More than meets the eye: Disability and Body Language

Lilley on a swing at a local park. She is wearing a black long sleeved V-neck shirt and blue jeans. Her hair is flowing away from her face as she falls backwards, cascading in various directions. Her body language and facial expression communicate a sense of complete freedom and joy.

In the swimming pool, I notice that good ideas are born. My friends and I often become very philosophical while we swim, and we have now come to call the pool our “think tank”. The other day, we were discussing the topic of disability and body language, which I haven’t read much about, or actually read about at all over the years. Yet, there is so much to say about it!

When I was younger, I really didn’t understand body language at all. That’s no wonder, because I can’t actually see when people are communicating with their bodies. I just thought it was completely irrelevant to me. Later I learned that it has always had an effect on my life. For example, I remember being told by my mother from a very young age that I should look at people when I talk to them. This is something I had to practice. You see, I didn’t instinctually understand that I should do that. I would often talk to people whilst looking away, or even with my back turned to them. I was of the opinion that it didn’t matter where I was looking, because people could just hear my voice. Yet, for sighted people it really has a massive impact on not only their perception of whether I am showing them respect or not, but also on if they really listen to what I’m saying in the first place.

When I used to take part in singing competitions as a teenager, I learned that judges take more things into consideration than whether or not one has a nice voice. My vocal coach used to tell me to try not to play with my fingers on stage (it’s something I do when I’m nervous, and actually just a habit of mine in general) because it distracts people from my singing and they end up watching my hands instead of listening.

Also, as a little girl I used to find it hilarious how my mother moved her hands and arms around, gesturing furiously when talking animatedly. I didn’t understand why gestures were such an important part of conversation, and only later did I learn that gestures can be even more important in certain cultures. I think it truly hit home for me when I got my guide dog, because I was taught to use certain gestures to tell her to stay, walk, or go left and right. She responds to the gestures much better than to the verbal commands.

Then, during my Psychology studies, I learned that so many things can be communicated through one’s physical stance! It doesn’t only say something about your mood (hunched shoulders indicating stress or anxiety) but often one’s posture can indicate whether or not a person appears inviting and approachable. Shoulders slightly back, with arms more open communicates that one is relaxed, friendly and engaged, whereas crossed arms makes one seem closed off, less approachable, and possibly even angry or annoyed. Of course, the way we move also has an impact when we are flirting, with a slight swing in the hips when walking (as women mostly), batting of the eyelashes, and touching a person’s arm when talking to them, for example, indicating that we are interested.

I used to think that I just don’t use body language in my communication. However, I’ve been told that sometimes my feelings are very clearly communicated through my facial expressions and my stance, though it may be completely unconscious. I have also been told that it’s sometimes difficult to read my facial expressions, which led me to believe that I’d be great at poker. This may be untrue though. With what I know now, I will be much more aware of unconscious ticks and tells next time I play.

I have also come to realise that body language is really about much more than what one can see. Even I can pick up on someone’s mood and attitude from the way that their voice projects through standing and sitting in certain ways, and of course, through tone of voice. I think tone of voice counts as body language, because vocal chords are part of the body after all, and tone of voice communicates many more things than the words that are coming out of a person’s mouth. In addition, body language can be tactile, such as when someone is leading me and they move their arm behind them to indicate to me that we are going to be moving through a small space and should walk in single file.

As a blind woman, one of the things I have found most difficult about communication is eye contact. People communicate so many things with their eyes, and that is something I will never truly master. At university, I always wondered how sighted people were able to attract each other’s attention so easily. Especially when in loud bars, clubs or restaurants, I found it extremely difficult to get a friend’s attention when talking to them, or when trying to engage in conversation. I generally steer clear of such loud places overall, because it’s difficult for me to hear what people are saying. Of course, sighted people find this easier, because of eye contact and because they can read lips.

Nodding and head shaking also perplexed me at some point in my life. Sometimes somebody would ask someone else a question, they would nod or shake their heads, and I would be under the impression that they didn’t respond to the question because they didn’t hear or were being rude, which wasn’t the case.

Of course, body language is incredibly important to D/deaf people. Often, they understand what others are saying through lip reading, and sign language is definitely a form of body language. For people with cognitive impairments who are not very verbal, their state of mind is often communicated physically. This also counts for people on the autism spectrum.

Something that I also learned later in life is that there are certain types of body language that make wheelchair users more comfortable too. This might not be the case for all of them, but I have been told that looking up at someone all the time when talking to them can be very uncomfortable. It can be physically uncomfortable to always be looking up and perhaps straining one’s neck, and it can be uncomfortable in the other sense of the word to look up at people, because it sometimes unconsciously says something about the power dynamics in the interaction. A friend also told me that she struggles to make conversation when she is in a group of people who are all standing, because they are just on different levels, making eye contact difficult. Some wheelchair users very much appreciate it, if during conversation, people can be on the same level as them. Crouching is a complicated thing, because wheelchair users also don’t want to feel that the person they’re talking too is acting unnaturally. Sometimes, crouching can also be perceived as what one might do when speaking to a child. I’m not saying that all crouching is bad though. I have just been told that, when possible, it’s a good idea to find somewhere to sit when engaging in a conversation with a wheelchair user.

There is so much more that I need to understand about body language, and body language in relation to disability specifically, so this is by no means a comprehensive coverage of the topic. Still, it’s something interesting to think about, and over the years I have learned that just because I’m blind doesn’t mean that I can simply give the middle finger to nonverbal communication.

2 Replies to “More than meets the eye: Disability and Body Language”

  1. You briefly touched on autism and I’d like to add a few things from the perspective of one autistic person (who is sighted and hearing).

    Reading body language is not something that came naturally to me as it does to most people. I had to learn what different facial expressions and postures meant, by trial and error, often inferring from spoken context. This was particularly difficult in cases where they contradict each other, such as sarcasm. This also made me rather gullible, as I was unable to tell when someone was being facetious. I am better at it now that I am older.

    Conveying body language is a whole other challenge. In addition to odd mannerisms, my level of expressiveness can be inconsistent. I tend to convey very little when there is no emotional involvement in what I’m saying; my blank expression and flat tone of voice can make me seem robotic and boring. On the other hand when I am emotionally invested in the conversation I have very little control over my voice, face and body; I can get inappropriately loud without realising it, have contempt written all over me, or start choking and tearing up, all of which can be very embarrassing especially in a professional setting. On top of that, what I am doing physically often has nothing to do with what I’m talking about and this can confuse people.

    I was taught how to act neurotypical but for the most part actively resisted because it felt like deception and I couldn’t see a valid reason to conform. Maintaining eye contact is something I refuse to do because it feels too intimate and makes me uncomfortable, which in turn makes it difficult to listen to someone and express myself clearly. Fidgeting helps focus my overactive mind away from distractions so I can pay attention (I also have ADHD). Small talk can be hit-or-miss depending on the person.

    Everybody is different, and the same is true for neurodivergent people. My experience is my own and I cannot speak for anyone else. I just know that these are common issues for people on the spectrum so I wanted to mention it.

    1. Leeward, thank you for this! That is an excellent contribution to the discussion, in my opinion. All things that I didn’t remember about what I’ve learned about autism, or things I didn’t know at all and could never have even started to think about without what you’ve shared.

      The purpose of my blog is as much to learn from others as it is for me to impart information, so I would like to encourage this kind of comment as much as possible. Engagement is how we learn, and how we educate.

      For anyone who reads this, please come and share your two scents.

      Leeward’s comment, in addition to what someone commented on Facebook, made me think of the topic of stimming. I think that will be my next post.

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