[AI] Exploring blindness: questions yet unanswered
ilovecold at gmail.com
Thu May 6 14:38:45 EDT 2010
After reading this article, I thought it worth sharing. So, I am pasting
this article from the Braille Monitor March 2010.
Questions yet Unanswered
by Michael Bullis
From Barbara Pierce: Michael Bullis is a certified orientation and
mobility instructor and currently the executive director of the Maryland
Technology Assistance Program. In the following article he raises questions
and explores research options, discussion of which we usually find
uncomfortable. He welcomes comments on these ideas at
<bullis.michael at gmail.com>.
As members of a minority striving for acceptance, we spend much of
our time emphasizing our normality and our capacity to compete. When people
say, "You must have wonderful hearing," we usually reply that blind people
don't hear particularly well. When they say, "You must have a phenomenal
memory to recall where you're going," we respond, "Not really. My cane
gives me the information I need, but I probably don't have much more
capacity for memory than you do." And so it goes. Because we live in a
sighted society, we strive to seem to be part of it. Yes, we're blind, but
we strive to minimize the differences and emphasize the things we have in
common with the sighted society around us.
All of this is quite understandable. We compete for jobs, the
romantic attentions of others, the interest of potential friends, etc.
People fear or at least shy away from that which they perceive as weird.
But, though we are much like our sighted family members, friends, and
colleagues, we are also different. We cannot see. This means we take in
most of the information we gather about our surroundings through touch and
sound. Sighted folks more often than not take in information visually. Yes,
there are taste and smell, but these are not primary sources of information
unless we're at a restaurant,
Although we are surely more alike than different from our sighted
colleagues, our differences are certainly worth understanding. I keep a
list of topics I wish we understood better. Some items are obvious and
require little explanation. Others require some discussion. Some will lead
to inventions, while others will lead to research and new training
techniques. Here then is my list of blindness issues that we should
1. Although hearing tests show that blind people do not hear better
than others, do we hear differently? Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has
shown that the blind process audible information using the visual cortex.
Can this processing capacity be enhanced? Could we take in more audio
information through the development of new and heretofore unconsidered
techniques? Daniel Kish of World Access for the Blind teaches active
echolocation, which he calls "flash sonar." Watching his students, it is
clear that they can define the characteristics of a room, playground, or
mountain trail far better than those of us who simply rely on the echoes
produced by our canes.
Discussion of whether tongue clicking is weird puts the cart before
the horse. First we should research a method to determine its benefits.
Then blind people can decide whether the gains outweigh the social
idiosyncrasy. That's what we do with the cane. We decide that the benefits
of the cane outweigh the disadvantages of being different from others. So,
even though many of us pooh pooh the tongue-clicking method as weird,
shouldn't we try to understand and assess the information it conveys and
try to incorporate it into our lives and those of our students? Perhaps the
richer tapestry of detail that flash sonar allows would help newly blinded
folks frustrated by the limited picture the cane provides. Canes are
effective at creating a picture of the immediate area where we are
traveling, but they are not so good at helping us formulate images at
thirty or forty feet. Although the echoes from a crisp metal cane tip can
fill in some blanks in the environment, they cannot create nearly the
detail that active echo-location does.
As I said, I do acknowledge that we're uncomfortable with the idea of
blind people being defined as "clickers." But, let's be honest. We already
stand out in a crowd by virtue of using a cane--something we've been
working for seventy years to get the public to understand. When I was a
young man, I observed some blind clickers. I thought they were weird, and,
quite honestly, they were usually blind people who exhibited other less
than socially normal behavior. My mom wouldn't have tolerated my clicking.
She explained, more often than I care to remember, "You live in a sighted
world." This meant that I should try to blend in--not be different. That's
why, in some ways, using a cane was so difficult for me. Doing so meant a
readjustment of thinking that I thought had served me pretty well up to
So I'm not advocating clicking during a job interview. I'm simply
suggesting that after investigation we might decide it is one of the many
tools we could use in the right situation and at an appropriate time. What
we have not yet done is give it a very serious look rather than a cursory
glance. Could flash sonar be an answer to detecting quiet cars?
2. Can some hear far better because they use techniques that could
and perhaps should be taught to others? I've met people who could hear
animals in the woods that I simply couldn't hear. Are they better at
discriminating than I am? Could I learn the skill?
3. Can we improve our hearing? It seems to me that there are two ways
to improve hearing. Either we improve our ability to interpret what is
already coming into our ears, a technique that we teach to some extent in
cane travel instruction. Then there is the improvement of our ability to
hear what's out there through mental training or mechanical means. Hearing
aids improve people's hearing but often interfere with directionalization
and discrimination. Can we create devices that actually improve our
hearing? Is the shape of the human ear optimal? Could it be improved? Are
the liquid in the ear canals and the hairs that register sound as efficient
as they might be? Could we improve their function?
4. Can we improve our ability to directionalize sound? Could the
shape of the ear or some external device improve our ability to focus on
distant objects, thus providing a more accurate sound picture of them?
5. Can we find ways to dampen loud sounds that overwhelm softer ones
in order to increase our information-gathering ability at, say, very noisy
intersections or when a neighbor is mowing the lawn?
