Panchanathan, 2008). Blind individuals also are not very successful in “turn-taking”. When they take part in conversations within a group, they may interrupt other conversational partners (Franco, 2008). Unlike sighted children, who communicate with eye contact and smiles, blind children have been observed to use some alternatives to eye contact, such as hand-movements and other body-cues, to indicate what they have noticed and where their attention is focused.

Eye contact can also trigger some actions and can have various functions throughout the communication process. The present research is thought to be significant, because it investigates some of these functions including “showing attention,” “determining direct addressee,” “signaling readiness,” and “turn-taking” as substitutes for eye contact.

Research Hypotheses

In this study, two null hypotheses were raised and tested based on some specified alternatives to eye contact. First, both totally blind groups were compared with both partially sighted groups, and then the congenital totally blind group was compared with the adventitious totally blind group to examine their similarities and differences based on statistical procedures.

Hypothesis 1. There are no differences between the totally blind and partially sighted people in their alternatives to eye contact.

Hypothesis 2. There are no differences between congenitally blind and adventitiously blind people in their alternatives to eye contact.

Method

Participants

In this study, the participants were comprised of 20 visually impaired females who were randomly selected from a blind database at a ladies blind rehabilitation center, in Isfahan, Iran. The age range of the participants was from 20 to 35 years old, with a mean age of 28 years old. Their native language was Farsi and all of them lived in Isfahan. They were divided into two major groups, consisting of 10 totally blind and 10 partially sighted participants. Each of these groups were also divided into two minor subgroups resulting in four groups containing five congenital totally blind, five adventitious totally blind, five congenital partially sighted, and five adventitious partially sighted subjects. The congenital totally blind subjects were born blind or became blind during childhood before age one, while the adventitious totally blind subjects became blind as teenagers or adults. In general, totally blind participants could not perceive any light at all, but partially sighted participants could perceive light very well and could also read text in large print.

Procedure

This study was further narrowed down to the topic of alternative techniques to eye contact used in the communications of speaking blind groups. In order to carry out this study, a digital video camera was used to record the alternative techniques to eye contact that were used. Owing to this, the participants were asked to sit around a rectangular table in a room in the evening. They sat exactly in front of the digital video camera on three sides of the table, in an arrangement so that their faces were entirely observable through the lens of that digital video camera at the same time. An identical topic on the social problems of blind marriage was separately given to each group and they were asked to have a face-to-face conversation together on this topic for approximately 30 minutes. None of the participants was previously aware of this topic and there was no treatment or instruction throughout this study. They were asked to communicate and talk with each other naturally without paying attention to the video camera. When they were interacting with each other on this topic face-to-face, the video camera was switched on and all of the participants’ facial expressions and bodily movements were simultaneously observed and recorded.

Four significant functions of eye contact, including showing attention, determining direct addressee, signaling readiness, and turn-taking, were selected from among other functions to find their similarities and differences. It was obvious that they continuously used different verbal and nonverbal strategies throughout their communication. These conversational partners sometimes agreed or disagreed with each other’s opinions through their interactions. For instance, when they agreed with each other, they used expressions like “yes, that’s right,” “bravo,” and “I agree,” as verbal strategies to show their agreement. They also used words and expressions to show their disagreement like, “no, I disagree with you,” and “I don’t accept your opinion.” Likewise, they frequently interrupted their conversational partners to take turns throughout their conversation. Moreover, they used other techniques for turn-taking such as apology and sometimes raising their tone of voice. They also determined their addressee by naming them directly, indirectly, or formally, and by bodily touching them. These participants used some nonverbal sound production techniques like laughing, saying “uhn,” face-turning, and raising their tone of voice to show their attention to the speaker and conversation. They also signaled their readiness to communicate by using some verbal agreement and verbal disagreement expressions.

These videotapes were played back multiple times and reviewed to take important notes and data pertaining to the research. The statistical software SPSS 18 was then run to analyze and describe the collected data.

