Inclusion via Nonverbal Communication: Good for All of Us!

“There is a road from the eye to heart that does not go through the intellect.”   – G. K. Chesterton

Are you as intrigued as I am that newborn humans know instinctively to look another human in the eye? This is true of other creatures, as well. How is it that your dog knows to look into your eyes when you speak—as opposed to staring at your mouth, elbow or knee? Whatever it might mean, this untaught, nonverbal gesture does seem to convey a desire for connection.

While we may never understand this natural phenomenon, we can note one important difference between humans and other mammals when it comes to the fascinating nonverbal communication of eye contact. A dog will continue to make eye contact with humans across its lifespan—irrespective of the person’s height, weight, age, race, gender, disability, socioeconomic status or length of hair. However, as the newborn human grows, he is shaped by external events that cause him to assign meaning to other people based on information that is incomplete (if not totally inaccurate). The child’s fast—but possibly erroneous—assumptions about others can negatively affect his attitudes and behavior toward them. Interestingly, one of the first things we lose when we diminish or reject another is positive forms of nonverbal communication. Not only is this harmful to the social development and relationship-building of both parties; it is extremely detrimental to a society.

Whether we’re talking about disability awareness or overcoming ageism—each of us has a stake in breaking down and eliminating barriers. Research supports that people’s lives depend on our participation! A longitudinal study of 660 people 50 years and older revealed that those with more positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with negative self-perceptions of aging, and older adults exposed to positive stereotypes had significantly better memory and balance. Inclusion, it appears, can actually improve quality of life and longevity for another human while also serving the community at large.

As we celebrate Disability Awareness Month and the inclusion of every human every day, we might wonder what one individual can do to eradicate barriers. If you’re inclined to think it’s a lot of work, I would submit that the slightest effort can make an enormous difference:

  1. Break the stigmas set forth in media and in everyday communication with your peers—whether these stigmas have to do with disability, age or any other factor. Refuse to buy into jokes, insinuations, or stereotypes at the expense of anyone else.
  2. Make a habit of using nonverbal communication to convey unconditional acceptance and desire for connection. For example, when speaking to two or more people at a time, actually look at each person in the group (rather than focusing on one or a few). Whether each of them has the physical ability to see you or not is immaterial; your nonverbal attention to every individual in the group assigns equal value, and those observing may follow your lead.
  3. Be aware of what the children in your life are absorbing, and take care to ensure that they are not forming and/or passing along false assumptions and negative stereotypes. Encourage age-appropriate acceptance, inclusion and relationship-building.

Eliminating barriers and promoting inclusion costs nothing and is in all our best interest. Why wait?

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