Research indicates that 55% of communication in face-to-face conversations is through nonverbal cues such as body language and facial expressions. How can blind folks navigate social settings where subtle, nonverbal communication is prevalent? In “Blind Social Butterfly,” I share my perspective on networking, mingling, and forming connections with low vision. I also offer advice for making happy hours, conferences, and other social events more accessible.
3:55 - Why is socializing and networking sometimes more challenging for those who are blind?
4:00 - Body Language and Facial Expressions
5:30 - Inaccessible Events and Activities
7:10 - Discomfort around Mobility Aids
11:30 - Ableist Social Advice
17:30 - Should we be Friendlier?
19:45 - Practical Tips for Blind People
23:40 - Advice for Sighted Allies
Many people might think that being blind inherently leads to some awkward situations. But I believe that sighted people make blindness awkward. They have a tendency to stand in the middle of the sidewalk or to leave their scooters there. They rely on tiny signs and name tags. They ask inappropriate questions like “what happened to you?” or “how many fingers am I holding up?” They try to pet your guide dog. They'll say things like “it’s over there” or point when you ask for directions. And then there is the elusive world of body language. Researchers have found that 55% of communication in face-to-face conversations is nonverbal, through things like gestures and facial expressions. When I first heard this, I thought, “wow, I'm missing a lot of information.” What am I supposed to do here? How am I supposed to navigate events with largely unspoken visual social norms? Well, that's what I'm here to talk about today. I'm going to share some tips and tricks I've gathered along the way as a blind social butterfly.
Hello everyone! Welcome back to another episode of Legally Blonde & Blind. I hope you all had a great summer. I've personally spent the last two months interning at PwC in their Washington DC office. I worked in their deals transformation practice, which was part of their consulting division, and we essentially worked with clients that had recently undergone a merger, acquisition, or any type of deal that changed their organization structure. PwC is a massive firm with over 300,000 employees, and I think it's safe to say that I met hundreds of associates, managers, and fellow interns throughout the summer. I attended happy hours, corporate bonding events at Pickleball Studios, and even went to an intern festival in Orlando, Florida with over 4,000 attendees.
I may have made it sound like rainbows and sunshine on my social media accounts. But the truth is these social engagements took a lot of energy out of me. I'm a very extroverted person. I'm not afraid to go to a restaurant or a bar by myself. But you often hear the phrase, it's not what you know, it's who you know. And the truth is, in such a large firm where there are thousands of other qualified interns, making and forming those connections, standing out, being likable, and being approachable is crucial. And I'll be honest, attending some of these events stressed me out. When looking back at this summer and any other time I've experienced some form of social anxiety, which yes, still does happen to extroverts who enjoy public speaking, I realized that a large piece of it had to do with my vision. We as blind people have to navigate some very unique social encounters because chances are, if we're in a room with hundreds of other people, we are automatically going to stick out. People are going to notice the girl with the guide dog or the white cane or the really white hair, and it turns out I'm not the only one who feels this way. Studies have shown that people who are blind or visually impaired are more likely to experience social anxiety. So why is that?
In today's episode, I want to talk about meeting new people, both in a professional and personal context. I want to think of ways that blind people can thrive in large social settings like happy hours or office holiday parties or college orientations, anywhere where you're meeting large groups of people in spaces designed for those that are sighted.
So to start off, why is socializing and networking sometimes more challenging for those who are blind? Well, the reason that immediately comes to mind for me is that humans have developed a vast, largely unwritten set of social norms and rules. Think of body language, facial expressions, thank you, notes, presents, and conversational flow. A lot of it is never explicitly taught to you, and a lot of it is visual. So those who are blind, neurodivergent, or have other sensory disabilities may struggle to fit in society's expectations for our behavior. A lot of sighted children learn social cues via observation, but for people like me who are blind or visually impaired from birth, we have to explicitly be taught those things. For example, my parents had to sit down and explain to me that my friends made eye contact. While I was talking to them, they would have to constantly remind me not to stare at the lights and to look at people when I was speaking to them. I also had to be told that people could see me picking my nose or adjusting my underwear, which is kind of gross, but it's true. There's a lot that we can't see. And for those losing their sight, I'm sure it's hard to adjust to the lack of visual information you're getting in conversations. If you're used to seeing people's body language and facial expressions, you're probably going to miss it.
