Self-Concept and Visual Impairment
Focus: School years
Topic: Inclusive Education
Dolors Forteza Forteza
Mª Àngels Ramis Martí
Department of Educational Sciences
University of Illes Balears
Edifici Guillem Cifre de Colonya
Cra. de Valldemossa, km. 7’5
Tel.: 34 – 971 173391 Telefax: 34 – 971 173190
Although the importance of having a positive, well-adjusted self-concept is clear, we must accept that anyone may find this difficult, regardless of whether they have a disability or not. We also accept that a visual impairment may, in itself, affect the formation of someone’s personality. With this in mind, we would like to establish the basic framework for an integral, individualized intervention programme.
From the knowledge we have acquired on the development of visually-impaired children, a series of general tendencies can be mentioned that affect these children’s development (Warren, 1994; Ammerman, Van Hasselt, Hersen, 1986; Frailberg, 1977; Ochaíta, 1993; Leonhardt, 1992, Díaz-Aguado, 1995):
Research into questions of self-concept and visual impairment has centred mainly on comparative studies between people with or without a visual impairment. Of these, we should highlight:
How can the results of studies and research carried out to date be incorporated into educational practice in a way that is clear and effective? We believe that this type of action cannot be focused on a specific area or contained within a specific programme, but must instead be based on a number of different, interrelated focal points.
Self-concept can be defined as “the perception one has of oneself with regards to different facets of that perception (i.e. cognitive and emotional) that vary in importance during the person’s life (the evolutional and temporal facet), influenced by social interaction which, in turn, is conditioned by the fact that the person belongs to certain social groups (the importance of the social structure)” (Rodríguez Cao, 1993, as quoted in Rodríguez et al, 1995, page 67). According to Burns (1990), a number of basic factors can be emphasized that contribute towards the formation of a person’s self-concept:
· Body image
· The acquisition of a sexual identity and the role of gender
· The interpretation of information received from the surrounding environment: how others see me.
· Educational practice.
A person’s self-concept will gradually be reformulated during different stages of development, increasing in its degree of organization, complexity, consistence and stability. We can observe an evolution that ranges from a self-concept based on physical appearance, to a whole system of beliefs that appear in adolescence and a single sense of self-discovery. This process continues developing during the person’s entire life. (L’Ecuyer, 1985).
3. Self-Concept and Visual Impairment: Basic Aspects
The development of a child’s self-concept, when they have a visual impairment, follows similar steps to that of a sighted child, although the visual defect will influence this process. However, we have no evidence that the lack of vision has a general effect on visually-impaired children. Warren (1994) highlights the major roles that body image and language play in the case of these children.
Clock-Clampert (1981, 233) underlines the importance of a blind child’s self-concept: “The most fundamental aspect of the blind child is his self-concept. The manner in which the child learns to view himself has a tremendous impact on his future ambitions, accomplishments and personal happiness”.
The author emphasizes that, among the background work that has been used to contribute towards current studies, we should also bear in mind the descriptive research carried out, which has offered practical information to both parents and professionals:
a) Parents’ reactions to blindness.
b) Lack of eye contact.
c) Person and object permanence.
d) Body image.
g) Imitation of the sighted.
Brazelton (1993) considers parental attitudes to be fundamental in the early years of a child’s life, as it represents one of the aspects that most influences the development and consolidation of the child’s self-confidence and positive self-concept.
Following the stages in the development of a sense of self-awareness proposed by Stern (1985), Inghsholt (1990) describes what difficulties a blind child can encounter in the development of his or her identity: fewer reciprocal and also shorter relationships with which to organize his or her world; difficulty in benefiting from the necessary amount of experiences involving a high degree of regulated excitement and difficulties when intentional communication is attempted, all of which would lead to problems in the development of a progressive understanding of intersubjectivity. From all this, we can see how necessary it is to stimulate the child by offering him or her a large variety of different experiences with which to create his or her own personal sense of identity.
