They say 90% of communication is non-verbal. What does this mean for a blind person?
Eye contact, social cues, flirtatious winks, secret smiles, shared looks, tender glances, hateful glares, welcoming nods—the list is endless. What happens when you can’t experience any of these things?
I skated over this in my post on how to describe things to blind people, but here’s a more detailed explanation, as requested by you wonderful followers. Thankfully, you don’t need to see to pick-up on someone’s emotional state. Their tone, their words, the way they walk, move, and breathe usually paints a clear picture, if you know what to look for and how to interpret the information. The thing is, this takes practice. More practice than sighties learning to interpret visual cues like facial expressions.
You all know from my intro post I was a pretty outgoing kid. As I grew older I got quieter, in part because I was trying to pay attention to everything social I couldn’t see. I was terrified of messing up, dreading the moments when I’d mistakenly do something unusual because I couldn’t look around and see what others were doing. People like to tote the line that blindies have heightened senses, but I think we simply pay attention to our other senses more in order to compensate for our lack of sight. Hearing an angry scowl and feeling warmth through a handshake are just a couple examples of how our other senses compensate to keep up socially.
I’ve never struggled with gaging others emotions, but eye contact is just one of those things that’s pretty impossible for blindies. Some low-vision peeps are better at it because they have more sight than us, but in general, eye contact is just not going to happen for a blindy, ever.
Here are a couple things we can do to make this reality more comfortable for everyone.
- Fellow blindies, look in the direction of the person you’re talking to. I don’t care if eye contact will never truly be achieved, it’s just rude not to. My blind friends and I do this even when we’re just talking to each other. It’s common courtesy and it shows your present and engaged in the conversation.
- Sighties, try not to be awkward, we are trying not to stare into space, I swear! If a blindy is looking in your general direction, we are doing our best to connect with you and are listening to what you are saying. We can’t make eye contact because we can’t see well enough to focus on anything that specific. I understand this might take some getting used to, but try not to be awkward about it. I’ve heard it gets more and more chill as time goes on. As a general rule, if our face is turned toward you, that’s our equivalent of eye contact, and we’re focused on you and your words. So shrug off the awkward and chat away.
This post is going from bad to worse in terms of blind cans and can’ts. Social referencing is using another person’s reactions to understand an uncertain situation. It is where you look at people in the room and gage from facial expressions what’s going on. All my textbooks agree it is really important, because it teaches a child how to react to many everyday events. Many blind children likely experience delayed social referencing, because so much of it is non-verbal. The catch-up process is not fun. For example, I never felt comfortable doing actions along with songs as a little kid, even when a friend or teacher physically showed me how. I hardly ever talk with my hands, because I have no idea what that looks like. And a cringe-worthy admission, I didn’t know how to properly raise my hand to answer a question until I was ten years old. Parents of blind children, I encourage you to physically demonstrate to your kids as many things they cannot socially reference for themselves at as young an age as possible. This will prevent lots of awkwardness in later years.
What’s the best way to connect with a blindy through non-verbal’s, then?
*Warning: this pro tip is only if you know the blindy well and are sure this type of non-verbal communication will be welcomed.
For me, and at least a couple other blindies I know, physical touch is a great way to convey affection and care. Hugs are good, but I find them overly classic. I particularly appreciate the small gestures: a hand on the shoulder, arm, or knee, a pat on the back, a squeeze of the fingers. This wordless human connection can convey volumes of emotion that we blindies to often miss out on.
Be kind, and be aware.
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