Future Reflections        Winter 2012

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Making Friends, Meeting Strangers

Barbara PierceBarbara Pierce

by Barbara Pierce

Reprinted from Future Reflections, Vol. 23, No. 3, Fall 2004.

From the Editor: Some articles are so full of insight and ideas that they deserve to be reprinted as each new generation of blind children emerges. Here Barbara Pierce discusses the challenges faced by blind children and youth as they try to make friends. She suggests a variety of ways parents and teachers can help them navigate the complex terrain of relationships with peers. During her long history as a Federationist, Barbara has been a vigorous advocate for blind children. She is a past president of the NFB of Ohio.  As the former editor of the Braille Monitor, she continues to provide guidance and wisdom to the publication's current editor.  

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 joining groups of playing youngsters is a challenge to nearly every blind child.

How can a blind toddler learn to interact with other youngsters when he/she 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 riding bikes or playing video games, activities in which she/he cannot take part? 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, but these issues do not evaporate. 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. Blind people must evolve strategies for getting this information. With practice these skills can often be performed almost unconsciously. In the beginning, however, it may seem nearly impossible to develop these abilities.

For sighted people, vision generally seems to be the dominant sense. Yet all of us gather information in several ways simultaneously. How does a blind person sharpen his or her nonvisual abilities?

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

To some degree children who have never depended on vision attend to nonvisual cues automatically. Parents and teachers can speed and improve the acquisition of these skills through constructive play.

Begin by tuning your own senses to notice textures, sounds, shapes, and odors. Whether you are working with a blind toddler just beginning to explore the world or with an older child who has recently lost sight, you can help by calling attention to nonvisual cues. Point out the distinctive feel of all-weather carpet; the different ring of footsteps on tile, wood, or paving; the resilience of padded indoor carpeting; the sound-absorbing qualities of a wall, tree, or parked car; the cooking smells that issue from a restaurant exhaust fan; and the fragrance of a store's perfume counter.

The blind child will use these perceptual skills 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 underfoot? Is a video playing, meaning that kids are probably sitting in front of the television? You can help your child learn to notice such things and draw correct conclusions from the data.

At first you may feel some frustration when you try to notice such things nonvisually. I encourage you to make friends with blind adults. Ask them to help you train yourself to process 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.

Make a game of determining by sound what toy another child is playing with. 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.

One helpful trick is to tie a small bell to the shoe of a playmate who is too young to identify himself reliably when asked. In this way your blind child will know where other children are in the room. This information is important for maintaining an accurate idea of what is going on.

It is not easy to strike a balance between urging the blind child to enter into play with others and providing her with the quiet stream of information that helps orient her to her surroundings. 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 classroom aides for school-age blind children. The aide who makes herself indispensable to her student is working against the child's best interests. The aim should always be to help the child do more and more of the interpretive work independent of adult supervision. A blind child will never learn to make friends on the playground if an aide is always intervening, asking for him to have a turn on the swing. As parents gain confidence providing constructive information, they can guide the aide to do the minimum necessary. The aide should allow the blind child to take an active part in class or group activities.

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 intervention may be helpful, but in the end the blind child must make his or her own way.

If the children at school have no prior experience with a blind classmate, it may be useful for a parent to make a presentation to the class at the beginning of the year. Cupcakes with Braille letters in M&M's or other blatant appeals to gluttony or curiosity can be a good first step. A parent, teacher of the visually impaired, or blind adult can make blindness seem less scary, even interesting. However, adults can't make classmates do more than give the blind student a chance to make a place for himself or herself.

The classroom teacher may be able to suggest an individual or small group likely to accept a blind friend. You might break the ice by inviting students over after school, for a birthday party, or on a weekend outing. Encourage your child to become active in a school or extracurricular program. If you don't hear your child mention the names of classmates or kids from church, Scouts, or 4-H, probe to learn why not. Be creative in constructing opportunities for friendships to grow. If they are not happening, look for the explanation and make suggestions of what your child can 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 our block. When the group congregated on our porch in the summer, my mother always made sure that cool drinks and cookies appeared partway through the afternoon. This sometimes happened at other houses, too, but we could count on it at my house. This may have been bribery, but I don't think the other kids thought of it that way. The advantage to me was that I was completely familiar with my own home and could move around freely and confidently.

When your child gets together with others to play or share an outing, he or she can build on the social capital. At school your child can say in passing, "When my friends and I were at the mall the other day . . ." or "Jenny and I were playing dress-up with my mom's old prom dresses . . ." or "My dad was helping Tim and me build a racer . . ." 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 others do.

