From the Editor: Why do some blind children and teens make friends easily while others struggle? Arielle Silverman, president of the National Association of Blind Students (NABS), shares her thoughts on this crucial topic and outlines a series of useful strategies.
When I talk to sighted audiences about blindness, I am frequently asked whether I was teased or ostracized as a blind child mainstreamed into a public school. The topic of fitting in also comes up again and again in discussions among blind people and their families. Parents worry that their blind children will have trouble making friends. Blind youth often describe difficulty building meaningful, reciprocal relationships with sighted classmates.
I am twenty-five years old and I have been blind since birth. I have experienced my fair share of lonely days on the playground and times when I stood on the periphery of groups, feeling that I didn't quite belong. Yet I've discovered that true integration into the predominantly sighted community is possible if we as blind people approach the challenge armed with a positive attitude and a few mental tools. After reflecting upon my own experiences growing up and talking with blind youth and their parents, I have developed five strategies that you and your children can carry in your toolboxes. I hope these ideas will help your children grow into well-adjusted, well-integrated blind adults.
Strategy 1. Set appropriate goals.
What does it mean to have good social skills? To fit in? We often throw these terms around without really defining them. In my view, the goals for a blind child's competence in Braille or math are more or less the same for everyone, but the goals we have for the child's social competence can be much more flexible. Before determining how you can best support your child's social development, it is beneficial to think about what your goals and expectations should be. Social connectedness means different things to different people. Some children and adults are extroverted, thriving on a great deal of social stimulation. Extroverted kids are usually eager to seek out connections with others. Your goal for such a child may be to help him/her channel this natural assertiveness and build a wide network of friends. Other kids and adults are more introverted and prefer much less social stimulation. I land somewhere toward the introverted end of the spectrum, and initially I needed encouragement to become interested at all in spending time with others. For introverts, having a few deep, stable connections may be a more satisfying goal than building a wide friendship circle.
In addition to helping your children build social connections that fit their needs, I believe it is important for parents to teach their blind children the importance of reciprocity. All kids, sighted and blind, must learn to be considerate of other people's needs and to treat others with kindness, fairness, and respect.
Finally, I believe that accepting oneself goes hand-in-hand with being accepted by others. Blind children often encounter the message, conveyed in big ways and small, that they are not quite as good, or as strong, or as competent as their sighted peers. It is critical for a blind person to feel secure and appropriately confident about himself/herself in order to build relationships with other people in a healthy way.
Strategy 2. Empower your child to set and reach appropriate goals.
Once you have contemplated what you would like your child to achieve in terms of social competence, you can help your child make these goals her or his own. As blind children grow, they must gradually learn to solve their own problems in life, including those related to blindness. The challenge of fitting into a sighted peer group is similar to other issues of access or advocacy; ultimately it is up to the blind person to find creative solutions.
I cannot continue without mentioning "blindisms," those pesky habits such as rocking, twirling, and eye poking that can make a blind child stand out in a crowd. I have often heard the argument that parents and teachers can beat blindisms simply by making the child aware that the behavior is undesirable and providing consistent reminders. Like many congenitally blind children I have struggled with blindisms for most of my life. I can say from experience that all the reminders in the world will do no good unless the child inherently cares about being socially appropriate. Without that intrinsic motivation to fit in, the child will only refrain from inappropriate behavior when a parent or teacher is around. The expectations have to come from you in the beginning, but eventually the child must internalize the goal of integrating and find her own ways to achieve that goal.
While kids vary in their inherent desire to make friends, research shows that almost all human beings experience joy when they are included by others and pain when they are excluded. I disagree with the blindness professionals who say that social skills must be taught in a classroom setting. I think this is an incomplete and needlessly rigid way to teach real-world skills. The best teacher is the reward of being accepted when you have acted appropriately. Parents and teachers should provide feedback to help children make the connection between their behavior and social consequences, but in the end it's up to the children to take control of their social lives.
Strategy 3. Foster opportunities.
As your child begins to internalize the goal of fitting in, you can help him find ways to meet people and build connections. It may mean finding activities, both in and outside of school, through which your child can meet others who share his/her interests. It may also mean helping your child figure out how to adapt activities, such as games on the playground, in order to participate fully. When blind children have to sit on the sidelines because they cannot fully access an activity, it is hard for them to be regarded as part of the group.
In my experience, interactions between blind and sighted people go most smoothly when the blind person takes initiative. Sighted people of all ages may hesitate to approach a blind stranger, not because they dislike blind people but because they think they don't know how to interact. If the blind child or adult takes the lead, the sighted person will start to realize that blind people are pretty much the same as everyone else.
Strategy 4. Foster independence.
When I was in elementary school, I was expected to travel around the school with a sighted guide, even though I also was using my cane. A different classmate was assigned each day to be my guide. This child was responsible for getting me from the bus to the classroom and later to the playground and the cafeteria. In the afternoon my guide led me back to the bus. At around the time this sighted-guide arrangement was implemented, I began to have trouble being included on the playground, especially when the other kids were playing sports. In retrospect, I realize I could not expect my classmates to guide me everywhere and then to invite me to join their rough-and-tumble games. I'm not surprised that I was seen as a burden by many of my peers.
For blind kids really to fit in, it's crucial for them to have age-appropriate travel skills. The long white cane is our vehicle to safe, independent mobility. To be an equal partner in relationships with sighted peers, a blind person must be able to take care of his/her own needs. Today if I go to a party, I get myself there independently. I walk around and mingle and stand in line to get my own food. I may accept a ride from a friend or take someone's arm at times, but my friends know they don't have to babysit me when we are together.
Blind children must be expected to give and reciprocate in relationships. We are often conditioned to take assistance from others without giving back. However, giving is an essential part of any healthy relationship. Set the tone by teaching your child to do meaningful chores around the house. Expect him or her to be responsible and accountable to others. These values will be important for socialization and in professional life as well.
Strategy 5. Cultivate ties with the blind community.
For several years when I was growing up I attended a summer and weekend program for blind children. Some of the kids I met through the program became my closest friends. When I was with them I felt truly "normal," defined by all of my personal characteristics rather than by my blindness. In groups of sighted peers I often drifted into the background, but with the blind kids I felt free to adopt a leadership role. I also found that while sighted peers often hesitated to tease me or to give me honest feedback (it's not cool to pick on the blind kid!), I learned many hard lessons about trust and integrity from the blunt, direct communication I shared with my blind friends.
As blind students we often debate whether or not we should associate primarily with other blind people. Sometimes in these discussions I hear the implication that one must choose between having blind or sighted friends. I believe that being connected to both communities is ideal, and I am fortunate to know both blind and sighted people whom I can call my friends. The deep friendships I forged within the blind community have given me the self-confidence and social experience that I needed to build meaningful connections with sighted people. The more opportunities your child has to interact with blind peers and older blind role models, the more he/she (and you, too) can truly believe that it is okay to be blind.
For me, learning to fit into the sighted community has been an ongoing process, and challenges still remain. However, I have found that with patience and awareness it is possible to enjoy strong relationships with sighted colleagues and peers. I think of the development of social skills as one more aspect of maturation. If the environment is rich with opportunity and support, your child will be his/her own best teacher.