Developing social skills in students who are blind

For students who are visually impaired, social skills must be explicitly taught in the curriculum.

A group of 4 male visually impaired students socializing on a couch together.

Imagine walking into a crowded lunchroom and looking for a seat. You notice a group of people about your age and similarly dressed. One of them is wearing a baseball cap with the name of your favorite team. You watch them leaning in towards each other talking and smiling. Their body language appears welcoming and approachable. You sit down and strike up a conversation.

Now imagine walking into the same situation with your eyes closed. You are led to the first available seat. You don’t know the gender or age of the person sitting beside you and you can’t rely on visual cues to find common ground.

When it comes to developing social skills, people with vision have the advantage of incidental learning as they naturally observe their surroundings and the interactions of other people. But for students who are visually impaired, social skills must be explicitly taught in the curriculum.

Every day people with vision get flooded with a torrent of images that are constantly reinforced. They watch family members interacting. They observe postures, body language, and how closely people stand next to each other. They watch people eat and learn to keep their mouths closed when they chew. They notice how people dress in different types of weather and indoors versus outdoors. Through all of these visual observations they learn and imitate socially acceptable behaviors.

Jeff Migliozzi teaches social skills and sex education to students in Perkins Secondary Program. Migliozzi, who grew up blind himself, understands the unique social challenges faced by adolescents who are visually impaired. When his eighth grade teacher told him that people who are sighted make eye contact during conversation, Migliozzi asked, “Well, where do I look?” The teacher told him he was looking just below the mouth. “It was a 50/50 shot,” Migliozzi explained. “I was looking towards the sound and I could either look above it or below it. After he told me that I changed what I was doing.”

As Migliozzi can attest from his own experience, the social skills students who are blind need for daily life in school, at home, and in the community, must be strategically taught and integrated into all aspects of their education.

Migliozzi said it is common for people who are blind to engage in self stimulating behaviors like rocking back and forth in a chair. It feels good and unless they are told differently, students who are blind might not realize that people around them aren’t doing the same thing and that others may find the behavior as off putting. 

Just as he doesn’t want students to alienate themselves in social situations, Migliozzi said it is important for students who are blind to understand they need to reciprocate during social interactions. Sometimes, he said, students become used to people bringing things to them, anticipating their needs, and initiating conversation.

“What does that teach you? It teaches you the world comes to me and nobody expects anything from me,” Migliozzi said.

At the end of a class, one of Migliozzi’s students stayed behind. When someone new entered the room the student immediately turned toward the doorway and said: “Hello, who is that?” For each question answered another was asked: “Are you sighted or blind? What do you do here? Do you live on campus?” The student was using conversation starters and gathering information about this new person without the use of visual clues and assumptions.

Migliozzi teaches his students to use safety precautions when interacting in the community and on the Internet – where teenagers today are spending more and more time socializing. If a student gets lost in the community Migliozzi advises them to go into a business and talk to the person behind the counter who likely has ties to the community rather than approaching someone on the street.

“Everybody’s blind on the Internet,” Migliozzi tells his students. Just as all teenagers must be careful because they never know who is really on the other end of an online chat room, students who are blind are even more vulnerable if a potential predator finds out they have a disability.

Migliozzi said making students aware of dangers and giving them the tools to advocate for themselves is an important piece of both the social skills curriculum as well as sex education. When it comes to sex education, it’s about creating an equal playing field between students who are blind and their sighted peers. Appropriate greetings, kissing, and where it is and is not acceptable to touch someone else all have to be explained because the students cannot rely on learning these details by watching others.

“We forget how much of our social interaction is visual,” said Tom Miller, former Director of Perkins Educational Partnerships Program, which offers early intervention and school age services from birth to 22 years old.

Miller said instilling social skills begins with the family/child relationship. There’s a natural progression from solitary play, to playing beside someone, to playing with someone and interacting. In the beginning, adults must facilitate socialization and create opportunities for interaction. When you observe how toddlers naturally interact they tend to hand each other toys and run around. The child who is blind needs to be directly addressed and included in the activity. The experiences sighted children take in visually must be interpreted in a way the child who is blind can understand and in a way that empowers him/her to participate in what is happening.

