It’s a Matter of Safety: What Kinds of Touch are Okay?

This article advises parents and other caregivers of blind and low-vision children regarding distinguishing between “good” touches and ‘bad” touches. Generally, those of us who are blind are accustomed to being touched by others given the circumstances that we cannot see, very often during the routine of the day,  people who interact with us often must touch us in some manner to carry out the regular activities of the day. For example, to show us objects, other individuals be they sighted or blind must touch us in some manner to guide our hands to the object which requires our attention. Under other circumstances, others must touch us in order to guide us in some fashion through the environment. Thus, throughout our daily routine whether we are at home or at school, in order for us to interact with others in a meaningful manner, we depend on being touched by others or we touch others. Given these circumstances, the problem arises in that youngsters who are blind may not be able to distinguish appropriate touching from inappropriate touching without proper instruction. Thus, the purpose of this article offers recommendations and suggestions for parents and others to help blind children learn the difference between appropriate touching and inappropriate touching.

For youngsters who are blind and who are very young or who have additional challenges, a method to teach them which body parts are generally considered to be appropriate for touching and those which are off limits for touching is a technique called the “Swedish apron” (Kapperman & Kelly, 2013; Kelly & Kapperman, 2019). This technique entails instructing the youngster to place his or her arms across his or her chest with each hand touching the opposite shoulder, as shown in the photograph of a child doing this in Picture 1 below.

This picture is of a forward-facing boy from the shoulders down placing his arms across his or her chest with each hand touching the opposite shoulder. The boy is clothed wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and socks in this picture.
Picture 1. This picture is of a forward-facing boy from the shoulders down placing his arms across his or her chest with each hand touching the opposite shoulder. The boy is clothed wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and socks in this picture.

Then, instruct the youngster to move their arms downward across the front of his or her body moving downward and across the stomach and pelvic area as shown in Picture 2 below.

forward-facing boy from the shoulders down placing his arms across his stomach and pelvic area with each hand touching the opposite side of his body. The boy is clothed wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and socks in this picture.
Picture 2. This picture is of a forward-facing boy from the shoulders down placing his arms across his stomach and pelvic area with each hand touching the opposite side of his body. The boy is clothed wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and socks in this picture.

Following this movement, the youngster should move their hands across the upper thighs and back across the thighs to the buttocks clasping the hands together at the top of the buttocks. The hands should touch at the upper portion of the buttocks as shown in Picture 3 below.

backside of a boy from the shoulders down. The child’s hands are clasped together at the upper portion of the buttocks. The boy is clothed wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and socks in this picture.
Picture 3. This picture is of the backside of a boy from the shoulders down. The child’s hands are clasped together at the upper portion of the buttocks. The boy is clothed wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and socks in this picture.

The point to be made is that in general wherever their hands and arms moved across the body indicates that those body parts which were touched by their hands and arms are off limits for touching generally by others without their permission.  Thus, the body parts which are off limits are the chest, the stomach, the pelvic area, and the buttocks. Using the child’s own body to emphasize the parts of the body, which should not generally be touched, is the objective of this maneuver. Thus, the result is that the parts of the body which are appropriate to be touched include the legs and feet, arms and hands, neck and head. Parents and caregivers can emphasize that these portions of the body can be appropriately touched by others during the routine of the day, but only under very “special” circumstances the other parts of the body are off limits for most individuals to touch without some special reason.

Exceptions to the rules regarding touching apply to mothers and other trusted caregivers.  There are, of course, many situations in which the body parts designated as off-limits must be touched by trusted caregivers. Exceptions to the rule must be described to the child.

When to say “No”

The child should be instructed to resist being touched on inappropriate body parts by others in circumstances where trusted caregivers are not present. These circumstances may be, for example, other adults who have some reason to interact with the youngster out of the presence of a trusted caregiver. In these situations, the youngster should be instructed to object to the touching in an appropriate fashion. If the inappropriate touching continues, then the youngster should be instructed to object more aggressively. He or she should be instructed to say that he or she will report inappropriate touching to others such as mothers or fathers.  

