Friday, December 7, 2012

How Blindness Affects Social Learning Theory and Communication in the Family

by: Kyle Coon
University of Central Florida


In the 1960s, Albert Bandura ran a series of studies in which he videotaped children performing acts of violence to inanimate objects.  This occurred after the children had been shown a video of an adult performing similar acts of violence to a dummy/doll.  The children that imitated the violent acts did not stop at just mimicking the exact acts but rather enhanced the violence, performing harsher and more violent.  Children selected toys that were not typically meant to be instruments of violence and turned them into instruments of violence.  In short, Bandura's studies and observations led him to develop the Social Learning Theory of Aggression (Bandura).  This later evolved and became simply Social Learning Theory, sometimes referred to as Social Cognitive Learning Theory.

The theory has been applied to a whole host of topics e.g.  drug use, abuse, violence, etc.  In all cases the theory points toward developing children.  In this paper we are going to examine Social Learning Theory and how it can be applied when dealing with children and families dealing with a severe visual impairment and/or blindness.

Social Learning Theory:

Social Learning Theory posits that we learn from watching others (Bandura).  "The major framework of social cognitive learning theory can be found in its recognition of the reciprocity and interaction among cognitive, behavioral, environmental and physiological/affective influences" (Money).  Essentially, the actions of people in certain situations depend strongly upon the interaction among the various influences with a primary focus on social cognitive factors (Money).  The experiences of people guide them in the course of making decisions, what and what not to do.  Everyone has a variety of experiences from which they learn, and in many cases these experiences are from watching and observing the actions of others (Money).  "The different sources of influence" i.e.  cognitive, behavioral, environmental and physiological/affective influences "do not have to be of equal strength or occur simultaneously" (Money).

In no other group than are these influences more prevalent than in children.  As children grow and develop they watch and learn from their surroundings.  Their experiences and proximal social influence and interactions with their parents, teachers, peers, mass media and cultural institutions mold and shape how they view the world and in partcular how they should act in it (Money).  At first, childrens behavior is self-regulated by anticipated outcomes in the social environment (Money).  In other words, children act one way and then when they receive approval or disapproval from their social environment, i.e.  parents, teachers, peers, they act in the way they are expected.  Over time, "as children develop, their personal standards...  [and] conduct are based upon increasing experiences, social knowledge, and cognitive development" (Money).  Throughout the course of their development, the regulation of their behavior shifts from predominantly external stimuli and sanctions to a more "gradual substitution of internal mandates rooted in personal standards" (Money).

Once this shift from external stimuli to internal personal standards occurs self-efficacy plays a major function in the development (Money).  "Self efficacy is defined as an individual's beliefs about his or her ability to perform specific tasks" (Heng-Hsiang and Chou-Kang).  Learning behaviors are influenced by both outcome expectations and self efficacy (Heng-Hsiang and Chou-Kang).  Our self-efficacy affects our thinking patterns which can be a help or a hinderance (Money).  As a general rule, "the stronger the perceived self-efficacy the higher the goals individuals may set for themselves and the firmer the commitment to those goals" (Money).  What we think may influence the way we predict the occurrence of events and create the means for exercising control over events that affect ours and other persons' lives (Money).  People "generate hypotheses, develop weights, and integrate these data into complex rules, test judgments, [and] remember what works and what does not [work]" by drawing upon their general knowledge (Money).  A person's perceptions of their efficcacy will also influence the types of anticipatory scenarios that they construct within their mind (Money).  If he or she has a high sense of efficacy then they will visualize more successful scenarios that provide positive guides for future task performance (Money).  Likewise, those persons with a lower sense of self-efficacy then they will envision less positive or negative scenarios that provide less positive and negative guides for future task performance.

Now how does Social Learning Theory fit in with blindness, communication and the family? In the next section we will explore the idea that the first level of a child's social learning and education starts at home.  This is critical, especially when introducing an element such as blindness into the equation.

