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Another Way of Seeing

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from Future Reflections, Vol. 23, No. 2, Special Issue 2004, The Early Years: http://www.nfb.org/fr/

Our first memories are said to contain themes which remain crucial to us throughout our lives. When I think back, I find that my earliest memories all have to do with touch.

For me as a blind child, touch meant seeing--seeing in the widest sense of perceiving and understanding. When I was free to touch things I was in my glory. I was fully connected and involved with my environment, exploring, making discoveries about the world around me.

In one of my very early memories I am about two-years-old. My father is lifting me in his arms so I can reach over the edge of a large cardboard box. Inside the box my hands find a pile of warm, wriggling bodies--soft fur, bony heads, wet noses, and curious, lapping tongues. "See?" Dad says. "Fluffy's puppies! Look!"

In another memory, I am perched on a stool at the kitchen counter while my mother prepares a chicken dinner. Patiently she shows me the cold, plucked bird lying before us. She points out the legs, the wings, the breast, and the place where the head used to be. My hands explore every nuance of poultry anatomy. This is our ritual whenever we have chicken for dinner. I get to look at the chicken.

Not all my early recollections are such happy ones.

In another memory, my cousin holds a crayfish captive in a jar. I beg to touch it, but the grown-ups say no. They insist that its claws will pinch my fingers and hurt me. Someone gives me a stick and says I can touch the crayfish with that.

But I can't learn anything about this mysterious creature by probing it with the tip of a stick. I need to study it with my hands, and I am not allowed.

I remember bursting into tears of frustration as the grown-ups repeated that the "Don't touch" rule was for my own good. When I heard the dreaded words, "Don't touch!" my quest for knowledge was thwarted. I was cut off from meaningful experience. Intriguing portions of the world were forbidden to me, and I was forced into passivity.

Sighted children, too, hunger to engage with the world through touch, though often it is forbidden to them, too. Whether they can touch or not, they can still gather volumes of information through their eyes.

The figurines on a shelf, the umbrella leaning in the corner, the heavy drapes that might provide a place for hide and seek--each new object is a source of fascination. Sighted children never stop looking and learning. Blind children need to look and learn too, in their own way--by using their hands.

To my immense good fortune, my parents instinctively recognized that, though I was blind, I had the same need as any other child to learn about my surroundings. My parents understood that my blindness need not hold me back. My experience of the world could be rich and meaningful through the sense of touch.

My parents realized that I needed plenty of hands-on experience with the everyday objects sighted children take in almost automatically by eye.

When I was a toddler, my mother made time in her hectic schedule to take me on a walk nearly every afternoon. She showed me split-rail fences, mailboxes, fire hydrants, lawn chairs, birdbaths and telephone poles. We sat on the ground so I could examine dead leaves, dandelions, toadstools and acorns. Mom even showed me sidewalks, manhole covers, and curbstones. Nothing was too ordinary for our attention. Everything was interesting and worth inspecting.

Expeditions with my father tended to be more adventurous. Sometimes he took me on walks in the woods, where we crashed through the underbrush, fended off brambles, and got our shoes caked with mud. On other days, we explored the construction sites in our suburban development. In half-finished houses, I learned that doors and windows fit into frames and discovered that bathroom pipes descend through holes in the flooring.

My parents had the wisdom to know that for me, as for all children, examining an object once was not enough. Sighted children have endless opportunities to look at trees and fences and bicycles. I needed to reinforce my perception of everyday things by touching them again and again.

We stopped on countless walks so I could look at the mailbox--hot to the touch in the summer sun, mounded with snow in February--always the same, yet always new. The inventiveness and unflagging patience of my parents enabled me to create a vast library of tactile images, a mental storehouse of information that has endured and expanded throughout my lifetime.

In addition, my parents' encouragement nourished my natural curiosity. I grew up hungering for first-hand knowledge of the world. I lobbied on my own behalf to touch statues in museums, displays on store counters, and the curios my classmates brought to school for show-and-tell. I trained my friends and teachers not to forget that I needed a hands-on view.

Sight allows for distance learning, and touch is "up close and personal." But both sight and touch are spatial senses, conveying information about the shape, size and placement of objects. Touch and sight both show us objects in relation to one another, and convey the principles of cause and effect.

Hearing is much more abstract. When a sighted toddler hears an unusual sound, she looks around to investigate the cause. A blind child of the same age might hear a whole cacophony of fascinating noises and have no idea what sort of creature or instrument or set of actions is producing the commotion.

Sound only becomes meaningful when it is understood within a context, when it is connected to events in the spatial world. Verbal explanations of sounds are wonderful and necessary, but they don't help much unless the child already has a solid grasp of the basics.

Suppose a blind child hears the roar of a bulldozer. His mother explains that a bulldozer is a great big machine that digs a great big giant hole in the ground. Unless the child knows what a machine is, and what digging is, and what a hole is, and has an idea about the relative sizes of things, none of it makes much sense.

