The following was taken from a dialog on the AERNET mailing list in March, 1998.
At the Illinois AER conference, Jay Stitely from the Seeing Eye (973-539-0922) did a great presentation on this very topic--Body Expressions. He said he can do this presentation for groups around the country and we hope to have him come to our school for our students and staff to participate in this important topic.
As a blind adult who has not seen enough to observe body expressions and nonverbals visually, I wish to offer my strong support to Orientation and Mobility folks for picking up the slack where they can -- not that you all need one more job (smile!)
I was always told to look at people when I talked to them, but I was left fairly much on my own for learning body language. I was an avid reader and I picked up a lot of people's body language from descriptions in books. However, I really learned physical presence in the nonverbal behavior training that was part of my counseling/psychotherapy education. I now feel that I carry off physical presence when I am doing intense work well. I also feel reasonably confident in my poses and postures in social situations. However, I would give a lot for the childhood learning that you folks can provide. I would have been saved some harder adult learning and I would also have been saved those awful moments of not knowing if I looked "right" which I certainly had in my adolescence.
I don't use my hands much when I talk, though I often want to. I believe that if I had seen people "talking with their hands," I would have been a natural at this. I sometimes use my hands when I have taught a class or when doing therapy with a client, though I am not as confident as I would like to be about whether my gestures come close to those of other people who have had the culturally sanctioned gestural style available for observation.
My point here is that I believe that communication with the body is a natural process, though the culture shapes the specifics of how we do it.
If blind kids have been inhibited in developing their natural movement style (and haven't we all seen many who have), then it will not be so natural for them to try to communicate with their bodies. Although I don't think you all can take on the task of making blind kids in general as physically and nonverbally communicative as are sighted kids, I know that you can make an impact.
Why not discuss how people communicate nonverbally and if you have time, have kids practice doing some nonverbal game playing with either teachers or other sighted kids reading their nonverbals back to them. Think of the people whom you know who are totally blind and who have never had enough eye sight to observe nonverbals, and yet who have a strong nonverbal presence and who use their bodies, their faces, and their hands well. And think of what would help the less nonverbally communicative child look a bit more like them.
I also know that I require a high level of energy to focus, pay attention, keep up with other people's nonverbals (as best as I can) and respond appropriately. When your students are tired, stressed, or just having a bad day, I'll bet the nonverbals will go down also. Mine do. But on good days, there is no reason why we blind people can't simulate if not direct eye contact at least some kind of face-to-face contact, follow a person's movements by slightly moving our head to keep looking directly at them, etc. When I am really paying attention to a person (e.g., doing therapy with a client), or when I want a person to really pay attention to me and see me beyond their fears or stereotypes (e.g., dealing with a store check out person who is not verbally responding to me), I put as much energy into my nonverbals as I can and I really feel the focus and the energy in my face. And when I do it with intensity and love, I get a response.
All of this is to say that I think nonverbals are extremely important for blind kids to learn. Simulating eye contact as much as we can, creating a physical face-to-face contact with another person and using other culturally understood nonverbals will help other people see us blind folk as kindred and similar to them and not as "frightening, unknown quantities." I suspect that body language and nonverbals tip the scales one way or another for many blind people in job interviews and in opportunities to get to know sighted people socially.
I have a totally blind 6th grader for mobility, very bright, who requested information on this subject. He wanted to learn body language. So I put it on his IEP for this yr. When I went to research the subject, found little info. I just made a list of gestures I could think of, and went over them with him, demonstrating, hand over hand, with verbal descriptions. We practiced on two subsequent occasions, and he was told to show to his parents so they could practice with him as the occasion arose at home. However, he did not get past looking stiff with the gestures as he did them, and my feeling was that it was better not to do gestures, than to do them in a very weird fashion, which would likely become even less of an approximation than was shown if he did not use them regularly. Perhaps I should have had him practice more before forming this opinion...but it was my gut feeling. Not based on research or prior experiences. Your feedback is welcome
As a student at the _____ School for the Blind, very little was done about socially inappropriate behavior. Students who rocked, poked their eyes. flicked in front of their eyes, or made no effort to look in the direction of the person they were addressing, were rarely corrected. Maybe this improved after 1973, but to that point, very few staff took the time to stop these inappropriate actions, let alone discuss body expressions or gestures.
