Students in their prom finery sway to the music in a transformed Dwight Hall.
By Stephanie Cloutier
Whisper. Giggle. Shriek.
“He did not say that!” the girl said loudly, back against the wall in a large hallway, facing the tall boy who stood in front of her. He smiled broadly.
Teen dating is the same the world over: trying to find someone you like who likes you back. And according to these two Secondary students, who took a moment between classes to indulge in the age-old ritual of flirting, it’s no different for teens with visual impairments.
They just rely on senses other than sight to establish a romantic connection.
They banter when passing in the halls, ask friends to find out if that special someone likes them and steal moments to hold hands or kiss. Their lack of vision is no impediment to their ability to hear a smile or feel the warmth of a compliment.
“We do everything else the same,” said one Perkins teen.
Relationships and dating are an important part of the social skills that students ages 15 to 22 learn at Perkins, according to health teacher Jeff Migliozzi. In fact, the health curriculum at Perkins is much like that at any high school in Massachusetts. It includes discussions about physical activity, nutrition and mental health, as well as sexual and reproductive topics.
Teachers and social workers also have individual and group sessions where they discuss relationship issues with Perkins students. “We cover what kind of behavior is allowable on campus, and where,” said Migliozzi. “We go over how to talk, how to engage, what’s appropriate and what’s not.”
Parents are overwhelmingly supportive of their children getting their information from responsible adults rather than a friend or the Internet, said Secondary Program Education Director Pat McCall. “The values are taught by the parents, while the nuts and bolts are taught here,” he said.
Perkins students diverge from their public school counterparts in one crucial area – learning ordinary social skills. A sighted person learns how to interact with others by observing social encounters on a daily basis and then emulating what they see, McCall noted. A person with low or no vision doesn’t have that advantage, and must be specifically taught those behaviors.
That’s why many students’ Individual Education Program (IEP) lists learning social skills as an explicit goal. In classrooms and social settings, students receive very specific pointers. They’re taught to give someone personal space when conversing. To keep their head up when listening and to take turns speaking. They also learn important conversational skills, such as how to begin and end a dialogue.
Migliozzi uses creative methods to teach these skills. For example, he showed his students an audio-described version of the film “Rear Window” to inspire a discussion about social interaction and relationships. He urged his students to observe how James Stewart and Grace Kelly faced each other when talking and closed the blinds when they wanted privacy.
Migliozzi also introduced an “advice column,” where he asked students to answer questions about health and relationships. The letters illustrated typical situations teens might face. In one, the writer met someone through Facebook who wanted to secretly meet. Another wrote about falling for someone of the same gender. Migliozzi’s students wrote answers to those questions, and their responses sparked lively classroom discussions.
In an era when media reports say teens aren’t having traditional relationships, but are instead casually hooking up or seeking “friends with benefits,” Perkins teens can seem very traditional.
Secondary Program students Mikolai, a tall boy with a quick wit, and Anicia, a bubbly girl with lots to say, have been dating for a while now. They said they find opportunities for togetherness while listening to a concert or watching a play.
Laura, an articulate teen with long blonde hair, said that she and her former boyfriend Justin used to hold hands. “We knew no one would pay undue attention,” she said.
Relationships between Perkins students follow a classic high school trajectory. Laura and Justin, for example, met in the fall, when they had several classes together. They got to know each other slowly and exchanged phone numbers. Eventually, they invited each other to their cottages, where one is a full-time resident and the other a day student. They officially began dating last spring, but say their classmates sensed their mutual attraction before they did.
Months later, Laura said, feelings have changed and the relationship has since ended. Nevertheless, it’s the kind of social experience from which all young people learn, and an important part of growing up.
Still, the pool of potential dates is limited for Perkins students. Sighted kids in a typical public high school have access to hundreds of classmates. They can also meet peers during extracurricular activities like sports or while hanging out at the local mall. At Perkins, where the class size is limited, the pool is much smaller, so many students socialize online, said Migliozzi.
“Meeting (new) people and socializing is hard for kids here,” he said. “Online gives them a wider network; they can’t be seen or judged.”
But it’s more difficult for them to find an appropriate boyfriend or girlfriend this way, Migliozzi said, since they can’t see visual cues that might alert them to potential danger. They may be unable to tell the age of the person they’re interacting with, or whether they’re properly groomed. Online dating can put them at risk, he said.
When a student tells Migliozzi they have found a potential new romantic partner, he has a standard question to determine whether the relationship is more than pixels and texts. He asks: “Flesh and blood?”
One additional challenge Perkins students face is that there are few opportunities for couples to be alone on campus. Leaving Perkins to go out for a date requires planning, since someone must provide transportation. For students who live off campus, parents need to be involved. Most off-campus dating happens through supervised school trips, such as to Canobie Lake Park or a Celtics game.
Prom is the social highlight of the Perkins school year – and one of the best opportunities for a couple to appear in public as an “official” couple. The prom, which takes place in May, gives girls a chance to obsess about dresses and hairstyles, and boys to plan corsages.
Prom is also an opportunity for romantic gestures. Last year, Laura ordered pizza so she and Justin could have dinner together first, and Justin ordered flowers from Perkins’ horticulture department. Anicia described her dress to Mikolai – cascading layers of royal blue silk with silver accents – and he told her she looked beautiful.
All four students acknowledged that having a relationship with someone who is also visually impaired makes things less stressful. They don’t have to explain the day-to-day mechanics of living without vision – getting around, using accessible technology, dealing with the sighted world and much more. The other person just understands.
They do speculate about what dating would be like if they weren’t blind. Mikolai said relationships would potentially be easier if he was able to see. But Laura smartly countered that vision can lead people to choose someone based on looks, which doesn’t always work out. “It’s better to get to know someone for a bit, then slowly earn their trust,” she said.
Despite the unique complexities of dating while blind, it’s clear love can blossom at Perkins, and some students do find what every teenager seeks: a kindred spirit with whom they can spend time, hold hands and share life’s joys and challenges.
Anicia found that person in Mikolai. “He’s the best thing that’s happened to me,” she said, the smile in her voice loud enough for anyone to hear.