Data Analyses

In this survey, the Chi-square test was used to investigate the research hypotheses and to compare the collected data among these four groups. Therefore, the frequency of some functions indicating showing attention, determining direct addressee, signaling readiness, and turn-taking were compared among the groups. These four groups were labeled with the abbreviations: CB, AB, CPS and APS.

In order to start the statistical procedures and data analysis, first a table was drawn to record the number of frequencies of each function throughout the conversation. In general, this table contained 80 cells and held 80 numbers in it. In other words, there were twenty cells for each group to be filled in. Thus, the videos were separately watched and it was specified how many times each one of these four functions were used by each one of the participants.

 The numbers obtained were analyzed using some formulas to produce different interpretations and to compare the similarities and differences among these four groups. In addition to the Chi-square test, Lambda and Cramér's V were used as post-tests in order to ensure the truthfulness of the collected data. The observed and calculated frequencies have been presented through all analyses to make the interpretation of the findings simpler. The data have also been analyzed and described by the SPSS 18 statistical software program. And all data and findings were described and investigated based on the research hypotheses.

Table 1- Frequency of Use of Alternative Techniques

Groups

Showing Attention

Direct Addressee

Signaling Readiness

Turn-taking

Total

CB

56

6

12

83

157

AB

147

16

48

122

333

CPS

128

22

32

101

283

APS

123

8

47

132

310

Total

454

52

139

438

1083

As mentioned in Table 1 above, congenital totally blind participants used turn-taking with the highest  frequency distribution (83). In contrast, adventitious totally blind subjects used showing attention with the highest frequency distribution (147). Congenital partially-sighted participants used showing attention most frequently (128) and adventitious partially-sighted participants used turn-taking (132) with the highest frequency distribution. Finally, showing attention has been used most frequently by all four groups (454), and turn-taking has been identified as the second most frequently used technique (438). Therefore, signaling readiness (139) and determining direct addressee (52) occupy the third and last places.

Hypotheses

For the first hypothesis, both the totally blind and partially-sighted groups were compared with each other in order to determine whether there were no significant differences between them in this research. According to the data, both totally blind and partially-sighted groups used each one of the alternatives to eye contact with the same level of frequency distribution.

Table 2 - Results of the Analysis

Calculated Statistical Index

Value

Significance

Chi-square (X)2

0.90

0.82

Lambda

0.002

0.92

Cramér's V

0.02

0.82

As shown above, three different values were obtained through the analysis by the statistical procedures ((X)2, Lambda, and Cramér's V). All values showed P>.05. This means that all outcomes are not significant, because P is greater than .05 in each of them.

For the second hypothesis, congenital and adventitious totally blind groups were compared with each other to examine whether there were no significant differences between these two groups. Congenital totally blind participants used showing attention (184, 184.5) with the same level of the observed and expected frequency distribution. But it was different for the technique of determining direct addressee. Its observed frequency (28) was more than its expected frequency distribution (21.1). In contrast, the observed frequency of two other alternatives to eye contact, signaling readiness and turn-taking (44, 184), were less than their expected frequency distributions (56.5, 178). However, adventitious totally blind subjects used determining direct addressee with the observed frequency (24) less than its expected frequency distribution (30.9). Moreover, they used signaling readiness (95) and turn-taking (284) with an observed frequency that was higher than their expected frequency distributions (82.5, 260).

Table 3 - Results from the Analysis Comparing the Observed and Expected Frequencies of Alternative Techniques

Calculated Statistical Index

Value

Significance

Chi-square (X)2

8.75

0.03

Lambda

0.007

0.5

Cramér's V

0.05

0.03

As mentioned above, the three values obtained through the analysis by (X)2, Lambda, and Cramér's V were used to compare the observed and expected frequency distributions of alternative techniques between the congenital blind & the adventitious blind. Results indicated that the differences of the observed frequency distributions in the previous table have statistically been significant (P<.05).

Discussion

According to (Schroeder, 1999), the best time to make eye contact is obviously when speaking with another person. By making eye contact, one is showing that they have an interest in what the speaker has to say. With that in mind, two hypotheses have been proposed and investigated through this research.