There's also the fact that a lot of social activities and event spaces are not designed for those who are blind. I immediately think of things like name tags and signs at conventions, which are absolutely useless to me. My favorite response when somebody tells me to look for a sign is that “my guide dog is very smart, but she cannot read.” That is her kryptonite. There's also the fact that a lot of events are inherently very visual. This summer, for example, I got invited to a game at the National Stadium and a pickleball night. Events like escape rooms, mini golf, or watching a sports game at the bar are oftentimes harder for people without vision to enjoy.
This is a personal pet peeve of mine. I wrote it in all caps, in my notes, but buffets, I absolutely hate buffets. And let me explain to you why. So you end up in this long line. Usually it's moving pretty fast because people are hungry. And then you approach these giant vats of food and you have no idea what they are. So you usually have one of two options. You can either try to find the labels, which are these minuscule pieces of metal at the end of the table, or you can ask somebody for help, which sometimes goes great. But then other times they either look at you like you have five heads. Or they think you can't serve your food yourself, and then you have to walk back to your table with your guide dog or white cane, your plate, your drink, your utensils. I'm just not that coordinated!
Beyond the fact that the physical layout and design of social events is oftentimes not very accessible to those with low vision, there's also many people that are very uncomfortable with white canes, guide dogs, or any other mobility aid that visibly marks somebody as disabled. I've talked about this a lot on the show, especially with my episode about guide dogs and access issues, as well as my white canes episode, but I wanted to dive deeper into how this discomfort impacts us socially. So for white canes, what I've generally observed is that people, at least those that are slightly observant, stay away from you and it's great while you're on the street or at the Metro and you're just trying to get where you need to go. But when you're at things like a happy hour or at a convention exhibit hall, sometimes you want people to come up and say hi to you.
Guide dogs, on the other hand, are often described as a very social mobility aid, and that's very true. As someone who's used both, a lot more people come up to me when I'm with smalls and when I use a white cane. Generally, I've encountered two kinds of individuals. The first group of people are those who don't like dogs. And really want you to know that they don't like dogs. Now, I understand that some people are allergic or afraid of dogs, but what gets on my nerves is when people think that their dislike of dogs should outweigh my right to exist and be included in public spaces. I'm talking about the people who bombard you with questions, who will say things like, “oh, I don't like dogs. I'm scared of dogs. Is she friendly? I don't want her near me.” Or they'll start sharing their childhood trauma about getting bit by a dog, or they'll start complaining about the fur, the slobber, the smell. And it's just very apparent that they do not care if I am blind and I need her to navigate. I mean, I've had people who refuse to sit next to me on the bus or get in the elevator with me. I've had people scream like bloody murder, seeing her with me in the bathroom. And usually these people are strangers.
But what happens if my colleagues or my boss behaves like this?
Unfortunately, people's dislike of dogs is often going to translate to you. You are a package deal. There are probably people out there who aren't going to want to talk to you or invite you over because they cannot get over the fact that there is a working service animal laying at your feet, and I've gotten to a point where I don't want to be friends or spend my time with people who so very clearly do not care about my inclusion or safety. But it never feels good to be ostracized, and I'm still trying to think about how I would navigate the situation if I had to work with them, like if they were a colleague or a direct superior.
On the other extreme, there are people who love, LOVE dogs. And will basically pretend you don't exist. There are some people who will say hi to your dog or start petting your dog while completely ignoring you, which is very rude. And then there are some people who will make it very clear that they are more interested in getting to know your dog than you. Beyond that, you'll get asked the same set of questions like, “what kind of dog is that? How old is she? How much does she weigh?” Which would be such weird questions to ask about people. I don't know why we do it with dogs, but we do, and I'm the type of person who loves dogs, loves talking about dogs, so this doesn't bother me at all. But I could definitely see how someone who's a bit more reserved or not as dog crazy as I am could find it annoying. The only thing that I don't like is when people tell me about their dead pets. I grew up with Labradors, so sometimes if I see a black and a yellow lab together, I'll be like, “oh, that reminds me of my puppies when I was a child.” So you can just say that. You don't have to follow up with, “oh, and she died last year.” Like, it's just such a downer, especially if you give me the details. I don't wanna know that! I'm going about my day!