Other methods for instructing the youngster regarding appropriate and inappropriate touching may be used other than the Swedish apron. For example, dolls can be used to show the youngster which parts may be touched, and which may not be. The use of dolls can be used to illustrate which types of touching should not be allowed. For example, using the doll, the individual giving instructions might point out the touching in the genital area is not permitted. This can be done by having the youngster touch the hand of the trusted caregiver while the individual touches the genital area. The caregiver can move the child’s fingers to the genital area of the doll to make certain that the point is made well. Of course, other parts of the doll can also be pointed out. For example, the buttocks is another area that can be illustrated using the doll and using the child’s fingers to touch the off-limit area.

Ask For Permission

A well-accepted approach for touching blind individuals of all ages that should be used during the general course of business of the day is for the individual who wishes to touch the person who is blind should ask for permission. This is a common approach. It has two salutary effects. First of all, it indicates that the person who is blind has control over their body and others need to ask for permission to touch them. Thus, they must give permission to be touched. An example of this type of interaction might occur when a teacher wishes to show the youngster an object.  The teacher may ask, “May I put your hands on the object?” This allows the child to have control in this situation.  It drives home the point that they have control over their body and others do not.

Another situation may occur when the youngster is undergoing instruction with regard to how to use equipment of any sort that involves moving the hands and fingers in a certain manner.  For example, if he or she is being taught how to use a microwave oven in which the touch controls have been labeled in braille. The instructor may need to position the youngster’s fingers on the various braille labels as he or she examines the purpose of each. This is a much more efficient method than allowing the youngster to move his or her fingers over the braille labels haphazardly trying to find the particular controls which the instructor is attempting to teach.

Circumstances may arise in which touching of the areas which have been noted as being off-limits is necessary. This may occur during the examination by a doctor or nurse.  It should be made clear to the youngster who is blind that this is appropriate because it must be done in order to provide the necessary service.  The youngster should be assured that the mother or trusted caregiver will be in attendance during the examination and that in these circumstances, the rules for inappropriate touching are not valid.   

Protecting Youngsters Early

The rationale for the advice described above is to protect youngsters who are blind or low vision from being assaulted by individuals with inappropriate intentions. We persons who are blind are, unfortunately, seen by some as easily accosted victims because we cannot see. These individuals believe that they cannot be identified. That is one reason for their very inappropriate actions. A second reason may be that they believe that we persons who are blind are somewhat “less than fully functioning human beings” and thus we can be victimized easily.  Unfortunately, as a consequence, we individuals who are blind should be taught how to defend ourselves to the best of our abilities.

With regard to youngsters who are blind with or without additional challenges, the instructions that the current authors have described above are, unfortunately, necessary for the protection of the children.  

Unfortunately, evidence shows that the majority of abuse cases are perpetrated by individuals who are known to the children. (Crosse, et.al, 1994; Kapperman, Brown-Ogilvie, Yesaitis, & Peskin, 2014).) Obviously, that abuse takes place out of sight of the caregivers who have responsibility for the child or children.  Because of this most unfortunate situation, we believe that parents or concerned caregivers should arm the youngsters with the capability of defending themselves against the unwelcomed touching of potential abusers before the unwarranted actions reach levels that are completely inappropriate.  The instructions described above may be used to good advantage in the prevention of abuse by individuals who may be prone to that type of inappropriate behavior.

Typically sighted children have the opportunity for incidental learning when they observe what makes people physically different. It is important to take the time to teach young children the appropriate language for body parts, how bodies are unique and different from each other and how bodies change from a child to an adult. You may find these tips helpful when talking with your child about their body, Knowledge is Power for Children with Blindness or Low Vision: How Knowing Your Own Body Keeps You Safe

References

Crosse, S. B., & Others. (1994). A report on the maltreatment of children with disabilities. Washington, DC: National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.

Kapperman, G., Brown-Ogilvie, T., Yesaitis, J., & Peskin, A. (2014). Prevention of sexual assault against children who are visually impaired. Division on Visual Impairments Quarterly, 59(2),33-37.

Kapperman, G., & Kelly, S. M.  (2013). Sex education instruction for students who are visually impaired: Recommendations to guide practitioners. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 107,226-230.

Kelly, S. & Kapperman, G. (2019).Sex Education. In Health Education for Students with Visual Impairments: A Guidebook for Teachers. Louisville, KY: American Printing House for the Blind.

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