Interpretation of Findings In light of Research Hypotheses

To summarize, blind participants used four different alternative techniques to eye contact in their conversations, including showing attention, determining direct addressee, signaling readiness, and turn-taking. The blind participants employed these four alternatives to eye contact in different ways. For example, they turned their face, laughed, and used verbal strategies to show their attention to their conversational partners. Likewise, they addressed their partners verbally by first name, both indirectly and in formal ways, and by bodily touching one another. They also signaled their readiness to communicate with verbal agreement and disagreement. Then, they took turns in conversation with strategies like interruption, verbal agreement and disagreement, apology, and producing some nonverbal sounds.

The findings of this study suggest some significant differences and similarities between blind people in using alternative techniques to eye contact, indicating that turn-taking and showing attention are mainly employed as the first and second alternative techniques for congenital totally blind and adventitious partially sighted groups. Showing attention and turn-taking are also employed in that order by adventitious totally blind and congenital partially sighted groups. Signaling readiness and determining direct addressee are similarly used by all four groups. Nevertheless, congenital totally blind participants had limitations in making eye contact. Consequently, they used several strategies to take turns in their conversations with their partners including: interruption, verbal agreement and disagreement, verbal strategy, apology, nonverbal sound production, etc. This means that they would suddenly interrupt their partners during conversation to take turns and then begin to speak for themselves. They also interrupted their conversational partners with words and expressions like “yes,” “bravo,” and “I agree with you,” to show their verbal agreement, and expressions like “no, I do not agree with you,” “I disagree,” and “I don’t accept,” to show their verbal disagreement. Participants also interrupted their partners with apologizing expressions such as “excuse me,” or “sorry, as well as other verbal phrases such as “see,” or “look,” to interrupt their partners and take turns. They also interrupted their partners with some nonverbal sounds like “ahn” to take turns.

While reviewing the videos, it was observed that those participants who were adventitiously totally blind used showing attention as the most frequent alternative technique to eye contact in their conversations. They also showed their attention to their partners with different strategies including face-turning, verbal strategies, nonverbal sound production, etc., during their interpersonal interactions. That is to say that these participants showed their attention by turning their face to the speaker while conversing. Likewise, they used words and expressions such as “see,” and “look,” as verbal strategies to show their attention to the conversation. And they produced some nonverbal sounds like laughter or the sound “ahn.”

Moreover, the totally blind and partially-sighted groups were compared to identify their similarities and differences. Therefore, the observed and expected frequency distributions of these four alternatives to eye contact were compared between these two groups. The outcomes indicated that the totally blind and partially sighted participants were similar to each other, because the observed and expected frequency distributions of each one of the alternatives to eye contact were almost the same. Indeed, the first hypothesis throughout the study appeared to be in accordance with the findings because, as stated before, there were some similarities in using alternative techniques to eye contact between these two groups.

In this survey, the congenital and adventitious totally blind groups were also compared to one another to examine their similarities and differences. Both of these groups were totally blind, but the congenital and adventitious variables made them different from each other. Findings also reveal that the observed and expected frequency distributions of showing attention for congenital and adventitious totally blind groups are almost at the same level. By contrast, congenital totally blind participants use determining direct addressee in their communications more than other substitutes for making eye contact, but adventitious totally blind subjects use signaling readiness and turn-taking much more than other alternatives to eye contact. The expectation of the research was that there were no differences between the congenital and adventitious totally blind groups in their alternative techniques to eye contact, but this was not the case. Based on the findings of the study as mentioned above, there were some differences between these two groups in using their alternative techniques to eye contact. As illustrated earlier, those participants who were congenital totally blind from birth used determining direct addressee as a substitutive technique for making eye contact more than other techniques. Therefore, they determine their addressees by calling their first name directly, speaking to them indirectly (i.e. “Whose turn is it?”), and speaking to them formally (i.e. “You, Mrs.”) Sometimes they determine their addressees by touching their body instead of calling to them. Nevertheless, they can replace eye contact with this technique in their communications.

