Vision Impairment and Social Skills

Author: Dolly Bhargava, M.Spec.Ed.

Whether or not they have vision impairment, all children must engage in appropriate social interactions to ensure appropriate social, emotional, cognitive and academic development.  However, social skills are more difficult for a student with vision impairment than for peers without vision impairment. It is not sufficient for students with vision impairments to simply live in a sighted world and attend their local school.  We cannot assume that students be able to effectively interact with sighted peers or will be accepted unless support is provided.  Teachers must do all in their power to promote peer acceptance.

Most of the skills that sighted students use in their everyday social interactions have been learned through observing others and by imitating or modelling their behaviours and then adapting the behaviours to their interaction style. For example, a student learns how to use both verbal and non-verbal communication when greeting adults or peers by observing others in his or her environment.  These observed skills are then adapted into the student’s interaction style.

Both of the above terms are explained as follows:

  • Verbal communication – You choose the appropriate greeting depending on the person to whom you are speaking, the time and place.  For example, at school when greeting a teacher a student might say “Mrs Woods, Good Morning!” whereas if greeting a peer the greeting might be “Hi, Jake.”
  • Nonverbal communication – Using the right words is not enough.  It is important that the words are said in the right way so that the nonverbal communication matches the words.  This skill includes using appropriate eye contact (looking at the person); facial expression (smiling); proximity (standing at an appropriate distance to the teacher); posture (holding yourself in a way to indicate interest); voice (using an audible voice); hands (giving a ‘Hi Five’ to a friend vs. shaking the hands of the Principal).

As you can see, communicating is not just about using the appropriate sounds, words and sentence structures to express a particular message.  It’s about knowing how and when to communicate the message appropriately according to social conventions. 

When a student has a vision impairment, his or her ability to access basic information about and through the environment is affected.  One of the limitations imposed by the vision impairment is on the ability to access visual models on which to base the development of social skills.  Another limitation has to do with the accuracy of the input received from the senses.  For example, difficulties with recognising and interpreting the body language, gestures and facial expressions of the person with whom they are communicating can result in misunderstandings and make social nuances difficult, or in certain instances, impossible to interpret.  Therefore, it is crucial that children with vision impairment are provided with social skills training to learn how to (a) behave in a socially acceptable manner, and (b) learn how to interact with others.

Learning social skills is rather like a “catch-22” situation, since in order to develop good social skills the student first needs to have several opportunities to practice these skills within a particular context.  The more opportunities the child has to practice and communicate with a variety of language models, the more flexible and sophisticated his or her social skills will become. Hence, it is important for teachers to not only focus on the student, but also, to consider the social environment.  The way “others react to and interact or do not interact” with the student can directly affect the development of social skills, self concept and overall well being (Sacks & Silberman, 2003 p. 617).

‘Social skills’ is an “umbrella term” that impacts on virtually every aspect of daily living.  Social skill competence is measured by how and when your students use  non-verbal and verbal communication skills according to the social conventions of a particular setting.

These non-verbal communication skills include:

  • Eye contact
  • Facial expression
  • Gestures
  • Posture
  • Proximity
  • Body language
  • Listening
  • Grooming and hygiene

When socially interacting with others in various settings, non verbal communication is used in conjunction with our verbal communication (language) to do things such as:

  • Greet others
  • Gain attention
  • Ask for help
  • Have a conversation
  • Share jokes
  • Join a group
  • Work co-operatively
  • Cope with conflict
  • Make friends
  • Be culturally sensitive
  • Understand and express emotions
  • Negotiate
  • Communicate assertively
  • Deal with teasing, bullying and victimization

Learning how to use these skills is a life-long process that involves the continuous refining and adaptation of skills according to the expectations, people and situations that we encounter.  This means that getting a head start on social skills acquisition is critically important to the students in your class.

Social skills are as essential to the students in your class as are basic reading and writing skills.   Social skill acquisition is the preferred vehicle for promoting academic learning, a sense of belonging and acceptance, psychological well - being and positive self concept.  Social skills are the critically important precursors to your student building positive relationships with his or her peers at school.  Hartup and Moore (1990) highlight friendships as emotional and cognitive resources that promote well-being.   Examples of some ordinary, everyday emotional responses that friendships provide include “I think you did a great job”; “I understand how you’re feeling”, “You can hang out with us during lunchtime”.  Examples of cognitive responses that friendships provide include “I can help you with that question”, “Here is another way of doing this” and “You could have told her the bad news this way…”

Without appropriate social skills the student can experience one or all of the following:

  • Social rejection
  • Failure
  • Social Isolation
  • Anxiety when having to interact with others
  • Negative self concept (i.e. poor self image, low self esteem and self-worth)
  • Lack of confidence
  • Limited academic achievement
  • Boredom
  • Becoming at risk for developing mental health problems (e.g. depression)

Children’s friendships are like templates on which the child builds subsequent relationships beyond the school environment and into adulthood. Social skills are fundamental to becoming better integrated into society, and later, to finding and maintaining employment.  Therefore, a strategic time to intervene directly with children and an optimal time to facilitate social competence is from a young age.  By fostering appropriate social skills, your student will be more likely to settle well into a variety of environments and become better able to work co-operatively, confidently, and independently by experiencing social success from an early age (Sacks & Wolffe, 2000; Wolffe, Sacks & Thomas, 2000).