I. Vision Impairment and Social Skills

Teaching Students with Sensory Impairments
Social Skills
Dolly Bhargava, M. Spec. Ed., Renwick College
I. Vision Impairment and Social Skills
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 non – verbal
communication matches the words. This skill includes using appropriate
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
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
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
Social rejection
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
Becoming at – risk for developing mental health problems (e.g.
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).