Posted by: counselorcarmella | June 6, 2011

Insight Without Sight, Part Two

As I’d expected, my blindness was not much of a problem during the ten months I spent at the counselling center. I quickly learned my way to the office I used, the conference room, lounge area, etc. I also had someone show me how to work the camera I would use to videotape sessions for review in supervision. The office manager would spend about five minutes reading me information about new intakes or transfer clients, when necessary. Office staff would help my clients schedule appointments, and would read me the list of clients I would be seeing that day, or the next day. Since I had to sign the informed consent sheets that my clients signed, I simply signed one copy, which we xeroxed. I kept a stack of these in my office.

When I went to the waiting area to greet a client, I would speak their name, and then wait to hear the movement of them leaving their seat (putting down a magazine, picking up their book bag, etc.). I would then look in that direction, and extend my hand in greeting. This brief physical contact gave me a lot of useful information. A limp handshake communicates a different message than does a firm grasp. This was usually the only physical contact I would have with clients, except for a parting hug, if the client initiated it, at the time of termination.

That psychologist who once told me I would need a co-therapist got his wish in a way. My guide dog has proven to be an excellent co-therapist. She manifests the genuineness, unconditional positive regard, and non-judgmental acceptance that all counsellors strive to display. Many clients immediately zeroed in on Maggie. Their reactions were either very positive or neutral. I never had a client express fear of her. Some had left beloved pets behind when they came to the university, and told me how much they missed these non-human friends. Maggie proved to be an area of common ground to talk about while establishing initial rapport. If clients asked to interact with her, I would take off her harness to let her say hello, explaining how important it was that she know the difference between “work time” and “play time,” and that she was not allowed to be petted or played with while wearing her harness. Maggie proved to be a calming presence for clients in crisis, as well, and interacting with her could almost be viewed as a “reward” for doing some hard and painful work in counselling. Her presence was appreciated by most colleagues, too, who often sought her out after difficult sessions, or a long day.

Maggie was also my way of letting clients know, without having to make it a main topic of conversation, that I was blind. The different appearance of my eyes, and my inability to make true eye contact were further clues to my lack of sight. Most clients seemed to quickly accept my blindness. They observed my professional appearance and demeanour and saw that I was comfortable in my surroundings, and quickly realized that I knew how to do my job. In fact, several commented that they felt more comfortable knowing I could not see them. Other blind counsellors had told me this often happened. I sensed that, for some, my lack of sight communicated that I knew how it felt to be seen as “different.” I think some clients believed I must know what it was like to face challenges in life. Others were glad I couldn’t see what they physically looked like. This could be because of lo self-esteem, body image issues, or a simple wish to remain as anonymous as possible. If I needed to know something about their appearance, I simply asked.

I received a lot of auditory clues about clients’ non-verbal behaviours. For example, I could tell one client talked a lot with her hands because I could hear the clinking of several bracelets. I could also pick up on the swishing of clothing in those who tended to fidget a lot. One client spent an entire session fastening and unfastening a Velcro strap on her backpack while she talked. Others often looked up, down, or around the office. I could tell this by the sound of where their voice was coming from. Distracted clients trailed off a lot while speaking. Depressed clients often spoke in monotones. Couples would make comments to each other, such as “Move your chair closer,” or “Your hands are cold.”

Occasionally, I felt that I was missing something by not catching someone’s body language. Sometimes, while watching a taped session, a supervisor would comment on something they’d noticed that I could not have known. Rarely was this information vital, however. The few times colleagues commented to me about a client’s appearance, it was to relate something striking, such as multiple piercings or blue hair. On one occasion, a member of our office staff came back to my office to tell me how handsome my last client had been. I believe I would have found all of these things distracting, and may have used the information, consciously or unconsciously, to make judgments about these clients. I was once surprised when, upon reaching my office, the client introduced me to his girlfriend. I had nearly closed the door on her, not realizing he had brought someone with him. This was a pleasant surprise, however, as I’d been encouraging him to do so.

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