Blindness and Social Learning Theory:

Approximately 3 percent or more of the population is classified as blind or visually impaired (Mojab).  To be considered legally blind a "person [must have] a visual acuity of 20/200 or less or a visual field of 20 degrees or less in the better seeing eye" (Mojab).  Blindness has been portrayed on two complete opposite ends of the spectrum.  In some parts of the world blindness is seen as a gift where the person is almost worshipped as a saint or one who can connect with the supernatural, while in other parts of the world blindness is seen as a curse (Tenberken).  In places such as Tibet, blind people are shunned, spit upon and are thought to be possessed by demons (Tenberken).  In the United States, our culture has taught us to feel emotions such pity or just to be awkward around persons with physical or mental disabilities.  Typically pity is a feeling that suggests the person without the disability has a feeling of higher social status than the person with the disability (Mojab).  Awkwardness usually just means that the person has a lack of knowledge and just is ignorant and does not know how to act or what to say (Mojab).  But while the sighted world may feel awkward, unsure, pity, etc, those in the blind community often may experience similar feelings depending on their self-efficacy which stems from their social education as young children.

In 2005, Bishop, Hobson and Lee researched "Symbolic Play in Congenitally Blind Children".  They defined symbolic play as "pretending one object was another, attributing novel properties to an object, or pretending that an absent object was present" (Bishop, Hobson and Lee).  During the course of their research they came across several studies that had been performed in the 1970s through the 1990s that tried to explore if blindness affected the development of young children.  In an early study performed in the 1970s a young congenitally blind girl, Kathie, who was presented with a tub of water, a doll and a towel (Bishop, Hobson and Lee).  Kathie was then encouraged to give the doll a bath (Bishop, Hobson and Lee).  However, when Kathie touched the water she stepped into the tub and began chanting her own bath-time songs (Bishop, Hobson and Lee).  Even when prompted to pretend the doll was the one taking the bath, Kathie did not partake in the game.  Kathie did not start the role of symbolic play--pretending the doll was a real person--until after she turned four, when she was more developed (Bishop, Hobson and Lee).

Symbolic play has been seen in sighted children as early as the age of 17 months (Bishop, Hobson and Lee).  Other early studies showed blind children may be delayed in the ability to symbolize, very similar to that of children with autism (Bishop, Hobson and Lee).  When provided with the opportunity for symbolic play, the blind children had a tendency to regress to simple repetitive activities and their play was an exact repetition of some event (Bishop, Hobson and Lee).  In the studies, "although blind children [could] often say what their caregivers or other people [said] to them, they [were] less able to enact the role of someone else, and early attempts at role play [lackedgg the constant reversal of roles that is familiar in the play of sighted young children" (Bishop, Hobson and Lee).  However, some children made use of language and sounds as a means of expressing pretend/symbolic play (Bishop, Hobson and Lee).

Bishop, Hobson and Lee hypothesized that "blind children may be handicapped in developing creative symbolic play by virtue of their difficulty in seeing how other people relate to things and events in a shared world, and identifying with others' psychological orientation" (Bishop, Hobson and Lee).  "They are [also] handicapped in discovering how people ascribe new meanings to objects that have an alternative, "objective" meaning" and "the handicap is most severe for those who are also less strongly or affectively engaged with other people's attitudes to the world, for the reason that this further limits their propensity to identify with such attitudes to objects and events" (Bishop, Hobson and Lee).  The researchers realized that due to everyone being different there was a severe chance that symbolic play in blind children could be a result of their social ability.  So when they conducted their study they emphasized that "socially able children of the age and cognitive ability studied would have overcome much of the handicap they might have that there would be few if any substantial differences between their symbolic play and that of matched sighted children" (Bishop, Hobson and Lee).  They also "predicted that when socially impaired blind children compared with socially able blind children of the same age and cognitive ability, the [socially impaired] group would show deficits in symbolic play" (Bishop, Hobson and Lee).  And "in some children, congenital blindness may constitute a contributory but not sufficient factor for the development of symbolic play deficits" (Bishop, Hobson and Lee).