Your job is always to remain on the sidelines--providing opportunities, setting the stage, observing how things are going, collecting data from other observers, quietly providing information and feedback to your child as things go along. During these years you need to help your child 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 another area in which elementary students should begin learning to shape their environment. We call it self-advocacy. Blind children can and should begin learning to establish some of the ground rules for interactions with sighted people. You can help resolve some of the problems that inevitably arise.

You are in a restaurant and 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 if you would not do so for a sighted child of the same developmental level. You might even say, "I don't know; why don't you ask Jimmy?" Don't let others establish eye contact with you and discuss your blind child as if she or he were unable to hear the conversation: "It's such an inspiration to watch her struggle with that little cane to figure out where she's going." The best antidote to 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 your child into the conversation and makes the person take notice of her as someone with 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 ease those tough first encounters for your child, but you can help him/her 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 someone important, I'm sure 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. Help your child think of some appropriate rejoinders. If you are present, you might put in, "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 might inconspicuously mention the names of the people in the room. In the Federation, when a new person enters a room, we make a practice of going around and telling the blind newcomer who is present. This is a simple courtesy that sighted people easily can adopt.

The Teens

I don't know very many people, blind or sighted, who would willingly relive their teens. Nearly all of us were painfully uncertain of ourselves and uncomfortable in our changing bodies during those years. Because sighted teens are preoccupied with their own insecurities, they are unlikely to spare much 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 difficult for virtually every blind person. Marching straight through them is the only way to get safely to the far side.

There are certainly some exceptions, but few blind teens have much of a dating life during high school. For the most part sighted teens are so insecure themselves that they do not dare associate romantically with anyone as demonstrably different as a blind person. Because girls mature earlier than boys do, socially adept and presentable blind boys may have more of a dating life than blind girls in high school. If a young blind 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 who are markedly mature in their outlook.

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 as possible. Parents should 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 can learn to be good listeners. 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 to advise the cheerleaders on how to impress the class president. After all, the blind male thinks, I'm a person with feelings, and I'd 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 provides valuable experience and fodder for later conversational references. Comments such as, "I spent an hour on the phone with Joni last night," or "One of my closest friends last year was our quarterback," are hints of friendships. They can reassure other students that this kid is connected and knows what's what, even if he or she is blind.

It's tough to pull all this off. It will only work if the blind teen has made some friends and can hold her own in group settings. The skills and connections built in the early years are key to giving the teen enough confidence to make it through the treacherous waters of high school social life.

Give your teen the opportunity to get to know other blind teens in challenging summer programs for blind students. Such experiences are an excellent way to jump-start social awareness and hone social skills. They also provide wonderful grist for the conversational mill during the school year. There's nothing like reminiscing about water-skiing, whitewater rafting, or rock climbing to convince the high school set that the blind student is pretty cool. Moreover, friendships formed at training programs or even during NFB national convention can provide much-needed confidence and reinforce new skills.

Meeting Strangers

Everything I have said about the teen years holds 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. One must 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 one's 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 worldview and view of blindness on a wide and ever-shifting community of strangers.

Frankly, the lifelong necessity to educate the world and teach 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 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 don't have to deal with groups of strangers, just as some sighted people do not like meeting people they don't know. The difference is that most sighted people can slip into the background if they wish, while blind people who are out and about are always going to be noticed. If a blind person begins early to use a white cane and gets really good at it, he/she will feel more comfortable being watched. Most of us feel less at ease under observation when we expect to make mistakes. Good cane users do not necessarily do everything right, but they can move smoothly and with confidence. Ultimately, perfection is not the object. The point is to get safely and independently where one wants to go.

From time to time, we must walk into a roomful of strangers. In fact, some of us frequently find ourselves in this situation. I used to work with my college's alumni office. Masses of alumni would return to campus for meetings. 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 the alums wore name tags. They could take a quick look at names and years of graduation and make an informed guess about whether 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. One thing to be said about a really long white cane is that it is not easily overlooked, and it certainly explains why its user slips into a group saying brightly, "And who all is here?" I picked my group carefully, avoiding the ones deeply engrossed in conversation. I would slide between groups until I heard a familiar voice or found a group engaged in superficial chat. Sometimes someone would speak to me as I passed by, since I was obviously staff. I might overhear a question that I could answer, and I would insert myself into a group that way.

Once I had made a contact, no matter how it was done, I could get that person to look around for other people I was supposed to find. As with most things, getting started is the hard part. Going on is a matter of waiting for opportunities and seizing them when they come along.

The earlier your child has social experiences, the sooner he or she will adjust to 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 compensate for our weaknesses and make the most of our strengths.

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