6. Improving touch. It is said that Jacob Bolotin could feel Braille
through eighteen handkerchiefs. I don't know if that was true or not, but I
have certainly met both blind and sighted people with very sensitive touch.
Can touch be improved in us all? Could we develop techniques? Similarly,
can nerves damaged by age, diabetes, or overuse be reinvigorated? What do
people with incredibly sensitive touch have that the rest of us don't, and
how can we spread it around?
7. The ability to map a physical environment mentally is stronger in
some folks than in others. Certain parts of the brain are activated in good
mental mappers and not in those who aren't. Could we enhance the skill
through focused training? We already improve it somewhat through travel
training, but could we develop more focused abilities?
8. Using residual vision. One primary approach to using residual
vision is to occlude it during training and then assume that it will be
useful once the person has sharpened alternative techniques. But I have
noticed that some people, with or without training, use their residual
vision more effectively than others. Yes, yes, I know that the profession
clings to residual vision like an alcoholic to the bottle, but can we put
all that aside and determine whether we can develop better techniques to
help people benefit more effectively from their residual vision? The
immersion method taught by NFB helps retrain the brain to process nonvisual
information. It works better with some folks than with others. That is,
some people seem naturally able to redirect their brains to use alternative
techniques. Others, although they study for up to a year in an NFB center,
don't seem to make the switch easily. Why? What can we learn from these
folks about how to teach them?
9. Braille literacy. Let's set aside the issue of whether Braille is
taught effectively or often enough to children and adults. Braille is
difficult for many adults to learn. Sighted learners who did not learn to
read or write as children have similar difficulties with print. What can we
do to fix this? Far too often we continue Braille instruction when, whether
through lack of finger sensitivity or for other reasons, it is obvious that
the student is not going to be an effective Braille reader.
Beyond the literacy problems this creates, these folks are unable to
take notes efficiently. How about developing a truly effective audio
management system for people-a portable device that quickly allows the
digital recording and indexing of information and the retrieval of that
information? Suppose you could record something like "phone number for Bob
Jones, 361-2273." Then, when you wanted the number, you simply say, "Bob
Jones" and are immediately presented with information under that name. No
such product is currently on the market. One can record information on a
multitude of devices, but there is no elegant and simple way to find it
quickly and easily. Suppose we could combine voice-recognition technology
with a voice recorder and make the information truly indexable? The
technology for such a device exists.
10. Blindness counseling. Historically, blind people have been
counseled to death. Psychologists and psychiatrists were the first stop in
rehabilitation through the 1970s. Over the past thirty or forty years we
have for the most part discontinued that practice. But perhaps we've thrown
out the baby with the bath water.
Some people really do have difficulty adjusting to blindness. With
the right professional counseling they could benefit from therapy. This
doesn't mean that they're broken or that blindness necessarily requires the
intervention of psychiatrists because of its complexity or trauma. It does
mean that professional counseling techniques have something to offer
professionals in the blindness field.
Those who conduct group discussions at centers for the blind could
truly benefit from some training in ways to engage in group counseling. No,
the groups would not turn into group therapy sessions. They would simply be
managed by a professional who understood at a deeper level how to spot and
understand group interactions and the messages being sent and received.
Psychiatrists, psychologists, and other therapists really do have a vast
and useful body of knowledge that could be helpful. We need to find ways to
incorporate that knowledge into professional work with the blind while not
sending negative messages. Yes, most counselors focus far too often on
blindness when the cause is something else. I well remember the fellow who
said when told that he was angry about his blindness, "What you don't
understand, sir, is that I was a jerk before I became blind." We ignore at
our peril the broader knowledge about human personality and the personal
counseling skills being developed today. In the long run, not knowing leads
to less effective rehabilitation for the more challenging people we face.
11. Cane improvements. We're still in need of improvements in the
long white cane. It doesn't protect against upper body objects. That's a
big deal for many who don't enjoy knocks on the head or wet branches in the
face. We also need to increase the capacity of the cane to detect objects
at a distance. Numerous methods have been tried, but nothing yet meets the
test of affordability and ease of use.
12. Audible balls. We need a method of making balls of all types
audible so blind kids and adults can learn the joys of ball playing. The
goal is a ball that is audible and has the same bounce and weight as
13. A paradigm shift. Perhaps the lack of sight itself needs a bit of
discussion. Humans cannot fly independently. Birds can. Because of this
disability, humans have invented aircraft and rocketships. Whether we would
have done so if we had had wings and the capacity to fly, I don't know. But
I think the argument can be made that blind people may be uniquely
positioned to invent a new form of sight--and perhaps, one that goes beyond
that used by naturally sighted people. What would such sight be?
14. Things left out. I do not include in this list anything having to
do with creation of synthetic eyes, restoration of the optic nerves, or
sight restoration. That subject is being adequately addressed by the
medical field and will be a constant focus of those who seek to prevent
Blindness excites me. It is a fascinating and rich experience. I like
fascinating and rich experiences. If somebody offered me the opportunity to
see tomorrow, with several caveats, I would take it. I would take it
precisely because it too would be exciting and rich. In the meantime,
though, let's explore and engage this experience and learn from it, perhaps
enriching the world for the sighted and blind alike.
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