Parents should understand, Miller said, that progress comes at a different pace for children who are blind due to the loss of incidental learning. When the child enters school, Miller said, parents and educators can help them find a common social language with their peers by getting involved in clubs and keeping up with popular books or music.

“It takes a lot of effort on the part of the parent, the child, and the school to make sure not just the academics but the whole life of the school is accessible to the student who is visually impaired,” Miller said.

Brian Heneghan, who was a teacher in Perkins Deafblind Program, also believes in the value of shared experiences. Once a week, Heneghan took his students off campus for community experiences which can include everything from pumpkin picking to going to the movies.

Heneghan stressed the importance of students with disabilities having the same experiences and milestones as other kids their age. One year he accompanied students on a senior trip to the Bahamas. He talked about all of the social skills practiced when students go to the Perkins Prom; shopping for a tux, going out for dinner, learning how to appropriately get someone’s attention and request a dance.

“Our students want to engage and we have to give them opportunities to do that,” Heneghan said.

To give students the tools they need for successful social interactions, Heneghan worked with a group of students using a script and modeling to teach them socially acceptable behavior. To deter students from yelling to get someone’s attention staff members talked to the group about more appropriate options. First you should look at the person and wait for a response and if that doesn’t work, the next step could be tapping on a desk and waiting. Finally, the student might try lightly tapping on the person’s shoulder.

Teachers model the behavior and eventually Heneghan had the students practice with each other. In all of the environments where this situation might naturally arise – classrooms, cottages, and the workroom – there are charts outlining the script. If a student yells for attention, staff can remind the student to use the steps on the chart.

“Eventually the students begin to internalize the behaviors and do them on their own,” Heneghan explained.

Lunchtime is another opportunity for students to practice social skills in a natural environment. Students with multiple impairments, Heneghan said, live in a “communication bubble” and must be told directly how others are behaving and what is socially acceptable. For example, his students might not know they are making a loud noise slurping soup noodles or that other people aren’t doing that.

When students come to weekend and vacation programs at Perkins Outreach Services, Kelly Cote said she and the rest of the staff make students aware of how their behavior might be perceived by other people.

“We’re honest with them,” said Cote, adding that posture is a big issue with students tending to scrunch up or slouch over in chairs. “We’ll let them know everyone else is sitting up straight with their heads up. We explain, ‘We can’t hear what you say when you sit like that and what you have to say is important.'”

Outreach programs offer fun activities while teaching essential life skills and giving students who are visually impaired an opportunity to socialize and share experiences with peers. This can be especially important for those who may be the only student with a visual impairment in their school.

Beth Caruso, Director of Outreach Services, said parents often come to Outreach worried their child doesn’t have friends at school. When they try to get their child involved with activities in the community, the people running them may not know how to make adaptations to include a child who is blind. The staff members who run Outreach programs are experienced in working with students who are visually impaired and promoting social skills.

To initiate socializing, staff might sit with a table of students and invite another student over to sit down and tell them what everyone is talking about. The staff get students started on a topic and help them identify what they have in common. Soon the students are interacting on their own, forming friendships, and building confidence.

Sometimes students are used to socializing with mostly adults and may not know what other kids their age are interested in. Caruso said it can be helpful to give students a topic and conversation starter question to keep in their back pocket, such as, “What kind of music do you like?”

Throughout the programs, students learn communication skills such as showing someone you’re paying attention to them with your body language. They also go into the community, eating in restaurants, using public transportation, grocery shopping, and going to the YMCA.

“We’re out there in realistic situations and we want them to know what’s socially acceptable,” Caruso said.

With the holiday season approaching, Cote and Caruso said it’s important to include children who are visually impaired in what’s going on around them. Instead of watching television or playing a game alone, they can be helping to set the table. Caruso said giving children information beforehand can help them make the most of the social experience. Parents can talk about what they’ll be doing for the holidays, who is coming over, and what toys or games other children might like to play.

Because we live in a social culture, people who can’t interact with others become isolated and miss out on opportunities that arise from connecting with other people.

“Our ultimate goal is to help students become well rounded individuals with a good arsenal of skills and experiences to bring with them wherever they go – to employment, to college, to life in general,” Caruso said.

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