I now teach adults and make a point of reminding them how important eye contact is, even if you can't see the person. I have had congenitally blind students who I showed how to "wave" a car on at a driveway. One 20 year old asked me to show them the proper way to give someone "the finger." I guess a family member once commented, "I should have given that guy the finger," and they wondered what that was. I told them I would show them if they agreed not to give me the finger.
To be honest, I never thought of teaching gestures you mentioned. putting the ankle of one leg on top of the knee of the other leg when sitting down, or resting your chin on your fist when you have your elbow on a table, or even just smiling appropriately.
It makes sense. The more people who are blind can fit in socially, the more comfortable society will be with us. I can't tell you how many times I have heard people say to my students, "But you don't look blind." I often wonder what makes us "look blind," and I suppose it is the lack of these body expressions, inappropriate gestures, or lack of eye contact.
I have a friend who took a drama course during college because he wanted to learn nonverbal communication skills. The instructor and other students took the time to show him a lot of nonverbal gestures. Many people assume he can see some because he using them quite extensively and appropriately during a conversation and/or presentation.
I have worked on nonverbal skills with my students for years. Literature, to me, is a good way to bring up the topic. I am just finishing Centerfield Ballhawk by Matt Christopher with my eight year old. This author is very expressive in his description of how the characters do things. We have recently learned how to shrug and the gesture of hitting your forehead when you make a mistake. We also learned how Jose, the main character slid on his stomach to catch the ball.
One of my most memorable experiences in teaching gesture was when I had to to teach a young girl how to stick out her tongue so she could do it "properly" to the boys.
I can't resist a quick comment. It seems to me that natural looking gestures grow out of ones total posture and style of body use. Maybe a blind person could improve in this area slowly through any of the physical disciplines: yoga, gymnastics, dance, and so on. The result might not be the learning of a lot of conventional gestures, but it could be a more fluid and grounded movement style that would not display "blind person" like a sign.
We have a totally blind son age 14. Jerry came to us when he was three. At that time we had two daughters in college and a son and daughter in high school. We decided at the outset that we wanted Jerry to feel comfortable with WHO he is and so, rather than teach him sighted behavior we tried to concentrate on appropriate vs. inappropriate behavior. Over the years he has developed his own body language and is very comfortable with that. Our focus on inappropriate behavior has helped him understand what will be accepted in his peer group. We think it has been easier on him to unlearn something that seemed natural to him than to learn something unnatural for him. He speaks with what would be considered eye contact, head up, and an interested look. When he listens it is usually with his head down and tilted to the side so he can concentrate on what is being said. He is comfortable and that is critical. Crossing legs, resting your chin in your hand, checking your vision in a handy mirror, these things aren't critical in our opinion. Being comfortable with who you are and what you are is.
My friend Jay Stitely and I travel all over the place presenting workshops about body language that we call "body expression"...we concentrate on basic skills like handshakes, eye contact (looking in the direction of the person who's speaking), using body space, and posture...We also deal in a more limited way with gestures, movement, and facial expression...mostly, we ask the participants what they want to work on and roll with it...Over the course of several years doing this, we've taught people how to wave, shrug, slouch, sit comfortably, and pretty much anything they wanted to try.
I really like what you're doing...hands on & getting the families involved...I believe parents and siblings are the best teachers for this kind of information. Gestures take lots and lots of practice, but it sounds like you've got a willing student who really wants to learn and that will go a long way to helping him get the tools he needs With practice the gestures will become less rigid and more natural.
I believe body language tools to be crucial in social situations. We sometimes have training groups pretend they are at a party and describe for us what they want to say with their body language. Then, we pair them up and have them practice while we circulate to give support and advice...