And the final reason I think it's sometimes more challenging for those who have low vision to thrive and connect in these large social settings is because a lot of the advice out there is incredibly ableist and not useful. You know, I was on the fence about whether or not I wanted to make this episode, but then I started looking up articles about this and a lot of the information I found, especially geared towards parents and teachers of the visually impaired is terrible. Most of the articles I found mention that blind people should be told to groom themselves and dress well. But just because someone lacks vision does not mean they lack a sense of fashion. O4 even just basic dignity. I don't think the majority of humans would like to live in filth to be unkempt. There were also articles I found that implicitly assumed that blind people cannot participate in regular social activities. One I found called “20 Activities for the Visually Impaired” listed things like “Supervise them while they make a fruit or vegetable salad,” which admittedly, I have made zero progress on cooking since my blind baking episode with Lia Stone, but I could do that. Or seeking out a volunteer for companionship because heaven forbid they have friends.
What's interesting is a lot of these articles emphasize the importance of teaching a blind child what is normal, but never question “Why are these expectations and behaviors normal? Who are we potentially excluding and judging?” For example, one of the first articles that popped up when I started searching this topic was an NFB publication in the 1980s that was pretty scathing. This author talked about a blind girl named Sue, who never wore a skirt, not even a church, and a blind boy named Matt who had to be corrected because he was wearing a “tattered and vaguely feminine” bag. This article, as well as a lot of more recent publications, also tend to demonize harmless forms of stimming like rocking back and forth, looking at lights, rubbing the eyes, clapping, flapping your arms. A lot of blind children actually do stim as a way to compensate for the lack of visual sensory input that they're getting. When I was a toddler, my parents actually contacted my state's early intervention services because they thought I might have been neurodivergent. I would do things like flap my arms and not look people in the eyes, which oftentimes is a symptom of autism. And I think the reason that so many teachers of the visually impaired are opposed to kids stimming like this is because of how similar it looks to autism and other disabilities.
Overall, I think it's really frustrating and unfair that we as blind people have to work so hard to act normal and to make neurotypical non-disabled people feel more comfortable with our existence. But I can also see where a lot of these TVIs and parents are coming from because right or wrong, The majority of people will judge you or think you are weird if you do not fit the social expectations. If you don't make eye contact or start rubbing your eyes during a job interview, there is a good chance it will negatively impact your chances of getting an offer, and it sucks. You're not hurting anybody, you're not doing anything wrong. It has nothing to do with how qualified you are to be in a certain position. But unfortunately that's just how the world works.
There's another concept in teaching and rehabilitation that I thought was relevant here, and that's the idea of learned helplessness. Which to start off with, I hate the term, I wish there was a better word for it, but I can't think of one. It's this idea that if you're around parents and teachers who do everything for you, things like cutting and serving your food or telling you when to cross the street, you're not really going to develop the same sense of confidence and independence. And I really do wish that there were a better word for this because I feel like there is so much stigma and judgment attached to the word “helplessness.” I don't want to imply that it's a blind person's fault for ending up in this position, or that they just need to get over it and lace up the bootstraps. Rather, I think it's the responsibility of institutions and teachers to create programs that build confidence in blind people and encourage them to explore, to try new things, to fail, to get lost. But that being said, there is definitely some truth in that if you've never cut your own food, if you've only ever gone to new places without an O&M instructor, you're probably not going to go out to that new restaurant with friends, or to that happy hour at a bar, or explore a new museum that just opened up in the city.