On the other hand, adventitious totally blind participants (those who became totally blind in different ways later in life) use signaling readiness and turn-taking  as alternative techniques to eye contact more frequently than other techniques; even more than congenital blind participants. Consequently, they replace their eye contact with signaling readiness and turn-taking in their communications. These participants signal their readiness to communicate by using expressions like “yes,” “bravo,” “I agree,” etc. to show their verbal agreement and expressions like “no,” “I disagree,” etc. to show their verbal disagreement. They also attempt to take turns of conversation in different ways such as interruption, verbal agreement, nonverbal sound production, verbal strategies, apologies, and so forth. But congenital blind participants use these two alternative techniques less than the other group. So, the prediction of the second hypothesis in this study was rejected, because it was contrary to the results of the research.

Implications of the Study

This study by implication is said to be in support of the assumptions of Krishna, et al (2008) that, indeed, training can make blind people more aware of the social norms. Sighted people for instance, turn their head to face a sighted person as they speak to him/her as a substitute for establishing eye contact. The blind can also use this method to speak to their conversational partners. Furthermore, it is necessary for the individuals who are blind from childhood to learn how to use some substitutes for making eye contact through their communications. It is also necessary for their parents to get information and assistance to treat and communicate with their blind and visually impaired children. Consequently, some training sessions should be held to rehabilitate these individuals and their parents. On the other hand, unlike sighted children who communicate with eye contact and smiles, children who are blind have been observed to use hand-movements and other body-cues to indicate what they noticed and where their attention was focused. Therefore, parents whose children are blind need guidance on how to interpret their children’s body-language. One suggestion is to explain context and antecedent events for blind and visually impaired children. Thus, rather than announcing, “Here’s juice,” parents might say, “Hear this? I’m pouring juice in a cup, and now I’m putting it on table in front of you.” Providing context gives a child an opportunity to understand what otherwise might be available only through vision.

Limitations of the Study

Any research procedures can encounter some predictable and unpredictable problems and may have their own shortcomings. In this study, the following limitations were noticed.

First, the age of the participants could not be kept constant. Although the age range of the participants was not very wide, a constant, minimum age range would be of greater significance. A second limitation with regard to the participants is the frequency number of each group. Although the blind or visually impaired participants had a large number of frequencies, finding and selecting appropriate participants corresponding to this research was difficult. Third, the study was limited to the Iranian population and specifically to the blind or visually impaired females of the Isfahan rehabilitation center, so the results cannot be generalized to include blind or visually impaired males. It would have been better to have different groups with different genders. The fourth and last limitation was with regard to where the videos were taped. Although taking pictures and videos in government buildings and institutes in Iran is allowed, these videos were taped in an inappropriate room with low equipment.

Conclusions

In conclusion, the blind participants were divided into four groups including congenital blind, adventitious blind, congenital partially sighted, and adventitious partially sighted. They used four strategies to make eye contact in their communications. There were some similarities and differences among these four groups in using alternative techniques to eye contact. According to this study, both congenital totally blind participants and adventitious partially sighted participants used turn-taking as an alternative technique to eye contact more frequently than other techniques. However, adventitious totally blind people used showing attention as an alternative strategy more than other techniques. Likewise, those participants who were congenitally partially sighted also used showing attention most frequently as an alternative technique to eye contact. In general, showing attention was the most common alternative technique to eye contact and it was used with the highest frequency distribution among these four groups.

Moreover, totally blind and partially sighted participants were similar to each other in their choice of alternatives to eye contact in their communications. There were also some similarities and differences between congenital totally blind and adventitious totally blind subjects in this study. They were similar to each other in using showing attention as an alternative to eye contact. But there were also some differences between these two groups. Those participants who were congenital totally blind used determining direct addressee as the most common alternative technique to eye contact, while the adventitious totally blind tended to use signaling readiness and turn-taking most frequently.

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