After surveying and receiving recommendations from teachers, Bishop, Hobson and Lee separated two groups of congenitally blind children, one considered socially able and the other more socially impaired and conducted two symbolic play exercises with each child.  The symbolic play exercise was then performed with same aged sighted children.  In the end, Bishop, Hobson and Lee determined that "congenitally blind children who were socially impaired were shown to have limitations in symbolic play when compared with language-matched congenitally blind children who were socially able" (Bishop, Hobson and Lee).  They also concurred with earlier studies that "by middle childhood, symbolic play can develop to sophisticated levels in congenitally blind children who are socially more able" but that "lack of vision is not a barrier to developing fully elaborated symbolic play" (Bishop, Hobson and Lee).

In an indirect way, the study performed by Bishop, Hobson and Lee was a way of testing Social Learning Theory.  It can be assumed that the children that were considered more "socially able" had a higher degree of exposure and experience and were better socialized at home.  This ties directly in with Bandura's Social Learning Theory in that children learn from watching others (Bandura).  But it can be argued that these blind children in the study did not "watch" anybody perform symbolic or pretend play.  However, just because a blind child can not see does not mean that they do not pick up on what is going on around them.  But to ensure a proper start in preparing a blind child for later life it is essential for the parents of the child to teach and communicate effectively to their children what is right and wrong and to instill within them a high self-efficacy.

Communicating Social Learning to Blind Children:

Ed Weihenmayer is a former Marine attack pilot and Wall Street executive.  He is probably best known for being the business manager and Father of World Class Blind Athlete Erik Weihenmayer.  Erik Weihenmayer is world famous for being the first blind man to climb the Seven Summits--the tallest peak on each continent--including Mt Everest.  "What holds most blind people back from being the best they can be in life is their physical awkwardness, their discomfort or lack of confidence in their own body movement" said Weihenmayer in an article he wrote for the National Association of Parents of the Visually Impaired (Weihenmayer).  This "discomfort or lack of confidence" is manifested when a blind person clumsily enters a room in which they can not find a seat or eats sloppily with friends at a table or weakly shakes the hand of a person they first meet (Weihenmayer).  And again it is "evident when they walk awkwardly beside someone on a sidewalk or can not hind the door to get into their friend's car" (Weihenmayer).  Weihenmayer explains that all of these situations make it appear as though the blind person is hesitant, unsure or lacks confidence (Weihenmayer).  Not only does it accomplish these impressions but it also makes the person interacting with the blind or visually impaired person uncomfortable as well (Weihenmayer).  "Judgments are frequently made in the first 30 seconds of a situation [which can impeed] a blind person" (Weihenmayer).

Ed Weihenmayer points out that "we [can not] control the environment in which a blind person lives and operates" but "we can control the mobility of the blind person" by teaching them the necessary skills at home (Weihenmayer).  However, it is almost impossible to just sit a child down and explain to them that they need to be confident and have that high sense of self-efficacy.  This is where the communication from parent to child becomes more action oriented.

In 2002, Steve Barnes of the Orlando Sentinel wrote a brief article about a young ten year old blind rock climber from Jacksonville, Florida, named Kyle Coon, who was competing in a statewide series of rock climbing competitions.  After meeting Ed and Erik Weihenmayer after losing his sight at age six Coon took up rock climbing and with the encouragement of his family excelled.  Coon's Father said that the inspiration of meeting Erik Weihenmayer and the sport of rock climbing showed Kyle that his disability did not mean he could not do the things that other kids did (Barnes).  Kyle's Father said `he has become one very determined individual--he [does not] let too much stand in his way` (Barnes).

This is again an example of what Ed Weihenmayer discussed above about empowering blind children and teaching them to be confident with their body.  Ed Weihenmayer wrote that if he were to be a parent to another blind youngster then he would "aggressively urge the child into the pool to become a good swimmer" (Weihenmayer).  He would encourage sports such as wrestling, gymnastics, tumbling, dance and rock climbing (Weihenmayer).  What all these sports have in common are complete body control and awareness.

