The Visual World in the Eyes of a Blind Child
Authors: Jena Moffet
Keywords: audio description, concepts, visual stimuli
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Reprinted with permission from Tyler Lighthouse for the Blind. For more of Jena’s blog
It is estimated that 40% of human sensory perception is visual. If you are sighted, you might think this would be bad news for a totally blind baby. But my loved ones found countless ways to let me see the world and develop visual concepts right along with my sighted peers. Whether it was colors, animals, changing landscapes and seasons, or intangibles like height and distance, they always found a way. If you are concerned that your visually impaired child will miss out on things, I give you the following examples from my own life to prove that her world will be as big and as interesting as you show her that it can be. Use any or all of the following ideas to give your child the world!
Audio description. For most children, the world outside a moving car is a wonder of new sights. But for a blind baby, the trip could be an exercise in boredom. My parents made car trips into fascinating adventures. They told me about cows in the pasture, the changing colors of autumn leaves, new buildings under construction, and bumper stickers on cars. We rolled down the windows to smell hay and cow manure as we drove by the pastures, flowers as we drove through woods, and oil and gasoline as we drove through cities. Very early in my life, I developed the concept that the world changes as you travel. On Thanksgiving morning, my mother told me about all the balloons on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Through her voice, I gained all the excitement about those balloons, even though I could not see them for myself. Whether it is the inflection of your voice, or the descriptive words you use, you can bring the visual world to life for your blind child, even if he can’t touch or hear the thing that’s being described to him. If you can pair your descriptions with his other senses, that’s even better.
Capitalize on a child’s natural curiosity, to show them how concepts are connected. One chilly drizzly afternoon, we drove past a bakery. I smelled something wonderful! My Momma told me they were baking bread. I learned that the bread we bought at the grocery store had to first be baked up fresh in that bakery, before it was ever packaged and sold to us to make sandwiches. On a hot summer day, we were driving with the windows down, when I heard cows. They were in their pasture home, mooing placidly. But I learned that those cows were milk cows, and that farmers milked them, put the milk in cartons, and sold it to the grocery store, where we would buy it and drink it. A child can learn a lot of things at once, if you help her connect the concepts. If she only ever saw milk in a cup, she might not know how it came to be there. But if she heard some cows, and had held a milk carton in her hand at the grocery store, you could easily use your words to build a bridge of concepts for her, concerning where milk comes from, and how it gets to the cup.
Every person in my life was a treasure trove of information. I bought groceries with my Nanny. We touched peaches, bananas, oranges, potatoes, bags of dog food, coffee cans, and milk cartons. We heard the cash register, so she told me how it worked. We smelled all the scents in the grocery store, and she told me what each one was. That’s how I learned that grocery stores were divided into aisles, and that aisles contained categories of items. We felt the chill of the freezer section, and I learned that meat, milk, fruits, and vegetables need to be stored in cold places. My Grandpa kept a garden every spring. I felt the dirt, the seeds, the growing vegetables and weeds, and the vegetables just out of the ground. I heard the sound of the tiller, and learned from him that he used that tiller to turn over the soil, to get it ready for planting. I gained a strong sense of the way that food comes to us, from seed, to prepared food. I stood behind the pulpit at my church, next to my preacher, and it gave me a concept of what it must be like to look out into an audience and address a group. My uncle held me up one day, so that I could touch the ceiling. It gave me a tangible concept of how tall a house could be. These instances may seem inconsequential, but each one built upon the others to give me a sense of myself in time, in space, in relation to everything that was around me. I learned early that no person was too young or too old to teach me something about my world.
Translate visual information into other senses. Concerning clouds, my uncle told me they looked like they would feel like marshmallows or cotton, and that they could change shapes. I imagined that God was finger painting with the clouds, rearranging them to his liking every day. When I was in school, and science taught me that clouds are made of gas, I just married the two concepts, to realize that a thing could feel one way, and look another. The correlation doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to give meaning to the world. For example, my living room walls are painted “peach linen.” In my mind, this color becomes its own scenario in which I am at my Grandma’s house with the windows open on a hot summer evening, sitting with my legs beneath freshly laundered cool sheets, as I eat moist fluffy peach pound cake. That scenario represents peach linen to me. It may not be what you would see visually if you came into my home, but it gives meaning to what would otherwise be a purely visual concept.
The smallest and closest things can be the most interesting. My very first VI teacher, Joyce, taught me that the world right outside my door could be fun. I held a ladybug. We petted my Grandma’s cat, and felt how she always found a patch of sun to stretch out in. I could feel that she would lie on her side with all four feet stretched out, and I noticed that she would turn her head and lick her paws or her flanks. That’s where I learned how cats bathe. Sighted children pick up on these things automatically, as they view the world around them. For the blind child, it is simply a matter of having the freedom to explore, and the confidence to question. Sighted friends and relatives can encourage this spirit of exploration by talking about what they see and hear around them.
Freedom of movement: I rolled down the grassy hill outside my Grandma’s house, just because it was there and I could roll. I climbed up on chests and jumped off again. I spun in circles, for the sheer joy of spinning. I hung upside down over the back of the couch, just to see what it would be like. I stomped in mud, splashed in water, buried my hands in sand, kicked my feet in gravel, and walked on bubble wrap.
Sometimes in an attempt to keep a blind child safe, sighted caregivers discourage movement and exploration. It is essential to keep a child away from serious harm, but falling down a few times is a normal part of childhood, and the benefits of playing and feeling that freedom to explore far outweigh the costs.
Get into stuff: Whether it was the pots and pans in my Grandma’s kitchen cabinet, my Momma’s makeup bag, or my Grandpa’s toolbox, I was encouraged to check everything out. I held wrenches and screwdrivers in my hands, learned the difference between lipstick and foundation, and learned what was cooked in each pan. It may be temporarily messy for the parent, but the knowledge gain by the child will be priceless.
Visual experiences don’t have to be off limits. In 1980, 3D glasses were all the rage. You bought these cheap feeling glasses, and you could watch 3D movies on your television at home. I could see absolutely nothing with those glasses, but you better believe I had a pair! I sat right there in front of that TV with my brother who could see, we watched Superman, my Mom made frozen pizzas, we drank Dr. Peppers, and had a big time. I remember the experience, and it doesn’t matter that I missed out on the visual aspects. I got an Atari 2600 for my eighth birthday. I was blind, I think my high score for PacMan was 26. But I played those video games right along with everybody else, I had fun, and most of all, I felt a part of things, right up there with my sighted friends who went to the arcade. If you emphasize the fun parts of an experience, and don’t dwell on the visual aspects that a child is missing, the child will automatically do the same thing. It was a rare day that I ever felt left out as a kid, because my parents blessed me with the knowledge of how to look for what I had, instead of what I was missing.
Books expand the world. Everybody read to me, from my parents, to grandparents, to aunts and uncles. I learned so much about the world I couldn’t see through stories. Whether a book is read by a loved one, in braille, or digital, blind children learn much about the way things appear visually through reading. No 1970s childhood would be complete without Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers. With help from my Mom, Grover taught us about near and far, over and under etc.
There is no right or wrong way. When you are trying to conceptualize a thing for which you have no foundation, your way is the right way. My perception of colors may be completely different from your experience of them as a sighted person. But it is worth noting that your experience may be completely different than your sighted sibling. The idea is to develop a concept that brings meaning to your world. I hope these ideas will help you to expand the world for the blind child in your life, so that the day will come when he makes a habit of doing so on his own.