We also do lots of "let's pretend..." situations to build scenarios which have meaning for individual participants. With younger folks, I've used "Simon says", circle games, multiplication games, make a body, "tell me...show me", etc...in general, the younger a person is when they learn body language skills, the better.
I agree wholeheartedly with the parent who responded that this is all about self esteem and personal choice. Eventually everyone has to choose what works for them. My job as a professional in this field is to be a mirror and describe body behavior and its effects on me and if the individual wants to change something...to assist them in doing so.
The important question for anyone wanting to learn body language skills is: "am I getting the results I want with my current body language?" If the answer is no, then maybe there's a need to try something new.
As this is an ongoing topic for the minute, I thought I'd share something that might help people who are currently or will begin working with their students in this area because suggestions have been on the list serve. I was sitting next to a person with little or no sight at a conference recently. He asked me where the presenters were standing. When I answered, he adjusted himself to face them. This was a very competent person, so why did he ask for my input? Well, as soon as he asked, I noticed that the presenters voices were coming from audio speakers in the large room that were to the left side of the room. If he would have independently faced where he thought the presenters were, he would have been facing 90 degrees away from them and (possibly) looked strange to people who bothered to notice. Another example of independent dependence.
I love teaching kids about body expressions. It is integrated in all that we do from when they are young and into teen years. From how to "hang out" at their desks at the beginning of class to "hanging out" in hallways and at lockers. From feedback on smiling for kindergarten pictures to gestures for speeches on speech teams. Practice, practice, practice and feedback, feedback, feedback is simply what I do. Eventually kids ask me about what they want to learn or how something looks.
I have used a detailed list of body movements to teach young kids that covers the basics and and gets to things such as frowning. THE DEVELOPMENT OF SOCIAL SKILLS BY BLIND AND VISUALLY IMPAIRED STUDENTS, Sacks et al has some references beginning on page 157.
My kids learn that it is just something we talk about and most learn to appreciate the feedback.
Hello to everyone who responded about the paper. Due to overwhelming response I am sending the paper via listserv. Remember, some of these may not be age appropriate, but they give good ideas of your own to come up with. Hope you can get some use out of it.
Exercises For Practicing Gestures from Rona Harrell, Calif. State University at Los Angeles
Instruction: Say the following sentences or expressions using gestures as you talk. Use emphasis in voice and body language when appropriate. These can be put into braille and memorized one at a time.
- "Come over here and let me show you my new guitar."
- "I saw a huge elephant at the zoo."
- "Gee, I don't have the answer to that question."
- "Go away from me right this minute-I don't want to talk about this anymore."
- "I want you to come sit here next to me."
- "Hi Joe. It sure seems like you've gotten a lot taller since the last time I saw you."
- "Absolutely not!"
- "Sure, I'd be happy to help you out with that fence."
- "Do you want his one or that one?"
- "Sir, could you please show me the stereo over there?"
- "I saw the tiniest little kitten at the pet store."
- "This guy was so big he could barely fit in the chair."
- "I'm so hungry, I could really go for a nice thick steak."
- "First, I want to say that the plans for the new school are outstanding."
- "It took me three shouts before I was able to get a basket."
- "We went on the curviest road I've ever been on last night."
- "The tunnel was so narrow--only one car could pass at a time."
- "The lake was crystal smooth in the morning."
- (With an angry face) "That makes me so mad when you lie to me."
- (With surprised face after walking in on your surprise birthday party) "Oh my gosh!"
- ( With face showing disgust) "I've really had it up to here. That's all I can take from you!"
- "By the time I count to three, I expect you to be out the door--one, two, three!"
- (With worried face and furrowed brow) "I can't remember where I put my homework, and it's due next period."
- (With sad face) "That really hurt my feelings when you talked about me behind my back."
- (Waving with happy face) "bye, it was really nice seeing you again--come visit me again soon."