Essentially, when it comes to teaching social skills to blind children it is most effective to do so in a way that teaches them to be mobile and confident with their movements and in their own skin.  At the same time it is important to have effective verbal communication with blind children.  While sighted children can see, recognize and even imitate an angry, upset or happy/approving expression, it is more important that when parenting a blind child the parent vocalizes those emotions so that the child knows when he or she has received approval or disapproval for an action.  Rather than learning through what they see, blind children learn through what they hear, touch, smell and taste more than sighted children.  They rely on these other four senses to learn what is and is not socially appropriate, and it is up to the parents, teachers and peers of that child to be his or her eyes.
Although this method of socializing blind children seems simple enough, there are barriers that often comes up.  Apart from the stereotypes and perceptions of others placed upon blind people, possibly the biggest obstacle for the parents of the blind child is the protective instinct.  "As parents we want to protect our children" says Ed Weihenmayer and then adds "but we also know we need to let go" (Weihenmayer).  Weihenmayer then recounts an episode when his son Erik was about 11 or 12 years old.  Erik had brought another blind boy over to the house and the two boys went back through the woods behind the Weihenmayers house and to a rushing stream.  Erik, having been brought up in an athletic family and unafraid and completely aware of himself and his surroundings, jumped right in and started swimming around.  However, the other boy clung to the bank scared that if he were to go beneath the water he would become disoriented and not know which way was up and therefore he would drown (Weihenmayer).  The boy had been told this by his parents in order to protect him and keep him safe, but on the other hand Weihenmayer points out that the boy might still be alive today because of that protectiveness but he is more than likely no where close to what he potentially could be.

Weihenmayer then recollects standing at the base of the 3000 foot overhanging rockface of El Capitan as Erik attemfted to become the first blind man to reach the top.  He remarked to a passerby that his blind son was up there (Weihenmayer).  The woman said that Ed was a terrible parent and how she could not believe how a Father could ever let his blind son do something as dangerous as climbing a rockface (Weihenmayer).  Then a friend of Ed's said, about Erik, "he also skydives" (Weihenmayer).  Needless to say, the woman was a little angry and upset with Ed and went speeding off in her car (Weihenmayer).  It is reactions and over protectiveness like the woman's that hinder a person's--blind or sighted--potential.


Within this paper we have explored what is Social Learning Theory.  In the simplest explanation, Social Learning Theory says that we learn from watching others (Bandura).  These observations and imitations of others can be both positive and/or negative especially with young impressionable children.  While Social Learning Theory can be applied across all age ranges it is most closely assigned to that of young children.  The home and family are the first levels of education for children.

We then examined how Social Learning Theory may affect children who are blind or visually impaired and concluded that no matter what, vision--or any other physical handicap--should not be a hinderance in the social education of children.  When it comes to blind children "academics are important and blindness skills--cane mobility, braille, computer--are essential but physical mobility and one's comfort with that mobility is just as important" (Weihenmayer).  Effective verbal communication between parents and children is key.  But the willingness to let go, if ever so slightly, of the overly protective instinct is also crucial.


Bandura, A.  (1978).  Social Learning Theory of Aggression.  Journal of Communication-Volume 28, Issue 3, Summer, 1978

Barnes, S.  (2002).  Tests of Agility, Strength Have Kids Climbing Walls.  Orlando Sentinel, Orlando, FL May 30, 2002 J1

Bishop, M., Hobson, P.R., Lee, A.  (2005).  Symbolic Play in Congenitally Blind Children.  Development and Psychopathology-Volume 17, Issue 2, April, 2005

Heng-Hsiang, H., Chou-Kang, C.  (2006).  Proposing Student Learning Performance in Physical Education by Applying Social Cognitive Theory.  Journal of American Academy of Business, Cambridge.  9, 2, September, 2006 280-284

Mojab, C.G.  (1999).  Helping The Visually Impaired or Blind Mother Breastfeed.  Leaven.  35.  3.  July 31, 1999: 51-56

Money, W.H.  (1995).  Applying Group Support Systems to Classroom Settings: A Social Cognitive Learning Theory Explanation.  Journal of Management Information Systems.  12, 3.  Winter 1995/1996 65

Tenberken, Sabriye (2003) My Path Leads to Tibet: The Inspiring Story of How One Young Blind Woman Brought Hope to the Blind Children of Tibet.  Arcade Publishing House New York, NY

Weihenmayer, E.  Parenting A Blind Child.  National Association of Parents of the Visually Impaired

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