So overall, I think there are a lot of challenges, both in terms of the physical design of spaces and people's attitudes that make it more challenging for blind folks as well as those who are neurodivergent or have sensory disabilities to thrive in social environments with very rigid but unwritten expectations. When thinking about the advice I wanted to provide in this episode, the main question I came to was, should we be friendlier? Should we modify our behavior to make sighted and non-disabled folks more comfortable? One experience that really made me think about this was I attended a blind workshop virtually about career development, and one of the speakers said something about if you go into a cafeteria with a white cane, people are going to be afraid to approach you. My first thought when I heard that was, “well, people need to get over it. A mobility aid is not a death sentence. It doesn't make you an alien.” But their response was that you should be extra friendly and approachable. They literally said to smile. They told blind people to smile more. Another instance that really made me think about this was when someone described my social media platforms and website as “disarming,” which was such a strange adjective I'd never heard it used to describe a person and something about it didn't sit right with me because on one hand, I do want to make my content accessible to those who aren't a part of the blind community or who haven't taken a disability studies course. But at the same time, the bright colors, the humor, the pictures with Smalls, that’s just a part of who I am. In other words, my personality and online presence isn't artificially constructed to help people “get over” my blindness. It's just me being myself. Unfortunately, I can't really come up with a concrete answer to my question here. It's tricky because to some extent, everyone modifies their behavior in certain social situations. No one acts the same talking with their best friend as they do at a coffee chat for a potential employer. And it's also important to acknowledge that while largely arbitrary, these social norms are incredibly important in making a good first impression and forming those personal and professional relationships. I know a lot of consulting firms, for example, hire based off of the “airport test,” this idea that you should pick somebody who you want to be stuck in an airport with, and there are so many things wrong with that. It's a terrible way to hire people. But a lot of managers still heavily rely on their “gut instinct,” which normally translates to how much they like you.
I think the bottom line here is that people should prioritize their own happiness and wellbeing, and if they choose to modify their behavior, It should not be because of their blindness. You shouldn't feel pressured to smile all the time or be super buddy-buddy, just because you are walking with a white cane. You are valuable and you're not responsible for changing other people's attitudes towards disability. With all the stigma surrounding blindness, sometimes I feel like people act as if we should feel lucky for having friends or employers who look past our disability. But the truth is that's the bare minimum. You are valuable. You bring a lot to the table. You deserve to be in a space and to be around people who make you feel included, who you can be your authentic self around.
I also wanted to provide some practical advice for both blind people and sighted allies.
The first thing I had in mind was if you have a guide dog, you may want to bring a white cane or navigate with your dog in a walk while you're at a happy hour or a reception or any other kind of party, because if your dog is anything like Smalls, they want to get straight down to business. Smalls will cut people off. She is not afraid, and she'll get me to the other side of the room, the door, the escalator, wherever I asked her to go as quickly as possible, which is great when I'm commuting in the morning and trying to get on the metro. But what I'm trying to meander through a party and socialize with people, she's not the best at understanding that. And especially for social events that are louder, more crowded, and are serving alcohol, it is important to acknowledge that just because a service dog can go somewhere does not mean they should.
Now if you have trouble reading the room, telling what people are doing and who's open to having a conversation, which I sometimes struggle with even as someone who has a lot of residual vision, one tip I found by reading Haben Girma’s book is to bring a trusted friend or even an assistant who can visually describe things to you. Haben is a deaf-blind disability rights activist, and the way that she communicates with people is she'll bring a keyboard for them to type messages in, and it'll appear to her as refreshable braille. So when she would go to happy hours at Harvard Law, she would have a friend who could kind of describe the room to her, let her know what people were doing, and she could ask her friend, “Hey, maybe you can bring this person up, see if they're interested in having a conversation.”
Now, once you've found someone to have a conversation with, the topic of your blindness may come up, and people have varying levels of comfort around this. Some don't want to talk about their disability at all, especially in professional context. But for me, as someone who hosts a podcast called Legally Blonde & Blind, and as someone who posts a lot about disability advocacy on social media, it inevitably comes up. My tip here is to use blindness as an opportunity to talk about who you are. You don't have to just sit there and satisfy people's curiosities about how you get dressed in the morning or do your makeup or cross the street. You can talk about your hobbies like art, music, and athletics, and how you've adapted to that with low vision. You could talk about your interest in advocacy work and how disability intersects with other identities that this person may be interested in. You could talk about your accomplishments. I think people should know about the dedication it takes to complete an NFB training program. I mean, that's nine months and you do wood shop.mThat's really cool. For me, I like to tell people, especially employers, about the communication and teamwork it takes to work with a guide dog. I think of these conversations as an opportunity to broaden people's horizons, to think of blindness in a different way and to appreciate the way that I navigate the world. Though to be clear, you are not obligated to do that. You don't have to be the blind ambassador just because you're the only one in the room with a white cane.
