Blind in the City: Why We Don’t Touch Faces, and What We Do Instead

In the 1985 movie Mask, Diana, a blind teenage girl, falls in love with Rocky, a boy who has a craniofacial condition. At one point, Diana asks Rocky what he looks like. He jokes that he looks like the Greek god Adonis, then says, “I don’t really look like Adonis; I’ve got this real strange disease, and it makes my face look real unreal.” Diana proceeds to touch his face, and eventually says, “You look pretty good to me.”
check out this clip

Images of blind film characters touching faces to learn about a person’s appearance have become so common that some people believe blind people do this in real life, too. Others may wonder how blind people engage in social activities that, for sighted people, rely on seeing faces: identifying people, evaluating their appearance, or connecting emotionally in relationships. The truth is that I have yet to meet a blind person who habitually touches faces; this act is not only socially sanctioned, but it usually provides little useful information. Instead we use other methods to identify people, evaluate their appearance, and connect emotionally with them.

Q: Can you recognize who I am by touching my face?
A: Probably not. Human brains are wired to process faces visually. Sighted humans tend to process and remember each unique face as a whole entity, rather than as a collection of features. It is difficult to get that holistic sense of a face through touch, nor is it possible to pick up on many of the subtle details that distinguish one person’s face from another’s. Furthermore, if this is not already obvious, touching a face is a much more intimate act than just looking at one, and strikes me as a little unhygienic.

Q: So then, how do you know who’s speaking to you?
A: No, I can’t recognize you across the room by the perfume you’re wearing. But, blind people can recognize people’s voices with reasonable accuracy. Actually, sighted people can do this too, but unless they’re talking on the phone, they don’t usually have a reason to hone the skill. That said, I might not recognize your voice after one interaction; it may take a few conversations before I’ll know your voice well enough to pull it out of a crowd, and if I’m not expecting to run in to you, I may not recognize you immediately.

Q: How do you picture people in your mind? How do you know what your family and friends look like?
A: People who have once had sight can often “picture” people visually in their minds. I have never had sight, so I have no way of creating visual images. However, I do have sensory memories I associate with people. With my spouse and other close family and friends, I can “picture” them by imagining hugging them, and remembering their overall body shape. For others with whom I don’t have regular hands-on contact, I can “picture” them by hearing their voice or recalling a recent conversation. Although I, like most humans, feel a connection with loved ones through physical contact, I don’t feel deprived by not knowing all the details of their visual appearance.

Q: How do you know if someone is attractive?
A: Much of physical attractiveness is subjective, and blind people, like sighted people, will vary in their preferences. There are also some standards for physical beauty that are generally agreed-upon in a particular culture. Blind people listen to discussions of beauty, and we can be influenced, for better and for worse, by the opinions of our friends and loved ones. We may find some individuals more attractive than others based on nonvisual aspects like their voices, scents, or the feel of a hug or a handshake. Check out this video to learn more about how a few blind individuals describe attraction.

Although we certainly can be interested in another person’s physical appearance, we might not learn these details about another person until emotional or intellectual chemistry have already developed in a relationship. When I was single, I would often go on one or more dates with a man before knowing much about how he looked. I generally discovered that if I found the man to be physically attractive later, it could increase the chemistry, but like Diana, I wouldn’t necessarily be put off if he wasn’t particularly attractive, if we already had a rapport. With professional colleagues or more casual friends, I might never find out much about their appearance. So although physicality does matter to blind people, it may not have the same primacy as it does for many sighted people.

Q: Without seeing facial expressions, how do you know how another person is feeling?
A: I’ve heard that up to half of in-person communication is visual. There is also this notion that blind children have to be systematically taught the most basic aspects of social interaction because they miss so much visual information. While I don’t doubt that facial expressions and other visuals play an important role for sighted people, I don’t feel limited in my communication abilities. When I was a child, it was sometimes assumed that if I was rude to another person, it was because I couldn’t read their emotions on their face. Yet from a very early age I was attuned to vocal cues. Some of my earliest memories involve my parents’ tones of approval or disapproval, and both parents could say my name in a tone that made me freeze (and probably still could). Like most children, there were times when I chose to ignore another person’s annoyed or upset tone, because I was wrapped up in my own feelings, not because I was unaware of theirs. I can generally pick up on most emotions of others by listening to them. In fact, vocal expressions may be harder to fake than facial ones
Of course, it works better when I know the person well, and if the person chooses to be quiet (like if they are pouting), I might not get the hint as quickly as a sighted person. I also find it challenging to read the collective reactions of a quiet audience, such as while I am giving a presentation. Generally, though, I have found that blindness has little impact on the communications that matter most, such as in my marriage and my relationships with friends and family.

Q: How can I communicate well with a blind person?
A: If you don’t know the blind person well, go ahead and identify yourself by name. Also, if you are interacting in a professional capacity (such as working at a store with a blind customer) and you are wearing a professional uniform or name badge, be sure to offer that information. For example, “My name’s Jill and I’m a WalMart employee.” Don’t expect the blind person to automatically remember who you are, even if you remember them (if they’re a repeat customer, for example).

Other than that, interact with us just as you would with anyone else. Oh, and please don’t ask me to feel your face, even if you buy me a drink first.

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