In a way, everything I'm saying feels ludicrously obvious. Of course touch is the natural avenue of learning for a child who can't see visually. But even though you, as a sighted person, grasp this concept intellectually, you may have a hard time taking it in on a real gut level.

People who are visually oriented often have trouble moving from a visual frame of reference to a tactile one. As the sighted parent of a blind child, you need to find your way across the psychic divide between visual thinking and what the research psychologist Selma Fraiberg has called "hand thinking." You need to recognize that hand thinking--forming a mental picture of one's surroundings through touch--is effective and completely respectable.

To accept hand thinking as fully valid is not as simple as it sounds. It may require you to reflect seriously on your own attitudes toward touch.

Touch is generally suspect in our society. It's the only one of the senses that is consistently prohibited and maligned. To describe the act of searching or exploring with the hands, the English language provides us with the word "grope"--an ugly word freighted with connotations of clumsiness, dullness, and obtuseness.

Touch makes people uncomfortable; it's a little beyond the sphere of polite society. Touch is associated with breaking things, or even stealing.

Children grow up to a steady, relentless drumbeat of "Look, don't touch! Keep your hands off!" You heard all those warnings, pounding in all those negative messages.

Now, for your blind child, you have to uproot those carefully planted fears and prejudices against touch, and think about it in a brand new way.

Ask yourself some questions. How do you feel when your child explores an object with his hands? Are you eager to show him new things? Are you excited by his sense of discovery? Do you sometimes feel frustrated because he takes so long to look at an object tactilely, while a sighted child would take it in at a glance? Are you embarrassed when people stare at your child as he touches a plant, a lamp, a stack of magazines on the table? When he examines a figurine are you on edge, worrying that he might drop it? Do you let him know that you want him to have as many opportunities to touch things as he possibly can? Or do you convey the message that it slows you down to let him stop and look at things, it's awkward and a bother?

One mother of a blind son told me proudly, "We've always let him touch things as much as he wants to. Even though it makes us cringe and we want to snatch his hands away, we never stop him."

The truth is that some people will stare at your child with her exploring hands. Some may frown with disapproval. Sometimes when you ask permission for your child to touch something, that permission will be coldly and unreasonably denied. You will have to be your child's advocate, working to remove literal barriers so that she can see the things others are looking at.

I want to take a bit of a detour here and respond to a comment that I've heard from a number of parents and vision teachers. "Sarah doesn't like to touch things. When I put her hands on a new toy to show her, she pulls away."

There's even a term for this in the literature--it's called "tactile defensiveness."

I believe that the problem stems from the technique called "hand over hand," in which an adult takes hold of the child's hand and places it on an object in order to show the object to the child.

It seems like a perfectly appropriate way to encourage exploration, but for many children it becomes an issue of control.

The adult is grasping the child's hands, manipulating them, taking charge. Sometimes the adult even moves the child's hands around on the object in question, trying to point out particular features--all with the best of intentions.

I know when people do this to me (it still happens even to adults), I don't like it. I want to look at things at my own pace, in my own way. I don't want anyone else to determine where my hands should be.

Instead of bringing the child's hand to the new toy, try bringing the toy to the child's hand. With an infant or toddler, touch the child's hand lightly with the object, tell him what it is, and let him find out about it on his own. As the child learns the pleasures of exploring, he will not need much encouragement. What he will need are time and opportunity.

Sadly, I have met many blind children, teens and adults whose basic knowledge has been constricted in horrifying ways.

I think of a ten-year-old girl, a good student in school, who did not understand how to use a paper fan to fan herself on a hot afternoon. I remember a teenager who had no idea how to use a garden trowel--had no concept of how to dig a hole. I think of a young man who didn't know that light fixtures are located on the ceiling.

When children grow up with such deficiencies in ordinary knowledge, they are at a serious disadvantage in life.

By helping your child explore and learn in her own way, you will give her a lifelong gift. She will know about fans and trowels and light fixtures and tens of thousands of other things around her. She will share in the pool of knowledge that is basic to her peers. That general knowledge base, combined with her desire and ability to seek hands-on experiences, will open countless doors for her as she is growing up.

She will be better equipped to take part in games with her friends. She will understand the humour of other children. She will be able to join in her classmates' mischief, and to dream up pranks of her own.

By knowing the world, she will be part of the world, and by being part of the world, she will know the world all the more.

All children want to learn, want to reach out and explore on their own. Blind children explore by touch, and file away memories in tactile images. It's a different way of seeing, but it is seeing in the widest sense.

Ms. Kent makes her living as a writer and is especially known for her fiction and non-fiction works for children and young adults.

Photo: Posed picture of Deborah Kent Stein, holding a white cane

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