During the phase of developing a verbal sense of identity, language will provide the blind child with new forms of contact with others and will be the key to the world.
The person’s image of their body, orientation and mobility, specific aspects of language, the acquisition of a sexual identity, the role of gender, play, interaction with their peers and an acceptance of the impairment can, among other things, be areas of special difficulty for children who are visually impaired. This is why early action is needed.
Uttermohlen (1997) speaks of the risks that the adolescent stage of life can represent for young people who are visually impaired and he reminds us that, throughout their entire lives, people with a visual impairment have to deal with the challenge of how to reach a balance between the need for help and the need to regard themselves as competent, independent people and for others also to see them as such.
During the adult stage of life, the process of integration into the labour market and the emotional facet of a person’s life can be a determining factor in what they make of their lives.
4. Case Histories
“Personal identity is the result of presenting each of the events in one’s life as parts of a meaningful whole and, in consequence, of presenting oneself to others as the protagonist of a unique story” (Widdwershoven, 1994, as quoted by Perinat, 1998, page 278).
A substantial amount of the research carried out into self-concept makes use of instruments like: the question “who am I?”, life stories or personal autobiographies based on the stories recounted by the subjects involved.
Using L’Ecuyer’s “who are you?” method, the study on self-concept by Ruíz and Esteban (1996) highlights the fact that, in general, the description blind people make of themselves is very much an inner one, i.e. it is focused on themselves, on their qualities and defects, their aspirations, feelings, interests and abilities, with less emphasis on externally-related assessments, i.e. the things that surround them and that they possess, their relationships with others and their ability to adapt to their surroundings.
Using this same method, we have compiled a number of descriptions that visually-impaired people have made of themselves during different stages of their lives. We will now quote some extracts as an illustration of real life stories.
7 years old, low vision.
I’m very good at sport and I can run a lot, play basketball and throw balls.
I like joking a lot. I have a great time playing jokes on my brother and my mother and I laugh a lot. I also make other people laugh by clowning around.
I’m very brave. My mum always tells me that.
I help my mum and my family a lot, my friends and the teachers. I’m not lazy.
11 years old, blind.
I’m friendly, calm, happy and very emotional.
I’m very curious to know what’s going on around me. I’m so curious that sometimes they even have to tell me “I’m sticking my nose into things that don’t concern me”. And my mother tells me that I’m nosy!
I have to admit that I’m a bit naughty, because sometimes I call the telephonists of a telephonic service and I hang up on them. I enjoy myself by making them waste their time. I’m too much! And I begin to invent jokes about a new product.
18 years old, low vision.
I’m good at studying. I’m among the best students and I want to continue getting good marks to go to university and get a good future. I’ve realized that, as regards my level of intelligence, I’m among the best and I’m anything but resigned to my fate. You might say that my studies are my strong point and I want to keep it that way. But I don’t like it at all if other people see me as a swot or as someone with a special facility for studying. I’m very timid and a bit insecure. I prefer to have a few very good friends to a lot of acquaintances. I don’t carry a stick or anything to differentiate me from the rest but I find it quite difficult to move about in places that are dimly lit and naturally, when people see me walking hesitantly or slowly or knocking into someone or something, they don’t think I’ve got a problem with my eyesight but that I’m a stupid twit with his head in the clouds! I’ve come to terms with it and it doesn’t worry me. I have to admit that I prefer people to know about it and that’s why I feel much more at ease with the people who know me.
I don’t consider I’m a social success. I find it very difficult to build up confidence and talk to people, as well as dealing with everything to do with beginning something new. I love a healthy life and I don’t really like going out at night at all. That’s where I have visual problems. My problem is clearly a nocturnal one. At night or in dark places, I can’t see anything or hardly anything and I feel very ill at ease in discotheques or bars where I can’t see anyone or anything that’s going on. In addition, because of the noise, I can’t hear anything they’re saying to me.
29 years old, low vision.
