Individuals with vision impairments miss out on a lot of nonverbal behaviors that sighted people rely on. Therefore, a lot of individuals with vision impairments try their hardest to learn these nonverbal behaviors, even if they were never able to see them personally, so that they can make their sighted peers feel more comfortable. A big one is eyesight. I still have a tiny bit of remaining sight so I CAN find your eyes in the perfect lighting and if you’re straight in front of me and I have a moment. One of my best friends is pretty much completely blind and she STILL makes “eye contact” with her sighted peers, except not really. Everybody THINKS she is making eye contact with them but she is just REALLY good at guessing where people’s eyes are. This is to make them feel more comfortable. Even if the individual with the vision impairment (VI) cannot make exact eye contact, gazing in the direction of the individual’s face even makes the sighted individual more comfortable.
I had an incident the other day where a lady didn’t realize I was blind (I still don’t believe she didn’t see my guide dog) and I couldn’t read her facial expressions. She kept pausing but she completed her sentences so I thought it was our opportunity to say something. Apparently, I was wrong and her facial expressions indicated she was trying to assemble her thoughts. Well, after a few times of this happening and me not realizing, she got really frustrated with me and her tone of voice clearly showed this. I was there helping a friend get some answers so after she got the final answer, we walked away. Well, I decided that that wasn’t okay for her to treat me like that and be so rude, so I turned right around and went up to her nicely. I just said, “I just wanted to let you know I was offended. I am visually impaired and I cannot see your facial expressions and therefore you becoming exacerbated with me because I didn’t let you finish even though your sentence was finished was offensive.” She understood, I think.
Individuals with vision impairments also miss others gestures, posture, and body movements. Therefore, we have to really focus in on language, tone of voice, use or lack or use of humor, loudness, pitch, inflection, etc.
Think about the message someone who is crossing their arms tells you, crossing their legs, sitting or standing in a defensive posture, putting their arms on their hips, etc. Yeah, individuals with VI’s don’t get that.
Facial Expressions: Individuals with VI’s can make their own facial expressions. One might ask how does an individual who has been blind their entire life know what facial expression to make. I’m not quite sure the answer to this but part of me thinks it is innate. I have met some individuals who have been blind their whole life and their facial expressions accurately match the tone of their voice or the conversation. It’s a cool topic to think about though. However, individuals with VI can’t accurately interpret their sighted peer’s facial expressions. They compensate for this by paying extra attention to the tone of voice.
Waving, pointing, and using one’s fingers and hands to indicate numbers or direction, are three gestures that individuals with VI miss out on. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me and my VI friends, “That way!!” and then point, or “Over there!” The first time my boyfriend met my best friend who has a VI, he was helping her at a garage sale. My boyfriend had never really been around someone who was blind before and I hadn’t lost that much vision at the time. Steven responded to her, “Over there” and then pointed. I wasn’t looking straight at him at the time so I didn’t see where he was pointing either. My good friend still gives him so much heck to this day for that. It makes me laugh. But because we can’t depend on your body movements and gestures to give us directions, you sighted folk need to step up with your descriptive and navigational words and be specific. We’ll get what you’re saying most of the time and we’ll be able to follow it if you’re specific enough.
Waving: this is an interesting one. About 90% of the time I will miss someone waving at me because their hand will be too far out to either side. However if they are at the right distance from me and their hand is in the exact right location, I will know they are waving at me. I’ve had a few people who knew and a few people who didn’t know about my VI all get offended when I didn’t acknowledge their wave or wave back. Of course later we cleared it up and all was well, but especially if you “look sighted,” and you don’t wave back, that can cause a little tension.
Shaking hands: I had someone the other day ask if I could shake hands and I do understand where they are coming from. How can we shake hands if we can’t see the hand to even know it’s out there? Well, it IS polite when you meet someone to shake their hand. In MOST situations, I try my hardest to extend my hand first and then they will shake it and we will have no problems. The problems lie when when they beat me to it and I don’t know they are trying to shake my hand. (This kind of goes along with the passing me paper thing, etc.) It is out of my central vision. However, I will be able to see the other person’s face so their face will be like “hello… hello…” and that is when I usually get the cue that they are trying to pass me something or shake my hand.
Proxemics or personal space: Different people have different levels of personal space. I almost don’t have a personal space bubble but many people do. How does one usually tell the personal space bubble of their conversation partner? By looking at their facial expressions and whether they move their body more toward you or more away from you. This can create some tension between an individual with a VI and a sighted individual because the sighted individual may not realize that the individual with the VI isn’t understanding the normal non-verbal cues that they are used to. The individual with the VI doesn’t understand why things just got awkward or uncomfortable as a result and tension arises.
There are many, many different types of nonverbal communication and many studies on the different behaviors. However, these are the ones that I have experienced either personally or through friends who have visual impairments and wanted to share these with you. My hope is to bring awareness to the fact that individuals with visual impairments often do work really hard to match their sighted peers nonverbal communications but there will always be some behaviors that the individual with the visual impairment doesn’t pick up on. If you are uncomfortable or want to express something that you would normally express through body language or nonverbal behaviors, when you’re with an individual with a visual impairment try to focus on making everything verbal. It will make the conversation go a whole lot smoother. 🙂