Am I Doing Blindness All Wrong?

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Ever heard the Radio Lab show on NPR? If not, it’s a combination of science, technology and art that explores topics that may be considered difficult and confusing (such as astro-physics) and distills them down to something digestable and fun. It’s kinda nerdy and anyone who loves to learn would love this show! Check it out at:

I just listened to a Radio Lab podcast which put together two highly intelligent, professional academics. Oh, and both of them are blind. So, of course, this sparked my interest.

Both gentlemen in this interview lost their sight as adults. As did I. One from trauma, the other from a degenerative eye disease. However, the two gentlemen have made the choice to “do blindness” in very different ways.

Having lost my sight as an adult, I am so, so thankful I had 18 years of knowing what the world looks like. For example, when Marvelyne and I are shopping for clothing, I may ask what color a sports coat is. Asking a random person, their answer may simply be, “Brown.” However, since I have visual memory, I have the knowledge that brown can run anywhere from a dirty white to almost black or charcoal color. Marvelyne and I have done so much shopping over the years that her descriptions will be more like this: “The overall color is a caramel, but the stitching is like a Hershey’s dark chocolate bar. Along the lapels, the caramel brown is a tweed with a little beige mixed in. This would go great with a solid colored shirt, but the tweed has enough colors you wouldn’t want to wear any prints with it.”

Bam! Visual description! I get it! This is the way I do blindness; by getting a visual description and drawing images in my mind of everything based on the data I have. Until I listened to this podcast, I’ve never considered anything else.

These two men, though, have very different ways of perceiving the world. One is exactly like me. He takes what input he can, attributes a visual image to it and creates the picture in his mind. The other man, however, “extinguished” (his word, not mine) all his visual memories. He purposefully does not think in visual terms, but only in audio, tactile, olfactory and taste. The story was told how his wife asked him, “What does our son look like?” He didn’t have an answer because he’s never pictured his son. He thinks of his son as the cries and laughs and babbling which comes into his ears. He thinks of his son as the warmth under his fingers as he touches his son’s sleeping face. He thinks of his son as the scent of baby shampoo and lotion after the child’s bath. But, he claims, he’s never made an attempt to visualize the features of his son’s face, the asthetics of his clothing-anything.

This is interesting to me as a person who is blind. What I did not enjoy, however, was how each man thought the other was somehow wrong. The gentleman who pictures the world (as I do) made the point that we human beings are visual creatures. This is kind of hard to deny since our ears are turned outward to capture the sound to which our faces are pointing. Of the five senses, four are only receiving information mere inches from one another. Researchers tell us we take in some vast majority of our input visually. So, in my uneducated estimation, it makes perfect sense to visualize. The gent who does not use mental images raised a bit of a ruckus towards his conversation partner because there is no way the visualize can truly know the color of his wife’s eyes having never seen them. Fair point. But is either man doing it wrong? I don’t think so.

Blind or sighted, able bodied or physical limitations, black or white, Christian or Muslim, everyone seems to think their way is not only right, but that others are wrong if they’re not doing it the same. Why can’t we sit down to have a rational discussion over opinions and thoughts without it resorting to right or wrong?

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