Body Language can convey such things as pain, sadness, aggression, antagonism, domination, submission, flirtation, secrecy, anger, happiness, surprise, and perplexity. Below is a partial list of gestures and facial expressions and the messages they usually convey.
cocked head: attention eyes bright: surprise lids narrowed: suspicion push hair back: anger distance: folding arms distance: anger legs crossing: courting winks: flirtation shrugs shoulder: perplexity hands on hips: dominance eye avoidance: inattention punch own palms: emphasis nods head: comprehension eyebrow flash: recognition step back and look down: terminating conversation sitting turned in: attention sitting turned out: inattention
In addition, I've included: yes, no, I don't know, thumbs up, thumbs down, OK, waving a car on, sticking tongue out, It's on the top shelf, and Sssh.
My assumption on eyes bright and eyebrow flash is the following: "eyes bright" means "eyes open wide and with a gleam that usually shines when one is happy..."eyebrow flash" means "a quick upward lift of the eyebrows that usually happens automatically when one realizes something new or is surprised."
The following was taken from a dialog on the AERNET mailing list in May, 1998.
If we look at the principles of Applied Behavioral Analysis, we find that all behaviors have a function, that is, a purpose that they serve in the life of the individual.� I think we all understand that self-stimulating behaviors serve the purpose of compensating for the lack of visual stimuli.� In the case of eye-poking, some individuals are able to get sparkling sorts of sensations; others like the touching.� In the case of rocking, it's pretty clear that it is a substitute for more appropriate forms of vestibular stimulation that most people get from physical activity.� Many of our blind students have fewer than average opportunities for physical exercise.� Rocking is a convenient way to get this stimulation.� I know some very high functioning adults who still engage in these behaviors.
The best way to change a behavior is to control the antecedents that lead up to it.� If the need is for vestibular stimulation, for example, it might help to work more opportunities for physical activity into the day.� PE comes to mind, adaptive PE if that is the most appropriate type for the particular student.
I recently collaborated (as a school psych intern) with a teacher (who is totally blind) on an intervention for rocking.� The student's rocking was nearly constant, affected the accuracy of his braille reading, and will strongly affect his acceptance when he ultimately goes out to a neighborhood school.� The school's transition specialist had already promised to take him to lunch if he stopped or significantly reduced his rocking, but no criteria had been set.
The teacher brought a rocking chair from home into the classroom so that the student could have opportunities to rock at appropriate times during down time between classes, or when he had finished assignments.� These opportunities were NOT contingent on abstaining from rocking during class time.� It was used for antecedent control.� The teacher discussed with him the reasons why it would be good to change this behavior. (This is the cognitive part of the cognitive-behavioral intervention.)� He was given a small container.� When he was rocking NO MENTION was made of it.� (Another behavioral principle is that attention, positive or negative, to an undesirable behavior will serve to increase, not decrease the behavior.)� When he was observed to be sitting appropriately and not rocking, he was given a button to put in his container.
Observation and reinforcement was provided by the sighted aide, who would give him a button when she observed him to be sitting appropriately.� The teacher was able to monitor him directly by sitting next to him during reading time.� At variable intervals (much more effective than fixed intervals) she would lightly touch his sleeve. If it was still, he was still, and he received a button.� If it was moving, so was he, and nothing was said.� He gradually accumulated buttons to fill his container and earn that lunch out.� The teacher estimates about a 70% reduction in the rocking, and improved accuracy in braille reading also."
I think we all agree there are many reasons to reduce this behavior, i.e., social, medical. Those of us who have used differential
reinforcement schedules would look at the concept of Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Responding. The concept is rather
simple: keep the youngster's hands busy by doing activities which will also provide high density positive reinforcement. For example,
stand and sitting are opposites and incompatible behaviors. You can't do both atthe same time. In these times when classroom teachers, itinerant teachers, etc., are required to be "jacks-of-all trades" and it can get
real hectic and overwhelming.
Differential reinforcement procedures can be a bit technical, but some very excellent resources are: "Applied Behavior Analysis for Teachers", by Paul A. Alberto and Anne C. Troutman; and "Behavior Modification" by Garry Martin and Joseph Pear. The Alberto and Troutman text is fun reading with great, simple examples. Don't worry about making mistakes; just give it a whirl and you'll be surprised how quickly things work out.
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