The truth is that I don’t know who I am. I feel different because I’m worse. In other words, that I’m a waste of space, that I don’t fit in, that I’m out of place and that I’m useless. I’ve always been apart from the rest. I saw myself as being ugly and different from the other girls. As well as being ugly, I couldn’t see well. I found it very difficult to admit to others that I couldn’t see well and that I had to sit near the blackboard. It was enough being ugly to be the butt of other children’s jokes.
There have been other situations in which I’ve decided to keep quiet and pretend that I’m someone that can do things just like the rest, without help, rather than making my problems known. At secondary school I was always alone, without girlfriends and of course without boyfriends. Then I found small group of people where I could be more myself. I went out with them and I behaved in a more uninhibited way with them. I was the “studious” one (I don’t dare say intelligent) of this group of three friends. They were the friendly, pretty ones. I began to go out with friends late in life, partly because they didn’t let me go out alone and partly because I didn’t have friends. At home they were afraid of letting me cross the streets alone and someone always went with me. I caught this fear off them (and I’ve still got it). It made me dependent on the people around me for things I could do alone. I found it more and more difficult to go out alone, so I gradually learnt to feel comfortable at home.
At university, all kinds of things happened to me too and I always felt afraid of making a fool of myself. My life only revolved around that, the university, there was nothing else. Now the excuse not to go out was my studies.
The acceptance of my visual impairment and beginning to ask for help have helped me a lot these last few years, but even so my problem is still not accepting my physical defect, to the point of looking at myself in the mirror and not recognizing myself.
As regards my family, with a total of eight brothers and sisters, I was the one born with problems: the daughter that was different. I remember going out with my mother and her favourite topic of conversation was her daughter’s physical problems. I remember hearing her use the word ugliness when referring to my defect.
Now I continue to see myself as a woman who isn’t a woman, ugly, cowardly, lazy, someone who isn’t sure that she can do anything useful in her life. I believe that everyone else must see me this way too.
5. The Keys to Intervention Programmes
From the earliest moments of life, affectivity is a key factor that will have a decisive influence on family interaction. The family is the main source of social and emotional support for many years and, although one’s peers will gain in importance as one grows older, parents continue to be important. The role that school and teachers play is also decisive in the development of a person’s self-concept.
Tort (2000) reminds us that we are less tolerant than we would imagine towards people who are different and towards atypical behaviour. In this author’s opinion, what contemporary education needs is “an education that accepts and acknowledges different background histories or ‘personal biographies’” (Tort, 2000, 13), appealing to common sense and the acceptance of the fact that the quality of learning is associated with affectivity and thus with the self-confidence and security of the student.
Continuing with this idea of personal biographies, Puig Rovira (2001, 9) examines this subject in depth in relation to success at school, “which depends upon whether it is possible to live a satisfactory personal life within a community with an optimum moral culture”. For the author, a satisfactory personal life means that “the subject is able to imagine him or herself achieving the goals he or she desires, i.e. he or she has an acceptable level of self-esteem: a self-esteem that allows the person to envisage the possibility of achieving something and, in consequence, of having the strength to aim for this goal”. (Puig Rovira, 2001, 11).
Within this context, by way of conclusion, we will now summarize a series of aspects to be taken into account if we are to encourage the harmonious development of a visually-impaired child’s self-concept:
If we start out from the premise that self-concept is multi-dimensional and that hierarchies are conditioned by idiosyncratic and personal values, it is in our interest to promote integral, global, preventive intervention programmes from the earliest stages of development or, at the very least, individual intervention programmes designed to compensate for those areas of a person’s self-concept that are most in need of reinforcement.
Díaz-Aguado (1995) and Pelechano (1994) both suggest the introduction of intervention programmes in schools aimed at encouraging interpersonal skills, self-esteem and an acceptance and regard for individual differences. The key lies in good planning and coordination in order to integrate all these aspects into the curriculum, together with the necessary complementary backup and support.
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