That being said, if you don't wanna talk about blindness, which honestly, sometimes I'm not in the mood to do either. I recommend asking people about themselves. People love to talk about themselves and trust me, they would be more than happy to share with you their life story if you give them the chance. I think the art of learning to gracefully leave conversations is also really important here. You could always say something like, you need to freshen up or get a drink, get more food at the buffet. I honestly think at parties and larger gatherings, people aren't expecting you to speak with them for 30 minutes on end, so you usually have a lot of outs. Also, guide dogs are like babies and that you can use them as an excuse to get out of a lot of social situations you don't wanna be in. You could always say, “oh, I think Smalls has to go to the bathroom or get a drink. I am so sorry, but I have to go.” But don't use that too often because I made this episode to give advice on how to be more social, not antisocial.
Now for my sighted listeners, I have some tips for you as well. First, when you approach someone, I think it's always great to say, “Hey, this is Karen, how are you?” Something like that is a subtle way of letting us know who you are, because if you're an acquaintance, if we don't know you as well, we may not be able to recognize your voice, but it's not over the top. Definitely do not play the whole,”Do you know who this is?” Game because it's very uncomfortable. I think including your name in the greeting and maybe where we met if we've only met once or twice hits that sweet spot for me of making me feel included but not patronized.
My next tip is specifically in regards to guide dog handlers, but center the human, not the dog. I love dogs. I love talking about dogs. I totally get it, but if you pass me and you only say hi to smalls, I'm not gonna be very happy. I think most handlers can tell when people are genuinely interested in being friends and getting to know us versus they just wanna pet our dog. I always like when people say hi to both of us, but in a tone that won't distract smalls. One of my professors last semester, for example, every time I entered the room would be like, “hi ladies, how are you?” Something like that I think makes me feel included. I don't want to be in an environment where people flat out pretend my guide dog doesn't exist. That's something that makes me very uncomfortable, but I also do want to be the center of attention. Your main focus, not my guide dog.
And finally, if you are hosting any type of event, please think about accessibility and not just for those of us that are blind. If you're planning on going out to dinner, maybe check out and see if the building is ADA compliant, because it doesn't just benefit wheelchair users. As a service animal handler, I can tell you that shoving a 60 pound Labrador into a regular-sized bathroom stall is not fun. Smalls and I went to a restaurant in Georgetown that's in this old building, so it isn't ADA compliant at all. The bathrooms are up this steep flight of steps, and they didn't have any wheelchair bathrooms. I almost got stuck. We had to do some Tetris to get out, and that wasn't particularly fun. You could also think about things like, are there any strobe lights or any other sensory concerns I should make people aware of before attending the event? Am I accommodating dietary restrictions? Would somebody in a wheelchair be able to enjoy themselves and navigate the space? If you're doing an activity like an escape room or top golf, who is and isn't that accessible to? Because at least for me, all the escape rooms I've been to are incredibly visual and usually I feel like I can't be a part of the team because other people are just like looking around and finding things much quicker than I could.
And obviously with accessibility, nothing can ever be perfect. You can't meet everyone's needs all at the same time. But I think just being open-minded and considerate of it is a great place to start. Sometimes with Georgetown events, for example, I'll see an email listed or Google form you can fill out if you have any accommodation requests, and it's just nice to know people are thinking about that when they're planning these events. Another thing too is to try to eliminate hazards. So think of things like wires on the floor or those types of signs that are on those easels with the really thin poles. I don't know if I'm describing it well, but I've tripped over at least 20 of those in my lifetime. Especially if you're hosting an event where alcohol is going to be served, it'll help everybody, not just those of us that are blind.
And with that, thank you all for listening to another episode of Legally Blonde & Blind. I hope you enjoyed my perspective on socializing and networking as a blind person. I'm actually now in the mood to go to a party, so if you're planning anything, let me know because now I'm revved up. Anyways. If you enjoyed today's episode, please subscribe to Legally Blonde & Blind on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, YouTube, and anywhere else you get your shows. You can also stay up to date by following my social media pages on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram @legallyblondeblind. You can also find more information on my website, including the transcript and show notes for this episode at www.legallyblondeblind.com. Thank you all for listening, and I hope to see you soon.